The 1929 Women’s War is an important piece of Nigerian history that’s oft forgotten and overlooked. The stand taken by the women across then Eastern Nigeria is one of the most memorable feminist stands by Nigerian women, particularly for the age in which it occurred. The women protested the restricted role of women in government, no thanks to the British who came in with their patriarchal style of governance, and the unfair taxation of women.
It is a welcome idea that Nollywood which doesn’t often veer into the historical genre, thanks to comedy working like oil did for the Nigeria economy in the 70s, will tell a story like this. It is something we have yearned for. Unfortunately, 1929 is easily forgettable. A brilliant and forward-thinking story as far as Nollywood goes; however, terribly written and directed.
The film opens with discussions centered on taxing the women of Ikot Abasi, a wave that’s been occurring across Eastern Nigeria. ‘To balance their sheet,’ the warrant officers and the divisional officer agreed to tax the women of Ikot Abasi and the DO, as he is often referred to in the film, instructs the Chief Warrant Officer, Bulu, to take stocks of the women’s properties. Knowing how the women will react, Bulu mischievously gives the task to the community’s mission teacher.
The teacher invades the house of a prominent Yoruba woman in the community. This invasion catalyzed the first march towards the Divisional Officer’s office. Regrettably, such a pivotal moment of this story is done tastelessly, and this will be a reoccurring theme throughout the film’s 90 minutes runtime.
The women under the leadership of Madam Adiaha Edem marched to the DO’s office to make their grievances known and demanded the relinquishment of the proposed tax and that Bulu be sacked for his lack of respect towards women. He agrees to their demand.
The supposedly humane new warrant officer will carry on with the enforcement of the tax with even more misogyny and ruthlessness than his predecessor while the divisional officer, whose name is strangely never mentioned throughout, does the most Nigerian thing in this historical drama by bribing the local chiefs with ‘drinks from the Queen’—Whiskey—and tax exemption if they support the taxation of the women. It is this decision that will provoke the women to several protests; from peaceful to more aggressive ones, which will eventually result in what is now known as the 1929 Women War.
Ndy Akan, the film’s producer, says it was created to dispel notions that the war only occurred in Aba—it didn’t—and show the part Ibibio women played to stop women’s taxation by colonial masters. Yet for a film set in Ikot Abasi and intended to bring to light the role of Ibibio women in the women war, the absence of the Ibibio language, culture, and stars from that place (or its environment at least) shows a serious lack of thought by its creators. The only time you hear the language is when one of the supporting cast chips in with something.
The more artistic approach would be letting a huge chunk of the movie dialogue to be in Ibibio, and a cast who could flow interchangeably in English and Ibibio. We complain of Hollywood using African-Americans with terrible accents to play African characters yet we fall victim to such poor representation in our cinematic offerings. Another obvious fail was casting a man of South American descent as the British divisional officer of the Opobo division. Then there is the infusion of comic relief which elicits a chuckle every now and then but falls embarrassingly flat on most occasions.
One aspect of this largely disappointing historical drama that works mostly is the subplot that explores the romance between Ugochukwu and Edima, the children of the new Chief warrant officer and Uma Yoruba, one of the leaders of the women. The young couple is torn by the opposing sides of their parents in this war and bonded by the love they share. Their love story is not part of the actual events; it is included for dramatization, and under the right creative team, it would have been a terrific subplot about the power of love even in war.
Although the idea behind this subplot is brilliant and it has several effects on the main story—it explores one of the film most cathartic moments—the poor script and messy directing by Moses Ekor prevent it from reaching its full potential— a love story whose players are torn apart by a war involving their parents but on opposite sides.
Historical dramas allow filmmakers to show their craftsmanship to great length because they often involve portraying the culture of a particular time. The recent Oscar-nominated drama The Favourite is a perfect example; its rich display of British culture, through costumes and oratory showed, tastefully, a glimpse of the English culture under the rulership of Queen Anne.
1929 has nothing like that going for it; the cinematography is basic at best and the color grading makes it look unpalatable. The costumes and production design shows lack of research as nothing about them convinces you that this is Nigeria in 1929. It is noteworthy that the film depicts that under the colonial rule, law enforcement (warrant officers) walk cartoonishly and participate in embarrassing parade march every morning.
The film’s third act was supposed to have an explosive showdown between the warrant officers and the women who are, at this stage of the story, sad and angry after losing one of their leaders. It plays out at the height of the tension between the women and the warrant officers and it also explores one of the most iconic moments of the Women War: Madam Adiaha Edem breaking a warrant officer’s gun. It was supposed to be the movie’s climax; instead, it plays out as an anticlimactic end to what has been an underwhelming adventure.
In conclusion, 1929 is Nollywood at its worst; it represents the worst of typical Nollywood bug bears- anyhow-ness, lack of depth, cringe and lazy. Wanna know how bad it is? It’s a Nigerian film starring Sola Sobowale and Ireti Doyle in which the former’s histrionics are not crowd-pleasing and the latter’s typical elegance is unconvincing.