When you don’t use western union
“If you want to send a message, use Western Union”
That’s quote is attributed to Golden Age Hollywood studio head, Samuel Goldwyn, meaning he was more interested in film which delivered entertainment than climbing on a soap box in the village square to lecture. “Pictures are entertainment; messages should be delivered by Western Union.”
Since short films, formerly snubbed by the gatekeepers, begun to gain respect; many were advocate films. Like widgets cranked out of a factory with the intention of educating Nigerians, two popular topics – domestic violence and sexually transmitted disease became heavy handed and tedious to watch in a determination to pass across their message, thus losing their audience midway.
However there were a few outliers which were both a compelling watch while shining a light on an important societal matter. Oga John is a film which has set the benchmark for socially conscious films. Oga John (2019) is directed by Tolu Ajayi (The Encounter, Shuga) for Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI) addressing the subject of mental health in Nigeria. A topic which is often dismissed, misconstrued or seen as a spiritual matter.
The titular character, Oga John(Joseph Imoikor) is a shop owner, a man of very few words. He listens to the radio and attends to his customers in a mundane monotone. This day, Alero (Ade Laoye), a customer with what appears to be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and acting suspiciously, comes to make a purchase and leaves in a hurry without her change. She is now the centre of focus and we watch as she signs off from social media and checks her last messages as she is planning to leave this side of eternity. We see what she purchased, Rat Poison, but before consuming it she comes across a flyer for MANI with a number of a helpline. She calls the line, silent, not responding to the volunteer, till she utter she the words “I’m so tired”, a summation of the feelings of being depressed and at the end of your rope.
A cautionary glance at Twitter reveals what the average Nigerian thinks about mental health issues and specifically, depression. They have little understanding, assume it’s only associated with an empty bank account, and so scoff at the news of a rich and famous celebrity committing suicide due to depression. Apparently nobody living in the West has a reason to be depressed.
The film portrays undergoing depression in a realistic way; Alero is an attractive, well-dressed woman, with a nice car and family who love her. Despite what to the outside seems like she has it all, she is overwhelmed by life and learned helplessness, suffering in silence. A reality for many people in some of our inner circles.
Oga John stands on its own as a story and is a proof critical social issue can be addressed without climbing on a soapbox. Emotionally it makes a connection with those who’ve ever felt overwhelmed by life even if they don’t have a personal experience of depression. Ade Laoye gives a resonant performance with very few words just through micro expressions and breathing.
“Show, dont tell”, is a rule of cinema which director Tolu Ajayi takes seriously. As a cinematic storyteller, he withholds information till the best possible dramatic moment. An example is when Alero makes the purchase from Oga John, the shot is framed and edited in a way we don’t see what she purchased. We don’t think much of it till he wants to, which is when she brings it out and we realize its poison. Then it dawns on us what she is about to do; as poison is a popular choice particular for females seeking to commit suicide. He also saves his close ups till they are essential as he waits to the critical moment reveal the MANI volunteer band on the shopkeeper’s wrist, which had been there all along. Withholding those puzzle pieces till that point was great directing choice.
David Fincher, director of classics – Fight Club, The Social Network,Gone Girl and others is regarded as one of the best working directors of his generation, said “As a Director, film is about how you dole out information so that the audience stays with you when they are supposed to stay with you and ahead of them when they are supposed to stay ahead of you”
Ajayi does this very well as did his previous film, Closed (2017), which has even less dialogue than Oga John. Closed, addressed illiteracy, illustrating with minimal dialogue, what it’s like for an illiterate adult navigating life in the city. Both films, available on YouTube highlight key issues which don’t receive enough attention.
Tolu Ajayi who clearly doesn’t need Western Union, is proving to be one of Nigerian films’ best kept secret. His growing body of work illustrates that pound for pound he is one of our best directors. His name isn’t on your favourite blog’s top 10 filmmaker list and those lining up to buy tickets last Christmas may not know his name but they should and hopefully soon will.