Lagos gone to seed

The Nigerian drama 'Òlòtūré,' about sex work and sex trafficking in the country’s commercial capital, which premiered on Netflix, is mostly uncomfortable. And not in a good way.

Promotional still from Òlòtūré.

Almost a year after Nigerian film director Kenneth Gyang’s Òlòtūré (2019) premiered as part of the “Nigeria Focus” at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis, it started streaming on Netflix as the company’s second Nigerian original film—this shortly after producer Mo Abudu and her EbonyLife Films entered a deal with Netflix to produce and distribute a slate of new content.

I suppose it makes perfect business sense for Abudu and her team to unload Òlòtūré on a streaming platform at this time. The COVID-19 pandemic has essentially ground public screenings of films to a halt, and Nigeria is not exempt. Also, because Òlòtūré’s subject matter is quite the tough one: Would Nigerian theatre audiences, already used to their cinema’s light and shiny packaging—credit to Abudu—have given a full-on embrace to a dark drama about sex work and sex trafficking? Especially under socially distanced conditions?

It is unclear what price Netflix paid to brand Òlòtūré relative to the film’s budget, but it would seem that both parties emerged with some feeling of satisfaction. Netflix gets the kind of low-priced, quality-challenged work they consider perfect for—and of—Nollywood. EbonyLife Films explores alternative distribution channels. But what is in it for the rest of us?

Not a lot, sadly.

The title character, played by Sharon Ooja, is a spunky reporter who goes undercover to bust a nefarious sex work and human trafficking ring. She has more passion than good sense, though, and as events play out, isn’t quite equipped to compete in the high stakes world she is suddenly thrust in.

Naïve and sloppy in ways that one wouldn’t expect from a journalist, Ooja’s Òlòtūré is also unwilling to cast her privilege aside. This results in dire consequences for people in her orbit, including at least one tragic ending. No one mentioned to Òlòtūré or the filmmakers (bless their bleeding hearts) that regardless of how “important” her story is, it remains a story and should never take precedence over the very real lives of the other victims.

In the film’s opening scene, Òlòtūré, in character as the sex worker Ehi, takes a john away from Vanessa (Wofai Fada), a girl who could actually use the cash, only to proceed on an inexplicable escape mission. In another scene, Òlòtūré’s clumsiness nearly derails another girl’s chances of moving to Europe when she trails her on a visit to a middleman. It is hard to root for the character because she is more ideal than person and doesn’t come alive on the screen beyond the broadest of strokes.

Ooja certainly has her limitations as an actor (she was last seen in February in the romantic comedy, Who’s the Boss?), but it would be unfair to place this disconnect squarely on her doorstep. The screenplay—credited to Yinka Ogun, a frequent EbonyLife Films collaborator on films like Your Excellency and The Royal Hibiscus Hotel and with Craig Freimond (Material, Jozi)—is a terrible beast, lacking nuance or depth. It plays like someone read a journalist’s account and proceeded to adapt it as a sociology document, accommodating all the major perils of the human trafficking trade but with none of the intelligence or discernment that would make it work for the big screen.

This do-gooder approach by privileged creatives and executives, who have failed to envision their project as a series of inter-linked personal and complex stories, is responsible for the pity porn dressing that covers the film. Sex trafficking is evil, yes, we get that. But what else is new or revealing about this? And how can this obvious-enough topic be told through a fresh lens?

Òlòtūré’s treatment of sex workers is far from progressive. It is uninteresting too. Just about all of the girls are victims. In many ways, indeed they are, but that is not the full picture, is it? The film wastes two characters that could have told a more respectful, nuanced story of the sex workers it so casually flaunts.

Omawumi’s Sandra, the madam who runs the brothel that Òlòtūré and her colleagues rent out, doesn’t get enough screen time, and when she does, she is reduced to a frustrated stereotype. Omoni Oboli’s Alero, a former international call girl herself, whose career has taken the successful madam route, has plenty of screen time. But neither actress nor screenplay can rise to the challenge of doing something complex with the arc.

When the film actually stumbles on an interesting observation—the redundancy of the conventional pimp—it has no way of working this subtly into the screenplay. Like other things with the film, this observation has to be screamed out—or, in this case, read out—for the audience, just in case you missed it the first time.

The loud tone that Òlòtūré adopts is quite uncomfortable. Director Kenneth Gyang, in a different rhythm from his previous work, dials it up to camp levels, perhaps to satisfy his producers. Which would be well and good if this campiness were intentional. Strangely, it isn’t. Everyone is so self-serious, involved in the righteousness of their project. The dissonance is almost laughable.

The actors are not believable because you can see every single one of them attempting to act. The effort is visible on their faces, in their body language, via the sticks of cigarette they burn through and from the reams and reams of dialogue they are saddled with. There is not one believable scene in the film.

Actually, scratch that: there is one. It arrives somewhere in the final act. Omowunmi Dada, who plays Linda, a sex worker trying to drag her family out of poverty, is ordered to practice her lap dance skills while participating in some form of forced boot camp. The camera pans on her face while she grinds slowly and the mixture of fear, sadness, shame, and determination is written so clearly—each emotion a desperate and silent cry for help. But she appears to be doing this work in spite of—not because of—the screenplay or the directing that she has been provided with.

Gyang’s previous films, the terrific duo of Confusion na Wa (2013) and The Lost Café (2017), grappled with the relationship that young Nigerians have with their country, which makes him seem like a natural fit to tell this story. The reality is quite different. He struggles to establish himself in a drama that is essentially EbonyLife Film’s idea of what a prestige picture should be. The studio has the wrong impression, clearly, and Gyang, who really should know better, seems happy to go along with them.

Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t put in something of his own. The opening scene is a lengthy tracking shot that seems promising enough until the actors start talking. Take away all of that dialogue and the scene would probably be stronger for it.

For whatever reason, Òlòtūré’s picture is far from flattering, despite all of the bright colors and detailed costuming. There is an argument to be made about depicting the ugliness that surrounds victims of sex trafficking, but the picture that Gyang’s Òlòtūré puts out is neither grit nor neorealism. It exists somewhere between Lagos gone to seed and the kind of gaudy prettiness that EbonyLife Films likes to serve. This mix is jarring and doesn’t work in this case.

As if attuned to the lack of depth in play, Gyang tries to compensate by dialing up the blood and gore. None of it works beyond the initial shock value. By the time the action shifts to a drone shot in a village where one character’s mother lives, you almost wish Gyang was making a different film entirely, one in which he feels more comfortable.

Despite the talent and big names involved, the trendy subject matter and socio-relevant themes, Òlòtūré does not rise to the artistic challenge, particularly as that was clearly the intention ab initio. Surprising, really, how so many can have their hearts in the right place and yet miss the mark so wildly.

Further Reading

Nollywood 3.0

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