Jarreth Merz, a Swiss-Nigerian actor living in Los Angeles, is summoned to Nigeria to bury his father. Nigerian tradition mandates the eldest child to take charge of a father’s burial. Although he accepts the responsibility, he struggles with why he feels morally responsible toward Nigerian tradition and a family whom he hardly knows. Jarreth starts a journey of self-discovery.
Jarreth Merz is a Swiss-Nigerian actor living in Los Angeles. When his father passed away he was summoned to Nigeria. He is the first born so, according to the local customs, he is in charge of the burial ceremony and the family wealth. While not completely aware of the Nigerian traditions and their implications, he agrees to attend the ceremony. His journey back home is one of self discovery. The documentary is directed by his brother, Kevin Merz, who follows him everywhere while in Nigeria. Kevin Merz films the journey with one mobile camera that in 75 minutes introduces the audience to some of the most complex contemporary issues in Nigerian daily life.
In making this film, the two brothers have what many would call an unfair advantage. They can get to the core of the problem, film everything without being chased away, interpret and take advantage of their place in the story. What results out of this exercise is one of the most authentic, impressive and superb documentaries about Africa made in recent years.
The movie’s greatest strength is the clash between the traditional rituals and beliefs of his Nigerian family and Jarreth’s own frustrations and gradual adaptation to the local unwritten laws. He is constantly surprised by the shifting demands and rules, as so are we, the viewers.
Jarreth reaches Nigeria two weeks after his father died only to find him kept in a local morgue in a deploring state of degradation. He bitterly notes that some people are held in those morgues for up to six months until the family gets enough money to organize the funeral. What also makes this documentary amazing is the fact that the main characters know nothing about what happens next. Jarreth shares his thoughts with the camera progressively, as various events during his trip to Nigeria occurs. He talks to his brother who is behind the camera and constantly filming when he is upset, frustrated, happy, sad, tired or energetic. He interviews his brothers, his step mother and other members of the community who speak freely in front of him and consequently in front of us. He is most welcomed home but he soon realizes that this attitude has as much to do with his role in the family as with the expectations of his relatives: he is not only required to attend the funeral but also finance it. He progressively finds out for himself why people have to wait for months before burying their deceased: the funerals cost a fortune. While we do not get a good glimpse on the exact details, of what we can see it could have easily cost up to 5,000 US dollars, something he was definitely not aware of when he left for Nigeria. Consequently there is a great difference between his understanding of these social rituals at the beginning and at the end of the documentary.
“Glorious Exit” is focused on the funeral of Jarreth’s family. Most likely, this movie was made with the intention of the protagonist to honor his father’s memory and legacy. But the final product emerges as something much more important than Jarreth, his father or his Nigerian family: it is a fabulous anthropological introduction to some of the most basic rules by which the Nigerian society operates. Jarreth is by any definition a Westerner and consequently someone who does not easily fit in the landscape. He is more white than black, more analytical than idealistic, more prone to details than the overall picture. He does not share the opinion that he is responsible for his extended family, a family that, after all, has shown little or no interest in him or his life. The climax of the movie – and of Jarreth’s frustration – is the day of the funeral itself, when various clans come to pay their respects to the deceased, eat and dance, celebrate Jarreth’s father but also follow their own agenda. An exasperated Jarreth has to put up with close family friends or at least related to the family by lineage descent who refuse to attend the ceremony and threaten to boycott it if they are not paid – in money, fine liquors, or cattle. As more unexpected bills pile up, so does the tension of the protagonists. From these dramatic scenes emerges the starkest difference between the various ways in which Westerners and Africans see a particular event. In Jarreth’s opinion, people ought to gather to the funeral to celebrate his father’s accomplishment, his life and his legacy. But the locals have a very different take on the issue. They put tradition and customs first, and their traditions often, and certainly in this case, seem to contradict Westerners perception and understanding of an event. They seem to expect to be honored for their participation to the funeral, something that Jarreth and most viewers would find appalling and immoral.
This documentary allows us to draw our own conclusions. While it did not have a political or social agenda, “Glorious Exit” is a statement and a pledge for cultural difference and cultural relativism. Despite Jarreth’s complaints (the scene when he frowns at looking at the words “cow balance” on the bill sheet is both comical and tragic at the same time) he eventually complies and accepts the demands of the Nigerian family, thus setting an example for virtually anyone working in the development industry: we all have to acknowledge and follow the cultural specificities of other peoples. And this is the type of multicultural, sensitive and respectful man that emerges at the end of the movie.
One downside of the documentary is the failure to follow some critical leads in the story. His step brothers have very interesting life stories, beliefs and expectations that should have been explored in more detail. The tension between Jarreth and his uncle could have been the subject of a documentary on its own. More details about the struggle for authority between men from an elder generation and the more pragmatic approach Jarreth and his brothers take could have made this documentary even more successful. Perhaps even more details about the deceased, his role in the community, the people he interacted with, treated and cured would have been necessary. After all, his father, “a man of the people,” as one of the preachers calls him, studied medicine and became a doctor, thus going against his own personal background, family traditions and ultimately against his generation, one prone to going to local healers and herbalists instead of doctors and pharmacists.
Despite these shortcomings, the value of this documentary remains uncontested. It speaks of so many present and pressing issues, it explores cultural and personal differences, it shows the difference between two separate worlds with little in common, and begs for a follow up. Who knows, maybe Jarreth’s and Kevin’s exploration of African realities will continue. They are certainly off for a good start.
This documentary is rated 10/10