Nigeria’s Youth Fight for a Better Future

An almost universal quality across cultures is disdain for the supposed mindlessness of the youth. As I write this, such condescension is amply on display among media outlets and outside commentators condemning college students across the United States who have the temerity to protest genocide. In Nigeria, the term “coconut heads” is in vogue for disparaging young people for shiftlessness. In a move absolutely anyone could have seen coming, the youths rapidly reappropriated the label, ironically self-identifying as the “coconut head generation” in a bit of nose-thumbing at their elders. Congolese French filmmaker Alain Kassanda’s documentary Coconut Head Generation (2023) follows one such group of Nigerian students as they navigate college life and the dramatic political upheavals around them.

The nexus of the film is the Thursday Film Series, a cinephile club at the University of Ibadan (UI). Each week, they gather to watch and discuss different movies. We also get glimpses of everyday life on the campus, and then, toward the end of the film, scenes from the End SARS protest movement, which many of the characters join. The project was shot between 2019 and 2021, giving the filmmakers ample time and material to track the students’ personal and political evolution. The club, too, evolves beyond its premise, becoming a space not just for film appreciation but for open dialogue on women’s rights, rape culture, queer issues, what constitutes effective political action, and so much more.

Kassanda has adeptly used a series of conversations to structure a story around a setting familiar to many. By “setting,” I don’t mean a college club — you needn’t have matriculated at a university to recognize the community that forms in this documentary. You only need to have found yourself drawn to others by a common interest in a forum where you’re comfortable expressing yourselves. Coconut Head Generation, therefore, is an ode to the radical potential of a safe space.

This is not to say that the documentary ignores the specificities of its milieu. It beautifully captures how art can help a viewer understand their life circumstances. After a screening of John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986), one member of the Thursday Film Series observes how many of the issues seen in that film persist in the United Kingdom today, as well as relate to their experiences in Nigeria. UI, the oldest degree-granting university in the country, was originally established by British colonial forces as an outpost of the College of London. These students live and study within a relic of imperialism, and watching works by radical directors like Med Hondo and Jean-Marie Teno inspires them in their own activism. Here, Kassanda traces the feedback loop that runs from art to thought to community to action, and back around again. It’s a testament to how youth find themselves through each other no matter the place, times, or means — or whatever condescending nicknames older generations call them.

Coconut Head Generation (2023) will be showing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music between April 26 and May 2.

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