Nigerian documentary filmmaker, Kachi Benson, attracted international attention after his short film, ‘Daughters of Chibok’ won best virtual reality story at the 76th Venice International Film Festival in September.
He is the first African to win the coveted award.
The film tells the story of one of the kidnapped girls from Chibok, Rifkatu Yakubu.
The first-ever VR film on the infamous Chibok kidnappings also centres on Yana Galang, a woman leader in Chibok, whose daughter was among the kidnapped Chibok girls.
Less than a year after the film was released, the impact is still being felt especially by the people of Chibok. Benson recently undertook an ambitious task of powering 93 homes in Chibok. He tells PREMIUM TIMES more in this interview.
PT: How long did it take you to shoot ‘Daughters of Chibok’?
Kachi: We camped in Chibok for about a week, then we came back to Lagos. After going through the footage, we decided to go back to Chibok and get some more shots. But we were advised not to go because it was the period when the elections were postponed. But I insisted.
PT: In the film, there is a noticeable absence of the presence of the male folk in Chibok
Kachi : No man intentionally, to the best of my knowledge, chose not to be in the film. What you saw in the film is a reflection of how society is in Chibok and how the home system and environment is. If you didn’t see any man at that time of the day, then there was no man. We didn’t chase any man away. The men would go out in the morning to go chase their hustle and then they come back in the evenings, which is usually what happens everywhere. But it is quite clear, at least from the perspective of the main character, my heroine, that women are the pillars of Chibok community; they are the pillars of the families, they are the ones that hold things together, and that you cannot hide or suppress. They take charge of their children and they are the ones that are the most passionate about sending their kids to school, especially their daughters.
PT: So, will it be correct to say that women are the bedrock of Chibok society
Kachi: Oh yes, they are. The women go to the farm and they cultivate nuts. During the harvest time, they harvest it with their kids, take it to the market, sell it, and from the proceeds, they are able to feed the children and send them to school.
PT: Have the women seen the film?
Kachi: Yes, Iyana, the lead character saw it and liked it. We also plan to screen the film in Chibok soon.
PT: Why are you drawn to stories of conflict, human-interest stories?
Kachi: If no one talks about these things, then who will? There is a lot that is not right with our society and we should talk about them. I am not averse to comedy skits and all kinds of things that people get involved in, but I think that it is important that we understand our history; our past and present, these are important things to talk about as well, we can’t just shy away from them.
PT: Do you also draw inspiration from your personal experience?
Kachi: After my parents separated, I experienced poverty first-hand, grief and pain for like two years. At a point, I was living in the church because there was nowhere else to stay. The next meal was always a struggle, so maybe that has made me have a bit more empathy for people. I can identify with them and I want to try and do something to help. So if my film is able to just amplify their voice, I feel like I have done something. In Africa, we have a saying that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Women and children feel the worst impact of every conflict. They are the most vulnerable. When I started documenting victims of insurgency and all of that, it was really sad to see. I won’t lie; they are tough stories to tell.
PT: Did your emotions get the better part of you during the pre and post-production stage?
Kachi: Sometimes, I shoot and I can’t bring myself to edit it. But you have to confront the pain. Our decision to look away from the pain does not take it away, but when we decide to confront it, then maybe we can think of solutions. For example, in a community like Chibok that has not had power in ten years, 93 homes have been lit. If I chose not to make that film because I wanted to make more comfortable films, we would not be having this discussion today. I won’t have shown this film to Damilola Ogunbiyi and she won’t have said: “Oh, I am so touched by this film, I want to make a difference in the lives of these women.” That is a topic on the responsibility of filmmakers and making films that can actually mean something and can make a difference in people’s lives and not just for filmmaking’s sake. It goes back to what I was taught in film school about the agenda of every filmmaker.
PT: Some people believe that we should not tell our stories in its raw form but repackage it for global acceptance.
Kachi: I don’t agree. I think that at the end of the day, we still have to come back to the fundamental question that every documentary filmmaker should answer: ‘what is your agenda?’ Every other thing is peripheral. Your agenda is what makes you a storyteller. There are awards for technical expertise and excellence, but the biggest awards are for storytelling. So when you make a film about a man who is married to two wives and one of them wants to kill the other one so they can inherit all the money then chase the other one’s children away, then one of them becomes successful, and the other one that chased someone away falls sick… if that is your story, then what is your agenda, what are you trying to say with that?
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Film in its original form when it was designed was a propaganda tool. It was not designed for entertainment; it was later on that it became entertainment. The people who understand how to use it still use it for propaganda till today. The vast majority of Nigerian youth want to go to America. They have never been to America, but they have seen pictures and videos of America. That is propaganda. They are being sold in this beautiful place. But if I have a different agenda, I can go to that same America and paint it as the most dangerous place for you to go to and you can get killed in the streets. So as Nigerian and African filmmakers, it boils down to our agenda.
PT: But so many people believe the Chibok story was mere propaganda that it did not really happen.
Kachi: I have heard it a couple of times. I was on a radio show one day and a guy called in and was talking about how it does not exist. I told him, “Chairman, let’s not talk much, I can organise an excursion for you. By the time you go and come back, maybe your narrative would change.”
PT: It’s been five years since the incident. Were parts of the story lost with the passage of time?
Kachi: How do you forget the facts surrounding your missing child that you haven’t found? You cannot forget it because it is a chapter that has not closed. The memory is always fresh. We have a woman (our lead character, Iyana) who is still washing the clothes of her missing daughter. I took her to the United Nations, and when we were at the UN, someone gave her two envelopes, one for her and one for her missing daughter. I was filming, and she opened hers and it had money and a letter of encouragement. She read it, repackaged it and put the two envelopes in her bag. I asked her to open the other one, but she said,”No, Rufkatu will come back and open it by herself.” I had no words to say to that, I had to stop filming.
PT: Let’s talk about project ‘Light Up Chibok’.
Kachi: That is our new baby. It is incredible. I am still in awe of how one simple project can do this. My teacher, Tim Reed bought me a book, ‘The Alchemist’, and in it, there is a passage that talks about how when you want something desperately, the universe aligns itself to ensure that you get it. Honestly, all I wanted was really to make a difference in the lives of these women. I remember that before I left Chibok, I told Iyana that I cannot bring back her daughter, but I would use the film to amplify her voice. I made her that promise. This film cannot just be for sympathy and it ends there, we have to go from empathy to action. I have done a lot of empathy films, but it must make a difference in a person’s life because the person has given you a bit of their soul. There were nights of crying on camera and confiding in us. It took us two days to break down those walls. We had meetings with them before they agreed to even talk because they feel exploited like their story has been exploited and it has been used.
PT: So, did the original plot of the film change at any point?
Kachi: Yes it did. The story started originally with her daughter, Rufkatu’s sister. I spent the entire first day filming her. We followed her to school, interviewed her and did a lot of filming. I just said we should go home and speak to the mum. The moment her mum began speaking, I had to cut the interview short and I told her we would come back. When we got back to the hotel, I told my guys we would start shooting from the beginning again that the woman is the real character. It was raw.
PT: Did you embark on any intervention project on a personal level?
Kachi: After we shot the film, I was trying to raise money to buy fertiliser for the women’s farms. We eventually did that before I went to Venice. We were able to buy 30 bags of fertiliser because she insisted that we couldn’t just buy for her. We shared three bags among ten women. It was in the process of trying to raise money for fertiliser that I called Damilola Ogunbiyi. She was the one who originally got me into doing VR, so when I showed her the film, she took off the headset and said we must do something. I told her about the plans for fertiliser, but she asked if they have power and I said no, that sometimes I call Iyana and I can’t reach her for two days, and she would later call me to tell me she went to pay to charge her phone in town. Damilola said we would provide them with portable solar kits. The latter comprises of a small solar generator with a solar panel, a standing fan, two bulbs, and you can charge your phone and listen to the radio on it. She said she would provide about 120 units.
Kachi: I kept silent about it because I didn’t want to jinx it until one of her assistants called me and said they were ready to deliver the solar kits. That was it. Presently, 93 Chibok homes have been powered for the first time in about 10 years. Kids are able to read at night now. Ten youths, six boys, four girls were also trained on how to install and by the second day they were installing.
PT: How do you feel?
Kachi: I’m happy, and I am in awe of what one small action can lead to. I saw kids looking at the light as if it is something special. When I placed the solar generator in Iyana’s hands and I told her it was coming to Chibok, she said with the light her children would be able to read at night.
She called me a few days ago that her daughters from Maiduguri came on holiday and that they are all enjoying the light, they can listen to the radio and everybody is happy. More things will happen.