‘Finding Fela!’ digs deep into Afrobeat pioneer’s life
January 22, 2014
The late Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a multi-faceted man.
He was a musician and musical pioneer. He was a human rights activist who, during his rise in popularity in the 1970s, was molded by the corruption of the Nigerian government and utilized the philosophies of the Black Panthers and what some call pan-Africanist politics.
In 2009, 12 years after his death due to complications of AIDS, Kuti became the subject of "Fela!," a Broadway musical directed by Bill T. Jones, artistic director of the Arnie Zane Dance Company, that recounted his life growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, where he learned about music and witnessed government corruption after Nigeria won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960s.
This is all shown in the Alex Gibney’s documentary "Finding Fela!," which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last Saturday.
The film includes interviews with Jones, Kuti’s longtime drummer Tony Allen, Sir Paul McCartney, Ahmir Khalib "Questlove" Thompson from The Roots, Kuti’s former girlfriend Sandra Iszadore, Kuti’s manger Rikki Stein and Kuti’s children, Yeni, Seun and Femi Kuti.
"Finding Fela!" uses never-before-seen archival footage of Kuti, his family, his band Africa 70 and his home, the Kalakuta Republic, which was essentially a commune and compound in the middle of Lagos that was bombed and raided by the Nigerian police in 1977.
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Gibney said the film was originally supposed to be about taking the musical to Nigeria, and the filmmakers all went through the same process as their musical theater counterparts in discovering who Fela Kuti was.
"The theatrical performances you see in the film, is the musical when it was performed in Lagos," Gibney said after the screening. "Over the course of time, documentaries have a way of changing. [This one] came to be about finding Fela and the journey of the filmmakers became the same journey."
Through research and discussions with Jones and the musical’s producer Stephen Hendel, the filmmakers located candid film footage of Kuti and his family.
"As we went deeper and deeper into the archival material, which was magnificent, [the film] became a multi-faceted process," Gibney said. "That’s why we called the film ‘Finding Fela.’"
Hendel, who also served as the film’s executive producer, said the reason why he wanted to produce a musical and documentary was because Kuti was an important and complex figure.
"In 2000, Time magazine made a list of the 200 most important people in history and Fela Kuti was No. 57," Hendel explained. "I was amazed that Time magazine knew about him. But it’s true. He was the one who spoke for those who couldn’t speak — the millions of people who were oppressed.
"In the end, the legacy of Fela is that he sacrificed everything to stand up for human dignity," he said. "Fela carried on and carried on at a lot of cost."
One of the things that Hendel admires about Kuit was that he wasn’t perfect, but didn’t back down when people’s rights and lives were in danger.
"The guy stayed in the same neighborhood he was raised in and spoke out about corruption and refused to back off an inch for years and years and years," Hendel said. "You can imagine the price he paid."
One of those prices was the life of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who died two days after she was thrown of out the Kalakuta Republic’s second story window during the infamous raid.
Another was his 18-month imprisonment for currency smuggling, during which he was tortured and beaten.
"If the Nigerian police came for me, I would have been out of there in five minutes," Hendel said. "The first time they beat me up would be the last time they beat me up, but Fela was in this position because tens of millions of people relied on him to speak out for them."
Hendel said Kuti was considered, in many ways, a savior to his followers.
"I’m not one to compare Fela to Jesus, but if authorities could have made Jesus renounce himself, they would have won," he said. "It’s kind of the same situation, and I think the film was able to go into that story about Fela. I mean, how do you judge a man who goes through that isolation, that pain?"
Hendel cited lyrics from Kuti’s song "Sorrow, Tears and Blood."
"They go something like ‘We fear to fight for liberty. We fear to fight for justice. We fear to fight for happiness. We always get reason to fear,’" he said. "Fela had no fear, and I think once he put himself in the position of being the voice of the voiceless, he just couldn’t back down. I think he just did it. ‘Fear is not for man’ was one of his sayings."
Alex Gibney’s "Finding Fela!" is one of the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Premieres and will have its last screening on Saturday, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m., at the Redstone Cinema 2. For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org/festival.