Quick history lesson: The Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War) was fought between the newly formed Republic of Biafra and Nigeria, between 1967 to 1970. The war was bitter and bloody, with humanitarian aid being denied to many, particularly to Biafra (the French aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières was formed in the aftermath of this war). To this day, there are still tensions between the different ethnic groups in Nigeria.
This is the setting for writer and director Biyi Bandele's feature film directorial debut, Half of a Yellow Sun. Based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's award-winning novel of the same name (the name derives from the flag of the short-lived nation of Biafra), the film is quite the epic love-story, following the interwoven lives of four people trying to make sense of the destruction around them, as well as the relationships they have with each other.
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton in Half of a Yellow Sun
The film first introduces us to twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose). They are well-educated and well-to-do, and they are making plans for the next phase of their lives. Olanna moves to Nsukka to work in academia while Kainene goes to Port Harcourt to look after their father's oil company.
From here, we are then introduced to Olanna's boyfriend Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), also an academic, and Kainene's married lover Richard (Joseph Mawle). The film then follows the two couple's lives closely. How they live, their relationships with other members of their family, and their relationships with each other.
It's this first half of the film that will fascinate you. Newton's change in accents, for example, is a joy to hear, speaking with a very upper-class British accent only to Richard or others of a higher status, and then dropping all airs and graces when she is around her Uncle's family in Nsukka. Kainene, on the other hand, enjoys the finer things in life. She is shown doing well in her career and is brave enough to carry on her affair with the married Englishman, Richard. Newton says of the sisters, "Each seems to represent different sides of Igbo society. Kainene is very much the elite brigade of Igbo, and Olanna is more interested in the socialist aggravating for political change. So they show two sides of the coin".
Thandie Newton as Olanna in Half of a Yellow Sun
The other interesting theme they show in this portion of the film is the relationships between the sexes, or just the sexual revolution that is occurring in the late 1960s Nigerian society. Kainene is the head of a large company, a position few women in that era would enjoy. There are issues with fidelity and trust between both couples, which some viewers may find frustrating to watch. But, as Bandele says, "It's about people falling in love and the sacrifices you have to make sometimes when you are in a relationship". So whether this movie is set in Africa in the 1960s or in present-day Australia, the peaks and troughs of any relationship are still there. One of the more intriguing themes of the film is that of the "us and them" dilemmas, whether it be men vs. women (with the twins' aunt telling Olanna, "You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man" – powerful stuff), class systems in society (Olanna is from a well-off family, while Odenigbo is from a more modest background, which leads to his mother calling Olanna an "educated witch") and even the effects of colonialism (identifying themselves according to tribe or by a white man's definition of Nigerian). All these points are woven into the storyline so that by the second half of the film, you are given a fairly good basic understanding of their lives, and the turmoil that is happening in the world around them.
The second half of the film is when we see how these couples will survive, and whether their bonds are strong enough to see them through a civil war. For many viewers also, the scenes of the main characters living, maybe not thriving but definitely surviving, will be eye-opening. It is hard to imagine how anyone can live a normal life (which they try to do) with the constant threat of violence and destruction. The airport scene may be especially harrowing for some.
Half a Yellow Sun is also another African story told with a different voice, one Bandele was proud to use. "The fact that you have these educated middle class characters, intellectuals who were not victims", he says. "Quite often I've gone to see a movie about Africa and always, always it's the same story. It's about victimhood."
Thandie Newton likens this film to Gone with the Wind, in its sweeping saga tales and stories that follow the characters over many years and many events. But at the end of the day, Half a Yellow Sun is essentially a story about humanity and what makes us relate to one another, what brings us together and what tears us apart.