(For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "K" is for "Kettle of Fish")
Flying to Biafra
Some years back I received an interesting assignment: I was hired to make a motion picture on Nigeria. It was a chance to do something of real value in my film work.
You may not remember Biafra; it was a state in southern Nigeria, and like our southern states back in the 1860s it was secessionist. In other words, Biafra broke off from the rest of Nigeria and formed a new republic, which led to the Biafran War.
There have been so many wars over the past decades that people tend to forget this one, but the Biafran War was a major conflict: after two and a half years of fighting, during which a million civilians died from fighting and from famine, the new republic gave up in 1970 and rejoined Nigeria.
That’s when I showed up to make my movie.
Everything went fairly smoothly in the production; I shot the Nigerian art, the Nigerian people and lots of beautiful scenic stuff. But one day I got a call to meet with a top general; he said the government wanted Biafra to be in the film.
He said there was a marvelous Biafran dance troupe that I must go down and film. This would show that the country was now completely united once again.
I had no idea how this would work out; the war had just ended a few months earlier. In a way I felt better when I learned that what he had requested was sort of impossible.
There were no roads left to Biafra; no train tracks, no air travel, nothing. That old phrase, You can’t get there from here, was highly appropriate. I pointed this out to the general. Didn’t bother him a bit. Rent a plane, he said; get down there! We want that dance troupe in the film!
What a trip that was! We flew at 400 feet all the way down; all of Africa was spread out before me – the jungle, the villages, the rivers, the whole deal. Quite beautiful.
We arrived at the Biafran airport – and there was nothing there. It was a large airport with an impressive control tower, but not a person was in sight. My pilot said he had never tried to land at an airport where there wasn’t anybody, but he’d give it a try.
So we landed and waited. There had been some sort of garbled message that folks would be there to pick me up in a van. There was no van. We waited some more.
My pilot had just made the suggestion that we pack it in and go back, when we heard a car’s horn in the near distance. A van arrived. The driver took me to an elementary school, where they were waiting for me.
The sight of the children was appalling. The kids, and everyone else I saw in Biafra, had suffered years of famine and they looked it. I wished I had thought to bring something with me, some kind of food, instead of just a camera.
When I explained to the teacher that I wanted to film the local dance troupe, she was puzzled. There was no such troupe. She believed that someone from up north, when visiting Biafra, had seen how, once she played a disc on her turntable in the classroom, the kids got up and gyrated about, as I guess all kids do when they hear music, and the visitor evidently thought there was some kind of dance troupe.
I didn’t know what to do. I shot the children, in their pitiful condition, dancing about to the music and figured I could maybe make the footage look something like a troupe later in the editing. But I had a terrible feeling about this whole operation.
Those folks had been cut off from everything, all waiting desperately for help from outside – for food, supplies - to arrive, and then I showed up, bringing nothing but an inane request for a dance troupe.
I had never been ashamed of my work as a film-maker, but I have to admit I felt some shame then. I was a person who could get back on the plane and fly north to a life of ease, able to savor a fine evening meal and many more such meals, while the results of the famine were to remain for a long time with all the children, with all the people, of Biafra.
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)
1 year ago