Harvard Professor Joanna Lipper’s film, The Supreme Price, follows the story of the late Kudirat Abiola- Wife of the late M.K.O Abiola. A successful businessman, politician, philanthropist and the acclaimed winner of the pivotal June 12 elections which shaped the future of Nigeria.
In 1993, Nigeria elected M.K.O. Abiola as president in a historic vote that promised to end years of military dictatorship. Shortly after, the election was annulled and a military coup brought General Sani Abacha into power. M.K.O Abiola was imprisoned and his wife, Kudirat, took over the leadership of the pro-democracy movement. She organized rallies and the longest oil workers strike in Nigerian history, winning international attention for the Nigerian struggle against human rights violations perpetrated by the military dictatorship. Because of this work, she too became a target and was assassinated in 1996.
The film’s Director, Joanna Lipper elegantly dovetails past and present as she tells this story through the eyes of their eldest daughter, Hafsat Abiola, who was about to graduate from Harvard when her mother was murdered. Her father died in prison two years later.
The Supreme Price is a stark exploration of the courage of women like Kudirat, and the struggle that women face in Nigeria’s society today.
We caught up with the filmmaker during the European premiere of the film at the Raindance Film Festival in London and we were bowled over by her passion for women’s rights and the role of film as a platform for getting women seen and heard in the cultural minefield that is Africa.
NL: What inspired you to make a film about Kudirat Abiola?
JL: I was fortunate to meet Hafsat soon after she’d graduated from Harvard. We had both been at Harvard University as students, but we hadn’t met until a few years later. When I first met her, her organisation- Kudirat Abiola Initiative for Democracy (KIND), was still in its infancy. I was so impressed by her composure, her resilience and courage that I followed the evolution of this NGO. When I went for the black heritage festival in Nigeria in 2010, I visited the NGO and I remembered it from when she’d started it from the beginning a few years back. Just building an NGO from scratch is challenging and in particular, this was soon after the transitioning from Military rule to civilian rule after she had been in exile for so long. For her to go back to a country where she lost her parents and experienced all those horrible things and then build something like that and see it grow was amazing. It was really that experience of seeing that happen over time and going from this place myself of incredible sadness after hearing the story for the first time, to this place where I saw incredible hope for Nigeria through this story that sparked this deep curiosity in the future of Nigeria. I’m always interested as a filmmaker in learning from my subjects. When I start a film I don’t have something that I want to prove or an idea that I want to illustrate in the film. What usually inspires me to make a film is that the subjects have interested me so much that I want to learn about the place and learn about their experiences so being able to do that through this film was a process of learning for me.
NL: So what was your experience like filming in Nigeria and how long did it take?
JL: I made the film over a period of four years. Travelling to Nigeria at different moments allowed me see Hafsat evolve from running the Kudirat Initiative for democracy to then being appointed as a special adviser in Ogun state. I would say the experience I got from filming in Nigeria was really positive, because I was able to work with a Nigerian team and I was able to really see and be a part of Nigeria that would never have been accessible to me. You know, within the structure of the Abiola family compound in Ikeja, but then also going out into Ogun state when Hafsat got her political appointment and seeing that region too. Going out and filming at night was really fascinating to me. Just the beauty and the energy and the sound scape and the colours was great. It was really a way of finding a poetry for the film and finding the vocabulary for the film and all that was as a result of my experience about being there, but also as a result of feeling comfortable there, and being immersed there.
NL: It’s interesting you mentioned you don’t have a point to prove when you start a documentary. In the documentary, you were very direct in showing women in different spheres of life in Nigeria and there were some stark scenes of the struggles women go through in the country. What was going through your mind while you were experiencing that?
JL: I was definitely interested in filming about women from a wide spectrum. I wanted to show women from elite circumstances like Hafsat, but also women in other circumstances that are really in a place where the government is not providing for their needs. The government is not providing for their most basic rights to safe delivery and the maternal mortality rates are abysmal, so I was interested in capturing that side of Nigeria. Not just the side of those who have privilege, but also to look at the universal theme in the story. Because even when there was privilege, there was still oppression. There was oppression within the home and there was pressure from the government and there was violence. You could say that these are two separate spheres and they don’t overlap, but what I think the film is trying to say is that these problems transcend class and they transcend economic status, they happen to women in Nigeria and they have to be looked at.
I think the women in the film, like Dr Joe Odumakin are in positions where for so many years, they’ve been speaking about their thoughts and risking their lives to do that. What the film does is to take the women that have been willing to take those risks and give them an even broader international platform. So that what they’ve been saying at voter education rallies and behind closed doors now suddenly has the weight it should have, which is its demanding an international response and attention. At the same time, the film shows the women who aren’t speaking; you know, the silent shots of women watching, of women walking, of market women. So I was trying to show; who are the women involved in this fight? Who are the ones speaking? Who are the ones not? And when you look at women in Nigeria in general, you see a population (at least I did as a foreigner coming in) that is incredibly visible. I mean, the way they dress is so beautiful, their presence is so powerful. In a way there’s this intrinsic power and film is a unique medium that can capture that. It’s the juxtaposition of the power that is unveiled in the film and the reality of oppression on ground that is preventing that power from being revealed.
NL: One of the reasons women are oppressed in Nigeria is partly due to our culture. How do you think this documentary could inspire women in Africa to balance personal ambition against cultural demands?
JL: While I was in Nigeria I spoke to Amy Oyekunle, who is the Executive Director of KIND about this same question. They’ve come up with this term called ‘Transformational leadership’. This, they believe is going to bring about change in the way women think, but they’re saying it has to be a psychological transformation in the understanding of what makes women of value. The question is, are you of value because of the supporting role you play providing for your family or being a wife? Also, the incredible role that women play in Nigeria as farmers, the reproductive and productive role they’re expected to play. There is a lot of physical labour involved as well, so I think the process of having that sense of integrity that says, ‘I want to be true to myself and what I think is of value to me’ is really important.
One of the things I think that’s really impressive about Kudirat Abiola, comes during one moment in the film. She says “Hafsat, if you could only see what I am doing now, you will be so proud of me”, and Hafsat said, “I’ve always been proud of you”. So, the idea being that she was embarrassed that she didn’t go to college while her daughter was in Harvard, she felt she never did enough. I feel like that was such a poignant and painful moment, because again it brings up this question: Can women just be valued for who they are? Not only what they do and what they accomplish? I think Kudirat felt that this public role that she took on and the struggle that she had, she sacrificed her life for it and she sacrificed her life for Nigeria at the same time. When Hafsat was growing up, she saw the personal sacrifices she was making to stay in the marriage and she gave her children the opportunity to be educated in the US. The title, The Supreme Price is not only about Martyrdom, although that is the central reference, it’s about the personal sacrifices on a daily basis that women have to make. Hafsat is living away most of the time from her family and Kudirat had to do the same thing in order for Hafsat to get educated in the US. You see all the sacrifices that are made along the way and then the question is why? We have to see if there is a way to change that patriarchal structure and make it so that less sacrifices have to be made.
NL: Do you think we have a lack of female role models in Nigeria?
JL: I think there are a lot of role models, but I don’t think that they have the right medium like film that allows them to be widely accessible and seen by other women in Nigeria and around the world. The medium of film is taking the everyday role model that exists in every community. I think it’s a question of identifying them and giving them a platform, whether it’s through film, through a website or short video. Giving them a platform to have influence and to be accessible. I think the question of what makes someone really accessible is really important. Seeing someone at a rally from a distance, yes, they can be interesting and they can make a speech, but do you know their personal compromises or their inner battles?
I think that the capacity of film to influence how young girls are able to access role models and feel closer to them cannot be overemphasised and I think films are crucial for this, which is why I hope this film will service that. To be able to bring someone who could be seen as a role model, by the fact that she’s made bold controversial decisions and maintained her own integrity.
NL: Kudirat Abiola is one of the few Nigerian women who took risks by coming out to speak against the military government and ultimately paid the supreme price. Do you think young girls and women in Nigeria today would be prepared to take that risk given what happened to Kudirat?
JL: I think the film would do the opposite of discouraging girls to take risks and speak up. The message of the film is quite the opposite and I think that’s why Hafsat has dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights and ensuring their voices are heard- She couldn’t let the military win. In any of these conflicts all over the world, often times when civilian rule takes over, the situation of women doesn’t improve, even though they played a key role in overtaking the dictatorship and risked their lives, they’re status doesn’t improve. Their representation in elected political offices doesn’t improve, so this is now the current fight to be fought. I think the issue is not will women and girls be willing to run? I think the question is can the structure change enough that the ones that want to can be empowered to. It’s not just that there aren’t people available to do it, it’s more about taking the women who want to do it and getting them to the next level.
Joanna Lipper’s film ‘The Supreme Price’ is out in UK cinemas now.
*This interview was initially published in the Winter/14 issue of Naija Living magazine.