My siblings, my girlfriend and I went to the cinemas to watch the latest documentary film on Fela two nights ago. We were about 10 minutes late into the film and we rushed into the screening room to find just one person in the audience. Just one person!
Impressive, I must say. Fela’s posthumous superstar status is still elusive at the home front. There is the annual global celebration, Felabration; the hugely successful and decorated Fela! musical; the re-issue of Carlos Moore’s book and many other books on Fela but all these global arousal still finds his home country sedate.
Alex Gibney’s Finding Fela is retrospective, using materials like old video footage, audio clips, pictures and exhaustive interviews of friends and significant others to tell Fela’s story. The new documentary is incestuous; it draws heavily from a previous documentary, Music as a Weapon directed by Jean Jacques Flori and Stephen Tchal-Gadjieff and shot in 1982 at the peak of Fela’s career.
While the perspective of the Finding Fela is not much different from the previous film, a more definitive appraisal of Fela is cut out. Perhaps because Fela had died before this documentary was shot. His children were grown enough to talk about their father and there was some scholarly appraisal from Micheal Veal, the musicologist who guest-played with the Egypt 80 band and wrote that book, The Life And Times of An African Musical Icon
Professor Hindu, one of Fela’s biggest sycophants and undoing is appraised and also Fela’s quest for spirituality which is often seen as a direct consequence of his mother’s gruesome death. If Fela’s political motivation is the crux of Music as a weapon, Finding Fela is more circumstantial and persuasive, it is a mild story of Fela seeking to unearth his motivations while celebrating his genius.
And sometimes the film fails in this lofty aspiration like Kevin Macdonald’s Marley. The idea of a documentary film, especially a post-humous one, is not to balance narratives, it is to field questions and confront new perspectives. In this regard, the film fails but as a complete idiot guide on the life and times of the hemp-smoking Pan-Africanist misogynist musical genius, it is a triumph.