Hot Docs 2018 Interview: ‘Take Light’ director Shasha Nakhai

by Andrew Parker

For her first documentary feature – Take Light, which makes its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival this upcoming weekend – award winning filmmaker Shasha Nakhai takes a look at global power concerns through the eyes of local residents in her former hometown of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. While Nakhai moved to Canada with her family when she was fifteen and graduated from Ryerson University’s broadcast journalism program, the curious plight of everyday people in Port Harcourt and their struggles to obtain consistent, affordable electrical power was something she always wanted to return to an examine further; not just because of its obvious human rights connotations, but also because what’s happening in Nigeria could soon occur in more developed countries around the globe in the not too distant future.

The energy crisis occurring in Port Harcourt (and Nigeria in general) is obvious to behold in Take Light, but also something that westerners will likely find unusual at first. In the so called “Garden City,” nearly half of all residents live without electricity, while those with wages stable enough to afford it are lucky to get four hours of power every day. This isn’t simply a matter of poverty or lack of resources, however. The infrastructure is woefully inadequate, struggling to keep up with demand that’s four times the grid’s capacity, but considering the country’s biggest export helps to fuel power around the world, one thinks they could do better for their own people.

Port Harcourt is an industrial city located on the Niger Delta, home to one of the richest gas reserves in the continent. Most of the country’s power is diverted back into the oil drilling operations that help to stimulate the local economy. Attempts to update the failing power grid have further stumbled thanks to governmental mismanagement. Today, the power company is privatized, but still vilified, as debt collectors and electricians are constantly being sent out to cut the electricity to those who can’t pay (on average $20 CAD a month to power a two room flat) and disconnect illegal and often dangerous connections made by people looking to skirt a system they see as corrupt, inadequate, and broken. The excess gas that’s burned off by drilling operations every day could power Port Harcourt and the rest of the country for decades.

For her follow up to the 2017 Oscar shortlisted short documentary Frame 394 (co-directed by her partner Rich Williamson), Nakhai returned to Port Harcourt to spend time with the everyday people who live constantly amid this unseen and largely undocumented power crisis. From the people tirelessly working to keep the grid afloat and the hardworking, often misunderstood representatives from the Port Harcourt Electric Distribution Company to professionals who depend on the power to provide a necessary quality of life for the people of Nigeria, Take Light looks at a growing global power concern through a personal and well researched lens.

We chatted with Nakhai over the phone from her home several weeks before the film’s premiere at Hot Docs to talk about sometimes intense and dangerous filming conditions, what the experience of returning to her place of birth taught her about the energy crisis, and why she’s cautiously optimistic about the future of power generation in the country.

Trying to untangle the mess of what’s going on with power generation and how it pertains to the economy of Port Harcourt seems like it would require a lot of advance research.  What’s it like as someone who has become a bit of an outsider there in recent years to try and make sense of this hated system that has recently become privatized, but still isn’t well received?

Shasha Nakhai

Sahsha Nakhai: Once I started looking into things, it didn’t take long at all to realize just how complicated these matters are. It’s hard to even pinpoint exactly where these problems even started because they were mounting so long. One of the first things I did was creating a list of “reasons why things are the way they are” and it was twenty detailed bullet points long. (laughs) There were a lot of graphs, and figures, and generally unsexy sounding business words, but eventually I understood it.

But that was also part of the decision to focus on the story of the people, and that bigger picture was something that was always there in the background. If I was going to tackle the economics of the country, how this industry works, the power purchasing agreement they have, the construction of the grid, and all of these technical things, it would have ended up being a ten hour documentary that would have felt almost inscrutable to anyone who wasn’t an engineer or someone who had spent hours researching the topic. (laughs) That’s where the focus on ground level stories came from, and why politicians, journalists, NGOs, and power companies are kind of the background for the film.

It’s great that you were able to get access to people who work on the ground as representatives for P.H.E.D., because it seems like they’re functioning as a direct link for you to other companies who might not be as willing to give access to a documentary filmmaker. How were you able to convince the Port Harcourt Electrical Distribution Company to let you inside their operation in the first place?

Shasha Nakhai: The whole process of getting access to P.H.E.D. was a long one, of course, and we were prepared for that. I was talking to the heads of the company. The CEO at the time of filming was actually an American. He worked internationally as a fixer of sorts. He was always being sent into countries to overhaul things. He had just come from overhauling Jamaica’s power industry. He had seen a documentary before about Georgia’s power issues, and when we talked it was clear that he thought that documentaries had a power to foster a better sense of understanding. That’s one of the biggest problems that P.H.E.D. was facing. People just didn’t understand how the power worked or what the people working directly with the grid were struggling with. P.H.E.D. saw this as a way to build some sympathy for employees who are sometimes literally and almost always emotionally beaten up every day. The people at the top saw this as a way for people to be more knowledgeable.

Then, of course, I had to explain to the board of the company that I had grown up in a neighbourhood down the street, and I also had to explain my intentions. I think people were generally on board with where I was coming from.

Seeing that you had to deal with them on a corporate level, what was the level of insight you had in terms of their attitude towards their rebranding once the system became privatized? They used to be known as N.E.P.A. (National Electric Power Authority), and that acronym is still used as a derogatory four letter word by everyday people frustrated by their lack of electrical power.

Shasha Nakhai: They’ve had some small victories and small improvements that I think they’re grateful for, but they still have a ways to go in the grand scheme of things. The grid capacity has doubled, and there have been some large infrastructure improvements since privatization. But to an everyday person, nothing has really changed. But as far as they’re concerned, the biggest part of rebranding themselves was offering customer service. You could actually phone a customer service line and someone would take the call. That’s something that we might take for granted, but in Port Harcourt that was almost unheard of. That sounds like a small thing, but it can mean a lot.

But that distaste for N.E.P.A. is so entrenched that a lot of people didn’t know or didn’t care that the company had become privatized. They’re undertaking a huge information campaign to make sure people know how things work and to keep people informed, but it’s still relatively new, so there are still some uphill battles being faced.

When you tackle a subject like this in a place as close to your heart personally as Port Harcourt, does it make you think that everyone around the world should be paying more attention to where our electrical power is coming from? I think that a lot of people will be taken aback by how one of the world’s largest gas producing countries could still be struggling to provide power to their citizens, but it also sadly feels like a scenario that could play out in any number of countries in the near future.

Shasha Nakhai: Yeah, I definitely did, and my personal connection to Port Harcourt wasn’t the only reason to go there to document this. It was my hometown, but on a larger level this was also ground zero to document what could be ahead for a fossil fuel based economy. I think it’s symbolic of the worldwide energy system so far, and how urgent it is to inform people and transition to cleaner, more efficient, more sustainable and more equitable forms of energy creation.

And that’s what I hope audiences take away from this, but probably not in the way that some viewers might expect. I don’t want people to leave the film and say, “Oh, let’s donate some solar panels to Nigeria!” Because in the film we show that those kind of well meaning solutions aren’t always the best answers. I want people to come away with both a better understanding of Nigeria and its complexities, and for them to question where the power they get is coming from and if they’re getting it at the expense of someone else. I hope people come away with that appreciation a bit more.

The film definitely looks at sort of the push and pull in energy production that we see in countries like Nigeria, or even places like India and China, where sustainability concerns aren’t as easy to iron out as one hopes they could be. What’s it like covering that side of things, and producing a film about energy conservation and regulation that says that solar panels and wind turbines won’t fix the power producing problems of these similar economies?

Shasha Nakhai: Yeah, it’s definitely not that simple. At the end, I do take a kind of cautiously hopeful look at what the future could hold, and I think there’s a point down the road where those kinds of things could be employed. But in a place like Nigeria, no one can just up and say “Renewable energy will solve everything!”

On the ground, you first have to face gaps in information, current power issues, and residual issues that have remained for a long time. There’s a moment in the film where a morgue technician in a morgue with no power shows us the solar panels on the roof that don’t work because they’re covered in layers of soot everyday from the nearby gas production. And the cost to maintain solar panels capable of powering something the size of a morgue or a hospital are very, very high even without the soot, especially in a country where many people can barely afford the electricity for their homes. I thought that was something really powerful to see, and really indicative of how many problems had to change before a move to more sustainable methods could be made with any degree of effectiveness. It also doesn’t help that the Nigerian government has just enacted a higher tax on solar panels, as well.

And you’re also dealing with a lot of people who still have that fossil fuel mentality. People would rather have their own generator than go through the grid, and that requires more fossil fuels. There’s that added weight of people, especially those in the Niger Delta, who are incredibly suspicious of foreigners coming in and experimenting with renewable energy given the country’s history. There are many people who have been burned by the system before, and you have to understand that. There are a whole host of issues to deal with when you talk about renewable energy in Nigeria. I am hopeful that it could happen at some point, but I like to be realistically hopeful.

I think that cautious optimism is shared by a lot of the on the ground workers that you are following from the power company. But at the same time, you are following workers around who have a very intense job. In some of your film’s more harrowing moments, you witness several instances of electricians, engineers, and debt collectors being openly threatened and almost swarmed by an angry mob. What’s it like capturing those kinds of moments? I know that people in these kinds of jobs aren’t the most liked or well respected professionals in the world, but for many of these workers in the industry, it can be a daily matter of life and death.

Shasha Nakhai: It can be intense. In the film, the crew and I always acknowledged ourselves as foreigners, and it was just as dangerous for us to be there. I think twice in the film you hear one of the locals saying “if there weren’t police here, I would beat all of these people up right now.” Or Deborah, the debt collector that we follow, says about that one guy we ran into: “He just beats people up.” Some people do that to save face in their neighbourhood against something as hated as the power company. Sometimes being a foreigner around them means they’ll be more reserved, but other times it escalated the situation.

The majority of what you see on screen is actually very mild compared to what these workers face on an everyday basis. It’s milder because of our presence. These people get beaten up all the time. They’re constantly in danger of electrocution from illegal, shoddily constructed electrical connections. The CEO of the power company once got a pair of severed legs sent to his door. That’s just an example of the kind of violence that exists outside of what we shot in the film. The place where we were filming was actually a much calmer part of town.

As intense as things get, there are a few moments in the film that are subtly humorous, and most of those moments come from how unsurprised many residents or workers on the grid are when the power goes off unexpectedly. As someone who has lived in North America for quite some time now and in a place where people routinely get incensed when the power goes out even for a few minutes, did these reactions surprise you when you went back?

Shasha Nakhai: Yeah, and it’s such a huge part of their way of life there. Jokes about the power going out are entrenched in their pop culture. I like to think that part of the idea of why I wanted to make this documentary was because I spent half of my life in Nigeria and half of my life in Canada. I wanted to compare and contrast these attitudes and cultures a bit. That always informed my reasons for making the film. It’s such a part of everyday life there that I would often joke around with myself and ask if this was a subject that was too obvious for a Nigerian who lived in Nigeria to make a film about. (laughs) Most Nigerians would shrug and think this was just how things were. I only ever realized how insane things were with power once I moved to Canada when I was fifteen, and I would tell my friends these stories and it seemed so odd, foreign, and hard to explain to them. That feeling never really left me, so I think that’s why I wanted to make a film about this.

Take Light screens at Hot Docs on:

Friday, April 27, 2018 – 6:45 pm – Hart House Theatre

Tuesday, May 1, 2018 – 3:15 pm – Scotiabank Theatre

Thursday, May 3, 2018 – 6:30 pm – Scotiabank Theatre

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