Nakom doesn’t pander to Western viewers. We are introduced to Iddrisu Awinzor (Jacob Ayanaba) while he is at medical school and follow him in his return to the village of Nakom after his father has died. Unless we are familiar with Ghana, it may be hard to discern at first what is normal and what is not in Iddrisu’s situation. But even casual viewers should get that what seems normal to us — conflicts between family and duty, the promise of a better life provided by the university pulling against the provincial obligations of home, wherever that may be — plays out very differently in other parts of the world.
What makes Nakom more enthralling than conventional is that these cultural differences tend to make us forestall judgment, unsure what we think Iddrisu should do unless and until we take the time to understand how the particular details of his life inform the conflicts between desire and duty, self and family.
The young man wants his return to Nakom to be brief so that he can return to medical school where a scholarship is being held for him. But Iddrisu’s father left the family with debt, some of which was incurred to pay his school fees. It is one thing to rationalize why he should get to go to school while his sister cannot; it is quite another to understand that unless he stays, the family farm could be lost and there may be no food to harvest, contributing to the family’s downward plunge into dependence.
Nakom is understated but implacable at illustrating the impossibility of negotiating any middle ground between independence and enmeshment. When Iddrisu visits Napoleon, his uncle to whom the family owes debts, the hardened relative starts to beat his granddaughter. The young man can abandon those unable to care for themselves or he can put his own life and labor on the line to try to save them. There are no half measures. He can continue to try to extricate and distance himself from his home situation…if his conscience will allow him to do so, but he appears unlikely to make things right before he leaves. He senses, as do we, that each day that passes makes him less likely to leave at all, that a dream deferred will almost inevitably become a dream abandoned.
The film is dense without being overly explicated. Like many such films, it allows us to feel its character’s conflicts without verbalizing everything. For example, when Iddrisu takes Napoleon’s granddaughter to a clinic to confirm her pregnancy, he sees that he knows more already about drawing blood and basic medical procedures than boy assigned to help them. If duty to family trumps the desires of self, couldn’t it be argued that Iddrisu has a yet larger duty to his country and his country?
How are his various obligations mitigated, if at all, by the the unwillingness or inability of other family and community members to work towards common goals? His younger brother is either lazy or overwhelmed by the scope of need around them, and Iddrisu can barely get help repairing the walls that will protect the crops from animals or digging their father’s grave. He is expected to feed the bevy of extended family members and their children, but the women are sullen when he asks for a moment’s respite from a crying baby to study. The children claim there is no room for them at school, so they don’t go. It’s easier to just assume that someone else will provide for them…or not.
I’ve made Nakom sound like a despairing, nihilistic film, but it isn’t. Rather, it is one that asks me to stand for ninety minutes in another man’s shoes before passing judgment on his choices. I found after I did that I was far less confident that I knew what was right thing for him to do or how I would advise those like him to pursue a better life.
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