Benson… In love with daughters of Chibok
Locating his Yaba, Lagos office wasn’t a big deal; you can’t just miss the building. Mere stepping into his reception, you could easily tell it’s not your typical office space; more like a talent factory for creative minds. Though a public holiday, the office was busy with activities.
Dressed in a simple jeans and T-shirt, Joel Kachi Benson eventually made his way to the reception, beaming with smile. That was the first time meeting him in person; earlier conversations had been on phone. Even in his simplicity, there’s this air of sophistication around him. His Afro hair and beards give him unique identity.
A young filmmaker, who has found his passion in the less glamourous field of documentary, Benson recently completed work on his latest film project, Daughters Of Chibok, the first-ever Virtual Reality documentary on the kidnap of the Chibok girls in Borno State. Already screened in Lagos and Abuja, the film is a powerful work that takes viewers right into the heart of one of the unsolved mysteries in Nigeria’s 10-year war against insurgency, painting a portrait of loss, pain, courage, and hope.
“Chibok story stands out; anybody who has been following developments in Nigeria, especially in the last 10 years, knows about it. But to a large extent, it’s still a mystery. At that time, there were lots of conflicting stories with different narratives. So, it was hard to separate fact from fiction,” he recalled, as he adjusted into his seat.
Since that sad incidence of April 14, 2014, that saw the kidnap of 276 schoolgirls from the Government Secondary School Chibok, Borno State, visiting the town became topmost in Benson’s agenda.
“From a story telling perspective, it was a place that I had always wanted to go to; I was curious. I remember when I was in Maiduguri and I was telling my younger brother that we need to go to Chibok, he was like, ‘Chibok? I thought it was just a story o, maybe a film?’ But I told him Chibok is real! Unfortunately, that’s how almost unreal the story of Chibok became. So, I concluded I must go to Chibok.”
Indeed, the story of Chibok girls, particularly at the early stages, was fraught with controversies; like a mystery waiting to be unraveled. And for Benson, unraveling that puzzle was only a matter of time.
“For us as outsiders, we didn’t have access to privileged information; there were so many things coming out. We didn’t know if what the military was saying was the right information; ditto what the presidency and the community were saying was the right; we didn’t know if what the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) group was saying was the right information. Then, you have the international media; all these people had different accounts of what happened.
“So, it was hard to say this was what h appened. In fact, till now, some people still feel it was a conspiracy. But as a storyteller, I told myself that anytime I have the opportunity, I must visit Chibok,” he said.
Fortunately, Benson and his crew were working on a documentary project in the Northeast. Somehow, part of their journey took them to Chibok.
“I was like, ‘Hmmmm, this is the Chibok that I’ve been hearing about.’ Because I already had that desire, obviously my first one to two days was asking questions. Is this Chibok kidnap real? Did this thing really happen in this town? I wanted to meet somebody whose child was taken. I was on a radio programme some time ago and some random fellow just called and was just ranting, ‘it’s not true, this, that…’ Well, a lot of people speak out of ignorance, so, I needed to ascertain what actually happened.”
Benson eventually got a link to Yannah Yakubu, mother of Rifkatu Yakubu, one of the girls still in Boko Haram custody. Even in their grief, the family remains hopeful that someday, Rifkatu would return. In fact, her younger sister still washes her cloths in anticipation of her release.
“I was introduced to her, we exchanged pleasantries and then started talking. When you see grief, you will know; some things are hard to fake. When you see pain, you will know. The moment I saw the woman, I knew she’s in pain.”
The original plan was to weave the script around Rifkatu, using her younger sister to tell the story. But after meeting Yannah, the plan changed.
“If you go back to my rushes, the story actually started with Rifkatu’s sister; I had wanted to tell the story from the perspective of a young girl missing her sister. We had started filming her; had a few chat with her. We went to the school with her; we got some shots of her in the class. I then decided that we should go to the house and speak with her mum. Immediately the woman started speaking, I resolved to refocus the story.”
Though Yannah spoke in vernacular, the motion was intact.
“The moment I heard her voice, I said to myself, ‘this is the character for my film.’ Obviously, she broke down while she was talking about her missing daughter. I mean, from a story telling perspective, it’s always about the strength of your character; if you don’t have a strong character, your story is dead on arrival.”
He continued: “For her also, it was a case of her being a woman leader; she always had to put up a strong persona for the other women. So, any time any of the girls was released or there was a negotiation going on, she’s the one they call; she’s the one they read out the list of names to; a part of her hopes her daughter’s name would be there. She’s the one that will go receive the girls, celebrate with the other women and still come back home to mourn for her daughter, whom she’s still waiting for.”
Listening to Yannah narrate their ordeal in the hands of the insurgents was heartbreaking for Benson and his crew; everybody struggled to hold back tears. By the time they watched Rifkatu’s younger sister wash her clothes in anticipation of her return, emotions ran high.
“That was an emotional scene for us; everybody was in tears. Though discipline forced us to keep recording, it was hard to listen to her talk. I didn’t hear what she was saying because she said them in her language, but I could hear the grief; I understood the grief. It was painful to listen to her on the headphones; it was painful. At a point, I had to take them off; I couldn’t deal with it,” he said, sounding very emotional.
Though a sad story, Daughters Of Chibok didn’t open with grief. In what seems entirely different form all Chibok stories, the documentary made attempt to show what life used to be in the once peaceful town before Boko haram struck.
“If you noticed, from the beginning of the film, she started happily, talking about how she grew up, her kids and all of that. But you could sense that at a point in the film, everything suddenly switched, which is exactly the way their lives switched. One minute, they were all happy, everybody is doing fine; they were having hopes and dream that their daughters will one day grow and come and take them away from poverty. The next minute, the dream evaporates right in front of their eyes.”
While the campaign for the return of the remaining girls continues, Benson revealed that little or nothing seem to have been done for the parents of the missing girls, who are obviously traumatized.
“The first thing is that they don’t talk much anymore; they’ve built these walls around themselves. Secondly, one of the parents asked me a question: ‘Look, it’s good that whenever our daughters are released, they give them psychosocial support, therapy and all of that, but who is asking about us? Who is giving us therapy? Who is asking us how we felt? Who is asking us how we are coping with the grief and the loss? And that’s a very important question I couldn’t answer. Interestingly, nothing of any significance has been done for the parents.”
According to the filmmaker, up to 33 parents of the missing girls have already passed on.
“They died as a result of trauma of their missing girls. There was a man that we spoke to; we had him on camera. He said immediately he told his wife that their only daughter had been taken, she fainted. They rushed her to the hospital but she died months later; she never recovered from it. Luckily for him, his girl was later released, but she came back to meet only her father.”
For most Chibok parents, the feeling is that the world has moved on, leaving them to deal with their grief.
“Yes, they do feel like people have moved on and it’s a fact of life. At a time, it was the biggest news. But has anything significant really been done for their parents to alleviate their pain? You consider the fact that they live in abject poverty even before the incident. If you now combine poverty with the loss of a child, that’s a double tragedy and people, who bear the brunt of all of these are women,” he lamented.
Asked if he felt safe in Chibok, Benson explained, “Chibok, in terms of the town itself, there’s a lot of military presence there now. If that is a permanent arrangement, I don’t know. But they are there now; it gives some level of comfort and sense of security. I mean, first time being there, I was worried, ‘is this place really safe?’ We did ask Yannah and she said that’s their ancestral home, where would they run? I won’t say they are sleeping with one eye open, they were even the ones that kept assuring me, ‘don’t worry, nothing will happen; Chibok is safe.’ I think they are safe there,” he said.
As for the soldiers, he said, “They were very supportive of us. Without that, we couldn’t have made this film. Once they confirmed that what we were doing is genuine, they gave us the access that we needed; they spoke to the people on our behalf. I think also, when the people realised that the military gave us support and not oppose to us being there, they kind of opened up a bit as well.”
Describing the relationship between Chibok residents and the soldiers as cordial, the filmmaker said, “I mean, they don’t go jumping into their arms, but like in the market place, you see the military men walking up and down, saying ‘hello’ to people. They drive around the streets; they patrol the neigbourhood. There seems to be some level of trust. ‘Okay, these people are here to protect us; we will be nice to them.’ Obviously, there are rules; there’s time for people to shut down and go to their houses. You don’t walk around in the night and all of that. Beyond that, I didn’t sense any tension.”
On why he decided to make the film on Virtual Reality, he said, “I chose virtual reality because of the nature of the place; it’s a place that a lot of people have heard of but never been to. And I think that curiosity of what is Chibok like would be in a lot of people’s mind. So, I decided to tell the story as a 360 degree film, where you get the sense as if you were there; it makes the experience more real for whoever that is viewing it. You are able to look around and see what the place is like as if you were there. I felt it would be a stronger medium to convey the story of Chibok,” he said.
According to Benson, the feedback has been very impressive since the documentary was released.
“I know a friend, who said she’s been to Chibok twice, but at every occasion, there were lots of security presence; people were guiding them where to go and where not to go. But in the film, it was a different experience because she was able to experience the market, the farm, the house… these are place that she couldn’t go even when she was there. So, I think that it achieved the purpose.”
Beyond telling the Chibok story, Benson, through the project, intends to support the women of Chibok, who toil every day and night to cater for their families.
“While making the film, there was this day we were on the farm with Yannah and I just stood and was watched her hacking into the dry earth. I was like, ‘mama, what are you doing?’ She told me this is her farm. She hacked and hacked, then brought out some groundnuts and showed me. I said to her, ‘We’ve been with you for a week now; we are really cool now. I know what your biggest need is now; you want to get your daughter back. But I can’t go to Sambisa; I’m not a soldier. If people wanted to do something for the women of Chibok, what can we do?’She said, ‘we are farmers; this is what we do, this is how we raise money to train our kids. If anybody wants to help or support us, it’s through this.”
At that point, the film sort of had a mission.
“For me, it’s about what can we do for these women, who are living in poverty and they don’t have much. Really, what they need is not much, just fertilizers and pesticides so that they can increase their yield. Yannah for instance, her yearly yield is about seven to eight bags of beans. So, what can she do with that? The question then becomes, ‘how can we help her to increase her yields? How can we turn eight bags to maybe 20 or 30 bags?’ For most of them, the daughters that were kidnapped are not their only children; these are women who give birth to five to even kids.”
Yannah for instance has eight children. One was kidnapped, but there are seven left to take care of. Unfortunately, there’s no money.
“It’s just double wahala. Money you no get to take care of your children you come still dey cry for the one wey lost. So, that’s the purpose of the film, which is why we are working on a fun raiser. We are trying to see how we can gather people together to see the film. Based on their experience, seeing what has happened, we can now say, ‘would you like to do something for them? Can you donate a bag of fertilizer? Can you donate pesticides and all of that? That’s what we are hoping we can do with this. I’m positive that we can do something no matter how small; we need to show them that Nigerians have not lost their humanity.
He continued: “Yes, we have our problem, we have our issues, but this is something that affects us all in some way; it’s something we can relate with as humans and parents. I don’t know what I will do if my daughter goes missing; I will go crazy,” he declared.
Young Joel was actually preparing to go for his university education when his mother passed on just few days to his JAMB exam.
“That kind of put the talk about the university on the back burner for a while because there was no fund. But right from secondary school, I always loved to write; I used to write poems and short stories. So, I met these guys, who were working on set of Nollywood projects; they would take me along and I will just watch. So, I started out writing these scripts for films, but was never successful in pitching anyone.”
Along the line, a friend acquired an editing machine and Benson took interest in learning to edit films.
“I decided to learn how to edit and shoot films. One thing led to another and here we are today. But I like to think that most of what I know is mostly self taught; just do it again and again until you get it right,” he said.
With a Diploma in Software Engineering and Certificate in filmmaking from the Central Film School, London, United Kingdom, Benson has also gone for fellowship at the Legacy Media Institute, West Virginia, USA, as well as attended storytelling masterclass at the MUSE Training/StillMotion Portland, USA. He has also attended a masterclass in documentary at National Film & TV School, UK, as well as attended 360 Video Production Masterclass in Chicago, USA.
His first documentary, Cry for Mercy, was accepted into the BFM Film Festival in 2009, and following on that, he has produced many other documentaries that have been featured at various festivals and venues including Lights, Camera, Africa! Film Festival, iREP Documentary Film Festival, Sheffield Docfest, Cairo International Film Festival, and the British Film Institute.
In February 2018, Benson was introduced to the world of Virtual Reality. He was completely taken by the medium, and its potential for immersive storytelling, and by May 2018, he produced his first VR film, In Bakassi, a virtual experience of life in one of the largest IDP Camps in Northeast Nigeria.
The film, which was the first of its kind out of Nigeria, was first presented to His Excellency, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at the launch of the Northeast Innovation Hub in Yola. The film later screened at the Cairo International Film Festival. Since then, the film has screened at other prestigious festivals and fora, including Facebook’s NgHub, The Berlin Film Festival, Africa Tech Summit Kigali, and Hot Docs, which is the largest documentary film festival in North America. Following on the success of In Bakassi, Benson and his team produced Daughters of Chibok.
He currently lives and works in Nigeria where he manages JB Multimedia Studios/VR360 Stories.
“We produce documentaries for corporate organisation, NGOs… that’s what we do. We are a video production outfit; Virtual Reality is another medium of expression that we are using now. What we did is that we set up another outfit called VR 360 Stories; that’s where we create all our virtual reality contents for two key reasons: for advocacy and commercial. I’m very big in advocacy; I’m very big on using films to do some good. If we know that you are doing something good and we know that film will amplify what you are doing, then we can do documentary for you at no cost.”
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.