I first heard about Boko Haram (BH) in Nigeria more than ten years ago. It was believed to be a group of jobless youths in the rural, Muslim north, financed by a local Alhaji who was using them as a political weapon to gain power, «If you elect me, I will protect you from them». By now, BH has become notorious as the major Islamic terrorist group at the centre of the major regional conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa, involving not only Nigeria but also neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, Mali, and Niger. But to this day, what is actually known about BH is vague, covered by the veil of mystery.
Nigeria has more than 200 million inhabitants of diverse ethnic and religious identities. The actual president Muhammadu Buhari represents the same Muslim north as the members of BH. Many Nigerians voted for him because they believed he was the most suitable to deal with the BH and that he would bring back the 219 teenage girls that BH abducted from the Government Girls Secondary School in the town of Chibok in April 2014, ten months before Buhari was elected for the first time. Buhari, an Army General who already was head of Nigeria during the military dictatorship after the Nigerian army performed the coup d’état in 1983, will end his second term as civil president later this year. Yet, many of the abducted Chibok girls are still missing.
The unknown and the known
This ambiguous nature of BH is subtly interwoven in the narrative of Le spectre de Boko Haram, a poetic observational documentary by Cameroonian director Cyrielle Raingou. The film, her first feature, won the prestigious Tiger Award at this year’s International Film Festival in Rotterdam, after she already, in 2022, won the prize at the mentoring and residency program for film-school graduates at Munich Film Up!
The mystery surrounding BH forms part of the film’s basic structure, composed of two opposites. On the one hand, the uncertainties surrounding this fearsome group capable of the most despicable acts manifest, for example, in the unresolved suspicions about the whereabouts of the brothers Ibrahim and Mohamed Alilou’s parents. And on the other, a stark certainty about the group’s devastating effects on the region and the people living there, particularly the refugee community in the city of Kolofata, the prime site of the film.
The mystery surrounding Boko Haram forms part of the film’s basic structure, composed of two opposites.
Knowledge against ignorance
As the director Raingou revealed in a short conversation with MTR, she started working on this film in 2016 and only gradually developed the narrative focus on children. But the calm and attentive presentation of one of the most complicated world conflicts through the eyes of children is not the film’s main advantage. Instead, it is the capacity to overcome the stereotyped view of children as the representation of the future.
With Le spectre de Boko Haram, Cyrielle Raingou invigorated the global north and its’ stalled belief in youth as the future by reintroducing the dilemma between knowledge and ignorance as what really matters. While the mystery, related to the BH, is clearly on the side of ignorance, the refugees’ community in Kolofata is centred around knowledge, represented by the school, the teacher who is the key authority, and education, seen as the primary vehicle of social promotion. Not all see it in the same way, though. By patiently filming the protagonists through their everyday lives, the director managed to portray their idiosyncratic views expressed in candid discussions, such as competitions between the knowledge obtained by learning and by experience. Thus, she revealed a clear difference between those who go to school to learn new things and those who believe in traditional truths such as that the «Goats do not eat cut grass». This age-old belief is an excellent example of how complicated the reality of the countries involved will be in the future: the herders who traditionally feed their stock by grazing refuse to change this practice. Yet, global warming will push them into zones where this logic will necessarily conflict with the capitalist logic of private property. In Nigeria, this is already happening. Like BH, the conflicts between nomadic herders and agrarian communities are also causing deadly conflicts. And in these cases also, the circumstances are all but clear, which means that BH is the most outspoken but not the only symptom of a complex reality that we do not know much about. Cyrielle Raingou’s documentary offers a rare, sophisticated insight into this reality.
Beauty and pain
Another contrast in this outstandingly well-structured documentary is the distinction between beauty and pain. The memories of the protagonists are terribly painful, yet they narrate about them in a quiet and composed way. Not by chance. As the director revealed in the interview, they not only seek knowledge but are creative as well. They craft their own world. In the director’s words, «They turn everything in their surrounding into art pieces». You might try to imagine this, but nothing will replace the sensorial experience of seeing it. From the way the older brother, to please his younger brother who never saw their mother, draws her portrait in the dirt to the colour of the birds that resemble the colour of the sky. And this is what makes this film really special.