I once learnt that the title to a piece of work is like an abstract, letting the consumer in on what the work is about. My head is still dancing around how the idea was begat that the title of this documentary should have anything to do with ‘dancing mask.’ Whoever thought up the idea it doesn’t matter, even if it is adapted from the words of the master himself, C. Achebe, in ‘The world is a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.’ But what can I say? The documentary is about an association with the name ‘Nigeria’ in it; a name itself that has been on a journey like that of a ‘dancing mask’ trying to understand itself. Either way, ANA – Association of Nigerian Authors – in its long years has decided to tell its story, and Dancing Mask: The ANA Story, a 54 minutes documentary straight out of Box Office Studios, directed by Tee Jay Dan (Mr Tukura), helps us see it, not standing in one place at all, thankfully.
Few seconds after 0:00 the story begins. Prof. Olu Obafemi starts it. The storytelling is batoned to Kole Omotoso, then to Mabel Segun, first generation writer, and then to Wale Okediran. The passing of the baton by the quartet is accomplished with such charm that the story flows, as if premeditated, from one narrator, or interviewee, to another. A technique the director will rely on for the rest of the documentary. It is perfect. The quartet handle the storytelling taking up to a quarter of the 54 minutes before other players, counting up to twenty-one (not specific), come in, prominent amongst them, Denja Abdullahi (ANA President 2015 – 17). Quite a number to tell ANA’s story in all its 30 years of existence; yet it is done leaving out almost nothing, apparently, if you ask. But this task – getting the story, putting the backstage work together, editing and all, to show that JohnBull is a speller of his name, relies largely on the intelligence of the director, to pull it off.
As it runs through the pages of Nigerian literature about the earlier times that a story cannot be told without the interruption of the military and their accompanying martial music so is ANA’s, formerly SONA (Society of Nigerian Authors), rattled at its birth by the coup of 1966. And martial music, too, interrupts the documentary’s soundtrack just when the narration of ANA’s story begins. This soundtrack effect is repeated at 10:25 as the story of Ken Saro Wiwa is told, and heightened at 11:49 towards a short rendition of the Ogoni struggle and demonstrations. Many things begin to come to light as the minutes read.
No minute wasted, The ANA Story (I decide to use only the subtitle of the documentary for our convenience) is unfolded. Those who have been in the Association long enough – your quartet – take the viewers (or now, listeners) to the history, the motivations, the spirit and the come about of ANA. They share their experiences too, which like a memoir, arrest the viewer, so that even only at the eighteenth minute before the introduction of new narrators the documentary will seem to have lasted for hours because of the weight of story covered, an element of compression deftly handled by the directing. (This is maintained throughout.) As this goes on, pictures, which narrate faster, lend subtextual and complementary consolidation to the documentary like some sort of album art, playing on the screen at intervals. For instance, a good number of book cover images are used to back-up where a narrator mentions the works of writers who had written out of ‘psychological distress,’ about dictatorship in their time, civil unrest, the Biafra War, and such. Same thing with the introduction of Mamman Vatsa, military General, whose literary history has almost been annihilated from our memory, an image displays beautiful lines of poetry (his’) hardly found today.
But with every good thing there are spoilers. The ANA Story begins to lose its mirth when it kindly left its more inspiring history of the eighties up to early 2000s and begins to brag about achievements in the years 2011 upfront. About its Teen Authorship Scheme at about 31:00; NWS (Nigerian Writers’ Series); Denja Abdullahi, becoming too sell-speak in his remarks about the strides of ANA, talking about how ANA ‘touched the grassroots’ and ‘carried the whole country along,’ reminding you of the pain of listening to our politicians speak. As if to continue with the spoiling an interviewee tells us about when she won the Best Literature Award in Africa (38:00) and you begin to think of coloured Sergeant Bombay.
In The ANA Story like its proverbial mother, Nigeria, it comes to light or officially known that it has bore the woes of experiment, sharing the pains of the limbo its mother is in. It has been suffering from lack of funds; ANA has no staff and no asset, per se; it has no secretariat; sometime in its past one of its president with a ‘sober’ hand had to curtail its excesses and ‘amorphous activities’; it has to tackle the atrophying culture of reading. But ANA has better days ahead. Someone should call Teju Cole because history is about to be contested: a Mamman Vatsa Writers’ Village is going to be built to immortalise the pen-comrade who fell by the hands of evil men.
Before the ‘shooting-devil’ at 45:35 (when the person behind the camera starts to be careless) the director, too, begins his own kind of creative carelessness: 38:00 to 45:00 and so on. the ANA story here is about the bewailing of the reading culture, the debate of the death or life of the book or libraries and about funding. The soundtrack seems out of sync, sounding more apposite for a clip where a scientist is studying the progress of a specimen in a lab, or reminding you of the underwater soundtracks in Nat Geo Wild, or even something to take you to the site of some ancient shrine. At 44:21, too otherworldly eliciting the wrong effect from the viewer. Not even when Mabel Segun gives the description of a piece of land property owned by ANA in Abuja as resembling paradise, the soundtrack again, too intense, relegates her rendition to the background causing an internecine effect. But the viewer is saved some minutes later.
Done in memory of Chinua Achebe, it features clips from Dike Chukwumerije’s Made In Nigeria (2017) show, courtesy of Box Office Studios, with the artist of the same name doing a tributary at the beginning and end – as the credits disappear at the edge of the pixels – of the documentary.
Doing just more than a cameo in the documentary includes, again, Dike Chukwumerije, Su’eddie Vershima Agema, Richard Ali, Khalid Imam, Charry Ada Onwu, Lola Bala Gbogbo and Ado Dangidan Dabino, a guy who speaks only his language. Save for a few peccadillos here and there the director, Tee Jay Dan, has done his best, so far as one can tell, earning a B with or without a plus, I leave the viewer the verdict.
After 52 minutes of screenplay Mabel Segun tells the viewer ‘ANA will live forever.’
PS: The documentary shall be premiered later this year (2017)
Carl Terver is a porer of the English sentence and a critic of pop-culture. He likes to think of himself as an imaginary grandmaster. He is a fan of contemporary writers, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, Adam Gopnik, Hua Hsu and Teju Cole.He is a critic at Praxis. @CarlTerver on Twitter.