When I saw the trailer for Ìfé I knew I had to write about it. I sat down with writer and director Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim, and we talked about Ìfé, queer Nigerian community and the function of story.
What made you want to write Ìfé?
I wanted to tell the full story. The kind of stories that we’ve been told here in Nigeria are not the full story. They do not fully represent everyone in society. There are other people in the country. There’s this other half of the country that exists and we don’t hear anything about them. So, I wanted to tell the full story about those people.”
I remember growing up; nothing about who I was, was evident to me until I left Nigeria and developed the language for my Identity. Even then there was this distance between me and my queerness because the only way that I could translate it to myself was through the language and the experiences of people with different cultural identities and so it felt like I had to choose between being Nigerian and being queer.
I don’t like what happens with lack of representation. You’re at the mercy of people who don’t know your story, who don’t know your experience telling this story. So, whatever story that they put out is what you have to take. I wanted to tell a story for queer people by a queer person.
Even in Nollywood, there’s no space for queer Nigerian identity that isn’t talking about how we are being harmful to Nigerian culture. Honestly, I feel like that’s a problem with Nigerian Identity in general. I think it has to do with colonialism and how Nigerians have a very limited idea of who we are “allowed” to be, you know?
Absolutely. With colonization, we’ve lost a lot of our culture and so we’re mixing it up. We think that the western culture is our culture but we don’t even know what exactly our culture is, and that would be a great starting point to start the conversation from. So if you already know what your actual culture is, then we can start from there. When you don’t know what the culture is, there’s nothing to talk about because your arguments are uninformed. That’s the entire conversation here, you know? Trans people, queer people, it is always a situation of, “oh, you need deliverance. You need to go to church and pray it away.”
Deliverance! I feel like that word is triggering.
I know. I personally have come to associate that word with a lot of negativity. I don’t want to hear it.
Okay, so my second question is, were there any stories you went to for inspiration? Kind of like we talked about, there is no queer canon for Nigeria. There is very little – maybe there’s Naz and Malik which I don’t know if you’ve watched, and Pariah. In books, there’s Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater —
Under The Udala Tree.
Yes, Under The Udala Tree! Besides those “golden eggs” so to speak, where were you able to go for inspiration when there is not a lot that exists?
My inspiration really came from the stories that I’ve been told by people. You’ve mentioned what, three or four stories, but the stories are infinite. There are so many stories that would center queer people that haven’t been told yet, so that’s what I went to. Stories, gist and what I’ve heard from my friends. Things that queer people could relate to. I’m quite sure that when Nigerian lesbians watch Ìfé, I’m sure that at least eight out of ten will say “this has happened to me” because it’s a common story.
I was watching the trailer, and one of the characters, Adaora, was like “Is it too soon to say I love you?” Ìfé responded, “we’re lesbians, this is the perfect time.” Which is a real thing that I’ve heard other people say but hearing a Nigerian say it made it hit differently. I felt like, “they’re talking about me!”
This morning when I woke up, I saw a tweet, “lesbians will be like, they’re going on a date and come back three days later” and I was like, “Yes, Ìfé!”
You were like, “That’s my movie.”
I love that aspect of it because on the one hand, it’s speaking to a story that’s very Nigerian in an intentional way but also I think it’s a story that’s very queer in a universal way.
I think, what I was getting from your answer was that because of the lack of a queer cannon you had to get your ideas and your stories from community. So what is the queer community like in Nigeria to you and what place do you think Ìfé has in that community?
I would say that there is an existing community and young people say, 18-35 have somehow managed to find their crowd. Almost every queer person I know has a clique of queer friends. We have that, but we have that somewhat secretly. There’s still the existing shame. The shame is because of the homophobia in the country, the kind of the society we’ve grown up in, the things that we’ve heard from our religious leaders and from our political leaders. From the storytellers, you know? The people who have handed us the stories to us have made it shameful. So, there’s still that shame and there’s still that marginalization. What I’m hoping that Ìfé would do, I’m hoping that Ìfé will begin to erase that shame. What representation does, is that it normalizes the experience of a people. That’s what I’m hoping Ìfé can do.
Another thing: we grew up watching romance films and these films were centered around heterosexual characters and that normalized it for us. You sort of know how to navigate that space. Queer people don’t have that representation, and no one teaches us to do that so we don’t know how to ask someone out on a date, who’s paying – we don’t know these things. It’s the same way parents even teach their children. Fathers will teach their sons how to woo women, but no one is teaching you how to ask another man out or ask another woman out. That is what I’m trying to do with Ìfé. Normalize, especially, the romantic experience of a queer person.
From the trailer, I could tell that the movie seemed to focus on a lot of conversation which I like because the characters just have a lot of space to develop and a lot of space to kind of speak into a very empty room. I feel like it intentionally solidifies this reality. Even just watching the trailer helped me erase some of that shame. I know that I’m not the only queer Nigerian, but I was sitting there thinking, “maybe I can show my mum this movie.” I think if that’s what the movie is intended to do, it’s already doing that.
We’ve talked about books and the different way that queer people have been talked about in Nigeria. Why do you think it’s important for a visual medium and movie to be made about lesbian romance? How do you think a movie contributes to that conversation?
First of all, there are different kinds of people who read and who watch movies and tv shows. A good majority of people can watch a movie and – actually, let me tell you something. I remember the first time I spoke to someobody about Under The Udala Trees. I hadn’t read it at the time. I was at a book club meetup and a guy said to me, “You should read this book. It’s about this girl who starts to fall in love with girls because all the boys in her village have gone to war.” So I read it and I was like, “how did he get that out of this book? How did he manage to misunderstand that?” His head, his mind could not wrap around the idea that this girl was simply falling in love with other girls.
He had to give it some kind of explanation: that the boys had gone to war. That’s the thing with subjective art where too many people can come and have very different meanings of the art. With visual storytelling, everything is right in front of you. Of course, there’s the subtext and all those things that you probably have to decipher on your own, but the story is the story. It’s less difficult to misunderstand what we’re trying to tell you. We are going to put two women in your face and you’re going to hear their stories, you’re going to hear their backstories, you’re going to see them kiss. You’re not going to be confused about this. I think that – I do not want to be mean and I don’t want to be rude – but I think it’s easier to see what the story is saying. When you’re reading it leaves a lot to your imagination which can be good if you’ve already seen a lot of it. When that’s not your norm, when that’s not the story that’s told, your mind can come up with all kinds of things.
Because you’re interacting with your own biases and your own understanding of how things are.
It’s kind of like how, until I verbally told them, my parents didn’t realize I was queer. Even when I’m very intentionally coding myself as queer, they just don’t see it. It was like they were seeing me and – because it’s very subjective, like you said – they were just filling in the pieces with what they thought should be there.
Exactly. Just this morning, a friend of mine who is a lesbian and masculine, was telling me about a coworker of hers who is always asking her on dates. It’s right there, but because it’s not the “normal” or regular story, they need you to spell it out to them. Otherwise, they’re just there with their assumptions.
I think there’s also for me, a fear like, “what happens if we become more visible?” What happens if straight Nigerians are able to see us?” Right now, I can go through Nigeria without being seen. When I go back home, people just interact with what they want to see. They don’t care. On one hand, there’s sadness there but on the other, there’s freedom. This person isn’t going to do anything to me because they don’t recognize me. What happens when that’s not there? You know the saying, “being gay is unafrican” –
I feel like that is such a trap. It situates queer people in Nigeria in this thing where we have conditional safety that depends on us agreeing that we don’t exist. Being like, “Oh you think that I’m not here but I am.” We’re forced to put ourselves in danger to announce ourselves because we’re consistently being told that we don’t exist.” I think the fear is meant to have a restrictive effect on us and make us not want to talk about it.
Exactly, that’s very true.
It’s necessary so that we can create a Nigerian Identity for ourselves. We can’t just keep looking to other countries, cultures or people to determine us. Nigeria is not the kind of country where people got together and said, “hey we really like each other”. Most of us didn’t choose to be here. Culturally, we’re very different. If we weren’t forced to be Nigeria, we wouldn’t be Nigeria. There isn’t a natural cohesive culture that happens so Nigerians have to actively participate in building Nigeria. That includes every Nigerian being able to participate in building Nigeria. That’s why it’s important, even though it’s scary to have that truth and have that visibility.
It is important.
Also, so the world can stop ignoring us and pretending that queer people in Nigeria don’t exist.
We have our own experiences here that are unique to us because we’re here. The truth is, this thing is not going to be handed to us. There is no fight for freedom that was handed to an oppressed group. People had to die. I think that it’s important, but I don’t know that we’re brave enough. We already have so many issues. One of our main issues is poverty. We’re thinking about that. That’s one of the first things on our mind, “what are we eating”. What’s for food, money for this and money for that. That’s one of our main issues.
To be Nigerian already,
To be Nigerian already is already so draining. Such a toil, to just be Nigerian. So, to be Nigerian and queer? To be Nigerian and female or anything that doesn’t fit into what they understand, to be anything that’s different, is something else.
The poverty doubly affects queer Nigerians. For my family, the best way to get them to agree to me doing anything is to show them the money. If the lack of a visible queer culture in Nigeria; not just queer Nigerians existing but other Nigerians being like, “this is our queer community, they are a part of us” – there is none of that. So, there is no visible career path for being queer. For a lot of Nigerian parents, for a lot of Nigerian families, part of it is like, “if you’re gay, you’re never going to be successful.”
How did the SSMPA (Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act) affect your ability to create the movie?
The SSMPA criminalizes homosexual marriages and organizations. I don’t think we broke any law. There’s no law for the creating of certain kinds of stories, so that wasn’t a challenge or a problem while we were making the film. Also, we were committed to creating a team that was very queer or filled with allies. People there understood the vision, so that did not come up.
The Nigerian government is talking about this movie like you were breaking the law.
They’re talking about it because that’s what they like to do. Of course it’s possible for them to ban it from showing on the local stations. They can do that because they have a censor’s board. They can do that. However, we don’t plan to show it on any of those platforms. We don’t even plan to submit it to them for any kind of censorship because we never planned to show it on their platforms or in cinemas. The movie will be available online, and that’s where everyone watches most of their content anyway.
Were there specific challenges to making Ìfé?
What I thought would be challenging during pre production was finding great actors to play the role. Every time I think about a good film, I’m very particular about the story, I’m very particular about the acting. I wrote the story myself so my thing was finding people that would bring what I had in my mind to life. We had to go through numerous auditions before we found the right people, and we were still in quarantine so there was that limitation as well.
Did you film the movie during Quarantine?
No, but the preproduction happened during quarantine. For me that was the main thing, finding people. Once we found them, everything went smoothly.
Yeah! It seemed like the chemistry—
I couldn’t believe the chemistry, it made me so happy every time. Sometimes I’d stand behind the monitor and dance. “Oh my God this is so beautiful.”
We kind of covered this already, but what do you hope for the Ìfé?
We already spoke about how powerful stories can be and the importance of storytelling. Ìfé is a story that not many queer people have seen come out of Nigeria. I’m really hoping that, apart from everything else that it does – normalizing the queer experience and being a great source of representation – I’m really hoping that it brings joy to the LGBT community. That’s important for me. This is a gift to all of us. I want everyone to take it as a love gift: you’re seen, you’re valid, you’re loved and that’s really what I want. You talking about how watching the trailer started to erase that shame for you made my heart so full because that’s what I had in mind. The joy. I’m really focused on the joy of the queer community.
You said earlier that you don’t know if Nigerians will be brave enough to step into the risk of being named and being seen and being visible. From everything you’ve said, if anything gives us that courage, it’s to chase love. The fear is so strong but it’s not as strong as the love. When queer artists create and give us more things to love and more ways to love each other, it can help the fear be less scary. It feels like a love gift.
Do you plan on making more movies?
Yes, I do. Absolutely I do. I really want to make more movies.
What do you think people will love the most about Ìfé?
One of the things I love the most about the movie is the simplicity of the story. A simple, beautiful love story that anyone can relate to. I think people will love that.
When can we expect Ìfé and how would you like to be supported in the meantime?
We don’t have an exact date yet, but it will be out before the end of the year. We have an Instagram page: @Ìfé_Movie that people can follow. For any other kind of support people can reach out to The Equality Hub. The Equality Hub is the executive producer for Ìfé.
Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim is a feminist filmmaker, screenwriter and a script consultant. She’s a co-founder at Hashtag Media House, a media communications company in Nigeria focused on producing socially conscious content and effectively telling the brand stories of SMEs and other organisations.
Passionate about how oppressed and marginalized groups are perceived and represented in the media, Uyaiedu is passionate about including themes and subjects that center these groups and their stories. With a detailed understanding of the power of storytelling, she is committed to using that power to create increased representation for sexual and gender minorities in Nigeria.
Uyaiedu is also interested in the role that language plays in the development of decolonization, which is one of the reasons why she is intentional about including Nigerian indegenous languages, slangs, accents, names and mannerisms in the stories that she writes.
Uyaiedu loves books, cats and poetry. She is a self-acclaimed master of board games and an unashamed jollof rice addict.