Two Nigerian filmmakers discuss the future of queer cinema in Nollywood

In the 2003 feature film emotional crack, one of the first Nigerian films to depict a same-sex relationship, a woman in an abusive marriage to a man finds solace and solace in another woman’s arms. When her husband learns of her affair, he kicks her out of his house. She eventually comes back to him after ending her affair, but her ex-lover attacks her out of anger. The film implicitly suggests that homosexuality is the result of domestic violence and leads to violence itself.

“When a film tells a story about human lives, about people’s existence, the approach to the story matters. They must tell the story in a way that dignifies their humanity. And I don’t think that [Emotional Crack] did that,” says lesbian Nigerian filmmaker Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim.

Ikpe-Etim, whose 2020 short film Love is about two women who fall in love during a three-day date, is part of a new generation of young independent filmmakers whose voices won’t be silenced by the country’s anti-gay laws.

Traditionally, the Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood, is steeped in very conservative notions of family. Marriage is sacred, and any perceived attack must be met with vigor, and even divine vengeance. Homosexuality is still illegal in this country of over 160 million people. In 2014, the Nigerian government enacted the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act which prohibits cohabitation between same-sex partners as well as public displays of “amorous” affection between people of the same sex. Penalties can be up to 14 years in prison.

Other Nollywood movies like women’s affair (2003) and Broken (2017), effectively demean homosexuality by portraying homosexuals as predatory groomers. But the worst performance was in feature 2010 men in love, where rape is portrayed as a process of gay conversion. At the end of the film, homosexuality is portrayed as an evil spirit that only a Christian pastor can cast out.

In recent years, Nollywood has shifted from its Christian dogmatism to exploring stories designed primarily for entertainment. At best, these new films simply avoid talking about homosexuality. For example, the TV show on sex education MTV Shuga included queer representation when produced in Kenya and South Africa, but the Nigerian edition repeatedly avoided mentioning it during its four seasons.

As Nollywood continues to vilify homosexuality, independent LGBTQ+ activists and advocacy groups have filled the void in whatever small way they could. Their movies and shows like Hell and high water and We don’t live here anymore, created by non-profit organization The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), are different from mainstream Nollywood as they attempt to be empathetic to the lived experiences of queer and trans communities. Two recent films by openly gay Nigerians, Ikpe-Etim’s Love (2020) and non-binary filmmaker Wapah Ezeigwe love of countryare even bolder in their story of what it means to be queer and in love in a place where it’s taboo.

Love is a unique study of how lesbians manage romantic relationships in a place like Nigeria, where homosexuality is prohibited.

Ezeigwe’s love of country is set in the countryside of Nsukka, a quiet town in southern Nigeria, and is about a young man, Kambili, who returns home after 15 years to his childhood sweetheart, only to find that things are not as they were.

Both films represent a shift from queerphobic and agenda-driven Nollywood stories to truthful and authentic stories about queer Nigerians by queer Nigerians. I spoke to Ezeigwe and Ikpe-Etim to hear their thoughts on Nollywood’s negative portrayal of gay people and the future of gay cinema in Nigeria.

What inspired your film?

Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim: Love was really born out of the need to tell a story that I hadn’t seen. I read something: if you want to read a book that has not been written, then write this book; and for me that was all with Love. I wanted to see women loving other women in Nigerian contexts, in Nigerian films, in Nigerian spaces. Because we exist, don’t we? I wanted to see this, but no one was telling this story. And because I’m a storyteller and stories matter to me, I decided to tell this story. So really, the short answer is Love was born out of the need for representation of women who love women.

Wapah Ezeigwe: I am a passionate filmmaker who looks at the world with open eyes. Although I have a background in literature, I have found film to be the medium for me to speak boldly and distinctly to the world; tell stories about my humanity and about all humanity. And when I say humanity, I gravitate toward those on the edge of existence. The reality is that we live in a very diverse world and our experiences as humans are very eclectic. It is sad to overlook some people’s stories because of religious or cultural feelings. The truth is that all stories matter. And to build an inclusive world, there must be representation. What I’m saying is that I’m not just driven by passion. I want cinema to be diverse, more inclusive, and I will do my part to make it happen. I believe cinema should be a universal language and a safe space where all human experiences can be reflected.

When I decided to do love of country, I was inspired by women and queer identity. I wanted a story that must first resonate with who I am and my ideologies. It’s because I believe stories should be truthful and authentic. I wanted to make a movie that would represent people like me, and that’s what inspired me Love of country.

What do you think explains the lack of queer representation in Nollywood?

Ezeigwe: I think the film industry in Nigeria is still not open to making queer films. There are very few Nigerian films that have portrayed gay people in an authentic way. The problem is that Nigeria is queerphobic and unwelcoming of stories that honestly portray queer people. It takes truth and courage to tell a queer story in a queerphobic country, and it’s one of the reasons why we barely see queer representation in African cinema.

Do you plan to make more queer films?

Cas-Etim: More than a filmmaker, I like to call myself a storyteller, so you can expect more stories about queer people from me in various media forms, from short stories to feature films to documentaries.

Ezeigwe: Sure! I’m a filmmaker, it’s a job for me! I’m writing the third draft of my second short, so, yes, there will be more films of me, more films that center queer characters. because I’m so drawn to making queer-centric films; it’s a strong part of my artistic identity. Just as American filmmaker Spike Lee would always center and humanize black identity, I will always center and humanize queer identity.

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