here is a certain sadness that settles upon you at the end of Oloture; It is sadness hewn out of despair, an inexorable and crushing Sisyphean weight.
Kenneth Gyang’s directorial flourish is magisterial as he helms a film that is visceral and gut wrenching and yet entertaining. Credit for this must be given to the deployment of pidgin English which helps us filch humour from a story that is anything but.
An investigative journalist flying under the radar as Ehi aka Oloture, the eponymous protagonist of our tale embarks on a reckless and hare-brained albeit salutary investigation into the global sex trafficking trade. Her encounters make for this thrilling 1.46 minutes film which mines the seething underbelly of Lagos while beaming a harsh search light on a $150bn global trade in flesh.
Smart. – Check.
Stupid. – Also check.
After her encounter with Chief Phillips, Ehi should have learnt to leave well alone but she returns, emboldened by her horrible experience she descends inevitably into the underworld.
Oloture is not easy to watch. It grips you from the get-go and like the Ancient Mariner, bids you watch to the very end when that heavy and crushing weight sits on your shoulder and drags you into a pit of despair.
The story is a familiar one. Young girls from poor homes forced into selling their flesh dream of easier times and better days in Europe but the road to Europe is fraught with danger and the Mephistophelian shenanigans of people like Madam Alero played with understated menace by Omoni Oboli. Then there are the other characters like Victor played by Sambasa Nzeribe who is almost an irritating type until that moment by the pool when his character’s melodramatic acting is redeemed.
As they say in Warri, “dem no dey write am for face.” Alero is a textile trader by day, a respectable member of the society but one with a sordid past. She reminds you of a male character in Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street who also sends young women to Europe to sell their bodies.
The dream of money and wealth and ease for their families back home after a stint in Europe is a sad albatross hanging around the necks of the young women. Linda’s feverish anticipation and fawning over Alero whom she sees as her means of escape from the streets of Lagos is naïve beyond words and so sad to watch and there may be no scene as sad as the moment she welcomes her sister to Lagos.
Blessing played by Lala Akindoju is an orphan in the thrall of her pimp, Chuks, played with aplomb by rapper Ikechukwu in a role that defines anachronism. He drives a big car but instead of a Cadillac, it is a Volvo. He wears jackets and wide brimmed hearts as well as a faux gold chain that is a sad excuse for a Jesus piece. Alero puts his anachronism painfully into words when she tells Chuks that “I dey pity you. You dey form analog when people don go full digital.”
Chuks is a drowning man holding tenaciously to his only lifeline in a world enabled by technology where prostitutes no longer need pimps when can log on easily to a dating site.
The casting is top notch. Each actor inhabits his or her role assuming the aspect of the character they have been chosen to play. Lala as Blessing is timid and unadventurous and you can feel her pain when, as the girls pose to take a picture, someone says “Blessing shift!”
Sharon Ooja nails it as Ehi/Oloture. Her acting is beautiful as she segues between the loud dressing prostitute, intrepid investigative journalist, loving daughter and guardian angel over Linda’s sister Beauty. She inhabits all four incarnations with none managing to displace the other.
Wofai as Vanessa is worldly wise and care free. She lives for the moment and displays none of the naïveté that leads the rest into Alero’s trap. She is a prostitute and makes no bones about it.
Omoni, playing against type delivers as the jaded former prostitute out for a huge pay day. There is something primal and cold blooded when she asks Linda whether her sister is still a virgin and when Linda says yes, Alero tells her “Make she remain like that.”
Patrick Doyle is the slick and oily rich man who gets his kicks from hosting orgies where he drugs and rapes women but it is Blossom Onyejekwe as Mr. Okoye who shines as the Editor of The Scoop and Ehi’s supervisor. He is a conflicted wonder as he tries to exert the authority he does not have over Ehi while at the same time trying to hide his growing attraction to her. It is that sexual tension which makes his loss at the end all the more painful.
One wonders why Beverly Osu is given screen time with scant dialogue. Her wide eyed wonder and facial expressions are impressive for an almost none speaking role. Look out for her in Oloture.
Watching Oloture, it hit me that I had never seen as many women in their bras as I did in this film but there is nothing gratuitous about the nudity. Kenneth Gyang’s handling of this touchy subject is deft and tasteful so much so that even though we see over ten naked women in the ritual scene we are allowed no more than a side glance at a bare breast.
This is a film with a bold message yet that message manages not to detract from the entertainment value. It is a story steeped in lack and poverty as well as desperation and deprivation, yet it manages not to be consigned to the cesspit of poverty porn. There is no gratuitous exploitation of the poor to win cheap gains.
Watching Oloture I was reminded of an old American movie, In too Deep, about an undercover police detective who spends so much time embedded with the criminals that the lines begin to blur. Oloture is, in that sense, a powerful exploration of what it means for the story teller to end up becoming the story. Ehi is a crusading angel who loses her wings to professional hubris and impulsivenness and so fails to take flight at the moment it is most urgent but there is a glimmer of hope at the end as someone fleeing bumps into Mr. Okoye.
I am betting on a sequel for this Netflix original.