By now, we all know of the clamour that surrounds the film “Smokescreen”. We know it’s been doing the rounds mainly premiering in Italy, Scotland and Qatar and soon to be premiering in Jamaica. It’s also been of so much interest to people outside of Africa. For these reasons and more, I sat down to watch “Smokescreen” having been granted a screening by an agent to see for myself why it has garnered so much love since its release. But by the film’s ending, I was more concerned with the question of, what was that film really about? What was its most important theme or lesson to take away from it? What is the most important thing to glean from such a film?
The best compliment I can give to the film “Smokescreen” is that it makes you think. It makes you ponder a laundry list of subjects and issues that all unfold in less than two hours. By the time the movie starts we are already at the end of the movie, Nicky played by Marie Humbert is sitting alone in her “uncles” favourite chair writing her story to someone, supposedly the audience, the viewer has wrestled with a long list of life’s questions. All questions that have clearer answers than when the film begins with the young Nicky happy with her family.
Vickie Wils-Doku is the director/producer of “Smokescreen,” and we can never be sure of the main message she wanted to deliver above all the others. But let’s take some time to explore some of the candidates for his most important themes.
THE INFATUATION OF BEING RICH
Ozark has been praised endlessly for being a series that exposes the audience to the inner-workings of money laundry. People love to praise Ozark for unveiling the dark underbelly of criminal minds, desperate families, gangs, news business and more. Well, Smokescreen does a great job of this as well. One way the film explains the pressures of a dog-eat-dog society structure is through the dramatic scene when Sharon (like Don Corleone in Godfather) played by Rama Brew gives money to a woman who met her and asked for help to pay her sons fees. Sharon is understandably upset to see such destructive society for a seemingly promising young mother. But her dismay is cut short after all, she deals in illegal mining which has in effect has destroyed the town she lives in, this is creating poverty and destroying the environment and waterways which the locals are supposed to be benefitting from. As much as Sharon wanted the woman to be self-dependent, she was not willing to lose the lifestyle she has made for herself – nice cars, houses, financial security and even more. Sharon needed to get paid, and who doesn’t. Simple as that – her morals are battling with her comfort for life. We see this as a common theme with people in position of power who will benefit to the detriment of others who they will inadvertently help by giving them hand-outs or blame them for not working hard enough to escape poverty.
FAMILIES DON’T ALWAYS PLAY HAPPY, THEY CAN BE DEADLY
Smokescreen does a great job of showing how perceptive families can be in such a dangerous environment. When they see vulnerability, they are adept at identifying this and grabbing the power that is left there for the taking. When Debrah (David Dontoh) was a young boy, his education was sacrificed for his elder sister as their parents could not afford to educate both of them. We see how fast Debrah’s world seems to be spinning around him. The cinematography allows the viewer to step behind Debrah’s lens of life and notice how hard it must be. Debrah seems to be developmentally delayed financially and he has to tag along with his sister to get by. As far as his sister is concerned he is the best person to be in charge of her security, after all he is family right? The sad result is that Debrah seems to be out in stormy seas without a paddle. He can’t establish himself as a man he thinks he is supposed to be, and sadly, none of it is his fault. When his sister cuts him off the family business things start to turn sinister. The “always in his sister’s shadow” is what leads him on a deadly path which we see explained in the movie. In a society where it’s difficult to escape poverty “caused” by family and coupled with humiliation, then nothing is taken for granted.
HOW VIOLENCE MANIFESTS ITSELF
Certainly one of the most dramatic scenes in “Smokescreen” is when Debrah is sitting talking to Sharon and Nicky storms through Sharon’s house, kills everyone and enters Sharon’s office to confront her and she meets Debrah to her surprise. With the type of feuds you see so often today in Africa, this type of violence is certainly believable, as ruthless as it appears when it unfolds. Of course, by this time in the film, we have seen the steps that led to this outbreak of violence (we don’t want to spoil the movie for you if you haven’t yet watched it). We understand why Nicky had to do what had to be done. We certainly have a shock on our faces when we see Debrah backtracking and we trying to adsorb everything just like Nicky does as to what has happened so far. The impatient Nicky had it coming! But without knowing everything about Debrah but soon to find out that the humiliation Debrah suffered, the fact that he was always in Sharon’s shadow, it would be easy for us to criminalize Debrah as a typical jealous and failed man acting a fool. But with the help of “Smokescreen,” we know all too well why Debrah needed a change but how to do it is what brings his downfall. Nicky did what she had to do, it had to be done. In Ghana this is very common occurrence in the mines where Chinese workers or the locals will do everything even killing to protect what they have, here you see how violence can erupt and pretty quickly too.
THE STRUGGLE TO BE YOURSELF
Throughout “Smokescreen,” Nicky is on a mission to find the killers of her family; unfortunately she cannot remember anything that fateful night as she suffered brain injury. She must use clues and flashbacks to paint a clear picture of what happened. She also blames herself and is filled with guilt as she feels she caused the death of her family. She lives with guilt which comes with its occasional tantrums, an alcoholic – rather than playing a role laid down for ladies by society. Everyday people struggle with this behaviour which people find hard to understand so they rather blame the victim for the bad behaviour without understanding the psychology behind that behaviour. Smokescreen again does a good job exploring the psychology of people’s odd behaviours. We all know how hard it is to be yourself, but when you find yourself in Nicky’s case, “living with guilt and wanting revenge” it is extraordinarily difficult. With a plan on taking on the macho security men guarding Sharon, there is little room for Nicky to express the fact that she is a lady, thoughtful and caring woman around James (Blossom Chukwujekwu) who doesn’t seem to understand why she can be so erratic at times. She originally growing up had a beautiful lifestyle – but of course, she must learn to fight in order to take revenge. Certainly Nicky is failing to “be herself,” but “Smokescreen” helps us understand why this simply wasn’t possible.
REAL PROGRESS IS PAINFUL AND INCREMENTAL
If you want to understand how and why so many good-intentioned parents end up failing miserably, look no further than “Smokescreen” for some explanation. Sharon is a strong, graceful, beautiful woman at the beginning of the film. She has all the makings of a good mother, but she instead falls short. For one, she is a single parent in a tough macho environment with limited time to do what she has to do. She compounds the problem of falling for the allure of money. A habit she can’t keep at bay, no matter how much James means to her – she is afraid for his safety. The same applies to all the characters who start well but as time goes on things cause them to change. The progress is made in slow, choppy fashion, with tons of interruption and heartache. Still, the some of the characters show that the formula of two steps forward and one step back still moves lives in the right direction.
In sum, “Smokescreen” does a sneaky good job of showing the beauty of Ghana too, earthy green patch of grass, with the bluest of skies, beautiful landscapes and monuments. When James takes Nickie out on a date it’s to a riverside garden, the viewer gets the feeling they are in the gardens with James and Nickie right there behind them, the birds and tress under the warm Ghana sun. Even when Nicky and James sits down to dinner which James cooked, there is something romantic about the scene that couldn’t be conjured up in a more sterile environment.
Smokescreen is a wonderful film for many reasons. And judging by what I saw, credit has to be given where it is due. But to me, the reason why “Smokescreen” is brilliant is because of the window it provides into worlds unknown to most people who don’t know about African lifestyle or thereabouts. In a time where wrong portrayals prevail about the African society, there has never been a time where a truthful explanation to Africa’s problems is more needed. Fortunately, “Smokescreen” is there to provide just that.