Review: Surrealism Rules in Niyi Akinmolayan’s “The House of Secrets”

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Niyi Akinmolayan is mostly known for his popular movies, flicks made not with a high-minded artistic vision but with box office success as the primary driver. One such movie is Chief Daddy 2, a movie so critically panned it would earn the right to be called a commercial success only because many of those who watched it did so out of morbid curiosity: they wanted it to see if it was as bad as people had said it was. While Akinmolayan has acknowledged the importance of those kinds of movies—as he implies in a new interview, the movies provided him with the financial clout needed to undertake more serious projects—he does not wish to be defined by them. He fears that people, swooning over his more commercial projects, have unduly neglected those movies which actually demonstrate his directorial chops. While people recognize him as the hand behind popular, low-brow comedies like Chief Daddy and The Wedding Party 2, they forget the facility for suspense and surprise that he shows in The Set Up. They seem also to forget the ability to fashion drama out of small spaces that he shows in Elevator Baby.

With his production company Anthill Studios, and with the movie The House of Secrets, Akinmolayan hopes to reintroduce himself as a director of both king-sized ability and ambition. For him this movie is the equivalent of a writer taking a break from hackwork—from writing sapless “How to know if your boyfriend is cheating” kind of pieces—to show he is equally capable of producing Pulitzer-worthy pieces, that the hackwork is simply a crude means of keeping the lights on.

Just as Elevator Baby unspools in a compact space, so too does The House of Secrets. Vast swathes of the story unfold in the titular house, and just as in The Set Up there are surprises in many of the narrative’s crevices. The movie revolves around a middle-aged woman Sarah, played by Onajite Dede who often wears a look of miffed confusion. Hobbled by amnesia, our heroine cannot recall details about her life: she cannot remember if she has had any children, she does not remember who a certain Panam Peters is, and most importantly she cannot remember the hiding place of a long-forgotten document which we would learn is invested with much political mystique. 

Yet this movie hangs on our heroine’s ability to recall those details. What she remembers will not only help her to regain her sense of self, it will also bear heavily on her country’s political destiny, her country being present-day Nigeria. If she can just recall where the document is stashed, certain unflattering secrets about a presidential candidate will come to light, sparing her country from being ruled by a murderous, coup-plotting ex-army general.

Onajite Dede playing the amnesiac heroine in Niyi Akinmolayan’s “The House of Secrets”

Stakes like that seem cut out from a comic book, where momentous fates often hinge on the hero or heroine performing a single momentous action: to save Gotham from apocalyptic destruction, Batman must stop the League of Shadows from poisoning the city’s water supply. Going by the surrealistic quality of its stakes, clearly, The House of Secrets is concerned with anything but staying faithful to what is real. Or at least what might be plausibly taken as real. Consider the far-fetchedness of a lone individual being responsible for a country’s political future. And consider too the implausibility, or naïveté, of believing a document from time past can decide whether a Nigerian presidential election would swing left or right. The many real-life examples in Nigeria’s political history challenge that flight of fancy by revealing the country as an ahistorical badland where the past does not usually affect the temperature of the present. Well-known and well-televised duplicities have scarcely debarred a Nigerian politician from assuming political office. So while this movie might be deep in the rut of politics, it won’t be right to classify it as political realism. The ideas it hawks, fanciful as they are, make it more fitting to call the movie a crash course in political surrealism.

However, it is not only this movie’s politics that is suffused with fantasy. Nearly throughout the movie, a dream-like mist overhangs the air, such that one is never quite sure about the verisimilitude of whatever is unfolding. The movie inflicts two sets of people with this pervading sense of doubt: first, our heroine of unreliable memory; second, we the viewers. Like her, at first we think our heroine is living in Nigeria on the cusp of its Fourth Republic; but soon we learn it is present-day Nigeria. Then we are certain our heroine lives close to a railway, as we often hear the metallic blare of passing trains, a jarring noise to which Sarah invariably reacts painfully, hinting that a trauma involving trains must exist somewhere in her benighted subconscious. Truly such a trauma exists, but as we learn the blare of trains is an aural illusion.

Also, we are initially certain our heroine is both a helpless paraplegic and a successful newspaper columnist. Not only would we later learn she can indeed competently use her limbs, we also learn she is as much of a columnist as the Grinch is a lover of Christmas. Although it can be argued that the fact of her being a columnist would hardly fool anyone familiar with the rituals of successful writers. Such writers often tend to be anal-retentive about editing their work; Hemingway supposedly edited the ending of his A Farewell to Arms forty-seven times. But our heroine sends off for publication what looks like the first draft of an article. 

With these frequent misdirections, this movie creates in our heroine’s mind, as much as in our own, the cinematic equivalent of lucid dreaming. As one is never sure if a sequence unfolding is real or not, it becomes hard to tell where fact ends and where fable begins. This movie aims, and is often successful at doing so, to create a mood that is not unlike having a vivid, almost cinematic dream where you have seemingly roused yourself from bed in order to urinate, only to wake up drenched in the mortifying knowledge that you have wet yourself, that the image of you hunched over a water closet was precisely only a mental image and not a physical reality.

Even the movie’s visual language is imbued with a certain surreality. Often suddenly the movie’s polychromatic present cuts into a past cast in the shadows of black and white. Landscapes are ever-shifting. And this frequent and abrupt switch from present to past, and from color to a wan monochrome, adds to the movie’s dream-like and giddy atmosphere.

Shawn Faqua and Efe Irele playing lovers.

This surreality is likewise glimpsed in the interactions between the lovebirds played by Efe Irele and Shawn Faqua in the scenes set in the past. Irele particularly, with her come-hither, lip-biting staredowns oozes a raw and guileless sensuality, her character less of a human and more like a flawless temple of sex, her flirtatious exchanges with her lover more film-like than life-like, thus adding to the movie’s surreal texture. 

However, this surreality won’t charm everyone. Occasionally it might rub off the wrong way, one such likely source of frustration being an unnatural fight scene involving Panam (Faqua) and a disgruntled soldier. This movie’s fair share of illogicalities would also leave you seething with a number of vexing questions. How come one character is inexplicably abducted, only to be equally inexplicably released? But the more important question: How come Panam or Sarah or any of the characters involved in the document-hoarding business did not have the good sense to make photocopies of their prized treasure, to forestall the possibility of losing it to, say, a fire? Surely a story is hanging on a loose thread when the main reason there is a story in the first place is that the characters have failed to avail themselves of technology as basic as a Xerox.

However, the best way to watch this movie is to accept its illogicalities as part of the package, to see them as part of the movie’s hot date with surrealism. When you understand that Akinmolayan has attempted to create a dream and that few dreams obey the precepts of logic, only then does it become easy to get into this movie.

Speaking of dreams, Akinmolayan has fulfilled one with this movie. And that is the dream of making an experimental Nigerian movie that is not primarily driven by the need to achieve immense gains at the box office. His Chief Daddy movies may have been made entirely with mammon in mind. But this one has been made, mostly at least and quite demonstrably, for the sake of making a movie. And what deserves applause more than art made for art’s sake?