Film Africa 2012: Nigerians at the BFI

Phone Swap

A few weeks back, following several days and sleepless nights of terrible illness (a head cold that felt like a troop of ill-tempered monkeys – led by a stompy soldier – had taken up residence in my body), I wrapped up in three layers, biker boots and a headwrap to go attend a film screening and director Q&A at the BFI. The movie was Phone Swap, part of the 2012 programme of the Film Africa festival. I loved it. I mean: I really, really loved it.

The plot is hardly groundbreaking, it’s a play on the classic ‘mix up’ trope: at Murtala Muhammed Airport on a rush hour Friday, straitlaced stick-up-the-arse businessman Akin collides with Mary, a seamstress-cum-wannabe designer with a dream (and little else). In the ensuing confusion of this not quite meetcute, they manage to exchange phones by accident. They also somehow end up on the wrong planes – Akin ends up going to Owerri; Mary, Abuja. (this is one of only two mild ‘WTF?’ moments in the whole film) They end up realising their mistake, and via various convoluted fish out of water shenanigans, and personality clashes etc manage to find and fall in love with each other.

What sets is apart from any old romcom, then? Easy. The script. It’s the best part of the movie. Screenwriter Kemi Adesoye captures modern Nigeria – and that includes the lot of many an urban dweller: fetching water for her morning shower from the communal tap, the surrogate familial relationships formed away from ‘home’, the juxtaposition of the explosion of mobile technology in Nigeria and necessarily popular okada transport… It also shines a light on the lives of the Lagos rich: chauffeurs, put upon PAs, never having to say thank you or sorry (the definition of ‘love’, no?)… All this, and it never feels like a regurgitation of ‘research’. It’s so funny: it flows and fair crackles, zipping along wittily in pidgin, Igbo, Yoruba, English and even Twi.

Nse Ikpe-Etim’s Mary is winning with the kind of natural charm that makes stars. Wale Ojo interprets the stiff Akin sublimely, down to the little side-eyes that no amount of money and breeding can flush out of a Nigerian. The supporting players are ace as well, not least Ada Amah as Cynthia, Mary’s overzealous police officer sister with a dangerous temper and Afeez Oyetoro as Alex the poor PA making a little extra on the side (my sister nailed it when she mentioned his uncanny resemblance to Penfold). The little Nigerian girl in me also thrilled to see Joke Silva (!) and Chika Okpala (“Chief Zebrudaya, alias 4:30”) still acting. Really, though – the whole cast was delightful. (PS: can someone get me the number of either one or both of the twins Alpha and Omega? For, um, reasons.)

The look of the film is notable. Within minutes of the film starting, my sister and I turned to one another to whisper (sorry!) about how beautiful the film was. Later, Afolayan singled out colourist Jason Moffat for his work on the film. Phone Swap shines thanks to him. It had a fantastic Nigerian flavour from the trendy two-tone makeup in favour at the moment (WHY?!) to the casual way people unnecessarily abuse their power.

Source: Televisual

And so, the Q&A. One quick note: Nigerians. Let’s stop applauding everything. I have never been to a Nigerian-heavy event in which clapping has not been transformed from a joyful action into the subject of sharp looks and exasperated sighs. I understood in this case – a film we can be proud of! – but really. Props to that special audience member who stubbornly persisted in clapping after one answer until we all – reluctantly and resignedly – joined in. Graciously, the director gently waved it away with a smile and “I know how my people react to film!” And anyway, at least we bypassed the usual lengthy monologue masquerading as a question this time…

Afoloayan turned out to be a very considered, thoughtful interviewee. He gave full answers, rejected pat observations and sought to provide actual information without the artistic waffle that sometimes mars these Q&A sessions. Afolayan’s thoughts on film financing and investment, sponsorship, product placement and making films in, about and by Africans were illuminating and insightful. Lead actor Wale Ojo (Meet The Adebanjos) was similarly impressive, though he did give way to some inevitable luvvie-ism. But come on, he’s an actor. Afterwards, I briefly met the director – he was perfectly charming, ending in a compliment about my headwrap – “a nice bit of culture,” he called it. You know it! *preen*

I can’t wait to buy this on DVD. It was such a pleasure to watch a funny, well-written and acted, polished movie about Nigerians in Nigeria, made by a Nigerian. In London. More, please.

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