by Chris Anyanya
Altar Boys hold a sacred position in the catholic faith. Their call to service requires them to be morally responsible; they are in many ways the future of the creed and their everyday life and practice should reflect this. My opinion acknowledges ‘Chukwu Martin’s Altar Boys or as I like to call it “She Winked At Me” as a play that examines humanity, kindness, weakness and horror.
‘Chukwu Martin suffers from having so much to say. That is his cross and he exhibits this almost every time he makes a film. Even though he has so much to say, it looks like he has now highlighted “Appearance and Reality” in almost all his works. After he introduces us to beautiful and innocent looking characters, what he does next is to shock us with the unexpected, leaving our minds to ponder on the shock we just experienced, its appearance and reality. According to Plato, the world of appearances is the world we see through our sensory organs: sight, touch, taste, smell and so on. However, Plato argues that there must be a suprasensible world above and beyond this world of appearances and this is what I believe ‘Chukwu Martin plays with.
In Altar Boys, Osita, an albino tells his friends about a kind gesture he had received from Maryanne, a girl from church – She winked at him during service – while he was carrying the cross. But his friends have more to tell him. He is hurt. The play opens with a player’s monologue, a preamble to everything we are about to witness. He invites you. You have become an audience of a ‘Chukwu Martin play cinema, taking the form of a prologue, highlighting that the lack of melanin does not mean the soul is not dark, however lack of melanin has nothing to do with this story except, it is about being human. No man should play God over a fellow man, but the God particle in us would make us pretend to be God. This is not strange as ‘Chukwu Martin has always spoken up against bullying in his previous plays.
‘Chukwu Martin explores shock theatre, a vociferous use of visual metaphors accomplished with visceral use of sound effects. The filmmaker employs dramatic repetition through audio and visual akin to most of his previous works as an effect to resonate the message, intention or conflict. “The mercy of God is for those like me” is looped and again repeated at the end to remind us who he said would receive the mercy of God. At this “the messenger” sets off on his journey to cast away sinners off the earth. The “wink” is also a repeated motif that set the conflict and served as character motivation.
I can say Altar Boys is a time-capsule of ‘Chukwu Martin’s life as Catholicism is a huge part of his life. There are yet, things to unravel in this ‘Chukwu Martin plays, as stated earlier, he suffers from having so much to say and this is his gift and his curse, we hope his plays become popular because it is an anomaly, an alternative. Over a chat, I converse briefly with the Writer, Editor and Director of Altar Boys, trying to get into his eclectic mind.
What inspired the music in Altar Boys and if you had an opportunity to change it, what would you replace it with?
Catholic hymns. What better sound to use than the choir singing heavenly hymns? As a Catholic I enjoy attending Mass sometimes just to hear the choir sing. Before the choices you hear in the play, I wanted to go with Harcourt White’s Igbo melodies, but I think it would have given it a different mood for modern ‘alte’ audiences to connect with. So I went with the more popular sound of the catholic chorale.
I like the structure of the play, the loop, the repetition from the monologue, was this deliberate?
It’s intentional. I wanted some part of the message to stick for better understanding, even for me. We use this in stage plays too, in fine art, art in general, even in science and many part of our daily life is in a loop, a constant motif repeated – a routine performed subconsciously. I love the art of repetition and I intend to use it more subtly.
Would you consider yourself a committed catholic?
I used to be. I was baptized a catholic, my father wanted me to be a priest, I attended a catholic school, I was an altar boy, I served the church in my best ability but many of us young people went in blind, crammed the doctrine to recite in communion and confirmation classes, and never practiced the true intent of the doctrine. I saw and heard the things Altar boys, Priests, Pastors, religious leaders did and were not good examples. But now I’m not as catholic as the Pope. I think I’m a spiritual being, existing in knowledge that there is a God, and I don’t think He is Catholic.
To understand your work, one needs a little background into the concept of appearance and reality, and German idealism, so I guess I’m asking what your philosophy is. I know you don’t like boxes and classifications or whatnot
As the matter of appearance and reality, the major conflict of the human mind is finding what is true – Truth. And where there’s truth there’s doubt, which I often have about the many shades of man’s personality. This I try show in many of my short films. What is good and evil? How good becomes evil, and the existential conflict of human life. The concept of reality is truth in its physical form, what the thing is, not what it is perceived to be. Plato believed that true reality is not found through the senses as they are false perceptions. I am of the school of thought that “one cannot explain things satisfactorily if one remains within the world of common sense”. Hence, film for me transcends common sense within the walls of narrative logic (which I Iike to bend depending on the narrative and situation). I don’t think myself an idealist. I do not think the world will be a better place. It can be, but will it be? Looking at the many variables of human life, the answer for me is No. My films mostly approach odd themes, relatable characters with an effort to invite sympathy for them and the situations they find themselves in.
What you do is quite different and stylistic. It should have a different name. Is this why you have decided to call your films plays?
I decided to call them Plays also out of respect for the theatre where I was initiated into the world of arts, and that films are plays processed through a different medium.
I got that, it is pretty evident from the prologue in Altar Boys. I don’t know if you do so with your framings too. How do you figure your plays out?
Well the story inspires the telling and the method. For Altar Boys, the opening and the Iris in transition into the film itself plays out like a homage to the silent film era, in this case it is used to somehow break the fourth wall, letting the audience know the play has begun – like pulling the curtains for a stage play. However, I just go with the moment. I like to think on Werner Herzog’s thought about the storyboard being instruments for cowards, but also understanding that having a grounded picture of what you want to achieve is important for the plan to work especially for an artist like myself whose mind is constantly wandering. I often need to be guided by a storyboard whether physical or mental. Working with a physical storyboard sometimes might box me, restricting my on-the-go creativity with the story at hand. A frame by frame visualization of the events (and this is what happened with The Pick Up. It was staged. I didn’t allow the actors live in the moment of the story that has built for them. I played within that box. I didn’t allow the characters breathe and this is what I didn’t like about it. For Altar Boys it was similar but you would notice the characters weren’t boxed in frames too much. I think the camera breathes a little. So I’m learning there has to be a balance. That is my one critique for my friend and colleague – Taiwo Egunjobi’s In Ibadan (2021). The consciousness of frames didn’t allow the characters live and allow the actors perform. They remained boxed in that frame and even though it should work and have worked for many films in that genre and style, it didn’t work for my viewing experience of the film. In Ibadan however is a beautiful film. It’s a tricky affair that takes practice to work on an audience outside its being aesthetic pleasure.
I would like to know what motivated your casting for Altar Boys. I know I’m in this story. Lol.
I wanted young people. I like to work with them. I already had three of the cast in mind while writing the screenplay. The boys: Timi Oj, Boluwatife Okunola and Daniel Olatoye, but I didn’t have a cast for Osita. I wanted a dog somewhere in the action too for reasons I really can’t explain, maybe to give it some life you know – texture. When I arrived Ibadan sometime in 2020 I saw an opportunity to shoot this idea that’s been rotting in my head. A day before I left Ibadan I was going to make this film. But I didn’t have an idea who the remaining cast would be. That was when I reached out to you and Demilade Meduoye. You suggested Abiodun Usman and Ejiro Asagba and I loved them. The casting of Usman who is an albino interest me. He hadn’t come to mind, but when you planted the idea in my head, it stuck. I had seen Usman in a few stage plays and had often thought he would make an interesting character. They are all colleagues, students of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan where I am an alumnus. So the ensemble was complete and chemistry was quite fine.
Okay. I wonder if you think the albinism is a condition that calls for pity. Did you expect the audience would pity your character because he is an albino? I’m asking because in the play opening, there is a line that says “this is not because of the colour of my skin”.
It did come to mind. But my original intent was not to cast him because we wanted viewers to pity him, but because there’s something strikingly dramatic about his person. I saw him as a blank canvas and how blood would look on his face. That was the element that stuck in my head. A friend reached out to me on the casting of the albino some days ago. These were some of his words as we discussed.
“You see… That’s one of the key points I read into that role. Albinos have been conditioned to fit a role to give “meaning” to their existence…by the society. I used to have an albino student one time… It took almost the whole semester for me to stop the class from calling him “Off White” He gets SO ANGRY when they called him that, despite the fact that he’s cool, good looking… No freckles. The casting will divide opinions among albinos… Some will feel bad…Some very happy that yes, we got power… “Maybe the world should not laugh at us anymore” In some countries albinos are being hunted! It’s almost a life time of abuse”
I have seen what you said about the characters having more freedom in Altar Boys, in comparison to your previous work, The Pickup, and I think it worked for me. The opening monologue was amazing for me, and I enjoyed the actor’s delivery. I would like to know how that went. Did you send him the script and have him do it and send back or did you do it together?
A day before the film’s release was when that scene was shot. I had gotten a review from a friend that inspired the reinvention of the opening. So I wrote that monologue within a minute. Next day I was in camp for Africa Magic Series Riona and asked a friend and colleague Johnson Awurumibe to help. Within a few minutes he was ready to go, we set up and I recorded with my phone. So we did it together, he’s one fantastic actor I’ll always like to work with.
I agree, his interpretation of the monologue was fantastic, detailed pauses that allowed themes like appearance and reality echo.