Nollywood is one of the most prolific industries in the world. Movies from this industry hit close to home as they mirror our day-to-day lives. It has done an incredible job in capturing multiple subjects but failed in depicting the narratives of the queer community. The realities of LGBTQ+ people are inaccurately represented in storytelling as characters are villainized or failed to exist freely in society.
Nollywood has chosen its stance by sticking to conservative beliefs, norms and values on sexuality. However, this is changing. The queer community have taken up this challenge in telling their own stories by changing the narratives and providing a form of representation. I had the opportunity to speak to directors, Ayo T. Lawson and Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim on their upcoming movie, “14 years and a day.”
“14 years and a day” tells the story of a discontented young woman who has a big fight with her partner for 14 years. She ends up going to a dinner alone where she encounters someone who makes her question the course of her relationship.
In this interview, we explore the concept of this movie, its importance in portraying the lived experiences of queer people in Nigeria and even creating stories where queerness can be normalized in the future.
Where did the idea for 14 years and a day come from?
Ayo: Uyai and I frequently visit La Taverna where the space is usually dreamy and romantic. This is where the idea to create something here sprung to us. La Taverna means so much to us being an accepting and queer space in which we feel safe and free. This made us want to create an interesting story where queer people could be happy.
Uyaiedu: It has always been a safe and welcoming space for us. The lights were a huge inspiration as we imagined a romantic meeting that could happen for queer people.
You are definitely presenting an unconventional plot from the usual, but also entertaining the viewers. Would you say there is a fine line to balance those aspects of storytelling?
Ayo: This is a question which I find extremely important especially in Nollywood. There are a lot of themes which the film touches on as it leaves you wanting more on many aspects relating to life. I wanted to create something which people can take from, be it in the form of education for the queer community. We have found that a lot of people in the queer community are not educated on topics such as intersex and non-binary. This movie will help fill that gap as well as be a form of joy and representation.
Do you feel a certain significance in telling indigenous queer stories?
Uyaiedu: For this story, it was more than just the queerness but also the fact that they are nigerians. The identities were important to represent such as “Amal,” one of the main characters being from the North. Those identities were important to represent because these are not usually seen in Nollywood. Queer people are hardly represented nonetheless northern queer people. We wanted Nigerians to feel represented as a whole by drawing the storyline away from plots seen in the West. Our goal was to present the experiences of LGBTQ people living in Nigeria. As you watched, this idea is implemented in the storyline as we show our characters drawing on their experiences from both perspectives.
Ayo: In addition, we wanted to change the narrative of how queer life is perceived in Nigeria especially for the international market. We do acknowledge the challenges such as the imprisonment of 14 years but wanted to present the story that community does exist as everyone has that mindset that we are just hiding. Outside of that 14 years and hiding, we find ways to celebrate lives and create a community. Similarly, it can be compared to how Nigeria is received from the outside world but the media has slowly begun to change that. This is one of the things we intend to achieve.
Given one of the major themes in the movie being acceptability, How do you feel LGBTQ rights can gain traction / progress in Nigeria?
Uyaiedu: Stories really matter to me and us. Storytelling can shape cultures and even create them as well as change ideologies. We really feel that one of the ways that LGBTQ people can begin to be seen in a different light and even see themselves in a different light goes back to the stories that we tell about them. Growing up as an LGBTQ person, we did not have this kind of representation so we could not accept ourselves. Storytelling is important by exploring all kinds of ways as we hope to present the different perspectives of people involved with queer people ranging from families to even friends. We have been able to achieve showcasing the queer community but we hope to introduce stories involving families, siblings, straight friends as they navigate this journey with queer people. We hope to show queer people in different contexts and perspectives as they are seen in all aspects of life.
Ayo: It even goes beyond queerness as it falls down to representation. When you look at international films, for example, a random person in a wheelchair even serves as a form of representation. In nollywood, it is important we utilize this as showcasing queer people in movies matters. Just having queer people in those stories shows that we exist as most nigerian films are always presented with stories of heterosexual individuals. This is unrealistic as it provides the notion that queer people are non-existent. Having them in a minor role plays a huge difference as it shows us that we are seen. We hope to show the world that there is more to queerness than sex and sexuality in relationships. There are other ways we can represent queerness in films.
What was challenging about bringing this script to life?
Uyaiedu: One of the main challenges was funding and everything that goes into that such as finding a cast and crew who would be interested in working on a project like this. People are not always interested or eager to fund or work on films with this plot. These are the main challenges so it is important to find people who believe in these stories. This movie was actually shot in a night which was a main struggle as it served as a major constraint in our role as creative directors.
Ayo: It was not only about bringing the script to life but
also about the vision we had. When you have a time schedule, there is limited time in which you can do retakes, talk to the actors on what was expected from them or even the DP on the certain angles. Finding actors who are willing to have their faces out there in a queer film or being queer as well was a challenge too. A lot of the stories hit home for most which was a bit triggering for the actors but it all worked out in the end.
How did you find the right persons for the main roles? And were there any roles that were particularly difficult to cast?
Uyaiedu: Max was very difficult to cast as we initially started with an open call where people sent in one-minute monologues which we narrowed down for call-backs. We also had a shortlist of actors who we felt fit the role. Initially in the script, Max was supposed to be masculine, tattooed and had piercings. This was particularly difficult to find in Nigeria especially someone who would want to act and be proud in such a role. It is also hard to find trans people who are willing to take that risk and be on the screen. We were happy to cast Fola Francis in such a role but we hope in the future to grant that opportunity to others.
What do you hope audiences take away from this movie?
Uyaiedu: For me, it would have to be choosing and loving yourself. This is a major theme in the movie as self-acceptance and self-love are very important. This is something we wanted our audiences to connect with the main character as authenticity was a longing for her. I hope people are able to come to that place where they choose and love themselves by coming out of situations which no longer serve them.
Ayo: That comes across for almost all the characters as many will see in the movie. Doing what is best for you is important, especially at your own pace and journey. This is key as we wanted everyone to know that.
In terms of directing aspirations, what kind of projects would you like to do in the future?
Uyaiedu: I think as Ayo said we are hoping to present stories neither queer nor heterosexual but mainstream movies which will have queer people in it but not centered around their queerness. We are interested in those stories where queerness is not the issue but rather present. For example, where homophobia is not the point of the story but queer people existing.
Ayo: We want to build a utopia where queerness is normalized and just a normal thing in Nigeria.