All revolutions are driven by stories. Stories that transcend the medium in which they are told and gain a life of their own, radicalizing and evangelizing everyone who encounters them. It is part of the reason I became fascinated with storytelling and why I spent years working in journalism. During my time in journalism, as a fashion and film critic, I have personally experienced how stories can elicit unexpected reactions and I have learned to be careful with how I craft them. I never want to be misconstrued, to have the point I’m trying to convey become distorted by the tools I choose to tell my story, or the choices I make in my delivery. This responsibility is even more urgent when a storyteller is adapting another person’s traumatic story or lived experience.
A storyteller must juggle many elements to find a balance between the storytelling tools of a medium and the facts of the event or experience being adapted. This was the task put before Kenneth Gyang, one of Nigeria’s true auteurs, with Oloture. Adapted from a Premium Times investigation conducted in 2014 by T.O, a Nigerian journalist who went undercover into a prostitution ring to better understand the system that funneled desperate men and women from across the country into Europe and forced them into indentured servitude through violence and isolation. T.O details her personal experience in ZAM magazine and discusses the unforeseen complications that could have cost her a body part or worse. It is clear what her motivations are, what precautions she took, what her plan for extraction was, all standard practice for undercover investigations and she goes to great pains to emphasize that despite the meticulous planning by her and her superiors, things still went south.
It is suggested that EbonyLife Films, the production company behind Oloture asked for and received permission from the Premium Times team to adapt T.O’s story and that she was allowed to see the film before it was shipped off through the festival circuit. This information is relevant because while there are many similarities between Ovuorie’s first personal narrative and Gyang’s adaptations, there are also many important deviations that warp the story in ways that lower the stakes and move many working Nigerian investigative journalists to comment on the film and its shortcomings.
Gyang’s directorial eye is not one of those shortcomings. Since his 2013 Confusion Na Wa, Kenneth has impressed critics with his commitment to storytelling and his preference for gritty stories that frame the Nigerian condition in all its unvarnished yet glorious authenticity. Oloture continues in this tradition, with Gyang setting up one of the most impressive Lagos nightlife scenes ever created in Nollywood. From sets to costuming to tracking shots and a soundtrack that pays homage to Nigeria’s highlife legends, Gyang manages to capture the grittiness of Lagos without patronizing the audience. It is the familiar but alien world that Gyang creates that allows us to believe that his cast, many of whom are playing roles outside their own traditional stereotyping, are actually who they say they are. Omawunmi as a brothel madam is subtle but imposing, allowing Omowunmi Dada, Wofai Fada, Sharon Ooja and Lala Akindoju to shine as a motley crew of prostitutes with differing motivations. We are expected to empathize with their individual journeys, and we do for the most part. But we never quite reach the point where we can fully suspend belief and immerse ourselves in the story Oloture promises to tell because of glaring plot holes that weaken the foundational premise of the story being told.
All of Oloture’s shortcomings can be traced to its writing. Yinka Ogun, a long time EbonyLife collaborator and Craig Freimond, a South African screenwriter, are tasked with adapting Ovuorie’s story for the screen, and from the very first scene, it is obvious that neither T.O or any of the journalists who worked on the 2014 case were hired to consult on the storytelling process. This is obvious because there is no depth to Oloture, the principal character they model after her. We are never informed of Oloture’s motivations for leaving her regular life to go undercover as a sex worker. It is never stated, explicitly or otherwise. We are never told what goal she is working towards, how long she has already been undercover and what the metrics for extraction from her undercover role are. Oloture simply shadows more experienced prostitutes, stealing their clients and clumsily handling compromising situations.
There are no consequences for Oloture’s glaring gaffes, her madam simply rolls her eyes and her fellow prostitutes, whom her behaviour puts at risk seem to shrug off the fact that Ehi (Oloture) never sleeps with the johns whose attention she works to attract. Ehi jeopardizes Linda’s investments towards Italy and puts her life at risk when she tails Linda to the front business of a pimp madam and is caught, yet there is no punishment and Alero, the ‘hardened’ madam who organizes Oloture’s trip to Italy simply accepts that Oloture spied on her and exposed her cover business. Ehi is only in any danger once in the entire film, when Chuks, a pimp character who only seems to exist to move the plot along and ‘show’ the dangerous side of sex work, threatens her for interfering in his relationship with Blessing, who is his only remaining girl.
Oloture’s inexplicable behaviour is used to set up the film’s one gratuitous rape scene. After months undercover as a sex worker, we are expected to believe that she doesn’t understand what it means when she is invited by Alero, a pimp madam who has already threatened her with physical violence earlier in the film to a sex party. She has no exit strategy, and gullibly agrees to take a pill from the stranger she is assigned to for a headache she is faking. Her surprise at her violation is hard to take seriously and her decision to go to Italy rather than seek out therapy so impulsive, it beggars belief. In the same vein, the film goes to great lengths to set up a narrative where Chuks is contrasted with Sandra and Alero as the old school vs the new school. But the story itself does not support this ‘truth’, because we find out soon enough that like Chuks, Alero and Sandra are also pawns with tenuous power, on the lowest rungs of a more expansive crime syndicate.
Oloture spends the entire film in a haze of entitlement, making decisions because she feels ‘compelled’ to, stumbling into avoidable situations and dragging others into those situations. The consequences of those impulsive actions lead to a violent death and increased danger for herself and everyone around her. This entitlement, which the writers desperately try to sell to the audience as naivete is hard to ignore, worsening as the film progresses. By the end of the film, with its ‘unconventional’ final twist, you are left feeling like the victim of a bait and switch, and the film you sat through, pales in comparison to the film you were promised in its first few scenes.
Oloture will start conversations, granted, but at the expense of an already underrepresented journalism community hoping desperately that one of these days, a filmmaker will actually ask them for their stories and replicate them faithfully.