Jide Olanrewaju’s “Naij” vs. Hilary Ng’weno’s “Making of a Nation”

I was about 30% into Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun when I decided to slide a bookmark in it and go watch Jide Olanrewaju’s documentary Naij – A History of Nigeria first. The documentary chronicles the creation of the republic of Nigeria and the underlying British interests, the tumultuous formative years full of coups and counter-coups, the Biafra war, military dictatorship and finally the country’s evolution into the biggest economy in Africa albeit facing a glaring wealth gap.

Naij is nothing short of excellent. Jide and his team weave a great narrative that justifies its 2.5 hour length. It tries to capture events, not just systematically and chronologically but in the most engaging way possible. The film is not just a passive piece that merely regurgitates events as previously reported; it does not shy away from pointing out uncomfortable facts, analyzing political decisions and dissecting statements to give more insight into the who, what, why and how of it all. Every visual cue, every piece of music, every newspaper clipping and photo adds to the value of the film. Half of a Yellow Sun became so much more enjoyable after watching it in ways I can’t fully describe.

I couldn’t help but compareĀ Naij to Hilary Ng’weno’s documentary series The Making of a Nation which had a successful run on NTV and a DVD release some years back. Like Naij, the series takes a chronological look at Kenya’s political developments from the late pre-independence days right up to the ousting of the Moi regime in 2002 and the subsequent collapse of the NARC coalition.

While it has been highly praised, to the extent of some folks calling it “the BEST documentary” on Kenya, I’ve never really warmed up to the hype. Granted, Hilary Ng’weno (a nuclear physicist turned newspaper man through and through) can be considered one of the best journalistic sources of Kenya’s political ups and downs since independence. However, the execution of his series leaned more on a journalistic than a film-making approach, resulting in the series taking up the form of extended news pieces rather than the much more engaging form of a documentary.

Mirroring the self-censoring, pro-regime stance of his Weekly Review magazine in the 70s, the documentary didn’t have a voice or message to convey. Blanketed by an overwhelming sepia tone filter, guided by the perfectly detached narration of Lorna Dias and a single piece of monotonous and decidedly unintrusive music serving as the soundtrack, the series relied mainly on newspaper clippings and historical photos to deliver a neat and tidy (but dry and politically correct) account of Kenya’s progress as a nation. To me, watching it felt like going through an old photo album guided by the hazy recollection of your granddad.

I can’t find any trace of the documentary anywhere on the internet, presumably because the target market of the DVDs (middle aged – elderly middle class Kenyans) don’t really make enthusiastic pirates. Anyway, here’s a bit off Makers of a Nation, Hilary Ng’weno’s follow-up series that took a similar approach:

Naij and Making of a Nation is a side-by-side illustration of the fundamental differences in choice of execution between journalism and documentary film-making. While both documentaries were deeply researched and had a lot of great raw material at their disposal, Naij takes the upper hand in just how much more impactful and entertaining it is.

Making of a Nation forms a wonderful basis for coming up with a comprehensive documentary on Kenya’s political history, but I believe much more can be done. The dusty VOK newsreels and old KBC video tapes must be fished out to determine what sort of gold we are sitting on, not to mention hunting down material from foreign networks’ archives. Deeper analysis should accompany a systematic narrative. Add in some interesting and relevant music of the day, spice it up with rare first hand accounts etc. There is still so much potential for something epic. Let’s make a documentary our young teenagers of the digital age can actually learn from and be engaged by.

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