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by Osamudiamen Joseph
It is amazing how much Ifeoma Chukwuogo is able to accomplish in about twenty minutes with her short film, Bariga Sugar. The film delves headfirst into reality, depicting it in all its rawness. It casts a non-judgmental eye on a part of Lagos rarely seen in mainstream Nollywood pictures; going by a large number of those films, Nigerians, more often than not, always have millions to spend, on parties, accessories, the latest gadgets, luxury vacations and so on. And while this is the case for a particular percentage of the population, it is more the exception, less the rule.
Cinema should hold up a mirror to all of society: the powerful and the disenfranchised; blue-collar as well as white-collar workers; the rich, the poor and the people one cancer diagnosis away from utter bankruptcy. Bariga Sugar, in the spirit of the Esiri Brothers’ acclaimed feature debut, Eyimofe (2021), turns its attention to ordinary people and ordinary stories.
The short opens on a close-up of a young girl, Ese (Halimat Olarewaju). Her po-faced expression lingers for about ten seconds before we see the object of her gaze: her room, which for a set period every day turns into a nest for her mother to receive special ‘friends.’ Ese’s childlike bewilderment and latent loneliness come through in her voiceover narration. “I don’t have any friends,” she says in a tone so heartbreaking that you’re immediately endeared to her.
Ese together with her mother, lives in Bariga Sugar, a low-tier brothel located in Bariga, Lagos. The place is run by Madam Sugar played by a lovely Tina Mba who wastes no time chewing up the scenery whenever she’s on screen. Bariga Sugar’s inciting incident happens barely one minute into the film: Madam Sugar introduces a new lady, Hanatu (Lucy Ameh) to the residents of the commune. She arrives with two mostly empty Ghana-must-go bags and her son, Jamil (Tunde Azeez), in tow.
Jamil turns out to be sent directly from Heaven as the answer for Ese’s loneliness. It’s one thing when an adult has to grapple with loneliness and boredom, it’s a different matter entirely when it’s a child; especially at that stage, socialization is not a luxury but a necessity. If Ese had read Homer, she might have thanked the Fates for their kind gift, but she hasn’t. As a matter of fact, she cannot really read. This is revealed in the second scene where we see the children together. Ese is crying after failing to make out some words in Jamil’s storybook and Jamil says to her, “You cannot read. Just tell me to teach you how to read. I will teach you.”
They become friends after this scene. A perfectly-put-together montage shows highlights of the moments the children spend together: doing dishes, running around, watching a neighbour’s TV through his window. Jamil also teaches Ese to read. There is a scene where the two of them play Mummy and Daddy and it is here that the prowess of both cast and crew is evident. Olamide Soares’s camera simply pans around, subtly revealing new information as it captures elements beyond the edge of the frame. Olarewaju and Azeez also deliver compelling, commendable performances as Ese and Jamil.
Their friendship plays out against the backdrop of Bariga Sugar, the place. The film constantly returns to images of the ladies and their condition. It doesn’t judge; its thesis goes beyond saying, this is good, or this is bad; rather, it says, “this exists, and is worth thinking about.” It resists any temptations to sentimentalize the subject matter.
Ese and Jamil do more than hang out. To an extent, they are aware of their condition— Jamil more than Ese because he has had more exposure— and they dream of things getting better. While Jamil wants to become a doctor and build a house for his parents, Ese’s ambition is to be queen of Bariga Sugar one day. “No, no, not like that,” Jamil says. “Like the queen of England, or even president.” I won’t spoil the ending but the Ese’s voiceover narration comes back to bookend the film, her voice somehow more heartfelt than before.
Bariga Sugar, while being a contained story, also feels like it could be a chapter in a much larger one, a sprawling coming-of-age tale stuffed with enough wit, poignancy and sincerity that’d leave the audience craving more of the story and characters long after the credits roll. Credit has to be given to Chukwuogo who directed, co-wrote, and even edited the short. I’m reminded of Chantal Akerman, who before going on to direct such masterworks as Jeanne Dielman (1975) and No Home Movie (2015), first tried her hand at a short, Sauté ma Ville (1968), a film brimming with energy in its narrative and narration.
Bariga Sugar, released on YouTube in 2017, later made its way across film festivals. Everywhere it went, it left audiences positively stunned. Chukwuogo’s latest project, No Victors, a documentary on the Biafran War was released in 2020.