Cinéma du Réel 2023 review: Coconut Head Generation (Alain Kassanda)

“As a documentary, the film may not be without its imperfections, but witnessing (and perhaps sharing) the determination and resilience of these wonderful young people results in a powerful viewing experience.”

One of the oldest and most prominent institutions of higher education in Nigeria is the University of Ibadan, established during the British colonial rule and now enrolling over 57,000 students. Alain Kassanda’s involving and urgent documentary Coconut Head Generation focuses on one particular aspect of campus life at Ibadan, the film club where students come together to watch and discuss important movies that touch upon significant social or political issues. The enthusiasm of these courageous students is certainly admirable, but viewers expecting to see an uplifting ode to cinephilia and its pedagogical potential might want to look elsewhere since Coconut Head Generation is more interested in darker, heavier topics like corruption, poverty, and police brutality in contemporary Nigeria. This unpolished but essential film plays in the prestigious New Directors/New Films series in New York following its premiere at Cinéma du Réel and should travel widely on the festival circuit.

Kassanda begins with a quick overview of the university and its history (making efficient use of archival footage), and moves on to a gathering of the film club. In the first session we witness, the students are watching Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Daratt (2006), which gives a pretty good idea of the type of films this crowd is interested in. Most of the films cited in Coconut Head Generation are directed by notable African filmmakers and chronicle a post-colonial experience, drawing attention to issues like ethnic discrimination, corrupt governance and civil unrest (also featured in the documentary are lengthy discussions about Mauritanian director Med Hondo’s work and celebrated films by British-Ghanian artist John Akomfrah). The way these conversations unfold is often chaotic and without resolution, the students seldom agree with each other, but there is value in hearing their diverse perspectives. They talk about a myriad of problems including misogyny, LGBT struggles, lack of infrastructure, economic difficulties and political corruption. Consequently, none of the discussions goes particularly deep or offers novel ideas (many major topics are quickly bundled together), but what really emerges is an appreciation for the political awareness of the younger generation and their willingness to initiate change.

The reality depicted here is so stark that it would be a mistake to treat Coconut Head Generation as an inspirational or celebratory account of student activism. Perhaps most depressing of all is the pessimism of bright and dedicated students about their prospects upon graduation. Employment opportunities are hard to come by and most university degrees are seen merely as useless indicators of stature. Even long before graduation, students have to navigate countless difficulties and work their way through multi-year courses of study under most unfavorable circumstances. One student recounts her experience with homelessness in a particularly devastating scene while the most memorable section of the film follows a young photographer whose work documents the dreadful inadequacy of student housing. When the young people eventually take their struggle to the streets, they face a violent response from the armed police force. As the scope of the film gradually expands, Coconut Head Generation evolves into a harrowing portrayal of the #EndSARS movement (which protested against the crimes committed by the “Special Anti-Robbery Squad” unit of the Nigerian police) and the infamous Lekki Massacre, when military forces killed unarmed student protesters in the Lekki toll gate near Lagos.

Kassanda’s approach is effective in providing the students with a platform and prioritizing their perspective. The hand-held camera places the viewer right inside the discussion hall and allows the students to express themselves without intervention. There is a certain immediacy and authenticity to the film’s rough look, with the simplicity of its visuals often proving advantageous. However, the same aesthetic choices lead to a frustrating viewing experience during other segments of the film, especially when some sequences amount to little more than shaky, poorly-lit recordings of unstructured conversations (one example of this is a surface-level discussion about feminism, which quickly turns into an unproductive argument about who is entitled to say what).

Following the screening of a film from Cameroon, one student says that there is nothing in that film that they have not seen in their own lives in Nigeria. It is highly likely that the struggle depicted in Coconut Head Generation will resonate with all viewers at some level as well. The problems examined here may seem culturally or politically specific, yet the youthful energy and the urgent call for justice that characterize this film are both universal. The title of the film refers to a slang term used for stubborn, uncooperative youth. Kassanda appropriates and rebrands this moniker to describe a politically-engaged generation who refuse to give up despite all the obstacles they face. As a documentary, the film may not be without its imperfections, but witnessing (and perhaps sharing) the determination and resilience of these wonderful young people results in a powerful viewing experience.