The trope of the Mephistophelian criminal mastermind is a well-worn one from the eponymous Mephistopheles to Iago as instigator in Shakespeare’s Othello and Fagin in Dicken’s Oliver Twist.
The young and the gullible have always been cannon fodder for men of evil and Amir aka Joseph played by Jamal Ibrahim, is no different.
Sold from an orphanage to Mallam Sadan, a muslim scholar and leader, Amir leaves the orphanage to become the older man’s play thing from where he is then sent to a camp for young Islamic “scholars.”
His life takes a strange turn as he becomes a dagger-for-hire eking out a precarious existence on the streets of an unnamed city and carrying out killings on the orders of his master.
By the time ‘The Delivery Boy’ opens, Amir has come to the realization that he must make a change and the time has come. The first word out of his mouth is Go be, Hausa for Tomorrow.
Tomorrow things will change, Amir promises himself as he begins to put his plans into action but best laid plans can unravel quickly.
‘The Delivery Boy,’ which won Best Nigerian Film at AFRIFF 2018, tells a story that appears to have been torn out of yesterday’s newspaper head line. There is a visceral urgency to the narrative which confers an almost non-fictional mien on it, as if we are watching a documentary that explores what the life of young men caught in the claws of fundamentalist Islam is all about.
It also helps that much of the dialogue is in Hausa and pidgin which is a clear nod to the streets and the region most prone to fundamentalist ideology and violence.
Amir is damaged goods. Sexually abused and forced to become who he is not, the young man has lived many lives beyond his age. He is angry, confused, conflicted and ready to explode, no puns intended.
This is a film with a dark theme and that darkness is evoked all through. The film is never fully light or fully dark which is understandable since the whole action takes place between dusk and dawn but the “darkness’ hints at more than time, it is evocative of Amir’s tortured soul. Nodash as Director of Photography manages to evoke Amir’s interior landscape through the use of lights and light effects. There is a particularly beautiful shot where Amir is silhouetted against the door of the orphanage.
As his path collides with that of a prostitute, Nkem, played by Jemima Osunde, the plot changes gear, becoming a vehicle for telling the story of two survivors preyed upon by father figures; two people from disparate sides of the track who have to forge an unlikely alliance. They are united only by their rage and desire to destroy one in order to save another.
But Amir is not a murderous villain. He is an avenging angel intent on righting wrongs and working with Nkem they make a formidable team but it is an alliance lubricated with blood. People die and lives are ruined but all is fair in love and war.
Nodash has a deft touch, and there is an urgency to the proceedings even though the story proceeds at a very sedate pace. His use of lights and shadows provides the film with a dreamlike and introspective aspect. This interplay of light and shadows is important too in masking actions and intentions because this is a film full of dissembling, one in which things are never what they seem.
But at the heart of ‘The Delivery Boy’ are urgent social and existential questions. How far can we go to protect our secret shame? How come those who speak about paradise and the after-life make a cushy home for themselves here? But the biggest question is where does evil come from and how do we allow ourselves to become willing incubators of evil from Mallam Sadan to Ofili, Auntie Dorcas to Nkem’s uncle.
Watching Mallam Sadan, one sees a teacher and a leader while a consideration of his beautiful home throws into stark relief the poverty and deprivation of Amir and Kazeem’s digs. The contrast brings to mind Fela Kuti’s lyrics: Archbishop na milki/Pope na enjoyment/Imam na Gbaladun.
The unequal yoking of Amir/Kazeem/Alhaji Sadan hints at a dysfunctional dynamic at the heart of fundamentalism one that brings to mind the movie, ‘The Mumbai Siege’, which is based on the four days of terror visited by young Pakistani fundamentalists on a luxurious hotel in Mumbai. There is that same conflicted approach and indecisiveness as the young drug addicted terrorists are given orders from across the border by an older man communicating via mobile phone.
‘The Delivery Boy’ is not your usual Nollywood fare, so if you are looking for cheap laughs, go watch something else. But it is ironic that the real moment of levity is provided as a dig at Nollywood and its warped celebrity culture.
When Amir accosts Sister Dorcas at Little Saints Chapel and Orphanage, she tries to explain why she has to do what she does – “If you had to give one of your children to the devil in order to save the rest, won’t you do it? I feed 50 children with food that is barely enough for 20. Where do you think the money comes from or do you think it is the indomie and bournvita celebrities bring that runs this place?”
But it is also at the orphanage that the film commits a continuity error. The machete Amir grabs from the mai guard is not the same one he uses to attack him even though it all happens in a split second. But mis-steps aside, Nodash has delivered an important and timely film.
In 2006, five years after the 9/11 terrorist attack, Paul Greengrass, best known for his Bourne movies, released his critically acclaimed film United 93. While many praised it for its psychological depth and authenticity, others panned it for coming out “too soon” after the tragedy.
With the insurgency raging in Nigeria’s North East with huge human and material costs one wonders when we shall begin to mine the devastation in our books and movies. Nodash has made a bold move with ‘The Delivery Boy’ and love it or hate it, he has opened a very important conversation that we all need to have.
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