Nigeria’s first lesbian love story goes online to beat film censors
Nigerian filmmaker Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim says she is tackling the subject of lesbian love head-on in her new film titled “Ife,” to create space for queer characters in the country’s prolific movie industry.
“Ife'” means love in the Yoruba language, spoken in West Africa, and most prominently in southern Nigeria.
The story centers on two women; Adora (Cindy Amadi) and the titular character (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) who fall in love over the course of a three-day date and the uncertainty surrounding their relationship.
It is created in partnership with Equality hub, an NGO in Nigeria focused on fighting social injustices against sexual minorities.
“I’m queer so ‘Ife’ is dear to my heart. I wanted to represent LGBTQ characters in a different light than how they are shown in past stories, to change how heterosexuals view them, Ipke-Etim explained.
“They come into problems when they are not certain of the future of their relationship considering that these two women live in Nigeria which is a homophobic country,” she said of the storyline.
“I just wanted to tell a story that Nigerian queer women can relate to,” Ikpe-Etim said in a video posted to the movie’s YouTube channel. “I hope that five years from now, 10 years from now, a baby gay can see this film and be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what’s happening to me. I like girls, too.’”
“Every time there is a film made that centres LGBTQ people, it would always be about gay men,” she said.
“This is one for us … it will bring immense joy to the hearts of many of us who would be seeing people like us centred in a Nigerian film for the first time.”
In the West African nation where homophobia runs rampant, Ikpe-Etim is an advocate for the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) community.
“In Nigeria, there has never been a film like Ife,” says producer Pamela Adie, one of Nigeria’s most prominent LGBT+ activists, who has been a World Economic Forum speaker and won recognition from the Obama Foundation as a young African leader.
She works as a campaign manager for All Out, a US-headquartered LGBT+ rights group.
A high point of her job was leading a successful campaign to ban homophobic US pastor Steven Anderson from visiting SA in 2016, with more than 50,000 people petitioning against his hate speech.
Adie said the queer relationship depicted in the film, which appears to have been largely embraced by their community, “is not an exception.”
“It’s actually one that’s really common, and that’s the reason why it should be told,” she said.
Overcoming Stereotypes in Nigeria
Arts and entertainment are major cultural exports for Nigeria. Its multibillion-dollar film industry, Nollywood, has always had a problematic relationship with its queer characters, portraying them as mentally ill, under the influence of witchcraft or troubled.
These problematic roles encourage violence or judgment from viewers, Ikpe-Etim says.
By making Nigeria’s first lesbian love story, they hope they can help other women struggling with their sexuality.
Adie sees the media as a key force in changing hearts and minds. She told CNN that she wants to challenge other filmmakers in Nollywood to create more nuanced queer stories devoid of the usual stereotypes.
“No film has had this impact in Nigeria … The reception to the poster and the trailer has been mad. We expect it will be madder when the full film is released.”
The feeling of being sidelined and the need to challenge beliefs that homosexuality is immoral is what inspired director Ikpe-Etim to take on the project.
“Before now, we have been told one-sided stories. What we are doing with this film is normalising the queer experience, we are normalising the LGBT romance.
“It will begin to erase that shame that LBQ [lesbian, bisexual and queer] women face,” she told the BBC.
Censorship of queer films
The film is currently battling with Nigeria’s film censors, who have said they may “go after the producers,” if they find that the film promotes homosexuality.
The National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) is the government agency set up to regulate films and videos in Nigeria.
Adedayo Thomas, executive director of the NFVCB, told CNN the board will not approve films that promote themes that don’t conform with the country’s “constitution, morals and traditions.”
“We are monitoring the progress of the movie, and if it goes against the law by promoting homosexuality, we will be forced at some point to go after the producer and executive producer,” he added.
According to Thomas, Ife was never submitted to the NFVCB before its trailer was released, making it impossible to classify or censor the film.
“We look at the content of the film and we look at the end. For example, in a movie that glorifies fraud, we look at how it ends, did the fraudster meet their waterloo? How the movie ends will determine our censorship. You wouldn’t watch your kid to watch a film that glorifies fraud,” he told CNN.
Nigeria is not the only country with strict rules regarding films with strong LGBTQ representation. This is not the first time an LGBTQ-themed movie has fallen foul of regulators on the continent.
In April 2018, Rafiki was banned by Kenya’s Film and Classification Board (KFCB) because of its intent to “promote lesbianism,” in the East African nation. The film went on to be the East African nation’s first film to premiere at the Cannes film festival and also receive an Oscar nomination.
Stories of Our Lives, a collection of five short films based on stories of LGBTQ life in Kenya was banned in 2014 for being “contrary to national norms”.
Inxeba/The Wound, a South African film about a relationship between two men in the context of the Xhosa initiation ritual was also banned from mainstream South African cinemas in 2018.
Adie says agencies like NFVCB suppress the creativity of filmmakers.
“If there is a demand for films like Ife and if people want it, and the censor’s board does not approve then it means they are indirectly stifling the creative powers of filmmakers. To deny a film simply because of queer characters is discrimination,” she said.
Although an official release date has not been announced, updates are likely to be posted on the film’s Instagram and its official website.
Anticipating that Ìfé would not be approved for traditional distribution in Nigeria, the filmmakers told Reuters it will be available to stream online later this year.
They are organising a private screening in the commercial capital, Lagos, for which they believe they do not need to get permission and have planned an international premiere in Canada in October.
But there is no plan for large-scale screenings of Ife in Nigerian cinemas or selling the DVD, as the producers want to make it available online as pay-on-demand.
Despite the challenges around creating queer centered films in Nigeria, Adie says there has been an outpouring of support for “Ife” from audiences in the country.
“It is something that is groundbreaking. We have received support, from when we released the poster to the trailer. It feels like people didn’t know they wanted this kind of content till now.”