TIFF 2013: The refreshing promise of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ is swiftly wasted

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Half of a Yellow Sun
Written and directed by Biyi Bandele
Nigeria/UK, 2013

Every few years, a film with a variation on this plot comes around: “Social strife is happening in x African country. The story is being told through the eyes of x, whose private life is changed forever in the face of a country crumbling around him.” You know these films. They’re your Blood Diamonds, Hotel Rwandas, and Last King of Scotlands. When Half of a Yellow Sun was announced for this year’s TIFF lineup, it promised to be a fresh take on this genre. The film is directed and written for the screen by an actual African person, Nigerian-born filmmaker Biyi Bandele, and for once stars women in the role of the protagonists. Unfortunately the film does not deliver much to set it apart from its precursors except perhaps Chiwetel Ejiofor’s second-most anticipated performance of the year.

With Half of a Yellow Sun, Bandele tells the story of twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), part of a well-to-do family of the Nigerian Ibo tribe. Olanna is a sociology professor at the University of Nigeria, where she is living with revolutionary academic Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Kainene manages the family’s lucrative factory and begins a relationship with British writer Richard (Joseph Mawle). As Nigeria enters into a years-long civil war, culminating in the disastrous Biafra affair, the sisters’ lives begin to move from order and privilege into total chaos.

The film’s chief problem is that it seeks to overdramatize a period of history that does not need any extra drama added. The events themselves are already horrific enough but instead of just showing us that, Bandele insists on hammering us on the head with this message through the overuse of dramatic music and through prompting his actors to overact constantly. Thandie Newton is generally a well-liked actress but her constant dramatic sighs and bulging eyes (whether her choice or Bandele’s) quickly become exasperating.

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Half of a Yellow Sun’s other big problem is its treatment of our two female protagonists. Olanna quickly emerges as the more central of the two. Almost as soon as we begin to focus on her story, it becomes quite clear that the focus of her story is actually Odenigbo, her borderline abusive revolutionary boyfriend. The rest of the film paints Olanna, an Ivy League educated woman, as passively going along with Odenigbo’s whims. Even when he is clearly in the wrong and we are led to believe that this time Olanna has truly had enough, the film quickly brings them back together. The film features a number of moments that hint at a power imbalance in Olanna and Odenigbo’s relationship and, whether intentionally or not, many of these appear to be played for laughs.

Though it may be refreshing to see a film about African conflict actually be told by an African director and featuring African women as the protagonists, the film fails to surpass its precursors thanks to over-dramatic writing and direction, and through unfair treatment of its two female protagonists.

– Laura Holtebrinck

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.

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