Pan African Film Festival: ‘This is Lagos’

The 32nd Pan African Film & Arts Festival, America’s largest Black-themed filmfest, took place last month during Black History Month, in Los Angeles. PAFF screens movies ranging from Hollywood studio productions to indies, foreign films, documentaries, low budget productions, shorts, etc. Films span the spectrum from Oscar nominees to hard-to-find gems from Africa, the Caribbean, America and beyond that L.A. viewers are unlikely to be able to see at any other venue. Aside from the occasional retrospective, most of them are new films that will now wend their way through the film distribution market and may pop up soon in a theater near you.

‘This is Lagos’: A crime drama in urban Africa

When American moviegoers conjure up an image of sub-Saharan Africa, they’re likely to think of white heroes, such as Tarzan swinging on a vine through the forest primeval or a Hemingwayesque Bwana big game hunter stalking prey in the jungle. From the serious cinephile’s POV, arguably the best thing about PAFF is that it provides U.S. theatergoers with the opportunity to see films about Mother Africa by Africans, from a decidedly continental perspective. Nigerian co-writer/director Kenneth Gyang’s This is Lagos is a compelling case in point.

As the title suggests, Gyang’s crime drama is set in the most populous city in Africa. Lagos has about 21 million inhabitants and is the former capital of Nigeria, a West African nation that likewise has the continent’s biggest population. As such, contemporary Lagos has all of the hustle, bustle and urban angst that American urbanites are likewise all too familiar with.

Stevo (Gabriel Afolayan) is an aspiring rapper and member of a criminal gang similar to those “smash and grab” hoodlums who pull brazen heists at jewelry stores, restaurants, malls, drugstores, in the U.S. But the leader of This is Lagos’ bold, brash band of banditos, the deranged Nigerian Kojack (Ikechukwu Onunaku), and the gangsters’ M.O. are clearly crazy. Whether robbing patrons of a café or wedding party celebrants at a reception hall, Kojack proclaims himself to be a “patriot” and demands that his victims sing the Nigerian national anthem while his mobsters wreak mayhem and collect what the demented Kojack whimsically calls “the national tax” from the helpless victims at gunpoint. Kojack’s kooky criminals are a cross between the inept mafioso in 1971’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (based on Jimmy Breslin’s book) and the bank robbers who memorably wore Halloween masks that look like the faces of U.S. presidents in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 Point Break.

If these seem like arcane movie trivia references, I beg to differ, as the award-winning director, Gyang, is quite cinema savvy, something I’ll return to shortly. But first I want to note another plot point in This is Lagos. As Stevo supports his music habit through a life of crime until he makes it big as a rapper, he vies with the well-to-do, narcissistic, possessive, soon-to-be-wed (to another woman) Femi (Enyinna Nwigwe) for the sexual favors of Pauline (Laura Pepple). Pauline is a sort of a cross between a character in an 18th-century Henry Fielding novel about simple, common countryfolk who come to the big city and are corrupted by urbanism and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s lover Patricia (played by Jean Seberg) in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic Breathless.

Upon arriving in Lagos, Pauline is coerced into having sex (if not outright raped) and through a series of bad breaks, becomes a prostitute. This is the recurring theme of This is Lagos—that newcomers must go through a sort of rite of passage, a baptism of fire, the price of living in Africa’s biggest city.

After captivating Femi at a Lagos bordello, he becomes obsessed with her, renting an apartment for and financially supporting Pauline, although of course, he’d never marry such a “bad girl.” In intimate scenes, Pauline appears in lingerie and her male lovers in underwear. There is no nudity per se, although there are some simulated sex scenes in the film. The dialogue, however, is full of obscenities, which made me wonder about the levels of censorship in Nigeria. In any case, as Stevo and Femi compete for her charms, the calculating Pauline schemes to outsmart them and Kojack’s desperados, to get revenge—and make the big score.

This is Lagos is stylish, with a cinematic aesthetic. It is not presented in strict chronological order and at times seems jagged, shot out of sequence, harkening back to the French Nouvelle Vague. Indeed, Gyang says he became part of the “Nollywood New Wave” and “went to film school,” later working for the BBC. According to press notes, Gyang “is a 2018 American Film Showcase Fellow at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, a graduate of the prestigious EAVE European Producers Workshop and co-founder of the film production company Cinema Kpatakpata.” Inspired by the names Hollywood and Bollywood, “Nollywood” refers to Nigeria’s film/video industry, which is actually quite large, if hardly as lavishly funded as Tinseltown studio movies.

This is Lagos is Gyang’s at least tenth production. Press notes state that his “postmodernist dark comedy Confusion Na Wa… won Best Film at the 2013 Africa Movie Academy Awards as well as a Jury Prize at the Pan African Film Festival in L.A. The Lost Cafe (2017), his second feature, won the Golden Palm Award for Narrative Feature at the 2018 Mexico International Film Festival. It was also the Audience Prize winner at Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) in Nigeria. Oloture (2019), his third feature. premiered at the famous Carthage Film Festival, the oldest and one of the biggest film festivals in Africa and the Arab world. Released worldwide on Netflix on the 2nd of October 2020, Oloture swiftly became one of the most successful crossover Nigerian titles on the [streaming] service, creating a buzz and conversation amongst audiences in Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Middle East….”

After This is Lagos screened at PAFF, Gyang and co-star Ikechukwu Onunaku did an in-person Q&A with the audience, which was favorably impressed by the 90-minute crime drama. The director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Rowlands-Rees and Crispin Oduobuk-MfonAbasi, based on a short story by the latter, let the ticket buyers in on a secret: Much of This is Lagos was actually not shot on location in the titular city. Gyang confessed: “It’s really crazy to shoot in Lagos” due to “‘area boys,’ which are community gangs… Lagos is very chaotic.” Instead, interiors and closer shots were lensed at Jos, the city in North-Central Nigeria where Gyang grew up. The movie’s long and aerial shots that give a spatial sense to Lagos were, however, filmed at the eponymous urban center.

Nigeria is an oil-producing nation, although the extractive industry’s resultant wealth is not exactly evenly distributed among all Nigerians. This is Lagos has an underlying critique of capitalism that the discerning eye and ear can pick up on. There are also repeat reference to Paul Robeson, the leftwing singer/actor/activist because, Gyang says, he likes to “bring in Black cultures” and “cross pollinating cultures.”

The film’s language is also hybrid, with spoken English and the Nigerian form of pidgin, and English subtitles. Just as Gyang’s fellow Nigerian helmer Charles Uwagbai’s Kipkemboi gave American viewers a peek inside Kenya at PAFF, This is Lagos provides an eyebrow-raising look at Nigeria that we Americans rarely, if ever, see. Well-acted with edgy direction and some good rap music, This is Lagos is an African version and vision of the French New Wave meets Blaxploitation, and deserves a distribution deal in the USA.

For more info see the PAFF website.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.