Stepping Out of the Shadows Funmi Iyanda’s ‘Walking With Shadows’

With its gay Nigerian protagonist, Walking with Shadows, Funmi Iyanda’s movie adaptation of Jude Dibia’s 2005 novel, promises ambition but is, ultimately, a modest step in the long journey of contending with the extent of Nigerian (in)humanity.

When we first meet the main protagonist of Walking with Shadows, Ebele ‘Adrian’ Njoko, on screen, his life is about to be upturned. A colleague with a vendetta will out him as a gay man, a revelation that sets into motion a cascade of consequences. Not too much about his life has been given away yet but we know up until that point that Adrian is what society might consider a model young man: he has the high-paying job, the wife, the child, and, naturally, a buried secret.

The façade soon crumbles, setting an unsteady stage for what remains the most ambitious Nollywood production with an LGBTQ+ character at its centre. Walking with Shadows began life as a novel written in 2005 by Jude Dibia. Several years later, Funmi Iyanda, former TV star and media icon, fulfilled a longstanding wish to turn it into a film. Directed by the Irish debutante, Aoife O’Kelly, Walking with Shadows charts the excruciating unravelling of Adrian’s life after his closely guarded secret comes to light.

‘THE FILM HAD GREAT PROMISE’

The film had great promise. Iyanda, its producer, had used her platform to humanize a gay story before. In 1998, Iyanda, then the famous host of New Dawn, a popular breakfast show on Nigeria’s national broadcaster, invited Bisi Alimi, a gay actor, to discuss his sexuality openly in a country where homosexuality was, and still remains, a taboo topic in mainstream discourse. The audacity cost Iyanda her show.

With this incident unresolved 22 years later, Walking with Shadows was bound to make a splash. A big-money production starring exciting Nollywood actors such as Zainab Balogun and Ozzy Agu with a sizeable PR budget to boot, it was broaching a controversial topic now even criminalized by law in Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act.

But the film does not quite fulfil its promise. First, only a fraction of the millions who saw Iyanda every morning in the 1990s will ever see this film, primarily because it will not make it past the festival circuit. Walking with Shadows screened at the Africa International Film Festival whose international nature makes the festival hallowed ground and beyond the disapproving scissors of official censors. The local cinema circuit, on the other hand, is firmly within the reach of the Nigeria Film and Videos Censors Board—and it is state policy to deny homosexuality any legitimacy.

Second, the film’s slavish dedication to its source material means it reprised all the book’s deep flaws. Although the novel is written by a gay man, some of its assumptions are puzzling and mirror the faulty mainstream assumptions held about sexual minorities.

In the film, as in the novel, effeminacy and a lack of love for football are somewhat posited as markers of gayness, suggesting homosexuality to be affectation rather than a fundamental state of being. There are, of course, millions of men worldwide who loathe football and are not gay as well as millions who love football but are gay. The German midfielder, Thomas Hitzlsperger, about the most famous of the latter, even played the game at the highest level, representing Germany internationally and Aston Villa in the English Premier League.

‘THE CHARACTERS REMAIN FROZEN IN TIME’

Fifteen years have passed between novel and film but neither Iyanda nor the director, O’Kelly, seized the opportunity to acknowledge, never mind interrogate or transcend, the shortcomings of the novel. First, Adrian treats his identity as a repressed memory. When confronted by his wife, Adrian’s entreaties seem to suggest that homosexuality was his past and heterosexuality his present. Only after his wife rejects him does the repressed resurface.

Then Iyanda claims to be driven not only by a desire to provide information about queer lives but also to provide a context for its understanding. ‘Particularly for this story,’ she said in one post-screening interview, in 2019, ‘it was time to embrace a part of ourselves that we have maybe not wanted to have any conversations about before.’

The film does not match Iyanda’s aspirations. There is no serious conversation to be had. The film’s euphoric critical reception has sprung from its excellent cinematography, its brave stance in centring queerness and its hefty PR budget.

To have been in its screening rooms at AFRIFF was to take in the titters of an incredulous audience. Rather than introspection, Walking with Shadows seemed, instead, to inspire something a little perverse—schadenfreude. The audience appeared to have taken the film’s cue that Adrian, not his persecutors, is the problem. No moral dilemma is tackled, and not much growth is on display. The characters remain frozen in time.

Since Walking with Shadows aspired to social realism, it has, like other films about endangered people, a higher artistic and social calling. The stakes are much higher, and missteps, potentially more debilitating. It is a tightrope from which Walking with Shadows topples.

‘ART IS BOTH A MIRROR AND A LAMP TO REALITY’

The humanity of the LGBTQ+ community is not in doubt—no. Instead, it is attitudes towards this community that call our humanity into question. A man who feels compelled to lure another man to his death because of sexual difference is obviously deranged. It is he who must be jolted from his barbarism. Artists who seek to transform these attitudes must realize the source of the problem.

The sexuality of the heterosexual human being is an unobtrusive fact of their lives. In art, it is scarcely ever a source of tension. Yes, sexual identity might be, for obvious reasons, a source of tension for sexual minorities, but art is both a mirror and a lamp to reality. The heterosexuality of the protagonists in Living in Bondage, to take a random example, has no bearing whatsoever on their supposed occultism. In the American TV series, The Wire, the homosexuality of compelling characters like Oscar, or Kima, is not dwelt upon. The Wire’s creators fixate, instead, on universal themes such as love, conflict, hope and loyalty. The result is that Oscar and Kima nurse the everyday neuroses of their lives much as the heterosexual characters do. If, as The Wire does so brilliantly, homosexuality cannot be rendered as mundane as heterosexuality is, then another strategy is to focus on the problem: the homophobe.

The transformational strategy of Walking with Shadows takes a third approach. Here before us are the deadly struggles of a gay man. Pause. Ask yourself if anyone deserves to be subjected to living life by subterfuge and in constant fear of harm for any reason at all. Then maybe change your attitude. It is the blunt social realism of Ken Loach. Except that Loach, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, tends to fixate on the profound dilemmas of the working man, which admits much less nuance than sexuality.

Perhaps Walking with Shadows might have taken some inspiration from The Rib, Zhang Wei’s 2018 film. China, Wei’s canvas, is arguably more intolerant of difference than Nigeria. On the surface, The Rib seems, somewhat like Walking with Shadows, to be a transgender individual’s journey to self-acceptance. In fact, it is the re-education of Mr Juango Li, the distraught Christian father who eventually learns to accept his child’s transgender identity. The Rib is the story of the private anguish of a father and a child coming to terms with their own identity. Li’s ‘Damascene’ or pivotal encounter is the suicide of his child’s friend. If the question of denial is so existential, if it pushed his child’s friend to suicide, then might his antagonism to his child’s wishes to identify as a woman be wrongheaded? Li emerges from all this with a roomier, more accommodating Christianity.

By contrast, there is no such encounter in Walking with Shadows, which severely limits its prospects of making a serious statement about society and of compelling social change. There was an opportunity, perhaps, to play up Adrian’s wife as a homophobe to bring to sharper focus the arc of her re-education: from the incandescent rage of the duped homophobe to the quiet acceptance of the human being. But by choosing the path of least resistance, Walking with Shadows has little to say once Adrian has been revealed to the people that matter most to him. But for a brief hiatus masquerading as a straight man, gay is what he is. Adrian learns nothing about his society that he did not already know; after all, marriage for him was an escape route from society’s vicious ignorance. If Adrian learns nothing more, the audience learns even less. Walking with Shadows demands nothing from us. We do not shift uncomfortably in our seats or hang our heads in shame or cup our chins in contemplation. If art will be the vehicle for change, then its creators have much to learn about their societies.

However, given how discriminatory Nigerian society remains, Walking with Shadows is vital cinema by its very existence. To that extent, it is a shame that more Nigerians will not see it. If Nigeria is to become a more tolerant society, it must be the first of many films to be made, the only condition being that they acknowledge the importance of narrative design to social change.

‘A REFRESHING DEPARTURE’

In March 2020, an outpouring of angst in the LGBTQ+ community followed news of a young gay man lured to his death in Nigeria’s South East. Such often-fatal attacks, going by the viral hashtag #EndHomophobiaInNigeria, are commonplace.

Should Nigerian gay men try to seek justice for crimes committed against them, then the formidable obstacle of Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act would materialize. Signed into law in 2014 by President Goodluck Jonathan, the Act, whose enforcement so far seems to disproportionately target gay men, not only dehumanizes the LGBTQ+ community, but also wittingly sanctions violence against it. What is justice when you are not even considered human?

Walking with Shadows lends humanity to being sexually different. It is the fully realized self-rediscovery of an uncertain gay man, a refreshing departure from the bit-part caricatures often made of gay men—the most recent intimation of this being the camp stylist, James, in Funke Akindele’s widely popular Jenifa’s Diaries. In Walking with Shadows, for the first time, otherness, not deviance, is the ruling passion in the depiction of gay lives.

Ultimately though, Walking with Shadows is only a point of departure; a small, modest step in the long journey of contending with the extent of Nigerian (in)humanity

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