“Blood Vessel” Review: A Tragic Story of Love and Survival With Less Attention On Character Development 

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Films are often based on or inspired by real-life events, and Nollywood has been no exception in 2023 with productions such as Linda Ikeji’s Dark October, Bolanle Austen-Peters’s biopic Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and Blood Vessel recalling different particles of Nigeria’s socio-political history. On Blood Vessel, storyteller Musa Jeffery David takes a cue from the oil predicament of the Niger Delta region of the country, but the scripting is executed with such caution and a pseudo-political voice that it does not inherit the satiric bite of Curtis Graham’s film, Oloibiri (2016).

Blood Vessel explores the experiences of six young people who are brought together by chance as stowaways on a South America-bound ship that turns out to be their worst nightmare. Executive-produced by Charles Okpaleke (Living In Bondage: Breaking Free, Rattlesnake, Nneka the Pretty Serpent) and directed by Moses Inwang (Alter Ego, Merry Men 2), the film infuses local flavor in its attempt at international appeal, with most of the conversations among Nigerian characters rendered in Ijaw, which is an indigenous minority language, and pidgin.

The crime thriller film opens in the middle of a crisis in Southern Nigeria. Insensitive oil exploration activities have brought about water pollution and destruction of the natural habitat, leading to the deaths of aquatic creatures and children in the community of Nembe. A violent protest championed by revolting youths of the community breaks out, during which a soldier is killed. Amidst early scenes of destruction and military clampdown, fate brings the six fleeing youths together: Abbey (David Ezekiel) and Oyinbraekemi (Adaobi Dibor) who are attempting to rewrite destiny and tend their romantic love elsewhere; brothers Tekena (Sylvester Ekanem) and Olotu (Obinna Christian Okenwa) from a neighboring community who are on the quest for greener pastures in America; revolters Boma (Jidekene Achufusi) and Degbe (Levi Chikere) who are on the run following their heavy involvement in the violence. These young people have different reasons for relocation and are fuelled by often conflicting ideological perspectives and attitudes to life.  Boma and Degbe believe they are fighting for communal interest, as opposed to Abbey who would rather live on his personal, individualistic terms. As the older, nobler brother Olotu considers it his responsibility to shoulder the responsibility of the family, while Tekena accompanies his brother out of deep-seated envy and competition for a share of the glory. What they all seem to have in common, which is typical of youth, albeit in varying degrees, is a rebellious spirit and strong survival instinct. 

In Nigeria, oil was first discovered in 1956 in Oloibiri, Bayelsa state. This discovery enlisted Nigeria in the league of oil-producing nations of the world. Over the decades, with an increased production output, the country shifted its attention from the vibrant agricultural sector and focused on petroleum at the expense of developing other sectors of the economy. As much as oil discovery is a national blessing, it has caused pain and hardship to the Niger Delta communities, most of which are ecologically damaged, economically underdeveloped and yet get an unfair share of the oil revenue. Blood Vessel does its bit as a historical reflection on problems of oil spillage, corruption and environmental issues that have plagued Southern Nigeria.

The film mirrors the endemic corruption across government agencies and security institutions in Africa through its depiction of the Ghanaian and Cape Verdean naval forces. Although men like the Ghanaian naval commander (John Dumelo) hold their ground and choose to safeguard their integrity, they constitute only a tiny fragment of the rotten bunch and can do little to apprehend the South America-bound oil criminals due to their powerful links to the authorities. When the ship arrives at Ponta Preta Bay, the Cape Verdean naval commander is easily bribed to overlook the bloodshed and hostage that has taken place on the vessel.

Destiny, cultural values and superstition are explored in the film. But the extent to which they hold weight over the affairs of humans remains questionable. While Oyin believes that the python is a sacred creature that should not be killed and eaten, Boma and Degbe treat the creature as any other meal. Also, the unfortunate outcome of the relationship between Oyin and Abbey could be linked to the superstition surrounding the birth of Oyin, which confirms the place of destiny in shaping the trajectories of humans. Oyin’s grandmother reveals that Oyin was born after her mother appealed to the river god,  which forbids her from getting married. Thus, the death of Oyin is partly the consequence of her defiance.

Blood Vessel is a gripping and suspenseful watch. You can’t be too sure about who survives or dies on the ship. One interesting point of reality in the film is how it proves that human existence is not necessarily always dictated by a logical pattern. In essence, just as bad people may enjoy good fortune, people of good intentions could be victims of unfortunate circumstances. Contrary to how the final acts of Old Nollywood films typically involved the use of karma to commensurately reward good and evil, Blood Vessel takes an alternative route and presents life as being unashamedly unfair. If not so, why would the contentious brother Tekena survive in place of the noble? Or why would death befall the gentle and innocent-looking Oyin who is only interested in thriving in an atmosphere full of love? There is also a mocking irony in the film’s treatment of the japa syndrome, as the youths’ quest for a sane existence outside the shores of their fatherland leads them to unforeseeable tragedy.

The acting is generally applaudable in Blood Vessel, with actors Sylvester Ekanem, David Ezekiel and Levi Chikere delivering standout performances. However, much is left to be desired in character development. For instance, the unnamed character tied up on the ship, played by reality show star Pere Egbi, falls flat whereas he could have been better developed and connected to the plot. Also, all of the white men on the vessel remain just as mysterious, with their identities, backstories and ties to the local authorities largely kept covert throughout.  What we can squeeze out from their conversations is that they have been involved in the illegal oil trade for  years.

The narrator, Abbey, makes it known from the outset that it is a love story and not one about oil or oil spillage. But then, the film would have posed for a classical outlook if it had better concretized, rather than brushing past, the Niger Delta realities. While attempts at approximating an eclectic production rooted in traditional values are commendable, the film’s central motif of love is universal but fleeting. As if to score some historical points, there are mild references to the transatlantic slave trade era during which Europeans took many Africans as slaves to the Americas to do forced labor. In the film, tensions between foreigners and natives on the ship evoke those memories of imperialism. You may, however, still find yourself asking what exactly Blood Vessel wants to prove with the many birds it attempts to kill all at a single stone throw.