Nigerian women's rights pioneer celebrated in new biopic

Bolanle Austen-Peters's acclaimed biopic 'Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti' comes to Nigerian cinemas on Friday (Leslie FAUVEL)
Bolanle Austen-Peters's acclaimed biopic 'Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti' comes to Nigerian cinemas on Friday (Leslie FAUVEL)
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Generations of schoolchildren have grown up being taught that Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria.

But the director of a new film about the pioneering women's rights activist told AFP that the anecdote offered a very limited view of Ransome-Kuti's achievements.

"She is so much more," said Bolanle Austen-Peters, whose acclaimed biopic "Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti" comes to Nigerian cinemas on Friday.

The film's opening sequence sets the tone for her extraordinary life.

It begins in 1977, with soldiers hurling an elderly Ransome-Kuti from a window during a military raid at the home of her son, the legendary protest musician and "King of Afrobeat" Fela Kuti.

Ransome-Kuti would later die from her injuries, aged 77, after a lifetime at the forefront of fighting for rights and shaping Nigeria's history.

The film zooms in on a formative episode in the 1940s when Ransome-Kuti led women at a market in Abeokuta city north of Lagos in protest against heavy taxes demanded by a traditional king and the British colonial authorities.

"In the age where there was no social media, she rallied over 10,000 women from different parts of Western Nigeria," Austen-Peters said.

"Traditional rulers were very powerful, and she confronted them. And then, she also confronted colonial governments," she added.

The taxes in Abeokuta were used to enrich the traditional king but also to replenish the coffers of the British colonisers after World War II.

"She realised they were just milking us," Austen-Peters said.

Ransome-Kuti managed to bring together different social classes under the Abeokuta Women's Union, Austen-Peters went on.

She said that shooting a powerful scene where 600 actresses storm the king's palace under a blazing sun had left her in tears for the first time on a film set.

The film concludes in 1955, the year Ransome-Kuti's husband and unwavering supporter Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti died.

It does not cover the whole scope of her career, which included campaigning for women's voting rights, education for the less wealthy and Nigeria's independence from Britain -- and drew the wrath of the Nigerian government and Western allies over contacts with China and the USSR at the height of the Cold War.

- 'Make a change' -

Austen-Peters hopes her film will help young women take inspiration from the life of the feminist and anti-colonialist activist.

"We can't underestimate the power of narratives and narration," she told AFP.

"Young women who see this will begin to challenge the status quo. It should inspire us to want to make a change," she said.

Austen-Peters, 55, said this idea had been central to her vision 20 years ago when she set up Terra Kulture, the venue in Lagos where she began to show her first musicals before moving into film production and direction, including with her film about the Ebola epidemic "93 Days".

Nigeria's Nollywood is the second largest film industry in the world in terms of the number of films produced, just behind India's Bollywood.

Today, Terra Kulture is also a training ground for aspiring young professionals working in film, while Austen-Peters has become a key figure in the Nigerian entertainment industry with several Netflix co-productions to her name.

"Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti" has already won several awards, including Best Screenplay and Best Feature Film at the Africa International Film Festival and Best Screenplay at the Africa Magic Viewers' Choice Awards.