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142 min. Hausa.

Set in northern Nigeria towards the end of the 19th century, Shaihu Umar starts with a discussion between Islamic students and their renowned teacher, the wise man Shaihu Umar. Asked about his origins, Umar begins to tell his story: he comes from a modest background and is separated from his mother after his father dies and his stepfather is banished. His subsequent trials and tribulations are marked by slavery, and he is put to any number of tests until he finally becomes the adopted son of his Arabic master Abdulkarim. He attends Koran School and is made an imam upon reaching adulthood. Following a particular dream, he resolves to search for his mother.
Adamu Halilu filmed Shaihu Umar in Hausa in 1976. The film is based on the eponymous 1955 novella by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, which has been reprinted many times. Balewa was prime minister of Nigeria from 1957 to 1966. The film was long believed to be lost, but the negatives and copies were rediscovered in the archive of the Nigerian Film Corporation in 2016. Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art restored the film with the support of the German Embassy in Abuja. (Stefanie Schulte Strathaus)

Adamu Halilu was born in the state of Adamawa, Nigeria in 1936. He studied screenwriting and editing at Overseas Film and Television Centre and at the Shell Film Unit, both in London. Before returning to Nigeria, he worked for the Italian radio and television broadcasting company RAI in Rome. In 1963, he made his first feature film, Mama Learns a Lesson. In 1976, Halilu made Shaihu Umar, his first major project and the first feature film in Hausa, the most widely spoken commercial language in West-Central Africa. Along with his work as a feature film director, Adamu Halilu also wrote screenplays and took part in the production of almost seventy documentary films. In 1978, he founded the production company Haske Films. From 1983 to 1985, he was general manager of the Nigerian Film Corporation, and in 1986 he was appointed director of the Nigerian Film Unit. Adamu Halilu died on 1 September 2001.

About the restoration
The digital restoration of SHAIHU UMAR took place in 2017 and 2018. All analogue elements for the process were provided by the archive of the Nigerian Film Corporation, the National Film, Video and Sound Archive in Jos.
This restoration is based on the original A and B cut 35 mm camera negative. Some reels of the negative are missing. These parts have been replaced by a 35mm dupe negative. The soundtrack is based on a 35 mm optical track negative.
Several 35mm and 16mm positive reels with English and French subtitles exist, but only one reel remained in a state that could provide a reliable colour reference.
The scan in 2K as well as the digital image restoration and colour grading were carried out by Arri Media in Munich and Berlin. The digital sound restoration took place at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna.
We would like to thank the Nigerian Film Corporation and the German Embassy in Abuja for their great support.
The digital restoration of SHAIHU UMAR was realised within the framework of “Archive außer sich”, a project of Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in cooperation with Haus der Kulturen der Welt as part of “The New Alphabet”, a HKW project supported by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media on the basis of a resolution by the German Bundestag.

What has happened to Nigeria’s post-war cinema?

Imagine if the entire collection of Italian Neo-realist or German Expressionist cinema were destroyed and the memory of them erased as if they were never there – not through war, but as an act of more-or-less conscious politically-sponsored forgetting. This is what has happened to Nigeria’s Post-War Cinema [the war referred to is the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War, or Biafran War –Ed.].
Until the war, Nigeria’s audio-visual archive, which it inherited from the Colonial Film Unit [which existed from 1939 to 1955 –Ed.], was a fine example of how to keep a film archive. The need to erase the memory of war and subsequent military dictatorships led to the gradual abandonment of the country’s house of history.
Imagine you are a film scholar studying Nigerian cinema. You want to do research on the classics – the pre-Nollywood, post-war cinema – and you have made a list of films you want to see: KONGI’S HARVEST (1970, directed by Ossie Davis and based on the play by Wole Soyinka) or BULLFROG IN THE SUN (1971, directed by Hansjürgen Pohland and based on the novels “Things Fall Apart” and “No Longer at Ease” by Chinua Achebe) or SHAIHU UMAR (based on the novel of the same title by Nigeria’s first post-independence prime minister, Tafawa Balewa). Where do you go to watch and study these films? You try to connect with the archives and libraries and the answer is the same: no copy of the film seems to exist or if there is one, nobody knows where it is kept or who may be holding on to it. What do you do – simply settle for stills of the film and secondary materials published in academic journals and consider your primary material lost?
These questions were triggered some three years ago by the chance discovery of hundreds of decaying cans of films in the half-abandoned rooms of Nigeria’s old Film Unit. Among the discovery was a supposedly lost film, SHAIHU UMAR, by Adamu Halilu. Considered one of the best, if not the best, of this filmmaker’s works (naturally, a film scholar would want to see his body of work to make an informed judgment), it was produced in 1976, with financial support from the culture ministry. As we considered the vinegar-ruined [vinegar syndrome/acetate decay: acetate film can be subject to a chemical process of disintegration that can result in a strong vinegar odour –Ed.] prints before us, we asked ourselves in silent wonder why proper care was not taken of these films. The search led to the country’s National Film and Video Sound Archives and the discovery of further prints in much better condition.
Halilu’s film deals with slavery in the trans-Saharan trade route and a mother’s undying love. Sold into slavery, Umar rose to scholarly prowess and earn the title of Shaihu [related to the word ‘sheik’ –Ed.]. But one night, a dream about his mother, alone and wandering the desert, triggers his memory of her (by then she had been sold into brutal slavery in her search for him) and his lost homeland. Widely regarded as the first Hausa literature, “Shaihu Umar” positions Islam as a benign force in the region, with its participation in slavery incidental. There is, in this treatment, the possibility of approaching this film as propaganda ‘of particular interest,’ to quote from an academic journal, ‘essentially to a classical Muslim community, rather than to the general audience.’
There is a different context within which to view this film, however, not as an embarrassingly direct propaganda: as a landmark in Nigeria’s pre-Nollywood filmmaking, SHAIHU UMAR extends insight into the practice and method of films made in an earlier era that ended in the late 1980s. Ever since Nollywood, international academic discourse had focused on that phenomenon without acknowledging, notwithstanding the unquestionable watershed that was the Nigerian home video boom, what came before.
Almost five decades ago, one of the pioneers of African cinema, Paulin Vieyra, spoke of the need for the ‘filing of filmed documents’ and the possibility for the ‘establishment of a pilot archive centre in one African region’. In Nigeria, and in most parts of Africa, the use, access and management of film archives is defined within a narrow, unsustainable framework and one is only able to reference an almost absent access. This screening at the Forum, continuing and expanding the initiative that Paulin Vieyra and others began, offers a level of access to this post-war cinema. (Didi Cheeka, January 2018)

An early story of migration and loss

A film rediscovered is a new film: In the case of Adamu Halilu’s SHAIHU UMAR, we are dealing with a film that was little known and hardly screened outside of Nigeria, where it was a hit upon its first release in 1976. Yet it is an important film, in several ways: Based on the first novel written in Hausa, by a young writer who would later become the first prime minister of Nigeria, as the result of a writing competition organised by the British Colonial administration, the story of Shaihu Umar is one of migration and loss quite beyond the usual scenarios of colonial literature. Adapted for the stage and later for the screen by Adamu Halilu, the film remained an obscure reference in Nigerian and African film history, partly because it was produced and shown outside of the regular pathways of what Europeans and North Americans usually consider as African film and film culture. The reconstruction of the film from fragments from the National Film Archive in Jos, Nigeria, offers the opportunity not only to rediscover an important film, but an occasion to develop a new perspective on film history beyond the established modes of historiography of world cinema. (Vinzenz Hediger, January 2018)

Production Umaru Ladan, Umaru Dembo. Production company Federal Ministry of Information (Federal Film Unit Kaduna) (Kaduna, Nigeria). Director Adamu Halilu. Screenplay Adamu Halilu. Director of photography Yusuf Mohammed, Zakari Yusufu. Editing Edwin Apim. Sound Baba Gana. Production design Assad Yasin. With Umaru Ladan (Shaihu Umar), Mairiga Aliyu (Fatima), Husaini Mohammed (Umar, 3 years old), Umaru Dembo (Makau), Assad Yasin (Abdulkarim), Harira Kachia (Kaka).


1963: Mama Learns a Lesson (48 min.). 1971: Child Bride (70 min.). 1976: Shaihu Umar. 1978: Kanta of Kebbi. 1981: Moment of Truth (90 min.). 1982: Zainab.

Photo: © Nigerian Film Corporation

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
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