Welcome to Lagos, Part III
By Gavin Searle (2010)
`Welcome to Lagos` follows a handful of characters, from an area of the Nigerian public that the British public, are not usually exposed to. Across the series Searle follows closely to individuals who work at landfills, who live in beach shanty towns, or work as state enforcers. It is produced using a blend of techniques; video diaries, observational style master shots, and street-side interviews with other Lagos locals in said neighbourhoods. Another noticeable layer is the distinct narration by British actor David Harewood, and intermittently used non-diegetic music. Within the final part of the series, we engage in the upheaving Megacity project, which was well underway in Lagos during the time of filming. Most specifically the film distillates on how the project intercedes with its key characters, who are part of the sprawling, poorer communities of Lagos. In this episode the audience is befriended by Esther and her circle of friends who live on the beach, and Shagede; a state enforcer-come- traditional dance teacher.
Having originally encountered the film from a list entitled “ethnographic films”, I was harshly critical of the series’ undeniable BBC-charm, significantly so within the final instalment. My largest issue initially lay with the use of non-diegetic music, and also the narration. My opinion towards the former remains unchanged after reviewing and deliberation; specifically with music choice in scenes of market/ house raids and at times, beatings.
At some point of its conception; there appears to have been an executive decision to disallow the final cut appearing in anyway judgmental of the actions of its participants; to almost overcompensating levels. Unquestionably, one is aware of the value of objectivity when conducting ethnographies; be they visual or textual, a timeless catch of the field-worker/ filmmaker. Notwithstanding, there is an overcompensation in the choice of soundtrack; jovial orchestral music is played frequently ontop of visuals of civil conflict and destruction. This is in combination with music played elsewhere that was emotion- inducing; quite clearly attempting to amplify the narrative on screen. For example the scene of Esther’s birthday; fitting atmospheric piano and strings are added to reflect the jubilation of her and her husband. It is perplexing that in other scenes however, the music choice is not so empathetic only in a way that could have been an attempt to not over-dramatize scenes of genuine violence.
This choice of music is recognisably conducive with the discourse of Harewood`s narration of positivity and possibility in this period of change in Lagos, even if it meant at times musically disregarding hardships on screen, to underplay them in comparison to the successes of its main characters. In this circumstance one can’t help but agree with Rouch’s (1979, pp.60) advisory stance on unoriginal “background music” that often renders documentaries “spoiled by the musical sauce with which they are […] served.”
Upon second viewing, once considering the original context in which the film would have been aired; a British Sunday night settee, I came to be far more appreciative of its intentions and final realisations. This re-contextualizing also gives explanation as to why the music and narration came to be such large roles in the film; in order for it prescribe itself to the BBC format and viewership. At a second glance in fact, the film appears as a tenuous balance between accessibility and penetrative participatory modes of filmmaking. Having also researched Gavin Searle’s training in Visual Anthropology and his filmography; it appears Searle has a self-appointed remit to render well theorised visual anthropology styles to be suitable to everyday viewers. Thus, having seemingly achieved so and consequently acted as a mainstream advocate for previously unheard of communities in the British- media dialogue (in works such as Meet the Natives, Tribe, Welcome to Lagos).
This considered, I reviewed that the majority of footage is either handheld work by with Esther or Shagede, or presumably Searle himself working intimately with the two (throughout a time span of assumedly a month or so on screen). We begin the episode with master shots of a deserted Lagos, strung together by Harewood’s narration, explaining that it is a monthly environmental-awareness day depicted. The panning, observational camera plus a few cuts of chance Lagosians cleaning the streets, leaves one reminiscent of a GSCE geography lesson. However, once introduced to main characters Esther and Shagede; one can appreciate the high levels of collaboration indisputably necessary to achieve their interactions of screen. Esther often seems to be leading the conversation and it’s repeatedly herself interviewing her inner circle. One cannot be sure of how much she is prompted onto the topics of discussion (such as the government’s demolition of the beach, Blessing’s baby) for the camera, however it is the case that all topics discussed are very personal to her, regardless. This meaning a tangible amount of trust must have been previously created between herself and Searle, in order for him to be accepted quite intimately into her home, and also so that Esther felt comfortable conducting video diaries in the knowledge that Searle was to use and edit that footage later on.
Her first video diary involves Esther showing the camera her room and discussing her husband. With only her face within the frame; she bashfully explains “My husband, he is a loving and caring man… I love him”, then she blushes and moves the camera off her face in mild embarrassment. It is the presence of intimate scenes like this, which illustrates the filmmaker’s original intention of grass-roots advocacy. Nevertheless, a feigned objectivity is ever-present, as the filmmaker’s presence is completely unaddressed throughout the series. Deductively, this could have been done for the sake of remaining within the BBC educational, objective style. Additionally however, the absolute focus on Esther and Shagede works well in promoting their stories, allowing for as much personal content to be relayed, instead of time given to the personas of the crew. This collaborative trust to focus on their personal stories seems integral to Shagede being descriptive and demonstrative of his work as a state enforcer as part of the Mega City project. Without having a rapport with the person behind the camera, it seems unlikely that Shagede would be so frank about the methods and intentions of his work; which at times is shown to be hands on forcefulness of other Lagosians. This to me reveals a true advocacy for the central figures, who felt they didn’t need to chide their quotidian tasks.
Further evidence of heightened collaboration is the extensive research carried out in order to narrate other aspects of their lives not discussed in front of the camera, and within this narration, placing it in within the larger context of Lagos State. For this reason, I disagree with Rouch in this instance, as the omnipresent narration allows the viewer to best understand the characters place within the bigger picture of Lagos. Upon reflection one can realise that in fact, the progression of the narrative and the excitement felt by the viewer relies solely on the essence of Esther and Shagede; proving this to be personal collaboration at heart. Had it been two perhaps more introverted individuals as the focal point; the final instalment of `Welcome to Lagos` would have been an unrecognisable film altogether.
Across the reviews; the series was generally praised by the British media (, but rejected by Nigerian essayists and the Lagosian government itself; (repeatedly noted by the latter as patronising and colonialist)(. The Guardian featured several discussions of the series with outright enthusiasm for its positivist yet raw portrayal of the Lagosian’s innovative and resilient nature, rather than being a documentary that focused on the plights of living in such conditions. It is for this very same reason however, that several Nigerian academics spoke out, believing the series to condescending to those depicted, making their lives out of destitution. (Dowell, 2010), (Nwaubani, 2010) The Nigerian government went as far in submitting a formal complaint to the BBC, stating the series had caused damage to the Lagosian image. (Dowell, 2010)
In light of this reception, as it is often the case with documentary, previous experiences in relation to the format shroud one’s perception of the films content. Having analysed this series to a detailed extent, one cannot deny the focal point is not the general Lagosian public. The public is portrayed secondly to the key individuals and their stories which are relayed on an intimate and empathetic level. To regard this film as another observational BBC documentary about `Lagos life` would do a large injustice to Esther, Shagede and Searle’s familiar work with them. Perhaps by accustoming the footage to belong to a BBC genre, the film has lost itself opportunity for greater ethnographic recognition as an accessible participatory film.
- Howard Male http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/welcome-lagos-bbc-two