Clippers (2022): On the Need for Empathy

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The theme of Clippers is spelled out clearly in this line from one of the characters, Oge, “Family, no be only who your mama born.” The movie paints a picture of two young people, Jummy and Utavie, who for one reason or another have been abandoned by their families.

They find each other, albeit under less-than-pleasant circumstances and begin a friendship. The found-family has been a staple of film and TV for as long as cinema has existed. From coming-of-age indie dramas like American Honey to the multimillion-dollar Fast and the Furious franchise, and even animated films such as Disney’s The Lion King (1994). Clippers uses this trope beautifully well, weaving a tale of sadness and pain and ending on a high, inspirational note (which is something we can all use right now).

Directed by Gbenga Adeoti and Victoria K. Emla and written by Nnenna Ochiche, Clippers is a short film made as part of a project for the Ebony Life Creative Academy. The story follows Jummy, a young hardworking woman who runs a barber shop and is struggling to make ends meet in the face of a city plagued with regular power cuts and everyday wahala. You get the sense that even though she’s friendly, she likes to keep people at bay, as evidenced by the fact that she always has headphones on. There are a couple character-defining moments that endear the audience to her before the inciting incident. It’s shown that she’s no-nonsense and will not be cheated out of her pay and that she’s also honest and generous.

The wahala arrives one afternoon in the form of a young man who darts into her shop, with a bloodied head. He is being chased by people who claim he’s stolen a wallet. Jummy handles the situation quite well and after the accusers leave, she turns to the young man who introduces himself as Utavie and reprimands him for stealing. Utavie tells her he has nowhere to go after his uncle kicked him out of the house. Jummy tells him to leave for good and doesn’t change her mind. The following day, Utavie is back at the shop, cleaning the surroundings. This is my favorite scene of the film. Utavie is about to leave when Jummy calls him back.

Between them, pasted on the wall outside the shop, is a sign that reads, “Assistant Needed.” The movie has been planting the seeds of this point in our minds all along— a close up of a similar sign inside the shop is one of the opening shots. Even as Jummy allows Utavie to assist her in the shop, we can sense that what she needs is more than an assistant or even a friend; she needs family. They both do. At one point, Jummy talks about how she was sent away from home by her mother’s husband. The movie doesn’t expand on that or cut to any flashbacks but it doesn’t need to. It is enough that we recognize the deep psychological wound in Jummy. The same one in Utavie.

Roger Ebert once defined cinema as a machine that generates empathy: “It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” More than any other art form, cinema seems perfectly adapted to putting an audience in a character’s headspace, causing them to identify with their state of mind; their desires, anxieties and the reason they act the way they do. In real life, when we are having a conversation with another person, we rarely move so close to them that their face completely fills our field of vision. However, this is possible in cinema. Like Bergman once said, “…the human face is the most important subject of cinema; every emotion is there.”

Clippers uses the closeup to generate empathy in the audience. Courtesy of Onaopemipo Olatunde’s compelling performance, we are able to identify with her character at every point in the film, even in the absence of overly expository dialogue and flashbacks. The movie also works on another level as a public service announcement on the need for empathy in our country, especially in these times. Instead of standing on a soapbox in a market and reeling off all the reasons we need to be kinder to and more accommodating of our neighbours (because everyone is fighting a hard battle we do not always see), the filmmakers have chosen to utilize the medium that produces empathy to inform us of the need for empathy. It’s brilliant. It’s absolutely brilliant.

Watch Clippers here

Osamudiamen Joseph

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