‘Child-witches’ controversy gets the big screen treatment

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By Chinelo Onwualu

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the exclusive screening of the Nollywood movie, “The Fake Prophet,” on Tuesday, June 22 in Abuja wasn’t its logistical headaches or its diverse guest list, or even the enthusiasm of its organisers. The most surprising thing about this upcoming movie was how ordinary it was.

About 40 guests from across the city’s diplomatic and international aid community were on hand for the screening. The movie itself was relatively short, about an hour and 30 minutes, but its showing took a lot longer. The event, which was held at the Korean Cultural Centre, was plagued by a host of operational issues, from a late start to constant power cuts.

The centre’s administrative officer, Shim Kyoo Sung, explained that it was a matter of poor scheduling. On a day that Nigeria and South Korea were playing World Cup matches, the building’s manager was unavailable. In fact, the time of the screening clashed directly with the match.

Behind the scenes

“The Fake Prophet” is a concept film created and funded by Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN), a non-governmental organisation, to promote awareness about the plight of the so-called ‘child witches’.

According to the organisation, the issue of “child-witches” grew out of the Niger Delta in the 1990s as many powerful pastors began accusing children of plotting to supernaturally harm their families and communities. Children were often coerced into confessing their ‘crimes’, following which their families were charged money for lengthy and sometimes painful exorcism rituals. Thousands of children - an estimated 15,000 in Akwa Ibom State alone - were blamed for their family’s misfortunes, shunned by their communities, and abandoned.

According to a report in the British press, before being pushed out of their homes many of these children were beaten, slashed with knives, thrown onto fires, or had acid poured over them as punishment or in attempts to make them “confess”. Many of those branded child-witches were murdered - hacked to death with machetes, poisoned, drowned, or buried alive - in an attempt to supposedly drive satan out of their soul. Once on the streets, many of the children became prey to child traffickers.

“We decided to make this film because we realised that the proliferation of Nollywood movies that focus on issues of witchcraft, specifically child witchcraft, was leading to the spread of the belief,” said Gary Foxcroft, SSN programme director. “We needed a counter to that.”

Not an easy task

However, the organisation has been dogged by controversy. Earlier this year, Helen Ukpabio, a former Nollywood star and the leader of the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministry, sued SSN for defamation. The powerful evangelist’s church claims to identify and exorcise witches and she accused the organisation of misrepresenting her ministry.

In March, The NEWS magazine ran a feature on Foxcroft, accusing him and his colleagues of being scam artists who are exploiting a relatively minor phenomenon to raise funds and fleece donors.

“We want to use the controversy around the documentary that we made and this movie to generate debate,” said Foxcroft. “Really this controversy is quite a powerful tool because it’ll get media reception and hopefully, it will get our message out to more people.”

The Fake Pastor

The movie itself, directed by Nollywood veteran Teco Benson, is typical of the industry. The story revolves around a smuggler (Charles Okafor) who, after botching a job and going on the run from an aggrieved trafficking overlord, returns to his village to hide out. There, he decides to set up shop as a pastor, indentifying and exorcising witches – for a price. Meanwhile two high-school students, Ekaette and Inyang, have been ostracised by their community after they are accused of causing the death of a village elder, Ekaette’s father. After they are abandoned, Ekaette falls into the hands of traffickers and winds up a prostitute in Europe while Inyang is imprisoned for stealing food to survive. In the end, all the villains get their comeuppance as the pastor’s flock gradually turns against him, but much damage has been done.

Okafor is engaging and funny as the amoral pastor, but the rest of the film is filled with the stilted dialogue and melodrama that characterises Nollywood. Yet, it was not the simplistic storytelling, the flat characters, the convoluted editing or even its continuity problems that proved so disappointing. Were this an ordinary piece of entertainment fluff, this movie could be forgiven its shortcomings. But it is not. However, it was a very patient audience at the Korean Cultural Centre on the night, and many praised the organisation for getting the film made to a commendable standard.

Stepping Stones Nigeria plans to distribute ‘The Fake Prophet’ throughout Africa, the United States and the Europe. For a movie which aims to combat an issue as horrific and important as child abuse, it could have been better. Still, it is an entertaining work which succeeds at its mission: illustrating the problem and its solutions in stark, simple terms.

‘The Fake Pastor’ premieres in London this month and opens officially in Lagos in July.

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