OUT IN AFRICA (PART FOUR)
Young queer filmmakers in Nigeria celebrate their ‘joy, resilience and power’ despite the country’s harsh anti-queer laws
A series of four articles examine issues of policy, laws, rights, culture, popular culture, language, stigma, crimes, discrimination and individual experience of the queer community in four African countries.
In a scene from the upcoming Nigerian queer short film Country Love, two young men sit in an empty field. They talk, laugh and poke fun at each other, before embracing in a passionate kiss.
It is a somewhat awkward, yet ultimately tender scene in the poignant, groundbreaking and visually arresting 45-minute film. Set in rural Nigeria, it tells the story of Kambili (played by Kelechi Michael), a young queer man, who returns to his family home in rural Nigeria after 15 years. Here, after his search for home and romantic love yields disappointing results, he sets out to create a space in the world for himself.
Wapah Ezeigwe is the film’s director. Ezeigwe, who identifies as non-binary, says finding actors to portray the lead roles was a struggle.
“What I was really bothered about was if I would even get queer people to tell the story. Because I met lots of actors that turned down the role because of that intimate scene; the whole making out and everything. There was one heterosexual actor, who was like, ‘Change the intimate scene and I’ll do it.’ I was like, ‘Number one, you are heterosexual and you are telling me to change this scene? Like, how dare you?’ I can’t change my story for a heterosexual. That’s the last thing I’m going to do. I can’t even consider that, you get? Because when they talk about queerness here in Nigeria, it’s always a joke. It’s sort of a caricature,” explains Ezeigwe.
“So I’m happy that, at the end of the day, I found some queer people who were willing and bold enough to actually tell the story and, you know, take up the scene.”
Finding actors in Nigeria — whether queer or not — to take on roles depicting same-sex intimacy in a respectful way is no mean feat. The West African country is renowned for being repressively anti-queer.
The country’s Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act carries with it sentences of up 14 years imprisonment for those found guilty of consensual same-sex sexual relations.
A Human Rights Watch report notes that, although “the notional purpose of the Act is to prohibit marriage between persons of the same sex, in reality its scope is much wider. The law forbids any cohabitation between same-sex sexual partners and bans any ‘public show of same sex amorous relationship’.”
The Act imposes a 10-year prison sentence on anyone who “registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation” or “supports” the activities of such organisations.
A 2019 report by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) found that societal attitudes towards the law is shifting away from supporting it.
“In 2015, 90% of respondents surveyed supported the law, but in 2019 about 75% support it. This shows a significant 15% drop in four years. While most Nigerians still view LGBT rights negatively, the public seems to be moving towards a higher level of acceptance and tolerance,” said the report.
The study also found “a gradual increase in acceptance of LGBT+ persons. The results show that 60% of Nigerians will not accept a family member who is LGBT. While this is high, it is significant progress from the 83% who said they would not accept an LGBT family member in 2017.”
The Human Rights Watch report, however, noted that “the law has had an insidious effect on individual self-expression” of queer people in Nigeria.
“Since January 2014,” it noted, “several said that they had adopted self-censoring behaviour by significantly and consciously altering their gender presentation to avoid detection or suspicion by members of the public and to avoid arrest and extortion.”
For Ezeigwe, having a lead character that is gender-diverse was a deliberate pushback against this kind of self-policing.
“I’m very intentional. And I’m very political about my film. Very, very political. Because nobody in Nigeria is going to write a queer character. Never. Nobody. So my character is femme because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a femme character being represented… Maybe in Western cinema. But in African cinema, there is never a femme character. Even when we say, ‘Let’s portray a queer character’, [that character is] always masculine. And me being femme, I was like, ‘No, I can’t talk about a queer person and the person is not femme’. That character kind of shows a bit of me, because I’m a very fearless person. Even though I live in a very stifling society. I don’t let people stifle my self-expression at all. So I don’t want the character to be, like, the victim. I want to represent femme people that are very powerful. I don’t want people to have sympathy or pity. Like, ‘Oh, let’s have pity for him. He is femme, he is queer and he is suffering.’ No. We have to see our identity from a place of power.”
Seeing their identities from a place of power is what barely a handful of other queer Nigerian filmmakers are doing — or, at least, trying to do.
“I’m not alone in this [as a queer creative],” Ezeigwe says. “I feel there is a sort of revolution. Though it’s still on a very low level, it’s coming up. There are a few queer people who are artists that I’ve seen that are being fearless about queer activism.”
Among these filmmakers is the team behind the 2020 film Ife, the country’s first queer movie, which tells the story of two Nigerian women who fall in love over a three-day date.
Nigerian queer rights activist Pamela Adie was the film’s executive producer. In a recent podcast, Adie said: “You rarely see stories about love; about resilience. Even stories about two women. In fact, a lot of the stories that are within the Nigerian media space — that are also negative — are mostly focused on men. So we wanted to make a film to change the narrative from, ‘Okay, these people are crazy and they need to be cured’ to a narrative of celebrating love and falling in love. You know, just like everyone else. We also just wanted to give queer Nigerian women the chance to see themselves, you know, accurately portrayed on the big screen.”
The film did not, however, make it to the big screen. The country’s National National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) made it clear that it would not allow the screening of the film because of its queer content.
“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,” Adedayo Thomas, executive director of the NFVCB, said in an interview with CNN.
“We knew that they were not going to approve our film. So we didn’t even want to try,” Adie said, adding that the filmmakers took the film online instead.
“The Equality Hub, which is the executive producer of Ife, has an online streaming platform. And so, when we made the film, we made it exclusively to show on the platform. Anyone can go watch it on ehtvnetwork.com. The drawback to that is that we have minimal reach, because we’re new.”
Possible censure of artistic works makes the use of online platforms the ideal fit for a younger generation of queer folk.
Queer rights activist Matthew Blaise is the founder of The Oasis Group, a Nigerian non-profit organisation that aims to “promote positive representation and humanisation of queer people”. As a result of the group’s activism, 22-year-old Blaise was awarded the 2021 MTV EMA Generation Change Award. The award recognises “fearless, original young people who are tackling the world’s toughest problems through music, storytelling or digital media”.
Filmmaking is the next step in Blaise’s pursuit of equal rights for queer people in Nigeria.
“I believe film is very, very powerful,” explains Blaise. “One thing that has been instrumental in combating the stereotypes is filmmaking; filmmaking as a form of activism. So it’s very, very important in changing the perception of a larger number of people about queerness. In Nigeria, queer people are portrayed as paedophiles, as rapists, as criminals in the society. And we don’t see anything more than this. If you see some movies have queer characters, the aim of the queer characters is to do something nasty that would make people will say, ‘All these people, they are not okay.’ It’s quite crazy, this representation. It’s not accurate. It does not depict us and our humanity.”
Blaise adds that the skewed representation of queerness fuels discrimination and violence.
“There are a lot of arguments about whether queerness is valid; if it is historically African. This rhetoric leads to a lot of homophobia. And [makes queer people vulnerable] to danger. So, for me, I feel film will do so much work in changing these negative stereotypes and these portrayals of queer people in a negative light. Film, for me, is an affirmation of my queerness, and a way to educate people who should learn — who must learn — in order for us to have a progressive society. Filmmaking, for me, is about education, re-education and reorientation. And also a celebration of my queer joy, resilience and power.”
Aware of the possible censure their film might face, Ezeigwe is pushing ahead with their labour of love and hopes to promote it at film festivals, while also trying to court streaming platforms. The struggles of creating queer film content in Nigeria aside, the young director says they hope the film will ultimately inspire others to do the same.
“I want more queer filmmakers. I really want queer filmmakers to, like, come up and tell queer stories. Because I alone cannot be telling queer stories. We should stop shying away from telling our stories. Because that is the only way we can change the narrative.” DM/MC