The documentation of African culture is a vast thankless task, taken on by very few who have the courage to brace the enormity of the challenge. Through various mediums, from oral performance to the most modern curatorial techniques, individuals and institutions try to record and preserve the ways we express our lives through culture. However, we do tend to place a premium on youth culture and ignore or conveniently forget the aging. In Chivas DeVinck debut film, The Poets, he shows how critical it is to keep in touch with aging facets of our culture.
The 99-minute documentary, produced in 2017, see the director make brilliant use of a pseudo fly on the wall narrative style to leach off from a great friendship among two giants of African poetry; Syl Cheney-Coker and Niyi Osundare. The director sits as their feet and gathers the crumbs of wisdom to share with us all.
Guided by the steady flow of honest conversation between the pair, the film establishes various thematic threads, that exist in the world and work of the two poets such as religion, family, colonialism and the life of an artist. The narrative oscillates between Freetown, Sierra Leone and Ekere-Ikiti, Nigeria where Syl Cheney-Coker an Niyi Osundare grew up respectively. Be revisiting the temples of their childhoods, the film established the bases for their largely social and political protest poetry, which is the respect they have for the community. As such, it is not surprising that their work is compellingly honest, yet refreshing and brutal as they reflect on the conditions of the African in the 21st century. By tracking their artistic growth, viewers begin to learn how these men came to realize their roles as poets in post-colonial African societies by choosing to interrogate their lives deeply, and speak out.
Syl Cheney-Coker in the early parts of the film, where we are in Sierra Leone presents himself as a fervent voice of opposition to the tireless tide that wrecked his country. In most of his parts of the conversations, he alludes to using poetry to find catharsis and make sense of his love affair with Sierra Leone his home. Niyi Osundare with a slightly calmer persona also mirrors this dispositions when the film moves to Ibadan, Nigeria. The narrative is styled to allows us to examine the role that the post-colonial African poet has played in our societies, as a voice that yearns to rise above all noise and compel us to keep questioning the systems that bind us. For the subjects of the film, it is their morale responsibility to produce art, in response to life.
Indeed, their shared sense of communal responsibility might just be the pivot upon which the friendship swings. Despite coming from different social backgrounds, Syl Cheney-Coker and Niyi Osundare might have one of the best friendships in literature. Although they do not talk so much about become friends, you do sense how deeply the love runs between that through the bits of banter and the uncanny way in which they complete each other’s train of thought. Much could be said of how male friendships are portrayed on screen in African film by the way the director frames both subjects. They never seem to be performing a role as they are at ease on screen from the first scene, extending their lives to the world.
With The Poets, you do not necessarily have to be a fan of African literature or intimately know the lines of the poets to hitch a ride on the freewheeling sequence of bliss and wisdom that is this film. By teaching us to appreciate the friendship that the pair have cultivated, the film helps us to understand and respect their sacred roles as poets. We are then able to listen to their wisdom and keep questioning life.
Written by Hakeem Adam
Photos: Icarus Films..