top of page

The performative mode of Ngozi Onwurah by Ramchandra P.N.

A still from The Body Beautiful (1991)

A young budding filmmaker whom I was mentoring once, had proposed to make a documentary film on child ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) issues. As is the norm in a conventional documentary, she had proposed the filming of interviews of relevant education professionals; doctors and patients and shoot candid interactions between them. What she had also strikingly planned were a few subjective shots that vaguely represented in the visual form, the state of mind of the patients at the very time hyperactive syndrome would strike them. Although she found it difficult to put these shots in words, it was evident that she herself had traversed through the often-harrowing process of ADHD medication.


‘Nothing but Time’ (1924) is a 46-minutes film made by Alberto Cavalcanti that depicts the life of ‘humble downtrodden’ people within a span of a day in Paris. Interspersed with the real footage of the lesser privileged are some enacted shots that use actors who play thieves, prostitutes and the likes. One among them is an old lady initially shown in an extreme top angle, walking below on the narrow dirty lanes of Paris with a tiresome gait and a steep stoop. A few seconds before is a top angle shot of a rat – its movement and gait almost mimicking that of the old lady. Intermittently she appears all through, as other ordinary events occur at different times. In the end, she stutters and falls down searching for shade, unable to carry on. The camera set up now is at her eye level in an extreme close up, as she pants. It is as if she epitomizes all her fellow brethren shown in the film.


In Ngozi Onwurah’s 23-minute 1991 film ‘The Body Beautiful’, the British filmmaker reflects upon the shifting relationship with her mother. Her Caucasian mother had to flee Nigeria to settle in Britan with her children leaving behind her African husband where as a single parent she had to see her children face racism. Personally, she had to undergo the painful mastectomy procedure and the physical and psychological scars that it would generate. It would seem that everything has been lost for her, but she comes to terms with the loss by making a radical distinction between the impairment of her body with the assertion of her sexual identity. By the end of the film, she fantasizes having sex with a young British African – the man of course played by a professional actor. 


While in the proposed ADHD film and in ‘The Body Beautiful’ the subjectivity of the characters is its reality. In ‘Nothing but Time’ and many experimental films that emerged during the 1920s, the subjectivity turns out to be of filmmaker; and thus, of the audience. In another sequence in Cavalcanti’s film, an actor playing a affluent man is eating beef at a table with impeccable table respectability. When we see a close up of the beef in the plate another image is superimposed on it – that of a candid ‘real’ shot of cattle being slaughtered by workers. Unaware of this, the man continues to enjoy his meal. The superimposition, thus, is that of the filmmaker; and the subjective interpretation, of the audience.


By compulsive default, documentaries are associated and are burdened with concepts such as ‘objectivity’ and ‘reality’. They are most often expected to provide empirical evidence to proclaim the burden of ‘truthfulness’ - testimonies of eye witnesses, judgements by experts, actual happenings seen in real time or the material evidence presented to legitimize what they are dealing with. But what about the subjective experiences of the people involved, including that of the participants and of the filmmaker? Aren’t they ‘real’ enough to be included into the documentary? Are they actually devoid of any ‘documentary value’, a phrase coined by theoretician John Grierson when he first saw Robert J. Flaherty’s ‘Moana’ (1924)?


Documentary theorist Bill Nichols in his book ‘Introduction to Documentary’ mentions the phrase ‘Performative Mode’, as a way of documentary filmmaking distinguishing it with the ‘Participatory Mode’. While in the later the film is existing because of the intervention of the filmmaker, in the former the emphasis is also on subjective experiences of the participant and of the filmmaker. The premise for such a distinction is the belief that ‘reality’ cannot fully be grasped if it is confined only to the world of physical empirical evidence. Subjective reality could be as ‘real’ as anything. Supplementing it with empirical reality would make the viewing experience a bit more wholesome. One of the examples of the ‘Performing Mode’ of documentary that he extensively quotes is Ngozi Onwurah’s ‘The Body Beautiful’.


Ngozi Onwurah splashed into the horizon in 1988 with her autobiographical graduation short film ‘Coffee Coloured Children’. It had the iconic shots of her kid brother fiercely brushing off his skin so that it becomes white and he be freed from racial discrimination. ‘Flight of the Swan’ (1992) was another short on a young British African girl who wishes to play the role of a white swan in a ballerina. Onwurah has made many short films, documentaries and TV programs on racism and other similar issues that the British Africans and Nigerians deal with. Her unique feature films also include ‘Welcome II the Terrordome’ (1995) which is set up in an oppressive futuristic racist ghetto and ‘Shoot the Messenger’ (2006) which deals with the dilemma of a British African who has coopted the Caucasian racist worldview onto himself. Her films are sharp, does not beat around the bush and are overtly expressive in their language – almost in the Ghatakian sense.  


‘The Body Beautiful’ seems to be the extension of Onwurah’s autobiographical stint so evident in her graduation film. While ‘Coffee Coloured Children’ projected a relationship between her brother and herself, in ‘The Body Beautiful’ Onwurah, among other things, explores her relationship with her Caucasian mother. The film is the story of the Ngozi Onwurah’s mother Magde Onwurah’s interracial marriage that was cut short by civil war in Nigeria. Having forced to flee the country while in pregnancy to settle in the UK as a single mother, Madge undergoes a mastectomy operation during which one of her breasts is removed. During a frustrating argument as a child, Ngozi abuses her by calling her as a ‘breastless cow’. Over the years, she also slows down because of a developing rheumatism condition.


As the title of the film betrays, ‘The Body Beautiful’ primarily deals with how the society looks at the female body. That the traditional concept of female beauty with its emphasis on well-rounded figures, is defined primarily by the male, as the mother-daughter duo and the audience realize. The well-established way of looking at women’s body could be quite different from how women themselves look at their bodies. The colour of the skin or the ‘deformities’ of the bodies could be immaterial to the concept of sacrifice, of beauty, of bonding, of love, of care and of sex. This writer acknowledges that as a male, his perspective on the female body might be that of an outsider.


Ngozi grows up to become a young teenager who dabbles in modeling where the standard for beauty of the female body is decided by the male. Ngozi plays along, but in this world, there is no space for Madge who is caught between the ‘deformity’ of ‘mastectomy and rheumatism’. She is invisible, only to be seen for what she is by Ngozi herself by the end of the film – as a loving caring and a strong woman who has battled physical ‘deformity’ and has come to terms with it to live a life of dignity. And through Ngozi her identity as a person becomes visible for the audience too – as she asserts herself by having sex with a young British African, albeit in her fantasy. That Ngozi has accepted this assertion gets evident in the end when the mother-daughter duo are entangled in a hug, their bodies naked for what they are. Inter-racial living, interpreted visually.


While Onwurah makes use of actors to play the roles of herself and the younger version of her mother, Madge is played by herself in her older version. Is Madge playing a role in a script or is she a social actor in the documentary? Bill Nichols defies social actors as ‘real people who present themselves to us as themselves’ in a documentary film. The sequences in ‘The Body Beautiful’ are well scripted and are shot like a conventional fiction film with its typical decoupage and mise en scene. So, what makes it ‘real’ and bring it into the realm of a documentary? For one, the events portrayed in the film is taken directly from the ‘real’ life that the Onwurah family have gone through. How do we know that it could be ‘real’? The answer lies in the conventional commentary that is provided in the film, that with describes the events, the feelings, the thoughts and the politics.


There are three voice overs running through the film having three perspectives. The first is of Ngozi herself, who explains her hate-love relationship with her mother and the reconciliation that she has with her own body and that of her mother. The second is that of Madge – who sees the events portrayed on screen from her view as she reflects on the ‘deformity’ of her body, her dignified reconciliation with it, her views on what it is to be a woman and silently assert herself in being so. Thirdly, we have a random conventional male voice speaking in generic terms on how a woman should prepare herself for mastectomy, including a benevolent tip that asks them to bring a silk scarf and pins so that they can fix it on their chests after the operation is done so that they get ‘partially compensated’. In a normal conventional documentary this all-knowing dominating male voice – the voice of god – would echo all through the film. But here it comes just three times, providing a satirical edge to the film.


A still from The Body Beautiful(1991)

The third time this male voice comes is when Magde is making passionate love to the young British African. The sequence that is shot in an unreal space, probably using diffused filters and planned as the climax, actually happens in the mind of Madge. It is the ‘subjective space’ that Bill Nicoles talks about. The British African is quite unmindful of Madge’s missing body part. Madge herself wants to be acknowledged as a woman not ‘because of her body but despite it’. The romantic mood that sprinkled with soft music is often as a counter-point bombarded the all-knowing male voice over and by short dialogues that has been heard before - like the one where the young Ngozi screams at her mother, ‘breastless cow!’. And this passionate encounter is intercut with the teenage Ngozi getting ready for a photo shoot and undressing herself.


As the British African caresses Magde’s chest, make up is applied to Ngozi’s. As the British African caresses Magde’s breasts, ice is applied to Ngozi’s. As the photographer’s voice order’s Ngozi to give ‘sexy’ poses, we go closer to Ngozi. The intercutting with the interracial couple making love increases in its pace. As the British African is about to place his hands on the area where the scars of mastectomy operation are seen on Magde, disturbingly almost from nowhere Ngozi’s hands transgresses and forces down the man’s hand towards it. We hear Ngozi’s shrill voice, ‘touch it’. Maintaining the closer image size pattern, Madge wriggles in pain as the British African’s hand is made to touch Magde’s mastectomy scar by Ngozi’s hands. Unable to bare the pain Magde orders them to stop. We then realize that Ngozi’s hard intervention into the romantic encounter was as much a as a fantasy as the original one. The love making continues and Nigozi finishes her photo shoot.


The whole film builds up towards this romantic love making climax. After the initial sequences where the background of the matter is narrated, we are shown a photo shoot of Ngozi. It happens in a beautiful outdoor landscape where a male still photographer is making a demand on her to look beautiful and ‘sexy’ as per his standards. Suddenly Nigozi, who is looking at the camera, goes out of focus. There is a cut and when the focus comes back, we see Magde wearing the same dress in the same location staring at the camera. We hear Magde’s voice, ‘Somewhere between mastectomy and rheumatism I had been muted’. One ‘complete’ female body is glorified by the world as ‘sexy’ via the male photographer and the other ‘disfigured’ and therefore considered as incomplete, invisible and sexless! The contrast is glaring, the uneasiness firmly established by the director.


The modelling sequence is followed by another remarkable sequence that is set in a sauna bath center, to which Ngozi forces a reluctant Madge to attend. As all the ladies in the room silently detoxify themselves with the steam bath, Magde is reluctant to take off her towel. Soon she dozes off, her towel falls down. The other ladies in the room stare at her chest and the scars therein which seems to have replaced the missing breast. They find it awkward and difficult to watch. One lady exits. As she closes the door, Magde wakes up with a startle She instinctively covers her chest in embarrassment. Madge is uncomfortable, not so much because she is naked. As they drink tea at the canteen outside, Ngozi and Magde watch the young British African playing billiards with his friends. He notices the ladies eyeing him. Magde makes a connection with her past, desires him in the present, his ‘ordinariness’ coming in handy for attraction. What then follows is the love making sequence mentioned above.


Between these sequences that follows each other, there is a concern that is established, the path towards a reconciliation to the uneasiness traversed and the resolution found out. The resolution for Magde is not the actual act of making love with a British African, which in any case happens only in the mind. It is the expression of an intention of assertion of the self that is at play here. Ngozi’s understanding of her mother and her body could be considered as complete, after this sequence. After the love making sequence, a naked Ngozi looks at her image in the mirror. Trying to understand her mother, she tries pressing her breasts flat to make it ‘invisible’ like her mother’s. She then comes to the bedroom and huddles herself into Madge’s arms, her voice-over betraying the new found understanding that she has had regarding her mother. It is night and the blue tone is evident. The duo sleep till the morning; it becomes bright outside the window. The ladies are still sleeping, their skin tone reflect their natural colours and bodies what they are.


In the 1980s and 90s Films Division, the erstwhile documentary producing organization in India, made what were called as ‘featurettes’. These were fictional short films based on real incidents, people or biographies. Popularly called as ‘docu-dramas’, among many others, directors like Jabbar Patel and Girish Karnad indulged in them. It is very possible that the form ‘The Body Beautiful’ takes might be mistaken for the one used in these ‘featurettes’, considering that both have professional actors mouthing prewritten scripts. But there is a crucial difference – these ‘featurettes’ were just shorter versions of the feature films that these directors were making. Along with what is depicted as ‘real’ and the empirical, there was absolutely no intention or commitment to incorporate and provide the audience with a ‘subjective experience’ of the matter in hand. Exceptions could be in the films of Mani Kaul like ‘Siddeshwari’, of Kumar Sahani or any of those made by their instinctive devoted followers. 


Inspired by these two luminaries, long-long back in a five-minute non-fiction ‘story’ that your true self did on singer Mallikarjun Mansoor for Siddarth Kak’s tele series ‘Surabhi’, I made a very feeble attempt to try out such abstraction. On a song that has pain as its theme that Mansoor had sung for us at his house in Dharwad, I had intercut the visuals of his singling at his house with some empirically unrelated shots - like a laborer making an effort to pull a hand cart up the road, a wrinkled face of an old lady staring blankly at the camera etc. The powers that be in ‘Surabhi’ creative team found it amusing and unrelated to the ‘story’ in hand and had smirked at it. Although my insistence had ensured that the version got telecast; I never attempted any such thing ever again in television. There was no context to it like there is in ‘The Body Beautiful’.


It would be difficult to pull such a thing off in a commissioned documentary in India, even today as we are conditioned to think that providing evidences of all kinds to make it look ‘real’, is the only mode that is credible and considered as documentary. But we should be knowing that as the cliché goes, there is a thin line of difference between fact and fiction.


Ramchandra P.N. is a Mumbai based award winning filmmaker.




68 views0 comments
bottom of page