Sefi Atta is a prodigious producer of culture.
She has authored plays, children’s books, novels and radio plays. Her collaboration with Kunle Afolayan for a screen adaptation of Swallow, the second of her four published novels, is her debut screenplay. As expected, her carefully wrought use of language reflects in the movie. The dialogues are simple yet thoughtful. Her collaborator, Kunle Afolayan has been widely touted as one of the leaders of the recent Nollywood renaissance and so it is expected that such collaboration will produce an absorbing movie. Nigerian singer, Eniola Akinbo (Niyola) is cast in the lead role of Tolani Ajao while Ijeoma Grace Agu is cast alongside Akinbo as Rose Adamson. The story revolves round the experiences of these two women, navigating Lagos life.
Both lead characters work for the same bank but Rose is sacked by her randy boss, Lamidi Salako, for what is officially recorded as insubordination. Salako has repeatedly touched Rose inappropriately but one day, Rose slaps him and she is fired. Salako then requests that Tolani be transferred to replace Rose as his secretary, but, as the boss can’t help himself, he gets on the wrong side of Tolani too, while colleagues in the office gossip about her.
The story details how Nigerians have to negotiate existence and survival in the midst of so many challenges. There’s a sharp focus on corruption and a piercing gaze on fraud in the banking system. Rose eventually meets a rich American returnee who introduces the two ladies to the drug smuggling trade. After Tolani becomes frustrated with her job and with her boyfriend having lost her savings in a fraudulent business he innocently invested in, she considers the drug smuggling idea before changing her mind. Rose goes ahead with the smuggling but dies mid-flight as a result of the drug she swallowed. Frustrated and forced to leave Lagos, Tolani returns to her mother in the village. The story exposes how unconquerable Lagos is and how none of the two characters won in their quest for a better life in Lagos
As compelling as Agu’s characterisation of Rose is, Akinbo’s effort with the Tolani character repeatedly drags it down. It is obvious that the movie is Niyola’s screen debut in a major role. Kunle Afolayan has repeatedly introduced musical stars and amateur actors to Nollywood with the casting of Angelique Kidjo in The Ceo, Temi Otedola in Citation, Simi in Mokalik and Niyola (Akinbo) in Swallow. This method had succeeded until Swallow.
The novel boasts of a mix of other characters who come alive with the screen adaptation. Omotunde Adebowale slips in fittingly into the role of Franca, the office rumourmonger. Kunle Idowu, who started out as a social media comedian, appropriately plays the role of a brainwashed born-again Christian.
Deyemi Okanlawon outdoes himself with the portrayal of Sanwo and Chioma Akpotha proves, again, her versatility as Mama Chidi.
In what might be an attempt to break from typecasting, Eniola Badmus acts Mrs. Durojaiye, the frustrated mother and nurse who stays in the same compound with Tolani and Rose. In spite of her role as a mother and nurse, her long screen persona as a problematic street youth jumps out at every opportunity.
For those who have read the novel, the two actors who give the most life to the characters are Olusegun Akinremi and Ijeoma Grace Agu who play Lamidi Salako and Rose Adamson respectively. Salako, with the accent, mannerisms, look and behaviour is reminiscent of the novel’s character. Agu also gives life to the character of Rose, driven and boisterous. She is the archetype of the deprived city youth who has spent her entire life fighting oppression and poverty. In one of the lines that reflect Sefi Atta’s contribution to the movie’s script, she says ‘I’m not ashamed; you know what makes me ashamed? Poverty.’ This line summarises the excuse that a lot of deprived and misguided people give for engaging in fraud and other vices.
As compelling as Agu’s characterisation of Rose is, Akinbo’s effort with the Tolani character repeatedly drags it down. It is obvious that the movie is Niyola’s screen debut in a major role. Kunle Afolayan has repeatedly introduced musical stars and amateur actors to Nollywood with the casting of Angelique Kidjo in The Ceo, Temi Otedola in Citation, Simi in Mokalik and Niyola (Akinbo) in Swallow. This method had succeeded until Swallow. Even though Tolani Ajao is also weak for a lead character in the novel, Akinbo repeatedly slows the movie down with her unconvincing acting.
The plot of the film is cleverly driven by the side story of Nigeria’s commitment to football and fandom culture in Nigeria. There are scenes where men are on the streets watching football and the narration detailing actual football matches. Before club football became as big as it currently is, National football was very big. The scenes represented a ray of hope in the midst of so much squalor, also enhancing the historical value of the movie. In typical Kunle Afolayan style, the movie’s fidelity to history is strong and the props are accurate. A Fela Kuti song is used in the beginning and in the party scene, the actors danced to Felix Liberty’s ‘Ifeoma.’ The potentials of Lagos Island as a location for historical movies are also brought to light. The movie is shot in parts of Lagos Island that look untouched by the rapid gentrification that is erasing so much history. Afolayan has showed the potentials of Lagos Island and it is hoped that more filmmakers will consider shooting historical movies there. It is hoped that more Nigerian novels would be adapted for screen and the parts of Lagos island with historical value will be used as location.