When a woman announces to her husband, via text message, that she wants a divorce, and insists on retaining custody of their son, what does she do next? Jet off to Cape Town, South Africa, and into the arms of a lover, after trusting her son with the safety of a friend? Repair to the Zanzibar coast to lick her wounds while embracing the hedonistic night life and fending off her husband’s sober entreaties at the same time?
Depending on how one approaches “A Hotel Called Memory,” the intense 49-minute film directed by Akin Omotoso, which had its African premiere at the “Lights Camera Africa!!!” Film Festival in Lagos at the end of September, it could be either of those. Or it could be none of them at all.
And every option is a valid one. The most important element is that the experience, at once singular and collective is ingrained.
Described as a tone poem by Omotoso, “A Hotel Called Memory” concerns itself with elements of mood and scene and downplays aspects relating to plot or story. Sandy beaches, fast waves and ocean waters not only compete with the leads for attention but help to build the world that the heroine Lola (a sultry, confident Nse Ikpe-Etim) likes to immerse herself in.
In Lagos, the beaches may stand as a metaphor for cleansing and starting over, as evidenced by the film’s depiction of white garment worshippers singing and gyrating to the drumbeats of their own making, while a child heads perilously close to plunging into the ocean’s waters. Incidentally, the voices of these worshippers are the only ones spoken aloud throughout the film’s running time. All other characters express their thoughts and feelings in phone chats, typed out on screen, or physically through body language.
In Zanzibar, calm waters and a busy night life offer the heroine the chance of escape, even if for the briefest of periods. Cape Town represents a brief tension, the calm before the storm, the anxious moments just before life happens, and everything falls apart.
Except Omotoso is not interested in creating actual tensions or resolving them. He is content with gazing detachedly at his actors — himself included — while they busy themselves on screen, doing nothing that successfully pushes a linear narrative.
Omotoso is presently in a fertile stage of a successful career that has had him attempt a wide genre of film projects. He is as comfortable in romantic comedy (Tell Me Sweet Something) as he is tackling inner city immigrant life (Vaya). Born of Nigerian and Bajan parents, he commenced his professional career in South Africa and has found ways to make art that combines elements from both cultures. His 2011 award winning Man on Ground confronted South Africa’s ugly xenophobic history in relation to Nigerian immigrants and he led a crew of mostly South Africans to direct the television adaptation of the hit Nigerian movie, Fifty, about a circle of middle aged women.
Produced by Ego Boyo (30 Days, Keeping Faith), A Hotel Called Memory assembles actors, Mmabatho Montsho, Nomzamo Mbatha (South Africa) and Lala Akindoju (Nigeria) to support Ikpe-Etim and Omotoso in giving lyrical life to the screenplay penned by Branwen Okpako [She also edited the film].
Their characters are ultimately not knowable, purposely so, as they express in living color their frustrations and exasperations. They beguile, seduce and ultimately brutalize one another, but their antics are relayed from a distance as Omotoso keeps each one a blank slate for the audience to project their own backstories or motives.
Carrying a film with zero dialogue presents the actors with a unique opportunity as they seek to convey the span of emotions with facial and body expressions. Ikpe-Etim rises to the challenge and is eminently watchable as a woman on the edge. She allows herself become a willing tool of the director who in turn, places her in natural environments and just observes her response. Whether she is wandering the markets of Zanzibar or laying on the beach in sweet surrender, her generous expressiveness gives the film much of its power.
Shot intermittently over a period of three years, with the Sony A7S camera on a 45mm swing shift with tilt lenses, and taking advantage of natural lighting as much as possible, A Hotel Called Memory had its international premiere at the 6th Annual Blackstar Film Festival in Philadelphia, where it won an Audience Award for Favorite Experimental Film.
By letting viewers own their subjectivity and make their own impressions of what they have just experienced, A Hotel Called Memory reevaluates cinematic conventions that have characterized Omotoso’s work in the past and reinvents him as a chameleon, taking on considerable risk and license.
A construct on the nature and power of memory, a study on the pains and perils of starting over, a meditation on divorce, infidelity and the futility of modern relationships, Omotoso’s latest could be any, all, or none of these. Puzzling and bewildering, its proudest achievement is that it makes audiences think. That in itself may be enough victory.