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‘Coconut Head Generation’ Review: A Young Person’s Guide To Activist Filmmaking

Coconut Head Generation
Coconut Head Generation (2023); image courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The film opens in a distant, grainy, black-and-white past, showing us the opening ceremony for the permanent buildings of Ibadan University College of Nigeria by Lord Tedder, the then Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, in 1952. With its colonial origins established, we are aptly set up for a presentation of what has changed at the University of Ibadan in the last 70 years, and the work that has been done to keep the university in the light, away from these post-colonial shadows.

In Coconut Head Generation, this light is provided by the cinema itself. The film follows the Thursday Film Series, a student group that meets weekly to watch films and discuss them, inevitably leading to discussions about wider topics of gender and student politics. What is suggested in the film is that this led to the #EndSARS movement in 2020, through documenting the discussions that led up to it, the protests and the unjust violence against them, and the rebuilding that took place in TFS afterwards. In this way, Kassanda’s film becomes more than a presentation; it becomes a film one could easily see at a film club itself, the issues it explores and how it explores them providing a rich blueprint for activist filmmaking.

What glues these two elements—the film club and the film—together is the camera work. For Kassanda to accurately present TFS to us, he must be a member himself; indeed, in an interview with STRAND, Adebimpe Adeyemi, one of the leading members of the group, recalled that Kassanda ‘was much more a member of the group [than a filmmaker]...the camera was hardly noticed.’ We get a sense of this perspective through the hand-held style that pervades the scenes in the club, resembling the perspective of a student: shakily mobile, ready to turn to new ideas at whim, but ultimately struggling to hide a dormant frustration and need to revolutionise. We don’t see the students from a cinematic perspective as much as from a human perspective, the elision of cinematic sheen providing the foundation for what Adebimpe called the ‘unarranged, organic’ development of #EndSARS. Indeed, in many of the discussion scenes at TFS, students discourse in the dark, refusing to be kidnapped by the ‘assaultive images’ of the dark movie theatre as once theorised by Sontag, pushing an illusion into a delusion, which Kassanda matches through his cinematography.

Coconut Head Generation
Coconut Head Generation (2023); image courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The film’s functional power, then, is two-fold: it uses filmmaking to explore a specific social issue, all the while explaining through form and content how filmmaking is used in this way. The discussions about gender, colonialism and student politics are abstract in the film club, only materialising in the #EndSARS movement, which has nothing to do with the film club. We scarcely know which films the students’ discussions are in response to, and when it comes to #EndSARS, Kassanda used footage filmed by one of the other TFS members, as he wasn’t even in Nigeria at the time. But this is precisely the point: if the film was about the students’ response to the way Med Hondo used close-ups and costume design for discursive gains, the discussions wouldn’t be able to leave TFS. There’s something in the way that Kassanda films an audience, turning cinema into a wall-hanging mirror that the students can pick up and move elsewhere, that marks the life cycle of activist cinema. ‘Films are just a starting point,’ explains Kassanda in the same STRAND interview, ‘for a conversation that needs to go beyond the art.’ 

Coconut Head Generation uses cinema to explore and open up debate about these issues, in turn sealing its own fate once these issues turn away from cinema towards protest and public discourse. In his previous film Colette et Justin (2022), Kassanda follows the experiences of his grandparents in the colonisation and decolonisation of Congo through archival footage taken by Belgian colonisers. Transforming whom in his words were the ‘object of the footage,’ the colonised Congolese people, ‘to the subject of the footage,’ Kassanda exemplifies an austere approach to activist filmmaking that prevails in Coconut Head, where the didactic qualities come from identifying where the limits of utilising cinema are, rather than the utilisation itself.

To round off a response to the film then, one may be quick to speculate that it is only as powerful as the activism that succeeds it, the power of its existence coming from the power of its death. Indeed, the techniques that glue the film club to the film create a robust and laudable narrative, but to the extent that it risks standing alone as an artwork away from activism. Given the film is still on the circuit, it’s difficult to say how this package will be received, and whether it will spark change. 

A glimmer of hope comes perhaps in the world context that the film arrives in: in this discussion of utilising colonial images, Kassanda points to the footage of death emerging from Gaza, more or less every day at the moment. The filmed deaths are shocking, but their effect is lost to the power of online community guidelines, censorship, and just the swamp that is the Internet itself. But the death of these images, much like the death of the cinema in Coconut Head, is a necessary one, a death we can see in the protests that appeared all over London in the last month. It is for this reason that, above the artistic and discursive merit of Coconut Head Generation, it exemplifies the potential for activism in cinema, the results of which I am supremely optimistic.


Edited by Martha Knox, Co-Film & TV Editor


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