The tug of the old life struggles with the promise of the new in “Nakom,” a neorealist Ghanian drama made by a couple of American filmmakers.
The debut feature of co-directors Kelly Daniela Norris and T.W. Pittman may tell a classic “How’ll you keep’em down on the farm after they’ve seen the lights of the big city?” tale. But the details they include and the surprising places they take it make it a novel and richly-rewarding film experience.
Iddrisu, played by Jacob Ayanaba, is a smart 20something college student thriving in teeming Kumasi. He’s acing his classes, even has a city girlfriend. And then his sister calls. Their father has died.
“Come back to Nakom.”
Iddrisi is the eldest, the favored son who got to go away to college. Returning to his village he gets a quick lesson in what it took to put him in that position, and what is expected of him now.
Dad went into debt with his brother, Uncle Napoleon (Thomas Kulidu), a reasonable man with many cows. But he expects to be reimbursed for the bull he sold to finance his nephew’s education.
There’s an extended family led by Senior Mother (Justina Kulidu) who welcome him back and insist “The house is yours, now.”
But the house is just a big hut. There’s no running water, no in-house electricity. His next-oldest brother Kamal (Abdul Aziz) is an embittered layabout. His smart little sister Damata (Grace Ayariga) would love to go to college, but grimly faces a future of being “married off to one of these village boys.” Littlest brother Hassan is already skipping school, doomed to be trapped here if no adult takes on the job of riding his lazy behind.
There’s a much younger “junior mother” (Shetu Musah), as African-Islamic polygamy is practiced here. And that creates all sorts of tensions in the mourning ritual.
They’ve also taken in teen Fatima (Esther Issaca), the granddaughter of Uncle Napoleon. She’s treated as a servant.
And there was a drought the previous year. Will later, shorter rainy seasons thanks to climate change let them grow enough onions and millet to get by, pay their debts and keep Iddrisa in school?
Oh, and then there’s the Christian first love (Felicia Atampuri) he left behind when he left for college.
That stricken look permanently painted across Iddrisu’s face isn’t just from mourning. He’s overwhelmed, despairing of ever getting back to his “life.”
His “I’ll leave it to the women” to get this place on its feet is a delusion.
“Is it only you, or are all men this blind?”
His uncle’s nagging “Don’t disappoint me,” his mother is badgering him “Who will watch over this house?” The sage Chief (James Azure) has practical advice, but a tendency to speak in homilies.
“They say when a man dances, the drums are beating for him.”
What is a college lad with dreams of med school to do?
The script teases out little victories in Issidru’s “dream deferred” life. He’s in a college of science, so he knows that the soil is played out. He listened to his father’s advice on planting, waiting for the rains to begin in earnest before putting seed in the ground.
And he’s got a cell phone and a bicycle. He can track the best prices for the family’s onion crop, and is willing to take on “women’s work,” pedaling hither and yon (even over the border into Togo) to get the most money for their efforts.
But this myopic, circumscribed life, with its petty squabbles, personal melodramas, limited horizons and shorter life span, isn’t “calling him home.” Is there a way out of his trap that won’t bring shame and ruin on them all?
The dialogue — in English and Kusaal with English subtitles — carries layers of meaning beyond the story’s simple plot points and messaging, which is as plain as the pained look on Ayanaba’s expressive face.
“It is always for men to decide things,” Damata sighs, a family dominated and maintained by women but dependent on the labors, decisions and caprices of its men.
Filmmakers Norris and Pittman refuse to sentimentalize this story. Recognizing the sacrifices his family made for him to go to college doesn’t guarantee Iddrisu will take the accepted, “noble” path laid out for him here. But will he?
That quandary lets “Nakom” engage the viewer on a lot of levels, an exotic tale set in a seldom-filmed milieu but with pressures, obligations and decisions that are a universal rite of passage.
MPA Rating: unrated
Cast: Jacob Ayanaba, Grace Ayariga, Justina Kulidu, Shetu Musah, Abdul Aziz,
Felicia Atampuri, Thomas Kulidu and James Azure
Credits: Directed by Kelly Daniela Norris and T.W. Pittman, script by T.W. Pittman and (dialogue) Isaac Adakudugu. A Corinth Films release.
Running time: 1:30