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In Conversation with the Makers of 'Coconut Head Generation'

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

Alain Kassanda’s latest documentary Coconut Head Generation follows the Thursday Film Series, a movie club at the University of Ibadan, and the conversations that take place there in the lead-up to the #EndSARS movement in 2020. While the film was showing at this year’s edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival London, I sat down with Alain and Adebimpe Adeyemi, one of the leading voices in the club, to talk about the film and its place in conversations about corruption and decolonisation.

Oisín McGilloway: Where did the idea for this film come from, and did you know what you wanted to get out of it or were you just interested in filming students at the university?

Alain Kassanda: Initially, I didn’t want to make a film; it was an attempt to record something that I found really precious, and that would disappear if I didn’t record it. The broader context is my living in Nigeria from 2015 to 2019 because my partner is an anthropologist. She got a position in the research center that is based at the University of Ibadan. I was among those who created the movie club, with students and one lecturer in particular, so I knew everybody already. But, after one year of experience, some of the first students who were the originators of the club graduated and left, and a new group of students came in that brought such new directions and depth to the conversation. Among them are those you see in the film. Funmilayo Adebimpe joined us a bit later, but she became one of the leading characters of the movie club; she became involved as a powerful voice. That’s when I decided to film.

Initially, it was to document the quality of the discussion that I was witnessing every Thursday because at that time I was working on another film Trouble Sleep. It was my first film, also shot in Ibadan, depicting one day in the life of a taxi driver who graduated with a civil engineering degree but couldn’t find a position in his field, so there’s already continuity there with Coconut Head Generation

I was filming every Thursday for three years, so I could make four feature films with the footage that I had. The transition from safeguarding the quality discussion to making a feature film was created by #EndSARS, because the editing of the film enabled me to say that everything discussed in the movement was already being discussed in society in Nigeria, notably this movie club.

OM: One of the programmers for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival told me that their aims in programming were to focus on the responsibility and ethics of the director, to tell stories that are meaningful to the subjects. This is something we can see vividly in your film, the use of handheld throughout being very telling of this—it really feels like their film. What sort of relationship did you build with your subjects and how much of what we see (and maybe don’t see) was the result of cooperation with the students?

AK: I considered at one point that I was filming friends and not students. In terms of collaboration, there’s one thing that needs to be highlighted as well which is when #EndSARS occurred, I was in Paris. The footage of the shootings and protests in Ibadan was taken by Tobi Akinde, one of the students involved in the organisation of the movie club. When Tobi joined the club he was a law student, and the movie club allowed him to rediscover cinema and the beauty of cinema as something that goes beyond entertainment and addresses serious issues. When I left Nigeria, he told me he wanted to make films, so I gave him my camera (the one that I’d used to shoot Trouble Sleep and the footage I already had for Coconut Head). That was the camera he used to document the protests in Ibadan, which is interesting because the film is not only about how I look at the students but also the students documenting themselves, documenting their own movement. This sequence in #EndSARS shows what collaboration really means; I was no longer behind the camera, so somebody in front of the camera decided to take it and document himself. You also have footage by DJ Switch, where you graphically see the shootings in Lekki, which she live-streamed on Instagram.

Adebimpe Adeyemi: I think the collaboration in the film is one of the distinctive things about it because it really wasn’t a filmmaker, with a camera, trying to make a project. He was much more a member of the film club, and it was more a setting where people would come in and have conversations, where the camera was hardly noticed. You can see that no one really looked at the camera, it was not like people were trying to read a script; it was real people. I say “people” because it wasn’t just students from the University of Ibadan. It was a space that opened itself up to everybody, which is how I came to be one of the strong voices in the movie club. I did not go to the University of Ibadan, I basically asked the question “Where do young people gather in Ibadan? Where can I meet other young people and have progressive conversations?” and somebody said, “You have to go to TFS.” That was the reputation that TFS had. There was a bond, you would get to know people and would go out for a drink afterward, where the conversation continued. 

One thing that was integral about the film club was that there was no hierarchy. A lecturer would say something, and normally in class, you would show respect and not disagree. In the movie club if a lecturer said something that people did not agree with they called it out immediately. You could be a lecturer in your class normally but this is not your class. It was a really open and decentralised space. There was no authority figure, Alain was not a “filmmaker” at that time in the room, he was just Alain. It was not “somebody here to make a record of what we are doing”, it was just a safe space where conversations were boundless, things were open, people could air their opinions, people could counteract, and sometimes it got really heated as you see in the film.

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

OM: The one inclusion in the film that can’t be ignored is the #EndSARS movement, which is sort of framed in the film as coming out of the communities of students created by Thursday Film Series and other discussion groups (esp. end quote “coconut head generation”). Could you elaborate a little bit more and the role that young people played in the movement?

AA: I would say first that the #EndSARS movement was not initially meant to be a movement. Most things like that in Nigeria that end up becoming big are not arranged, it’s mostly organic, which I think this film is a testament to. It was a conversation that happened long before [the movement], students’ disgruntlement, finishing school with no jobs, it was conversations around politics, around governance, maladministration, corruption, all of those dimensions of oppression had started long before that. In small pockets like the TFS where these conversations were going on, but also in churches and outside on the streets. So it wasn’t just one moment there was #EndSARS. It was a series of events that were quite significant.

One of the major events that triggered the protests was the conversations around police brutality, a conversation that had been happening for 5 to 7 years before that time. It was not that young people wanted to be the frontrunners of the movement as much as it was a conversation that was ongoing.  And while it was ongoing there was another incident and it just got to the point where young people were like “Enough is enough, we’re not having this.” That initial thread of police brutality led to the other issues that were being raised: it started with needing to scrap SARS, then it became stopping the government from being this way, so it became broader questions of administration and corruption. 

It’s not just that young people wanted to start the protests, it was that the issues were really concerning for young people, as they were the victims a lot of the time, but also that young people had spaces like TFS that created a “muted” consciousness. It was this consciousness that led to the movement.

AK: It was a couple of videos that went viral on Twitter of SARS officers killing a young man in the Southeastern and taking his SUV. The hashtag #EndSARS was actually created back in 2017, but three years later it became overwhelming and people moved from online protests to street protests. The movement grew and grew, and became dangerous for the state because it went further than police brutality to address the roots of the problem which was misgovernance, at which point the state sent police and the military to shoot at people not just in Lagos but in various other parts of the country as well. People often only look at Lagos but it was really a national issue.

OM: Just a broader question to finish: we’ve talked about how discussion groups and young people play into movements like SARS, but what were the roles of the films?

AK: Cinema is a highly political space, it can be a tool of oppression as well as a tool of liberation. My previous film Colette and Justin is about how my grandparents lived experience through the colonisation and decolonisation of Congo. I use a lot of archival footage shot by Belgians during the colonial time, and that archival footage was not only the object of the film but the subject of the film. How can I make a film where the subjects are Congolese, but in this archival footage they are not the subjects but the objects of the colonial gaze, reinforcing racist stereotypes in footage meant to justify the colonisation of Congo?

You can use cinema to create a sense of community—that’s what happened in TFS. You can gather, you can watch a film, and then you can create a conversation using the film as a starting point. The film is just a trigger to enable us to gather and create a community. Images are sometimes powerless; look what’s happening in Gaza. People are filming their own deaths, we are all watching it live-streamed, but at some point that enables us to gather, like the massive gathering in London, in support of the ceasefire. But, at the same time, we are blocked because those in charge are not courageous enough to use their leverage to stop sending arms and political support to Israel.

Images are two-pronged: they are really important for us to understand and see from a specific perspective and subject and be outraged, but at the same time they are just a starting point for conversation that needs to go beyond the art. Art forms are just there to enable us to move, it’s the action that takes place, not the films, that leads to change. 

AA: I’d like to add that, up until I joined the movie club, I hadn’t been that into cinema, because I prefer reading and writing, and wasn’t into visuals as much. One of the things that was striking once I joined the movie club was that cinemas have this really effective way of asking questions and creating discourse, in a way that might not be possible with print. People would sit in the same room, we would have a collective experience of viewing the film, and people’s perspectives of the film would come out. You’d be like “How did they see that?” and it just brings you to another place and you’re like “Okay now I see!” I think there’s a great power for storytelling, for creating narratives and experiences that cinema wields—as Alain says, it’s a powerful tool.

Coconut Head Generation is available to stream on the HRWFF website until 24th March and is playing at Bertha DocHouse from 22nd to 27th March. More info and tickets here.