A ‘Nigerian’ movie?
I recently did, and it was something different.
Titled “A Hotel Called Memory,” the film is directed by Akin Omotoso - a Nigerian filmmaker tipped to win the country her first Oscar - and produced by Ego Boyo, a veteran popular for “Checkmate,” “30 Days,” “Keeping Faith” and “Violated.”
It screened for the 1st time in Nigeria at the opening night of the 2017 Lights Camera Africa Film Festival. “A Hotel Called Memory” is a film that conveys its beauty without dialogue. Without dialogue, the actors had only gestures, movements and expressions to tell the story and connect with the audience.
Set and shot on location in three African cities Cape Town, Lagos and Zanzibar, the Film follows Lola – played by Nse Ikpe-Etim - who is recently separated from her husband in Lagos and decides to go on a journey of self rediscovery in Zanzibar and Cape Town, hoping to forget the past and move on with her life.
“A Hotel Called Memory” was an experience. For some, it is a confusing film. For another, it is a limitless creativity, and for others, it is a brave project that fearlessly breaks down cliche of genres in the Nigerian film industry.
For me, I had just seen one of the ‘wokest’ African movies made - the director had given us all a clean canvas to create individual magical experiences off the movie.
After the credits rolled, there were hushed voices trying to figure out what they had just seen: Everyone had a different interpretation of the movie. Seated behind me was a young man with an astonished look, which had us burst into laughter simultaneously. We were thinking alike at that moment; what did we just see?
“I didn’t understand it, but I think it was a great film,” one of the viewers said.
“I think the end was the beginning and the beginning was the end,” another said, trying to figure out the film.
With “A Hotel Called Memory,” Omotoso and Boyo created a different kind of film that allows its audience to understand it however they deem fit and still be right. A film that leaves you thinking, asking questions and having conversations.
“Every time I see the film, It has changed and it raises different questions for me. And to me, that’s one of the things I want people to be able to take away. I wanted us to think. I wanted us to be open,” Ego Boyo said.
“There’s an expectation that we have to produce certain types of films. I have been there and I have done that and I want to move away from that. I wanted a film with a different message, or no message at all. But I just want an experience, different from what I have been used to. And that’s what this film was for me.
I want you to have felt something. You either love it or you hate it. Feel something. Think about it. Have a conversation about it.”
The lady who was seated behind the director Omotoso, when the film ended, said: “I didn’t get it.” She was a representation of several others in the hall.
“I think sometimes we expect things a lot. We expect that this is how it starts or ends. We expect this to happen, we expect that to happen,” Omotoso said.
“But, we wanted to do a film that you could hopefully think about, and because it’s silent, that at some point, your own memory takes over. “
Another spectacular thing about “A Hotel Called Memory” is its breathtaking visuals. A magic created by just Omotoso and his cameraman, using natural light with a Sony A7S camera on a 45mm swing shift with tilt lenses.
Because they didn’t have to deal with moving around with lights and logistics, shooting in Lagos, which has a challenge of traffic and several cases of area boys harassment, was easy for them. For Omotoso, it was a liberating experience.
“When people hear film crew, they expect 40 people to show up. It’s very interesting when it’s just you and the cameraman. We could invade all these places with the help of digital technology.
“Literally, when she [Nse Ikpe-Etim] is dancing in Zanzibar, there’s a party going on, we were just filming. And people leave you alone because everyone has their camera phone. They don’t harass you.
“We went to the beach, the horses were there, so we shot the horses. We then went to the airport and shot the airport. It was a liberating experience.”
Also an actor, Omotoso, who stars in “A Hotel Called Memory” as Lola’s husband, is popular for his role as Femi in the M-NET TV series, “Jacob’s Cross.”
As an actor, he knows how he doesn’t like to be directed, so he tries not to direct actors that way. An attribute that has helped his successful career as a filmmaker.
“Some directors, they have the script and then in the script, your sister has died. They come to you and they tell you ‘so in this scene your sister has died.’ I’m like, ‘I have read the scene. I can read.’
“That’s not what’s going to help you. What’s going to help you is 'what is the journey we are going to go on so the scene can become the thing that makes sense for everybody.”
Ego and Omotoso did a good job with casting actors who trusted them and their creativity. The film boasts talented actors such as Nse Ikpe-Etim, Kemi ‘Lala’ Akindoju, Mmabatho Montsho, Nomzamo Mbatha and Abdi Hussein.
“We all like dialogue, everybody wants to talk, and suddenly when you don’t have to talk, it’s a whole other thing. Because the camera doesn’t lie and it requires for you to think deeper.
“So, I have been blessed with actors that are happy to go on that journey. It’s not all actors that are interested in that kind of thing. You need people who trust you. For me as an actor, I like to work with people who are intelligent and have emotional intelligence”
The film which already won the audience award for best experimental film at the Black Star Film Festival in Philadelphia was written by a Nigerian in Diaspora, Branwen Okpako.
It was inspired by the story of a woman who was out of divorce, met this guy, and when they wanted to continue, she discovered that things were complicated.
“Very rarely do we see introspection and silence. So, in a way, it was to explore that, but not to be conscious or didactic about it.
Like I said, I hope those who enjoyed the film is that at some point, your own memory takes over. And not that you leave the film, but that you participate in this idea of ‘what do I remember about love?” “What do I remember about a time I spent with a loved one?’
Will “A Hotel Called Memory” find an audience in Nigeria? In 2016, at the opening film festival of Lights Camera Africa Film Festival, another great film screened. It’s titled “Green White Green.” Unfortunately, it didn’t make it to the Nigerian cinemas. “It isn’t for the Nigerian audience,” film distributors had said.
“Everybody enjoys a range of films. I think what tends to happen a lot of time is that people like to box African films. Unfortunately, we get to this point of ‘is it this? Is it that?’ As opposed to ‘It is what it is, and that’s fine, and this is also fine.’ We will sit here and we go home very happy to watch “Game of Thrones,” very happy to watch “House of Cards.” Nobody goes ‘is it this? Is it that?’
So for Akin, the continent has a lot of stories and a lot of people who want to tell this stories, and hopefully, audiences who have an appetite for a variety of stories.
By the end of the festival and an interesting Q & A, Omotoso and Boyo had succeeded, to a great extent, to explain an interesting process and create an experience for the audience; an experience that has nothing to do with their opinion. Everyone left with their own interpretation of the movie.
“For me, I hope that whatever your experience is, I hope it was worthwhile for you. That for me is the thing. It’s okay to watch a film and not understand it. It’s okay to watch a film and think about it in two weeks time, hopefully. We always wanted the film to be an experience, and we don’t think people should deny their experiences. Good or bad.”
It is day three after I saw “A Hotel Called Memory” and I still have no idea what the director had in mind or what it sums up to. I am still thinking about it, creating several scenarios of what I want it to be for me.
I may never get it right, but at least, I have seen a film that displays artistry to almost perfection; an experience I won’t be forgetting in a long time as it seems to have found a place to lodge in my memory.