Half of a Yellow Sun
When the tagline of a film tells you that it's set against the true story of the struggle for an independent republic in Nigeria during the end of the sixties it may not necessarily grab you straight away. However add in the stars of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, a source novel that receives some powerful praise, and a respected Nigerian novelist and playwright to adapt and direct, then you find that there's a lot more cinematic magnetism added.
These are the things that drew me to the film, as well as a desire to learn more about key historical African events that I've either missed through lack of news coverage or never heard of because I was too young - Rwanada in Shake Hands with the Devil, Shooting Dogs and Hotel Rwanda or Uganda in The Last King of Scotland. The expectation that Half of a Yellow Sun could bring a similar insight through an engaging story was there.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a very good film. There, I've said it up front before anything else. It did what all good films that recount historical events through drama do and that's made it about the characters and their stories rather than a political or nationality based story. We are taken into the hearts of the two key characters and follow their relationship as their world around them erupts and while we hear about and gain an understanding of the events of the time, they never take over the film or the story. The story is kept on a personal level and therefore allows for a strong connection with the audience, and one that is much easier to establish because of it.
Some of the events that the film does portray from the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, of which you can read more about over at Wikipedia, are incredibly violent and harrowing. For example the bombing of civilians in the village streets or the slaughter, or genocide, of the Igbo people by the Hauses, the Igbo being the majority of people in the south east of the country who were trying to create their own Republic of Biafra. Yet the film manages to show these without the need for horrific imagery or epic scenes and still get across to the audience the horror and injustice. It also doesn't stray too far into them and while it spends a few scenes to get across the point, it doesn't labour it nor forget the main characters and their stories.
For this reason, and many others, it's clear that the film is very well adapted and directed. There are other moments that show off the talent of the director such as a scene where the characters are quickly packing up their house and the camera tracks back and forth, following them between rooms, or where a character is replaced off camera during a scene to represent a memory, the passage of time. Both are cleverly visualised moments and work really well to not only help tell the story but visually engage the audience. That's something I love, where a director can do something innovative and clever to engage the audience in the story and not take them out to think "oh that's an exceptional moment of direction" but keeping them in that story telling moment. There are a number of such moments throughout this film.
Another great directorial and writing choice is to give us so much of the characters before we enter the political side of the story. We become close to the two main characters well before the events take over their lives, so our main connection and focus is with our two lead characters from the beginning.
Since we are their for the film to lay the emotional foundations of their story it makes it so much easier to follow them through the more harrowing and much larger aspects of their lives and to continue to feel for them on a personal level. This early focus pays out particularly well when the larger story arrives bringing more action and some violence in the events.
These scenes hit very hard in contrast to the character and relationship based story we've been getting used to, and harder than you might expect considering the low level of visual violence and action that we do see. Using actual news footage and the experience through the characters we have now become connected to, the director manages to achieve this hard hitting level of upheaval running through the country and the people's lives.
It's very easy to connect with these characters since they are portrayed in such a real manner, not just by the writing from the book through to the adaptation but also by the actors themselves, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. Both these actors are excellent at their jobs but I was especially excited by the fact that with this film the women have such strong and powerful roles. While Ejiofor is as excellent as always and his character hasn't been down-written in any way, the two female leading roles are fantastically written and are empowering roles that actresses talk about wanting all the time.
Olanna is played wonderfully by Newton with such a range of emotion and believability to her it's hard to imagine why she isn't ripping roles away from top Hollywood actresses all the time. I remember being blown away by her character and performance in Crash (Filmstalker review) and wondering back then why she wasn't being besieged by fantastic roles. Then there's her sister Kainene who is played by the insanely talented and gorgeous Anika Noni Rose who has such a great air and strength to her character. She's another fine actress that I also find surprising has not been eating up bigger roles since Dreamgirls, perhaps this performance might help bring them to her.
There's also a strong supporting cast with names such as John Boyega who you might remember from Attack the Block and who shows surprising range and restrained emotion in this smaller but more dramatic role. There's also Joseph Mawle and Hakeem Kae-Kazim, as well as a strong cast of Nigerian based talent.
They have a strong script to work from too which is adapted from what I understand is a powerful and compelling novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There's some great dialogue that brings you closer to the characters, gives them depth and strength, and also makes you laugh out loud. The story is moving and touching and despite the epic scope around it, and it still keeps you feeling for these main characters and their stories.
Part of me does wish that there was more of the political side of the story squeezed in but then I can clearly see that this would have been at the expense of the story of these key characters, and that would have been a travesty for it's through these characters that we come to be so close to the story in the first place.
The cinematography is very strong too and the film looks fantastic throughout. It does look like a much bigger production than it obviously was and some of the sequences and shots are gorgeous to look at.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a superb film that is extremely well written and adapted with excellent performances from a number of actors, in particular the three main characters played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose. The strong and at times unique direction of Biyi Bandele is another great aspect of the film delivering a visually engaging film that keeps the focus on the characters and their story it never overpowers it, even when he uses a refreshingly different style.
The characters and their story are equally as engaging as the visuals though and you'll connect emotionally with them all too easily, and you'll find yourself becoming shocked and upset at the events that they experience. The strong female roles are something to treasure in today's cinema and are fantastic to watch.
While the story is set against the Nigerian Civil War and brings us, and the characters, through those terrible events it never loses sight of the personal story, one which does capture your imagination and emotions with ease. Another superb film from this year's Glasgow Film Festival that I'd thoroughly recommend.
To go with the screening of the film at the Glasgow Film Festival 2014, the director Biyi Bandele and producer Andrea Calderwood were there for a post screening Q&A:
- The director took the book to the producer when she was showing The Last King of Scotland, a film she also produced
- He decided he had to make the script about the couple and the love story and that he also had to iron out the time jumps in the story
- The author loved the film but said she probably would have hated the script
- The director said that everything in Nigeria is described as challenging
- Money was difficult to get even at the start of filming
- Two thirds of money from Nigeria
- Nigerian private investors were paying budget week by week and were expected to fall through at any moment
- Customs shut for a week for a strike just as equipment was due to arrive
- Bond company pulled out of financing
- Had to be very inventive with the shoot due to money
- Director said Thandie Newton was incredible
- Thandie Newton had typhoid which worked for some of the film's scenes, many of the crew also caught it
- Chiwetel Ejiofor was setting off to make Twelve Years a Slave and had to move on quickly
- Changed night to day scenes to save money
- Nigerian actors were used, some of them were big Nollywood stars. The mother is a famous Nigerian musician
- Nigerians waiting for this film and the writer/director had been getting a lot of messages about it
- Nigerian premiere to get release after UK
- Crowd scenes were demanding
- Had people to control crowd during scenes
- Thought extras were going to leave during a big crowd scene when it was pouring with rain but they stayed
- One film studio and sound stage in Nigeria that was being used for weddings etc. and they were the first to use it for a feature
- They don't have the productions with the finance to use it
- Storyboarded everything
- Likes cinema to be cinematic not television
- This was not about white people in Africa but genuinely about the Nigerian story
- Thought it important to spend time with the people before the war to get to know them and feel for them
- Some people wanted action and more about the war but they resisted to make it about the people
- It was Andrea's birthday and she was sung to and given a cake at the end of the Q&A