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Unmasked… deepening trust, leadership in Nigeria

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A scene from the documentary

Not all documentaries are the same. Every documentary requires different techniques from the cinematographer. In 1991, American film critic and theoretician, Bill Nichols, proposed that there were six different modes of documentary — poetic, expository, reflexive, observational, performative and participatory— each containing its own specific characteristics.

While some documentary films may have an overlap in traits, each mode is a category that can be boiled down to a few specific elements.

Nichols says the poetic documentary “eschews linear continuity in favour of mood, tone, or the juxtaposition of imagery.”

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Since poetic documentaries often have little or no narrative content, the director of photography is often asked to capture highly composed, visually striking images that can tell a story without additional verbal context. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) is an example of a poetic documentary that focuses on visuals and artistic style to help reveal an inner truth, Nichols noted.

Participatory documentary, on its part, is defined by the interaction between the documentary filmmakers and their subject. Therefore, a cinematographer is equally responsible for capturing the interviewer, as s/he is the interviewee.

Many of the interactions that are captured support the filmmaker’s point of view or prove the film’s intent. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2001) is a participatory documentary with a blend of the elements of observational and performative modes.

The expository documentary sets up a specific point of view or argument about a subject and often feature ‘voice of God’ style voice-over.

The outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic and pathetic nature of Nigeria’s healthcare facilities became an issue.

Suffice it to say, in advanced countries, the ravaging nature of the pandemic, marked by a high death toll, elicited trepidation among Nigerian citizens.

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These fears were not necessarily as a result of the lethal nature of COVID-19 but the poorly managed healthcare systems, which include: an inept and unconcerned leadership, accompanied by dilapidated health institutions characterised by poor working conditions and incentives.

UNMASKED: Leadership, Trust and The COVID-19 Pandemic in Nigeria is the product of that challenge. It is an amalgam of both the expository and the participatory documentary.

Directed by award-winning filmmaker, Femi Odugbemi, and presented by ace journalist-broadcaster, Ahmed, is probably one of the best documentaries you can watch if you are looking for a rundown of how the COVID-19 pandemic affected Nigeria and how the nation’s health and government officials attempted to make (non)sense of the crisis.

With the support of PLACNG & MacArthur Foundation, Unmasked was filmed inside isolation centres and Intensive Care Units, ICU in Lagos, and Kaduna fully kitted in Personal Protective Equipment, PPE. It was filmed in slums full of hungry and desperate people and watched vacant-eyed Almajiri children and mass funerals in Kano.

Starting in the early stages of the virus, Kadaria Ahmed treats this documentary as a timeline exploring multiple aspects of the pandemic with sections dedicated to the issues and the public health community’s fight to combat the disease.

The first thing that you’ll notice about the film is it title: ‘Unmasked’. You’ll be expecting to see a predictable, depressing story of how ‘the pandemic’ affected Nigeria and how the bodies are all over the streets. Well, that should have been the situation in a country that has squandered its riches, as pointed out in Nigeria, A Squandering of Riches, which was made in 1984. But surprisingly, the film is not about deaths. Of the world’s 186,947, 993 cases, Nigeria has 168,442 and of 4,037,469 death Nigeria has recorded 2122 deaths as at yesterday. Something to cheer, so to say.

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Shunning the idea of a central character, instead, using a moderator, the documentary follows several front-line workers, politicians and ordinary people, who appeared overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. She asks far ranging questions to unveil the pandemic.

The film uncovers hidden facts about the pandemic. It returns to the same subject as the BBC produced Nigeria: A Squandering of Riches, updating the bleak picture of 1984 recession scene — a Nigeria whose hospitals and clinics have turned to consulting centres in which energy, creativity and radical anger were swamped with military paranoia and a poisonous obsession with political assassinations.

What you’ll get is the interaction between the filmmaker and his subject engaging each other in interrogation and contemplation of issues.

The documentary’s subject is corruption as a national tragedy. But perhaps, quite as disquietingly, and subtly, this documentary challenges the Speaker of House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila’s mea culpa. The documentary centres on how the public and private sector can collaborate for the development of a robust and effective public health care system.

UNMASKED… is a formulaic documentary, but undeniably revealing.

With the theme centred on Nigeria’s preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic, the 117-minute documentary film tells the sober, riveting story of COVID-19.

The authorial narrative puts the garb of all seeing and all knowing ‘god’ on the narrator. Her eyes roving everywhere, as well as listening to silent conversations around.

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While the documentary gets into some of the politics surrounding the pandemic, it attempts to present things in a more factual manner, focusing on the health experts and their overview of the disease and its long-lasting effects on the world and its people.

The shots are arranged in a manner that the long shot not only establishes actions, but also becomes the protective carapace for the narrative. The shots show life ebbing out of a people, who are down, hopeless and on a forlorn journey.

Featuring a stellar cast of resource persons drawn from the medical, political, and other relevant sectors of the society, to get the film done, the team travelled round Nigeria to document this historical moment and tackle questions of leadership, governance and trust, which were brought to the fore by the pandemic; the answers to which Nigeria needs to find rather urgently.

First released and screened in March 2021, at the iREP International Documentary Film Festival to critical acclaim by an international audience comprising filmmakers, media scholars, students, and film enthusiasts across four continents, it presents an opportunity for Nigeria to reset.

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