ÒLÒTŪRÉ is a brilliant departure for director Kenneth Gyang and the prolific Nigerian producer, Mo Abudu. For Gyang, the film is a splendid show of his growth as a filmmaker; for Ms. Abudu, it’s her audacious produced movie so far. The film is not glamorization and glorification of the ladies in shorts and strappy tops, hawking flesh in clubs and roadsides— no, it goes beyond that. It’s about their plight and dilemma, lives, and death.
The film is a warts-and-all piece of filmmaking detailing and revealing the cruelty of human traffickers and the experience sex workers go through in a country where the poorest citizens are treated inconsequentially. Working from the screenplay by Yinka Ogun and Craig Freimond, Kenneth Gyang doesn’t only direct this pathos-packed, neorealism drama, he lends his trait as an astute filmmaker to every bit of the film. Anchored by strong performances from Sharon Ooja, Omowumi Dada, Omoni Oboli, Ikechukwu Onunaku, and Sambasa Nzeribe, ÒLÒTŪRÉ is a movie that will not only make you hold your breath; it will snatch it up and take it away.
The harsh tone of the movie is set by the opening shot — an extended bit of cinematic virtuosity that takes in the ladies pageantry and struggles to outsmart one another— which is a demonstration of impressive filmmaking skills, a sign that what will follow will be cruel and affecting. The movie opens with the camera tracking the ladies, disclosing a mild dispute in the front, and the-survival-of-the-bravest among the ladies in the clubhouse.
We meet our lead and supporting characters in the thick of the fray in the clubhouse. Sharon Ooja plays Ehi, a brave but naive investigative journalist; Omowumi Dada plays Linda, a sex worker who is desperate to leave the country for Europe in search of better living conditions. A man enters the club, one of the ladies named Vanessa approaches the man for sexual activity. As Vanessa is convincing the man about her sexual prowess, the man looks sideways and sees Ehi dancing seductively at the other end of the club. Sensing that she is about to lose the man, Vanessa pulls him closer and seductively grinds her backside on his genital, intending to win him over. But the man refuses to be won. He has his eyes and heart fixed on Ehi. He leans closer to Vanessa and says: “Variety is the spice of life.” The man leaves Vanessa for Ehi. Ehi and the man strikes a deal. Refusing to be defeated, Vanessa blocks the man’s path as he and Ehi are about to leave for a room. Ehi almost gives up her catch for the furious Vanessa. Linda interferes, a skirmish ensued between her and Vanessa. The man grabs Ehi’s hand and takes her away from the scene. They get into a room. The man is ready for action, Ehi is not. With some theatrical wile and whim of disguise, she escapes the ordeal.
The movie is a portrayal of the harsh reality sex workers are living. Despite making some money, the ladies are living in a decrepit building where we see their undies roughly hanging on walls and clotheslines. That means the women’s lives are not theirs: they are mere economic arrangements for men.
Thrown away by society and fathered by the street, the ladies of ÒLÒTŪRÉ navigate the streets of Lagos, hawking flesh in a bid to attain fortune and power. But sadly they are being exploited by some men and women who see them as goods for sale. Disdain and frown upon by the society, the ladies hardly relate with people outside their trade, they improvise their own families, forming shifting friendships based on want, fear, and even love. Ehi and Linda become close-knitted, and they share pains and anguish. They complain about the unfavorable condition of their job and plan to abandon the country for Europe “Because that’s where the real money is”.
What’s a prostitution business without the presence of men? (I’m not talking about the men who visit the ladies for coital bliss; I’m talking about men who control the business behind the scenes. Though the women are the one in the open, men are the brain and power behind the trade. They are like puppeteers; they pull the strings and control the ladies’ activities. Most men in the movie assert masculinity power over women’s bodies. To them, the female body is something to be owned, used, and discarded at will. The pitiable Blessing is an orphan who was harassed by the state, abandoned by the society, and always victimized by Chuks, a frustrated pimp who is becoming obsolete in the modern world of pimping. In a secret orgy on a yacht with a bunch of pervert Nigerian politicians and men of means, the host Sir Philip, a well-known philanthropist who doubles as a rapist, drugs Ehi and rapes her. Though Alero understands what happened, she looks away because of Sir Philip’s financial strength and connections. Even the stone-cold Alero cowers in the presence of Tony, an agent for the prostitution/human trafficking rings in Italy. Perhaps Alero was once Tony’s capture now she is elevated to the position of recruiting girls for his prostitution/human trafficking ring.
The whole film burns with desperation. Ehi is desperate to unravel the truth about the prostitution/human trafficking ring, but having being raped by Sir Philip, her investigation morphed into a mission for revenge. Ehi’s editor (and boyfriend?), Emeka approaches her to back out. She refuses. “Look Emeka,” she says, “this is no longer your story. It’s now my story. I will get to the end of it, with or without you.” Relentless and undeterred, she immerses herself in the investigation. That leads to a series of sordid experiences for her. Linda is desperate to travel to Europe with the hope of bettering her life and that of her family: “Don’t worry. Once we reach Europe, we will send more money home,” she assures her simple-minded younger sister. Alero and Chuks are desperate to own and control the ladies as they please. After paying for their fare for Europe, some of the ladies are taken to a secluded building. There they are subjected to savage punishment, a tableau of torture and murder that depicts the dehumanization of sex workers who are striving to travel to Europe for the betterment of their lives. Before leaving the country for Europe, the madam makes the ladies swear an oath at a juju temple. The native doctor mixes the blood of a chicken with that of the ladies, to make paths and incisions of the ladies’ bodies. Later, in a series of shots, we see some of the ladies swearing the oaths of allegiance, promising to repay their madam for sending them to Europe and to never speak of their oath, or their debt, to anyone. The swearing of paths and nondisclosure of the agreement is a regular practice in the Nigerian sex/human trafficking world.
The rape, beatings, and killing we witness depict the continuous dehumanization of the female body. The film’s dialogues are raw and bland: They are everyday scenery distinctive to the sex workers. At times the talks are brutal, merciless verbal savaging that tends to demoralize the ladies. But there are occasional glints. Chuks’ maxim on how powerful men are accorded immunity by their wealth and social status is a spark. For the most part, the actors’ performances are memorable. Sharon Ooja’s performance as Ehi is decent, though I find it hard connecting with her like Omowumi Dada, who does a fantastic job as Linda, the supporting lead. And Beverly Osu? What are we to make of her performance? Without saying much, but speaking with her body, her facial expression reeking of anguish like a character in a silent horror film, Beverly commits herself to her role. There is no modern Nollywood villain like Sambasa Nzeribe. He came, turned the screw, and made the movie more intense than it was. Before his arrival, the film was a little bit mild and nerve-racking. Ikechukwu’s bad boy is not that bad. His threat is level-headed and gutless compared to Sambasa’s bloodletting act. When I saw Sambasa, I knew blood would spill, and someone would kiss the dust. And he does what he is requested to do.
ÒLÒTŪRÉ isn’t just a change in style for Kenneth Gyang and Ms. Abudu. It is a change in the execution of art: it’s a mirror that reflects the truth in our society; It’s meant to change our perception of the sex workers world, and raise the Nigerian cinema to another level. Unlike Gyang’s previous, ÒLÒTŪRÉ stands alone as a harsh, unflinching look at lives no human being should be required to lead. It’s a study of the scaled-down, ground-level danger, with profound detail on the confinement of ladies by some cruel people who deemed them as commercial products. It’s on the fractured identity, heightened by the sex workers’ poignant hope for a better future in a foreign land. The film operates according to the well-established logic of exploitation. And the director sensitively combines melancholy with the ultimate life-affirming messages. Kenneth Gyang is a visual stylist whose directorial vision and point-of-view should be applauded. The pure poetry of the opening scene is topnotch cinematography. To wit: Nollywood conventional wisdom is that a lead character survives an ordeal by introducing a Deus Ex Machina. This film ignores that convention. It opts for gripping, nonconventional wisdom that twists the story arc. I love how the film moves from being hopeful to being hopeless. I have read some people complaining about the movie’s ending. For them, Ehi shouldn’t have to be captured after she attempted to escape. Some believe she could have backed out. But if the movie ends otherwise, that would have ruined the work put into the production. For me, nothing captures the depth of human loss as the closing scene. It’s a perfect contrast to the festive, glamourous opening scene. In the end, lost, ill-fated, and crestfallen, the ladies watch as they are being exported through the Seme Border like a pack of edibles to be consumed by perverted European men. It’s the end for them. All hope is lost as they journey through the door of no return like their ancestors did many centuries ago.