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Fri, 16 Jan 2015 12:26
AGENT OF CHANGE: Hafsat Abiola leads a voter education rally in a scene from The Supreme Price

The Supreme Price, a new documentary by American filmmaker Joanna Lipper, tells the story of Nigerian activist Hafsat Abiola and her mother Kudirat, who have both dedicated their lives to Nigerian democracy and the struggle for the rights of Nigerian women.

Filled with intrigue, tragedy and hope, The Supreme Price highlights the close link between the West African regional power’s democratic development and the daily struggles of its women and girls.

As a prologue to the story of Kudirat and Hafsat Abiola, it is perhaps worth touching on the final years in the life of MKO Abiola, husband of Kudirat and father of Hafsat. In 1993, Nigeria was under the rule of its sixth military government, led by General Ibrahim Babangida, who had finally bowed to pressure after nearly 12 years in power and allowed democratic elections with the promise to hand the reins of power to the winner.

Abiola, a well-known businessman and philanthropist, was undoubtedly the most popular presidential candidate and seemed certain to win the election. As it turned out, Babangida made an abrupt about-turn and annulled the election without announcing the results but it is generally accepted that Abiola was the clear winner. Babangida’s rule gave way to that of an even more repressive and corrupt military dictator, Sani Abacha.

Abiola bravely insisted that he was the rightful president with a mandate from the Nigerian people. Accordingly, in 1994, Abacha charged him with treason and dispatched no fewer than 200 police vehicles to arrest him at his home in Lagos. Four years later, he died in detention under suspicious circumstances, less than a year before Nigeria made its 1999 democratic transition.

It was the lesser known story of the role that MKO’s wife and daughter have played in the fight for Nigerian democracy and women’s rights that attracted Joanna Lipper’s attention. There is more to the outrage experienced by the Abiola family at the hands of the military dictatorship. In 1996, Kudirat, who had been a vocal advocate for her husband’s release from prison and claim to the presidency, as well as equal gender rights and the final removal of military regime, was murdered by military assassins while she sat in the Lagos traffic. Lipper first learned about the family’s tragedy from MKO and Kudirat’s daughter Hafsat, who forms the focus of The Supreme Price.

Channelled rage

“When Hafsat stood up and told her family’s story I was impressed by the way she channeled her rage and mourning into determination, tenacity and activism, calling upon knowledge, integrity, courage and persistence to oppose corruption and senseless violence,” Lipper says.

“Instead of being a victim of circumstances Hafsat is a courageous agent of change.
Through telling the story of Kudirat’s life and martyrdom and examining how her legacy shaped her daughter’s goals, dreams, values and identity, I aimed to present intergenerational portraits of two women, both of whom understand the urgency of fighting corruption, dictatorship and the oppression of women. More broadly, I wanted to examine the enduring relevance and impact of Kudirat and MKO’s legacy in Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement.”

The Supreme Price tells Hafsat’s story in the context of her parents’ struggle, as well as Nigeria today, 15 years after its democratic transition. The struggle for democracy did not end in 1999 when Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president. Women in particular still have a hard road in terms of participation in the society, economy and politics of the country. Kudirat did indeed pay ‘the supreme price’ for her struggles in these areas but Lipper’s film suggests that her martyrdom was not the only cost. The supreme price continues to be paid by millions of Nigerians.
“The title also refers to the risks and emotional conflicts that politically ambitious Nigerian women inevitably confront when struggling to balance their roles as mothers and wives in the private sphere, and with their efforts to be politically active in the public sphere.

“There have been over 160 political assassinations since the transition to civilian rule in 1999. On a deeper level, the title refers to the price society and the world will pay if the legacies of past generations of human rights heroines are not respected, honoured and upheld,” Lipper says.

Shot on various locations around Nigeria, the production went relatively smoothly. “The many challenges inherent for me as an American woman producing and directing a film on the ground in Nigeria were mediated by the warm welcome, guidance, hospitality, security and support I received from my Nigerian collaborators,” says Lipper.

The help of production manager Steve Aborisade and well-established Nollywood filmmaker Tunde Kelani – who came on board as a co-producer through his company, Mainframe Productions – ensured that the local filmmaking network put its weight behind the film. Around 20 Nigerians in total worked behind the scenes to bring Lipper’s vision to fruition. Lipper and American compatriots Rick Sands and Lisa Rinzler shot the film using a range of cameras that included a Canon 5D, Canon 7D, Sony EX1 and Canon G-12.

The female gaze

One important facet of The Supreme Price is that its story is told from a woman’s point of view. A man’s perspective, no matter how skillfully made and however well researched and intentioned, would have been unlikely to have the same impact. “My identity as a woman in the role of film director, producer and cinematographer was an asset in situations where women were assembled privately and it would have been more intrusive for a man to be filming,” Lipper explains.

“I think there are many shots of women in the film that have a real sense of unguarded depth and integrity and a sense of up-closeness and intimate proximity in locations like the maternal health clinic we visited in Ogun State. In these types of settings my gaze as a female director looking through the camera lens brought a nuanced, perhaps less often observed dimension to what was captured on film when it came to portraying the lives of Nigerian women and girls in both public and private spheres.”

Made with the support of the Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), The Supreme Price is distributed in North America by Women Make Movies, while international sales are handled through Cinephil.

In the months leading up to its international premiere at the Human Rights Watch Festival in New York in June, the lives of Nigeria’s women and girls were pushed into the international spotlight when the militant group Boko Haram abducted 250 girls from the northern Nigerian town of Chibok.

This event, Lipper says, underscored many of the key themes of the film: “the need to protect, educate and empower women and girls; the need for increased numbers of women leaders in political positions of power to represent their best interests; the violent backlash in the face of progressive change when it comes to traditional gender stereotypes that involve the oppression of women; and the complete absence of a Nigerian government that is accountable to the masses.”

After its premiere, the documentary went on to screen on five continents, and has been generally well received. The Nigerian premiere took place at the Lights, Camera, Africa!! Film Festival, held in Lagos in September. At the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), held in Calabar in November, it was named the best film in the Documentary category. Critical and audience response in Nigeria has been generally positive.

Alongside her roles as a filmmaker, author and photographer, Lipper also lectures at Harvard University, teaching a course on ‘Using Film for Social Change’. The Supreme Price, it seems, puts the principles she teaches into practice.

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