Movie title: ‘Swallow‘
Base on Sefi Atta’s novel of the same title
Running Time: 2hours 8minutes
Directors: Kunle Afolayan
Writers: Sefi Atta and Kunle Afolayan
Producers: Netflix studios
Lead cast: Eniola Akinbo (Niyola), Ijeoma Grace Agu (as Rose), Deyemi Okanlanwon (as Sanwo), Eniola Badmus (as Mrs Durojaiye), Chioma Akpotha (as Mama Chidi), Kevin Ikeduba (as OC), Offiong Anthony Edet (as Johnny) and veteran Olusegun Remi (as Mr Salako).
Date of Release: October 1, 2021.
For greener pastures outside of Nigeria, the lead characters in Kunle Afolayan’s latest movie, Swallow, are ready to risk it all-literally, everything, including their lives.
The movie, which is an adaptation of the screen adaptation of Sefi Atta’s third novel ‘Swallow’, was shot in the city of rusty roofs, Ibadan in Oyo State, and Lagos.
It follows the story of a naive bank secretary, Tolani Ajao, who, after a series of career woes, considers her roommate’s offer to work as a drug mule in mid-1980s Lagos.
However, Tolani faces a crisis of conscience, and as she questions her own morality in a repressive military regime, she finds herself flung into a journey of self-discovery.
It is the first screenwriting credit for the Nigerian novelist, who co-wrote the screen adaptation with Afolayan.
Nollywood is fast evolving from the era of predictable storylines to dynamic and thematic narrations which is an offshoot of the vast skills, knowledge, and trends in filmmaking.
Great movie adaptations are usually tasking because they go beyond just screenplay. It requires extra efforts to coherently birth the story (with its peculiarities) into a movie and create relative psychological proximity between the book and the movie. To this end, Afolayan deserves some accolades.
However, Afolayan, who is in the attitude of casting non-actors in lead roles of his movies, should, from his wealth of experience, understand that these non-actors suffer certain shortfalls. Not many of them can, in reality, provide the ingredients that spice or if you like, make a good movie. Was swallow a sweet or bitter pill for the Nigerian movie audience?
The original story, “Swallow” by Atta tells a simple and interesting narrative about the quest for survival by young women entangled by their unifying struggle to survive in a patriarchal society.
The plight of these women depicted in the characters of Tolani Ajao and Rose, her obstinate friend and roommate, is relatable and this realisation is keenly detailed enough to keep the readers glued to the book.
The movie, reminiscent of Lagos in the 1980s, takes into cognizance the customs, the currency value, the vehicles in use, the discourse, and the Nigerian football games aired via radio, all depicting a typical 80s lifestyle.
Set in the heart of the war against indiscipline, a hallmark of Muhammadu Buhari’s 1983-1985 military government, Tolani and her roommate Rose, two proud independent women, suffer injustice in a bid to survive the bureaucratic system of the bank where they work as clerk and secretary respectively.
Aside from work, they live together in a small room, at an open compound, amongst people from various ethnic groups in Nigeria. One can not forget the interesting characters of her neighbours like the strict and busy nurse, Mrs Durojaiye, played by Eniola Badmus and the intelligent Igbo housewife, Mama Chidi, played by Chioma Chukwuka.
Rose, fed up with the harassment from her obsolete and corrupt boss, Mr Salako, resigns from her job, while Tolani replaces her as secretary. However, Rose seeks financial assistance from her relative who owns a salon but was turned down. This opens her to the reality of life and survival.
Tolani on the other hand is optimistic as she continued with her job, holding in high esteem the values her father instilled in her at a young age. Tolani unbending to the illicit advances thrown to her by her boss and the controversial rumours being peddled around the office encounters similar difficulties as Rose and is on the verge of giving up.
However, Rose meets OC, an acclaimed ‘big boy’ who showers her with gifts and soon introduces her to his source of livelihood-smuggling drugs with a stable of female drug mules. Rose, decides to join OC in his illegal business, to swallow drugs and travel abroad to evacuate them in the bathroom for sales. Rose begins to practice and in no time gains mastery on how to swallow and keep the drugs in her abdomen
Rose soon introduces Tolani to the business. She agrees at first but clinging to her father’s instructions and her mother’s advice back at Makoku (her hometown), “Protect your reputation. Don’t let life or any man take it away from you,” “be content with what you have.” Tolani refrains from joining Rose on the trip.
This is where the plot thickens and the drama we signed up for, truly begins.
The dominant languages in the movie were English, Yoruba, and pidgin English and they helped set the tone for the film.
The conscious employ of indigenous languages in recent Nollywood movies like Igbo in ‘Lionheart’, Hausa in ‘Voiceless’, and Yoruba in ‘Citation’ and ‘Swallow’ is applaudable.
The producers paid extra attention to the tiny details which are hitherto overlooked in most Nollywood movies. The set designers deserve accolades for the set and props. It is definitely no mean feat shooting an 80s movie in the 21st-century contemporary Nigeria and bringing into reality some 1980s relics and props which gave the movie a rich taste of history.
Sweet bitter because it is not the regular movie we see where the hero or heroine always wins. Bitter because it is a tragedy, sweet because there are lessons to learn from it.
Singer Niyola, popularly known as Eniola Akinbo, struggled with the role. Having featured in music videos that require less action, the conscious ability to impersonate and bring the character ‘Tolani’ to life was majorly lacking.
However, the supporting lead, Ijeoma Grace Agu, who played the role of Rose, owned the spotlight.
The lead character should shine throughout the film, but Agu’s brilliant portrayal of Rose gave the much-needed ‘action’ that we all longed for in the film. It is safe to say Afolayan, and perhaps his cast, played too safe in the film
Clearly, the director focused too much attention on achieving a believable 80s setting but failed at delivering the much-needed punch where it was needed especially at the climax of the movie.
For instance, we were expecting more action towards the end of the movie, especially in the plane scene where Rose died. We did not want to be told how she died, it would have made more sense if it was vividly portrayed.
‘Swallow’ is a sweet and bitter pill for the Nigerian audience. It is a reminder of the travails of the average Nigerian seeking greener pastures abroad against all odds and bitter because it is a stark reminder of a time when things actually worked in Nigeria.
It is a good movie worth watching especially as a family. It is didactic and entertaining.