93 Days – Story of Ebola in Nigeria
“Twenty-one million people call this city home,” says a female voiced intro as ’93 Days’ opens, signposting the devastation that could have been wreaked by Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Lagos, the bustling heart of Africa’s most populous country.
The movie – produced by Bolanle Austen-Peters, Dotun Olakunri, Pemon Rami and director Steve Gukas – is the first cinematic treatment of the catastrophe averted. Holding the film together is a brilliant ensemble cast including Bimbo Akintola as ebola heroine Dr. Ameyo Adadevoh, Gideon Okeke, Somkele Idhalama – and Keppy Ekpeyong who plays the part of Liberian Patrick Sawyer, the index patient that brought EVD into Nigeria. There is strong international support from Alastair Mackenzie and Tim Reid.
Leading the cast is Hollywood actor Danny Glover. The star has long collaborated with African filmmakers, producing Abderrahmane Sissako’s ‘Bamako’ (2006) and even featuring in ‘Death in Timbuktu’, a film-within-the-film. Glover’s role in ’93 Days’ is therefore in furtherance of his abiding interest in African cinema, and his towering presence induces some incredulity in the Nigerian viewer. But with his weathered charisma, he gives no one on the screen a reason to be overawed by his huge profile, as he delivers an understated performance. Even when he is addressing the staff at the First Consultant Medical Centre (FCMC), everyone standing, Glover shrinks himself a little, stooping to hold on the table’s edge. He could have been better guided as to the pronunciation of ‘Lagos’, however.
As Dr. Benjamin Ohiaeri, Managing Director of FCMC, Glover exudes quiet wisdom. He is ponderous and his gestures are tentative, as though apprehensive of the next move – not unlike the anxiety that gripped Nigeria while Ebola was lose within its borders.
“Quick hands will kill you,” says Mackenzie as Dr. David Brett-Majors, the WHO expert in charge of the Ebola Emergency Centre hurriedly set up in Lagos.
He knows what he is talking about. “Ebola and I are old friends,” he declares. So, the film unfolds slowly but steadily, opening with aerial shots of Lagos, the teeming metropolis under the deadly threat of EVD, once Patrick Sawyer, ill with the hemorrhagic fever, is brought to First Consultants.
“It seems to me you’re a very sick man,” Dr. Adadevoh says to the yet undiagnosed Sawyer, who is insistent on being released to travel onwards to a conference in Calabar. Adadevoh refuses to let him go, determined to get to the root of his ailment. ‘Not to be released’, she writes on his medical file.
The film’s colours are clinical, metallic greys, greens and blues complementing the white uniforms of medical personnel. There are outdoor scenes showing not only Lagos landmarks but also the morass of the sprawling city. Not the usual ‘New Nollywood’ fare which assumes that only unrealistic sanitized cityscapes will make for a beautiful film. ’93 Days’ trains an unvarnished yet loving eye on the city, and the result is more profoundly beautiful than any postcard scene. The passage of time along an empty hospital corridor is shown very subtly in one shot, with an almost imperceptible shift in the texture of light. From the puddles on the streets to Sawyer’s vomit being mopped off the hospital floor, the creeping fear of contagion is palpable. The sense of foreboding is heightened in a scene in which a weary Dr. Ohiaeri plays the piano in the shadows. “This is one of those days I feel old,” he says, and the audience is in no doubt what is to come.
Part of the achievement of ’93 Days’ is that we know what happened in real life yet the film draws us in, so we have a keen sense of how it must have been for those in the eye of the ebola storm. The sight of a temperature scanner in one scene is quietly startling, the memory of it pointed at one’s head at airports and other public places, all too recent and real.
Bimbo Akintola gives a solid performance as Dr. Adadevoh, who ultimately paid for her professionalism with her life. When the pregnant Nurse Justina blurts out that her husband did not want her to come to work under the spectre of ebola, Adadevoh is quick to assure that, “My husband didn’t (tell me not to come to work), neither did my son.” Akintola does a good job of portraying Adadevoh’s total commitment and sense of duty, as well as her ability to motivate and inspire her colleagues. The relationship between her and her son also exerts a strong emotional tug. When Adadevoh is shown on the ebola ward bed, in a single frame, in telephone conversation with her son who is just outside the window, it is heartbreaking.
However, while Adadevoh’s tendency to care for others to her own detriment is powerfully conveyed, it may have been stretched a bit far. Others are shown trying to persuade her to take the EVD test, to the extent that, by the time she comes face to face with Dr. David again at the Ebola Ward, there is a whiff of denial.
“This is Nigeria, even simple things are complicated,” says Tina Mba’s character, as the film underscores the collective effort and determination that helped Nigeria beat ebola. Paul Adams, who bears a striking resemblance to his real-life counterpart Dr. Kayode Oguntimehin, issues a clarion call to ambulance drivers in one scene, with a glint in his eye, symbolizing one of the turning points against the disease. Somkele Idhalama as Dr. Ada Igonoh personifies the eventual triumph after the throes of ebola. When she unravels in despair at the grave danger she faces, pulling off her wig, it is one of the most powerful moments.
’93 Days’ glosses over the harrowing details of the death of Nurse Justina, played by Zara Udofia Ejoh, albeit without downplaying the tragedy of it. There is a tiny continuity issue: Nurse Evelyn’s name is the first listed on the ‘Demised’ board; later in the film, she is placed second on the same board.
The film celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, and the capacity to smile even in the darkest times, unlike regular Nollywood films that afflict characters with endless weeping which only serves to deaden the viewer. And in a light-hearted turn that speaks to resilience in the face of adversity, Adebola Williams plays Jatto, who is admitted with hemorrhagic fever but seems determined to eat himself to death, such that we don’t know which will kill him first – ebola or gluttony. Comedic actor Kayode Olaiya (a.k.a Aderupoko) also has an unexpectedly hilarious cameo, as the taxi driver that takes stricken Justina to the Emergency Centre.
’93 Days’ successfully shows how Nigeria became a case study for ebola containment; and will hopefully pave way for other ambitious films about our society and history. The film tells our own story, sensitively and with dignity. It is also a good time out at the movies.
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