Lagos in its filthy glory

Filmmaker Akin Omotoso shows the Lagos that pushes the sane to insanity, the meek to thuggery and the lawful to anarchy.

Still from The Ghost and the House of Truth.

Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, is an enigma that defies logic, an attractive villain that seduces its victims with faux commercial hopes and gaslights them into an abusive relationship. Nollywood often plays into its hands, portraying it as a glorious city, one full of merriment and rich people who fight over the most mundane things at big parties. Akin Omotoso’s feature film, The Ghost and the House of Truth, sees right through the bullshit; it acknowledges that Lagos is a mad, violent man.

The film is an authentic but unpalatable dramatic and visual feast that captures the filth and brutality of Lagos, without apologies. However, despite its many stunning aerial shots capturing the filth of Makoko, there is nothing exploitative about this film. It is not poverty porn. Omotoso is from Nigeria, after all, so he knows better. He, instead, has created a cinematic experience about the cruelty of Lagos. He shows the audience the Lagos that pushes the sane to insanity, the meek to thuggery, and the lawful to anarchy.

To unmask Lagos’ façade and show its true colors, Omotoso—working with the terrific duo of Christian Epps (gaffer) and Kabelo Thathe (cinematographer)—shoots in low light and uses less cinematic cosmetics, so the picture is very raw and realistic. The actors’ faces look dark and sweaty, and the environment: dirty and ugly. The ugliness is not for fun; the story is distasteful and distressing, and Omotoso wants to create the appropriate world for it.

The story’s protagonist, Bola, is a dedicated counselor who helps convicts reconcile with their victims. In an early scene, we see her facilitate a reconciliation session between a convict, Debo (Seun Ajayi), and his victim, Mrs. Douglas (Gloria Young). Bola is calm and collected during the session. But one day her daughter, Nike, does not return home from school.

As the hours tick by, Bola moves from calm to unsettled to paranoid. She visits Joe, who drives Nike and her cousin to school, and scourers the city looking for her child. Finally, she goes to the police.

“My daughter is missing,” she tells the policewoman at the counter. “Please, write statement,” the officer replies. But Bola is impatient, she wants answers immediately, and she knows writing a statement will not help her situation. Then enters the pregnant inspector Folashade Adetola aka Stainless (a steely, intense Kate Henshaw), who recognizes Bola from court meetings. She takes Bola upstairs, after brief questioning she promises to handle the case following due process. Bola knows “due process” takes forever in Lagos, so she offers money to help speed up things. “Dem dey call me Stainless,” inspector Adetola says, refusing the bribe.

True to her word, Stainless takes up the case, and she gives Bola regular updates. The first suspect is the aforementioned Joe. Bola says the kids love and trust him, but when she hears he was imprisoned in Kano for “touching” small boys, he becomes guilty in her eyes. Another name comes up, Mr. Ayodeji (who is also a sex offender), he seems guilty but says he is innocent. Stainless believes so, too. Bola does not. She starts to stalk him. One day after shadowing Ayodeji, she returns home to the news that her daughter has been found dead. Nike was raped and murdered.

After Nike’s death, the investigation accelerates. Stainless calls Ayodeji for more questioning, when things get intense, he calls for his lawyer, and suddenly he has an alibi. Heartbroken and feeling helpless because the law cannot help find her daughter’s murderer, Bola becomes vengeful. It would be a disservice to discuss the events that follow, but it all points to one thing: Lagos is cruel.

British-Nigerian actress Susan Wokoma, who plays Bola, brings incredible humanity to her character. As the taciturn inspector Stainless, Kate Henshaw is terrific, her contained intensity praiseworthy. Her performance echoes an unpopular sentiment I share: Nollywood actors are not often well-directed, and the stories are not layered enough to evoke strong performances. In the heartbreaking scene where Stainless informs Bola of Nike’s death, Henshaw and Wokoma emote quietly, but powerfully. It shows how in control they are of their performances.

There is an excellent cameo towards the end by a character who appears in a fantastic chase sequence that captures artfully the brutality of Lagos, the limits of the law and the painful reality of poverty. I have always believed the slums of Lagos are cinematic settings unlike anywhere else; this chase sequence proves so.

The film is a reminder that we need more representation of this Lagos in our cinemas. Succeeding this scene is the film’s emotional climax, a sucker punch powered by haunting music and one last dose of quiet, powerfully emotive performances from the cast. I left the cinema delighted but also desolate: the film reveals our reality as Lagosians.

Further Reading

Nollywood 3.0

Dare Olaitan’s film Ojukokoro gets some room to breathe in New York, after being stifled at the box office in Lagos.