The ouroboros is the infamous symbol of a beast eating its own tail, a fitting emblem for the ethos of Swallow, the Netflix original film helmed by acclaimed director Kunle Afolayan, based on Seffi Atta’s 2008 novel of the same name. For its screen adaptation, Afolayan joins forces with the book’s author to realize this segment of Nigerian history. Set in four gruelling weeks between July and August 1985, the story is positioned against the military government’s War Against Indiscipline, an initiative to enforce “traditional values” by cracking down on widespread corruption and “social maladjustment”. In a two hour feature, however, how these measures positively impact the daily lives of citizens remains unseen. Set 3 decades in the past, the world of Swallow feels eerily familiar. 25 years after independence, the struggles of a novice state– normalized power outages, an informal public transit system, arbitrary state curfews, youth unemployment and rampant inflation, feel all too current in this period piece.
Where economics, gender, and leadership are concerned, present national anxieties emerge as recycled trauma from a disaffected youth of eras bygone. “Mummy, I’ve suffered” is a biting first line that ushers the audience into the hero’s quest, as we meet main character Tolani (a searing performance from Niyola in her acting debut) at the end of a Lagos ordeal, walking viewers back through the lessons that brought her home to Makoko. Supported by a competent, righteous best friend Rose (realized by a magnetic Ijeoma Grace Agu), the leads are in the prime of their lives, and the most hopeful they’ll ever be. As they take on workplace sexual harassment, a volatile job market, and kleptocratic officials with not even a margin of justice in their favour, the promise of correcting social maladjustment seems suspended in limbo.
In realising this tale of the gruesome underbelly of Nigeria’s drug-smuggling trade in the 1980s, Afolayan references social markers of the time; portraits of the military general turned two-time president General Muhammadu Buhari overlooks a bureaucratic landscape, sensationalist headlines warning of the country’s social ills, and the recurring echo of international applause for the Golden Eaglets in a formidable series of matches at the FIFA U-16 world championship. In this setting, Afolayan juxtaposes the potential excellence of Nigerian youth against a brash and uninformed gerontocracy that fails to invest in its future as much as it insists on fortifying its past.
The question of tradition over progress rears an ugly, multidimensional head as generational issues of women being devalued in the workplace– if they have opportunities to work at all, and a stagnant youth population, 53% majority of whom remain unemployed. In the character of Mama Chidi, audiences are fed the notion that “She would’ve been a professor in an ideal world”. That ideal world could easily look like any post-industrial revolution country with a stable infrastructure and enlightened regard for women’s contributions to the workforce. Instead, a pointedly absent Papa Chidi leaves his wife, sequentially pregnant and running the household, trapped in a cycle of breeding and brooding behind a newspaper unable to stretch the capacities of her intellect. With ongoing global NGO campaigns centring ‘The Girl Child’, the discrepancy in young womens’ access to formal education paints a grim picture of Mama Chidi as a relic of the past and foreshadowing what the future holds.
In the young, female leads, Afolayan frames a desolate economic landscape in which women’s bodies inhabit a battleground of oppression in office and in the streets, while men, victims of the same tyranny, externalise their frustrations by enacting violence against women for their personal gratification. Through the experiences of Tolani and Rose, we see women being socially groomed, physically threatened, and emotionally manipulated into the drug trade without being offered a second thought or warning of the risks to come. Afolayan’s cunning team of prop and costume designers keeps viewers locked in the 1985 time capsule, where Rose’s style echoes Gloria Okon, an infamous courier whose death remains an unsolved mystery, and the subject of conspiracy theories. Her onscreen parallel dons a pair of high heels too steep for comfort and stumbles her way down a narrow path, surrendering to a permanent state of feigned arrogance in the face of anxiety, undeterred by risk, unprepared for danger. Though black market demands fluctuate in priority, the horrors of unregulated human labour still plague vulnerable populations, desperate for a way out. Netflix Naija’s 2020 breakout feature Oloture (directed by Kenneth Gyang) replicates this hustle in its brutal depiction of sex trafficking in present-day Nigeria, while Swallow pictures a gritty indoctrination sequence that is hair-raising on its own, and bone-chilling in its similarity to its cinematic counterpart, 30 years removed from the setting.
While public officials are largely removed from the story, unless when mentioned to highlight stories of inefficacy, their lack of involvement underscores a status quo of Nigerian citizenhood at least 30 years in the making: When leaders of the most populated country on the continent fail to build a reliable and sustainable future for their constituency, the people rely on cultural exports to maintain the status of “giant of Africa”. Though the wins are well-deserved and highly celebrated, pairing isolated sources of national pride against a gritty tale of commercial exploitation, demonstrates a looming, generational fear that the progress of Nigerian youth will be squandered by reckless leadership. In a sports bar, or an attempt at one, makeshift walls are covered in posters of Fela. Images of the famed musician and notorious activist watch over the spectators, a reminder of promises unfulfilled after years and years of protest against the inequalities that hinder social and industrial progress to this day. And just as the generation before them, Nigerian millennials look to the accomplishments of performers achieving international success to muster any sense of national pride. In every iteration of the cycle, youth culture looks to football, Nollywood, or Afrobeats as a respite from the drudgery of everyday Nigeria. And as the culture thrives far beyond the shores of the country, the urge to ‘japa’ by any means necessary graduates from a lofty ideal to an urgent calling.
In the thick of a crawling dependency on foreign investment, the twenty-something leads are young and hungry idealists in the prime of their lives, children of independence. Yet the drudgery of wading through a static job market and the unrelenting threat of poverty has delayed if not completely dulled the hope to dream of a life beyond their circumstances. To the question of marriage, Tolani’s lover quips, “only rich people marry before 40”. The young man’s throwaway line provokes an unsettling truth: To be young and hopeful in Nigeria is a privilege. Unfortunately, the events of Swallow confirm what many Nigerian viewers already know to be true. There is a certain false hope in celebrating 61 years of freedom while the country is chained to old, destructive, patterns. In a more innocuous scene, Afolyan renders focus on a slum community lamenting the loss of a small child, whom no one noticed running away when the fury and discipline of his own mother felt more dangerous than plunging into the unknown. It is a gutting excerpt that begs reevaluation of the place one calls home, and foreshadows a tragic ending that emphasizes the need for communal efforts to protect each other against a hostile environment. For those eager to leave, uncertainty awaits on foreign shores, while those who remain are threatened to surrender to their fate. As the film closes, Tolani waves goodbye to her boyfriend from the city, resigned to a simple life in her hometown. Dust settles on the sleepy town of Makoko, and the camera pans up to the skies as if searching for an answer to the question, could there be more to life than this?
A. Tabi is a freelance writer who covers film and television with an emphasis on social commentary.