He seems to be able to pull every second, the protagonist of the remarkable debut femi. Dennis, 21, is one lump of pent-up emotions. Not only is he aggressive towards his surroundings, including his pregnant ex-partner, there also seems to be a permanent battle going on in his head. He sees his Nigerian father, who committed suicide, appear in dreams about his future child and he himself has suicidal thoughts. His solution to the memories that terrorize him is not therapy, but voodoo.
Director Dwight Fagbamila (1993) is intrigued by the theme of absent black fathers, he says. He used it in his graduation film Babatunde and knows ‘the fatherless existence’ from his own experience. “My Nigerian father is still alive, but he separated from my mother when I was about five, moved to London and commuted up and down.”
Black boys who grow up without a father often appear in American films. It sometimes leads to characters looking for and finding father figures in the underworld. Well-known example is Oscar winner moonlight. In Fagbamila’s film, growing up without a father figure leads to self-hatred. “Dennis gets into a fight with almost all the characters of color in the film, shaves his curls and even his pubic hair and finds the colored part of himself very difficult.”
Growing up as a “mixed” boy of color in an almost completely white environment can lead to an identity crisis, says the director. “This search never led to depression for me like Dennis did. But his behavior is a dramatization of feelings I’ve had myself, which is that you never really belong anywhere and that you want to fulfill something that is impossible. In the Netherlands I was always seen as black and in Nigeria as white.”
That Dennis doesn’t feel at home anywhere in the film doesn’t seem to be explicitly due to his environment? “Compared to other black or mixed boys, I myself have had little to do with outside racism. Of course I have been stopped by the police for no reason, but never on the same structural basis as many around me.
“So I thought it was more fair and interesting to look at internalized racism in my film. For example, I myself had a little voice in my head that told me to behave in an exemplary way in front of authorities or to be patient with the elderly who need time to adapt to the current world in which you can no longer do everything. say and do.”
Yannick Jozefzoon in the film as Dennis alternates very convincingly outbursts of anger with helpless attempts at overtures. He has rightly been nominated for a Golden Calf. His character goes in search of a ‘solution’ for the negative spiral in which he finds himself in the culture of his deceased father. More specifically in voodoo rituals such as those in the West African Ifa faith, in which you can influence people and their behavior through spells and magic. It delivers some thriller and horror-like moments. Fagbamila: “My father and Nigerian family are Muslim, but you notice that they know and respect other West African religious traditions and elements. For example, my father warned me when I visited people who are working on the dark side of Ifa: don’t let them get to you, they might conjure you.”
Also read a column by Sabeth Snijders about, among other things, ‘Femi’: Dutch film wallows in death and mourning
Except for the occasional warning, Fagbamila’s father made little effort to pass on Nigerian traditions, religion, or language to his son. The young director calls it a ‘mortal sin’. “There are all kinds of things that played a big role in the lives of my grandparents, but that I will never be able to pass on to my children.” So he did his own research, read a lot and talked to a babalao, a kind of Ifa counselor or priest. Precisely because he knew so little about them, he wanted to portray these traditions in his film. “You have the feeling that it is also part of who you are.”
femi takes place in Eindhoven. “A hugely underused setting in Dutch cinema,” says Fagbamila. And he’s not just saying that because he’s never lived and worked anywhere else. His film is set in somewhat drab locations: empty factory buildings, workers’ houses, a window prostitution neighbourhood. But the director often bathes these places in striking colors; for example, the PSV stadium casts its red and white light on Dennis’ mother’s residential area. It creates an unreal atmosphere that fits a film that combines raw realism with mysticism. Fagbamila: „I see Eindhoven as a searching city after the departure of Philips. Large business premises have been vacant for a long time and are now all being given new, trendy destinations. I thought that searching character of the city was a nice mirror for the character of the main character.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 28, 2022