People look towards a screen.
Watching a screening of Ousmane Sembène's "Moolaadé" as part of the Neighbour-hood Film Series in Lagos. Kenechukwu Nwatu

A Lagos Film Series Recasts a Neighborhood and Shapes a Writer

James Baldwin, Ousmane Sembène, Maya Angelou, and the dynamic discussions they provoke help a young writer find her tribe at a film screening series in Nigeria.

This piece is part of our Finding Community series. Find previous entries here.

On an orange sofa resting against the wall by the entrance, the light of the projector screen intermittently illuminates the sitting room. I am flanked by two women: Elizabeth, an art administrator from New York, and Ijeoma, a lawyer and literary promoter. Drawing giggles from a number of people in the room, a muffled voice sings a response to music from the film, music that sounds similar to the Zulu intro of the Lion King’s Circle of Life.

When the film’s comic relief, a character called Mercenaire, repeatedly tries to woo young women who have come to his open-air thrift store to buy radio batteries and long sticks of baguette, the room is livened by bursts of laughter and mini commentary. In another scene a short while later, a young girl is being taken to a circumcision table and her cries cut through the room like a new knife in butter. A silence settles in the room and Stacey will tell afterwards of how she tried to mask her tears.

We are watching Moolaadé, a 2004 film by Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. It follows the story of the strong lead character, Collé, and her vehement stance against female genital mutilation after a group of young girls escape their purification ceremony and find solace in her home. There are roughly 12 to 15 people in the room. A handful of them, like myself, are regulars to the Neighbour-Hood Film Series. The series is a breakout endeavor of the Neighbour-Hood Project, an intervention centered on photographs, designed to expand the narrative about Bariga, a Lagos neighborhood that had become associated with crime and gun-violence in people’s consciousness. The films are shown at a house in the heart of Bariga, on a calm street where children play outside even at midnight.

An animated discussion at the house in Bariga. (Kenechukwu Nwatu)

At first, even I didn’t understand why I spent three hours traveling, taking a motorbike and two creeping buses, to watch a film, especially one from the ‘60s or ‘70s, with a number of young artists I barely knew. Six screenings later, much of the writer I am proud to be now, and the artist community I am proud to be a part of, are products of the Neighbour-Hood Film Series.

I first came across the series when I answered a public call by the Invisible Borders artist-led organization for participants for a road trip across Nigeria in 2017. At this time, I had been in Lagos for three years having moved from my quiet, laid-back hometown in Southeast Nigeria, Enugu, a land atop hills, with rocky topography, red sands and biting harmattan cold. My move to Lagos had been on a whim. Lagos wasn’t a place I had considered moving to on a permanent basis. It is boisterous, loud, and fast, the very opposite of docile, quiet Enugu. I had followed the first job that came calling after the compulsory service year for Nigerian university graduates, to my aunt’s house in Ikeja, a quiet area of Lagos.

In the first months, the flexibility of my job allowed me ample time to catch up with friends, many of whom had thronged to Lagos in search of more lucrative opportunities. By 2016, when I got my first real writing job at a business newspaper, the frequency of my interactions with university friends had whittled as my desire for a broader circle of friends had grown.

Author Kay Ugwuede, at left, makes a point at a Neighbour-Hood Film Series Screening in 2019. (Kenechukwu Nwatu)

Months into my writing job, my career path, which had hitherto been a constant meander, had begun to crystallize. I wanted to write. I wanted to tell stories and I wanted them to count. I wanted them to shape cultures and ways of thinking, and so building new interactions that were writer or art-inclined became paramount. I attended quite a number of artsy events organized by small art communities, events not in short supply in Lagos. Many comprised a mix of poets and fiction writers, some of whom had recorded reasonable success. Every week there were meet-ups: to discuss art, enjoy spoken word performances, explore writing. There was not one where I felt at home, or where I felt a genuineness of process and purpose that I wanted to return to.

I first met the convener of the Neighbour-Hood Film Series, and founder of the Invisible Borders organization, Emeka Okereke, during my follow-up interview after being shortlisted for the Invisible Borders 2017 road trip. It was the first time I would visit the house in Bariga. I was asked about my writing in ways I hadn’t thought of it before. I said what I believed I would’ve loved to hear had I been sitting on the other side and I came away thinking I had impressed the panel of three: Emeka, Innocent, the organization’s spirited project manager and Kemi, the quiet, smiley, then director of communications.

When the mail bearing my verdict came, it wasn’t good news. I hadn’t been selected. But it did invite me to my first film screening.

The first screening I attended was a 2016 documentary by the filmmaker Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro. It was a product of an unfinished manuscript James Baldwin was working on before his death in 1987, “Remember This House.” The documentary chronicled the lives and murders of his close friends and key black emancipation activists, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I had heard about Malcolm and Martin Luther King, Jr. but I had never heard about James Baldwin prior to this time. I remember vividly the animated discussion that followed afterwards, moderated by Emeka, who that evening was acting as host, the person who introduces the film and newcomers, and moderates the conversation afterward so it doesn’t get too rowdy.

Shared hunger for the mental exploration that invigorates creative work. (Kenechukwu Nwatu)

While racism, which is the core of the documentary, isn’t something we deal with in Nigeria, its bedfellows, ethnicity, religiosity, and politics remain as divisive as the constructs of blackness and whiteness. I made a comment that sparked an argument that continued well after the screening had come to a close. My comment had inadvertently revealed a subconscious ethnic bias I held. It had been called out. I found it fascinating, this battle of ideologies and thought processes. I could’ve been in a meeting of the Harlem Writer’s Guild, having my writing questioned and my views of the world interrogated. This process of submitting to rigorous peer- and self-examination was one Baldwin required of himself. I felt like I had found a group that shared my hunger for the mental exercise that produced the kind of creative work I had just seen in the film, and that I wanted to do.

As I made the journey back home that night, I knew I wanted to return for another screening.

Six film screenings later, including one I was honored to host, of Still I Rise, a documentary about Maya Angelou, my approach to writing has continued to evolve in a direction that pleases and excites me. And I have begun to invite friends to the screenings.

Writing, I have found, just like a number of other art disciplines, is solitary. There is the tendency to get lost in reading and writing and not to realize how much of the realities of our world that one skims through. The film screenings are a way to look outward, to share in experiences and to confer with kindred spirits about the potential of essay, image, or film to create the realities that we want to see and to make sense of the effect our art can have.

After each screening I come away feeling like I have partaken of a lavish meal, and I am always keen to ask someone to come join us, especially if they are as hungry as I am, for depth and richness in their art.

This piece is part of our series, "Finding Community." We want to hear your stories. Have you found space in your city to meet people you might not otherwise encounter? Is there something that binds your community, including the most vulnerable? What in these communities has delighted, dismayed, and transformed you? Send your idea to pitches@citylab.com.

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