The price of change

Joanna Lipper on The Supreme Price and women's rights in Nigeria.

by Jennie Kermode

The Supreme Price
The Supreme Price Photo: Joanna Lipper

At a time when the kidnap of girls in Nigeria is making headlines around the world, one woman’s documentary is poised to make people more aware of the wider issues women in the country face. The Supreme Price, set to have its New York première at the Human Rights Watch Festival next month, looks at the story of Hafsat Abiola and, though this, at the need for change so that women’s concerns can be properly addressed by the government. These are issues, says Lipper, that had concerned her for many years. The opportunity to get closer to the subject arose when she was invited to present some of her photography in Lagos. Taking the opportunity to visit Hafsat’s headquarters and meet the staff there, she realised there was a possibility of making a film. What she needed to do was find sufficient funds.

Joanna Lipper
Joanna Lipper Photo: Daymion Mardel

“My first grant came from the MacArthur Foundation. Thanks to the IFP Spotlighting Documentary Showcase I had a chance to meet broadcasters, heads of foundations and other potential funders. The other thing that was really important was Good Pitch, which was held at the Ford Foundation in June 2012.” Other sources of help and support for the film soon emerged, including Claire Aguilar of broadcaster ITVS. The MacArthur Foundation turned out to have its African HQ in Abuja whilst the Ford Foundation had its in Lagos, making it easy for her to keep in touch during filming and discuss the way the project was developing. “I was very lucky to find people who are passionate about women’s empowerment in Nigeria,” she says.

One might have thought that making a film with this potential for controversy would be difficult, but Joanna says her crew had no problems at all. “We were very much under the radar throughout the filming process and we had a lot of support on the ground.” Leading Nollywood producer Tunde Kelani, welcomed the production from the outset and introduced Joanna to local industry professionals. “It was fantastic to work with Nigerian crew on the team and it was also amazing when it came to travel because Nigeria can be a very difficult place to navigate.”

There is as yet no release date for the film in Nigeria but Joanna does intend it to screen there. “Right now we’re doing the US festival premières, then international premieres and the arthouse circuit, then broadcast, and there are plans for it to be shown in Nigeria.” This is important for Joanna because her film is more than simply a piece of entertainment or a means of educating international audiences: it’s designed to reach Nigerian women themselves. She talks about the importance of empowering women and girls to imagine lots of different futures fo themselves, “not just the culturally prescribed path.” The work of Kudirat Initiative for Democracy is, she says, about “transforming the mindset of what makes a woman of value, what makes a woman accepted. If women can see other women who have broken boundaries either by going into politics or by doing things like not marrying until an older age, they can choose paths that are not as conventional. We also want to show that it’s possible to juggle life as an activist with being a mother and a wife.

“The film really tries to present Nigeria in a way that honours Nigerian audiences and their history but is also accessible to viewers in the West,” she adds, acknowledging that the different ethnicities and languages in the country make it culturally complex. “We go into it through the story of how M.K.O. Abiola [Hafsat’s father] conducted his election campaign and what a big thing that was, for him to go from being a Yoruba man from the south to President elect of Nigeria. His wife, Kudirat, was from the north so she helped to win him support there. He was a Muslim Nationalist and made a real effort to go about winning the north and south - and was successful in winning the election. The film is a real window into the demographics of the country. It also looks at the tragedy, how the election was annulled and the military that had ruled for 23 years took power again in a military coup, bringing in what many people see as the most brutal dictatorship Nigeria ever had.”

Hafsat Abiola
Hafsat Abiola Photo: Joanna Lipper

There was more tragedy to come for Hafsat’s family before she embarked on her own political career. Joanna points out that Hafsat's achievements show what a young woman can go on to achieve when she has the best possible education, and she sees the issue of education as pivotal to the kidnapping of the Chibok girls.

“With this incident on the front pages, people who had no interest before are now open to learning and thinking about how the most fundamental rights of woman and girls are being violated,” she says. “Nicholas Kristof had a lot to say about this in his book Half The Sky and there’s also a book called Sex And World Peace [by by Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli and Chad F Emmett] that deals with it. I see this as a pivotal moment in the international consciousness of the violation of women’s basic rights. It’s like what happeend with Malala too. What is this resistance to girls being educated? Why do some people see it as such a threat to their way of life and traditions?”

In concluding our discussion, Joanna stresses her support for Gucci’s Chime For Change campaign.Her film, The Supreme Price won the Gucci Tribeca Spotlighting Women Documentary Awardand the campaign is an easy place for those who want to help Nigerian women to make a start. She also mentions Vital Voices, an organisation that lists Hillary Clinton among its founders and which focuses on mentoring emerging women leaders in countries around the world. It’s one of the organisations that supports Hafsat, whose story continues.

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