Nigeria's first lesbian love story goes online to beat film censors

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Ife tells the story of a whirlwind lesbian romance. (Photo: Pamela Adie/ Supplied)
Ife tells the story of a whirlwind lesbian romance. (Photo: Pamela Adie/ Supplied)
  • In an effort to subvert homophobic censorship, Ife, Nigeria's first lesbian love film is moving online.
  • However, the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) said Nigeria's laws make no allowances for queer content.
  • In most Nollywood films, LGBT+ characters are mentally ill or possessed.
  • A 2014 law criminalising gay relationships is being used to prosecute 47 men for same-sex public displays of affection, after Nigerian police raided in 2018 what they said was a gay club.

Two naked women lie in bed, stroking each other’s hair and talking about coming out to their parents in Nigeria, where they could be jailed for 14 years for having a lesbian relationship.

The trailer for Nigeria’s first lesbian feature film, “Ife” - which means love in the Yoruba language - has been watched thousands of times since its was uploaded to YouTube in July, with viewers commenting on their excitement over its release.

“In Nigeria, there has never been a film like ‘Ife’,” said its producer Pamela Adie, one of Nigeria’s most prominent LGBT+ activists, who has been a World Economic Forum speaker and won recognition from the Obama Foundation as a young African leader.

“No film has had the impact it will have, or already has in Nigeria... The reception to the poster and the trailer has been mad. We expect that it will be madder when the full film is released,” the 36-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nigeria is a deeply religious country, where millions reject homosexuality as a corrupting Western import. LGBT+ people usually meet in secret or online as living openly risks stigma, family rejection or even stoning under Sharia law in the north.

READ| inqayi.elangeni: black against a sharp white background

A 2014 law criminalising gay relationships is being used to prosecute 47 men for same-sex public displays of affection, after Nigerian police raided in 2018 what they said was a gay club. The men said it was a birthday party..

But LGBT+ Africans are growing increasingly vocal and visible, with the internet providing a space for gay-friendly films, talk shows and websites, which campaigners say are encouraging greater tolerance among younger generations.

As the government’s film board might not approve “Ife” for distribution in Nigeria, Adie said she plans to release it on an online on-demand platform later this year.

“Anyone who wants to watch will be able to do so from anywhere in the world,” she said, declining to give further details.

Kenya banned its first lesbian feature film “Rafiki” for promoting homosexuality in 2018, despite it being the East African nation’s first film to premiere at the Cannes film festival.

WATCH| Ife trailer

Demon of homosexuality

Arts and entertainment are major cultural exports for Nigeria. Its multibillion dollar film industry, Nollywood, is famed for its lavish tales of romance and witchcraft, which it churns out at a rate second only to India’s Bollywood.

In most Nollywood films, LGBT+ characters are mentally ill or possessed. Spiritual leaders try to deliver them from the ‘demon of homosexuality’ before their sexual orientation destroys the lives of everyone around them.

The advocacy group TIERS has produced several popular LGBT+ films and TV series, such as the award-winning male teenage love story “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” by renowned Nigerian filmmaker Tope Oshin.

It believes this has contributed to a softening of attitudes among Nigerians towards the LGBT+ community. In its latest poll, it found that 30% of Nigerians said they would accept a gay family member in 2019, up from 11% in 2011.

Adie sees the media as a key force in changing hearts and minds. After going to university in the United States, she returned home to Nigeria to work as a campaigns manager for All Out, a U.S.-headquartered LGBT+ rights group.

READ| The Death of Vivek Oji and its commitment to truth-telling

A high point of her job was leading a successful campaign to ban homophobic U.S. pastor Steven Anderson from visiting South Africa in 2016, with more than 50,000 people signing an All Out petition denouncing his hate speech.

She went on to found The Equality Hub in 2017 to promote the rights of lesbian and bisexual women and released a documentary film “Under the Rainbow” last year about her struggles as a lesbian in Nigeria.

In the documentary, she describes how her mother rejected her when she came out in 2011 and tried to ‘cure’ her with a drink made by a prophetess who said that Adie’s family were under spiritual attack. “I was still married at the time that I came out of the closet so it was a very difficult time,” Adie said in the film, which was produced by The Equality Hub. “It was the most depressing and the lowest point of my whole life.”

READ| Are we 'Progressive Prudes' along the Pink Line?

By making Nigeria’s first lesbian love story, she hopes she can help other women struggling with their sexuality. “Every time there is a film made that centres LGBTQ people, it would always be about gay men,” she said. “This is one for us... it will bring immense joy to the hearts of many of us who would be seeing people like us centred in a Nigerian film for the first time.”

Adie believes “Ife” will help combat homophobia by showing how Ife and Adaora’s love struggles in the face of pressure from their families and wider society. “We also hope it will leave others feeling tender, knowing that love is love, and... able to see the real effects of prejudice, unacceptance, and homophobia in the lives of LGBTQ people,” she said.

Fighting Censorship

In an interview with the BBC, film producer Pamela Adie confirmed that the Ife team is organising a private screening at the end of the month. They do not believe they require state permission for this. 

They also plan to release the film online as a surprise debut in order to avert the censorship efforts of the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB). However, Alhaji Adebayo Thomas, who was appointed the executive director of the NFVCB told the BBC that in accordance with the laws of the country, there are no allowances made for homosexual movies in Nigeria.

Says Thomas:

"There's a standing law that prohibits homosexuality, either in practice or in a movie or even in a theatre or on stage. If it's content from Nigeria, it has to be censored."

He also cautioned that releasing the film online did not subvert the work of the NFVCB, "as long as it's Nigerian content and it's telling a Nigerian story, then we have a right to it. If it did not pass through NFVCB and it is released, the filmmakers will be prosecuted according to the law. As long as it's Nigerian content, we will pull it down because we have collaborations with Google, YouTube and other key players."

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24