Thursday August 14, 2003. Most people in Toronto – and most of Ontario for that matter – still have a vivid memory of that day. My recollection starts around 4pm on that sweltering summer afternoon. I was sitting in front of my computer editing my design portfolio in preparation for a job interview. I briefly stood up to stretch out my legs and just as I was sitting back down, the screen suddenly went blank. I thought I might have mistakenly kicked the extension cord underneath my cramped desk. I kissed my teeth thinking of all the unsaved edits I would have to recreate from scratch. I crouched down underneath the desk, pushed the plugs into the power bar and flicked the power switch a few times but the computer still wouldn’t come on. I looked over at the boxed fan in the corner and noticed that its spinning blades were gradually slowing down to a halt. It took a few more switch flicks and a trip to the circuit breaker to confirm what I had once concieved impossible – there was a power outage. As we say in Nigeria, they have taken light in Toronto!
Outside on the street, the scene felt vaguely apocalyptic. The unresponsive traffic lights created a noisy chaotic mess of car horns honking and screeching breaks. Initially, long queues of people looking for any drink or snack to keep them cool, formed outside convenient stores. A few hours later those same shops were practically giving away tubs of ice creams as they melted down to liquid sludge. By night fall, the mood had turned from restless to festive (or at least resigned). Barbecues were popping up everywhere as people resolved to rescue their meats by eating or sharing as much as possible. Phone lines were down so we roamed the streets paying unscheduled visits to anybody we knew along the way. That night, in pitch darkness, I lay on a mattress in a friend’s backyard and looked up at the sky. It was the first time I had seen so many stars so clearly in the city. For Toronto, the power outage had turned into a big adventure. By the time the problem was fixed the next day, quite a few people were disappointed it had not lasted longer. When the anniversary of “The Blackout” came around, there were even jokes about reenacting it.
In the developing world where more than 1 billion people currently live without electricity, nobody wishes for a power outage. It’s not an adventure, it’s a frustrating nightmare. Throughout my childhood and my frequents visits back to Nigeria, few things have been more constant and disappointing than the electricity issue. We find ways to work around it but we should not have to: Nigeria has one of the world’s largest gas reserves and is Africa’s top energy producer. So why is electricity often limited to a few hours a day to the less than 50% of Nigerians that even have access to electricity? In her new documentary, “Take Light”, opening soon at Hot Docs Festival, Director Shasha Nakhai, explores the Nigerian electricity issue (and it’s many consequences) through the stories of everyday people connected by the grid.
Your new documentary takes an unflinching look at the electricity crisis that has plagued Nigeria for decades. What is your connection with Nigeria and why did you choose to make this documentary?
Shasha Nekhai: I grew up in Nigeria. I lived there for the first 15 years of my life and my family has been there for about 40 years. Growing up my entire childhood has been framed by the power issues in the country. Almost all of my childhood memories have something to do with NEPA*. I remember some nights my parents would fan me to sleep because there was “no light” and it was too hot and I couldn’t fall asleep. When I came to Canada at 15 and started moving between Canada and Nigeria, it was only then that I realized how absurd the situation was and I think coming up with the idea for the film is rooted in moving between the two worlds.
You have already directed two documentaries before “Take Light” but this is your first feature length documentary. How was the process different for you?
Shorts are different from features in that you have more time to explore a subject. You have space to breathe and pay more attention to tone and music and all those things. To make features takes a lot more focus and a lot more time. We spent three to four months shooting this film. A short would probably take a week.
Now that you have experienced shooting a feature length documentary is this something you want to do more of or do you want to go back to doing shorts?
I feel like the medium always has to serve the story so for some ideas a short film is enough. I want to make more feature documentaries just because you get to be more creative but it’s really about the story.
One of the documentary’s endearing qualities is that it explores the electricity crisis through a wide variety of perspectives from the electric company’s billing agents to the black market electricians who illegally reconnect people to the power grid. They all happen to be natural story tellers and I enjoyed the way their own narratives are woven into the main one. How did you go about choosing or casting your subjects?
I feel like Nigerians are natural story tellers generally but with each of these I had a list of micro worlds that I wanted to shoot; locations and settings. With each of those locations and settings we would just talk to a bunch of people and try to feel out who is someone that you would want to spend more time with.
How did you actually go about selecting them? How did you meet them? Where did you find them?
I’ll tell you about Martins especially just because he’s one of the main ones. Martins and Debra work for PHED(Port Harcourt Electric Distribution Company) and so I got access to PHED but it took a long time. I spent about a month doing research and shooting before we actually filmed the documentary. I was talking the CEO and the board of the company just explaining where I was coming from and what my intent was with the film. The eventually said OK. They sent us out with a bunch of their electricians and technicians and Martins and Debra were both natural leaders. Martins just seemed like a good person to talk to. He was funny but also he was kind of the guy that when everyone is joking around in the morning, his head would be down and he would be working already diligently. I naturally gravitated to him. You can feel out “who would I want to spend time with, if I was watching a film”.
What was your biggest challenge shooting this documentary?
[laughs] There was was alot of changes but the biggest one would be waiting. Waiting for things to happen or waiting for bureaucracy, red tape a lot of the time. I say we spend three or four months shooting but not all of that was shooting. For example with the hospital, we spent a whole week driving back and forth, meeting with someone, getting passed to another person, having to come back with a letter, getting a letter stamped and getting a letter moved to another person who would then have to stamp it. Just a spending a lot of time in waiting rooms really. That’s the biggest challenge. Just being able to maintain your patience.
“Take Light” certainly paints a nuanced and complex picture of the electricity crisis from the point of view of the electric companies and their customers, the everyday people . In the process of making the documentary, did you learn anything new about the electricity crisis or perhaps find yourself questioning some of your previous assumptions about it.
Yeah in a way a lot of the stuff wasn’t new because it’s stuff I grew up with. When my father passed away, my mom spent the whole day looking for a morgue that had a working refrigerator and there wasn’t any. One of the things that surprised was how wide spread and systemic the issue of collecting bills. I always knew that people would always try to haggle and bribe NEPA but in talking to the people who actually run these companies, they are running at losses because they find it very difficult to collect. Because of A) the recession, B) the estimated billing and C) the legacy of NEPA itself.
Tell me. What is estimated billing exactly?
An estimated bill (and sometimes its wrong) is basically where in theory you calculate how many appliances you have and your usage and they give you an estimated bill based on that. They actually have calculators where you can go in enter how many appliances and how many people live in your house. But it’s basically guesswork.
Its seems to be very contentious because from watching the documentary, I think one of people’s biggest complaints is that they feel very agitated whenever NEPA comes to collect because they barely get much electricity in the first place. So which one comes first? The chicken or the egg? The company wants to collect so they can be profitable but it’s going to be hard to collect when people don’t feel that they are getting a good service.
Yes. It’s like would you pay your bill here if you only got power for X hours a day?
Although this movie deals with human suffering, there are many instances of humour. Whether it is intentional humour such as the use of youtube satirists James and Harry or the unintentional humour of the cat and mouse games people play with the power company when they come to collect. What was the funniest moment for you in the documentary or during production?
We filmed James and Harry recording an episode of their YouTube show, so it was only fair that they got to film US on camera too. They filmed an episode of Two Angry Men where they “kidnapped” us and brought us to The Shrine in Lagos. I just laughed the entire time and we had a lot of fun. Our virtual reality guy Ian had never been to Nigeria before, and James and Harry were loving it. They ordered everything on the menu for him and it was hilarious how much fun they were having showing him around. Plus we got to go backstage to meet Femi Kuti! And Harry did a little dance in the green room.
Is there any hope? Are things getting better in any way?
As they say it’s always easier to be hopeful in Nigerian when you don’t live in it and not dealing with it on a day to day basis. But I do find hope in small places on different levels. Obviously: the people. I see so many people who work very hard and are really actively trying to make things better not just for themselves but for everyone. And there’s potential there. But you also start seeing people being able to afford the cheap inverters and cheap solar appliances. More and more everyday households are able to afford those things and it’s really starting to make a big difference in people’s lives. With the power infrastructure, there’s been huge investments and upgrades in the past couple of years since privatization but the average person does not feel a big difference. Before if you had a problem you would just call your local electrician to connect you back or your local guy to come investigate. But now you can actually call customer service [of the electric company] and they would come see you. It’s not huge but it’s something that did not exist before.
Aside from the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, where else can people watch this documentary?
So far it’s booked for the Cleveland film festival, the Atlanta film festival and then Toronto. We’re going to be booking more festivals and then it will air in Canada on CBC’s documentary channel before being released internationally digitally. The dates and the platforms haven’t been confirmed yet.
Any plans to take the documentary to Nigeria?
Yeah for sure. You have to prioritize film festivals first and then TV and then digital. A lot of the film festivals in Nigeria are in October so hopefully we can get started there with one of them. We’re also going to be working with a distributor who specializes in theatrical [releases] across Africa. That would be my dream: to have theatrical and also be able download digitally.
Ok because I think it’s a really important documentary and I think watching it here from the comfort of our 24 hr power supply is a different feeling than watching it with a generator barking in the background. Also for the people who live this experience, it would be good for them to see the crisis from many angles. From the CEO to his workers to their customers, I think it’s really important to hold up a mirror to all parties.
On a lighter note, if you had to pick one Nigerian Afrobeats song to be the soundtrack for this documentary, which one would it be and why?
I really wanted Tekno’s song “Ra Ra” to be in the credits for the film but it just didn’t end up working out. If you look at the lyrics to that song, it perfectly encapsulates a lot of the things we’re dealing with in the film. He’s talking about “No Light. No Nepa” and the “Ra Ra” is meant to be the sound of the generator. He says things like “Make we talk about the small things. Forget about the big things” and it’s kind of like the film. He also says “Politicians dey parambulate and everyday it’s just the same story” and that’s the choice I made about the film. Politicians always say the same thing over and over again like “24 hour power by 2020”. It’s tiring and that’s why I decided to focus on the everyday people and the ways in which their lives are affected by this.
It’s unfortunate you were not able to get the rights to the song in time for the film but we [SUPAFRIK] will be throwing an Afrobeats “NEPA Party” for the launch of the film at Hot Docs and we will be sure to open up the dance-floor with that Tekno song!
Is there anything else you want to say to viewers of the film before they see it?
I guess with the Toronto screening and the American screenings, I am really excited for Nigerians to maybe see things that have shaped their lives up on screen. There’s something very special when that happens. Also for people that don’t know anything about Nigeria. Not a lot of people here in Canada know much about Nigeria except stereotypes of Boko Haram or 419 email scams. Even though this might seem like a story about corruption, it’s more complex than that. It presents people with agency who are actively trying to do something. Hopefully people get a more rounded idea of what Nigeria is at the screening.
Interview by Chinedu Ukabam
* NEPA (Nigerian Electric Power Authority) has long been split up into many private electricity distribution companies but colloquially they are all still referred to as NEPA in Nigeria.
“Take Light” opens soon in Toronto as part of Hot Docs Festival. Tickets are available here for screenings on April 27, May 1 and 3 . SUPAFRIK and Storyline Entertainment are hosting a private launch party with DJ Revy B for the documentary on its Friday April 27th opening night. There are three ways to get on the guestlist: 1) The first 30 people who purchase screening tickets will receive a pair of free tickets to the party. Just send a copy of your “Take Light” Hot Docs ticket to katie @ storylineentertainment.com OR 2) Attach any picture from the interview or use your own to share a power black out memory (on instagram or twitter) with the hashtags #TakeLight and #Supafrik and tag @takelightfilm We will send free tickets to the best memories shared. OR 3) Purchase one the limited tickets here when they are made available to the public on Tuesday April 24th.