“A Tale of Two First Dates” speaks to the dysfunction of  the Nigerian justice system

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It’s hard to remember the last time I rewatched a Nigerian film I intended to review. Thanks to the shoddy quality of mainstream Nollywood productions,  I pride myself in my innate ability to decipher, at a glance, the messaging of a Nollywood film. Unperturbed about being paradoxical or philosophical, Nollywood films and TV series don’t often lend themselves to complicated subject matters. Even when it does have a paradoxical or philosophical whiff, the films are often badly performed, written, and directed. Willing to rewatch is akin to enthusiastically pushing oneself toward the gallow.

Strangely, I watched Ayomide Napson’s written and directed A Tale of Two First Dates twice. Two things might have inspired the rewatch: There is a heavy possibility that the two actors’ performance inspired my urge to watch the film or perhaps it was the pressing need for clarification and reflection. Whichever it was, I won’t be forgetting Napson’s film for a long while. 

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Isabel Adeleke (Sharon Rotimi), a PhD student of Psychology, and James Popoola (Olasunkanmi Olowu), an inmate, are the center of attention. Isabel, amid a turbulent divorce and lawsuit with her toxic omnipresent husband, needs James to fill out a survey. James, not quite the archetypal inmate — with crude spoken English and scar-suffused face, is willing to consent to Isabel’s request. Their at-first distrustful and cold attitudes towards each other will dissipate soon in moments of emotional intimacy and vulnerability. 

Written, directed, and produced — a classical indie move by Napson, the bottle film interrogates topics beyond the unconventional connection between Isabel and James. During the twenty-five minute film, we discover James’ story in cryptic details: A group of people had invited chaos into his family, his sister and parent’s favourite had been killed therein, and in his pursuit for justice, after meeting disappointment from police officers and judge, he decided to play judge. The result: The justice system that slowly convicted his sister’s killers swiftly convicted him. With this laidback revelation, A Tale of Two First Dates, though with no overt political tone, speaks to the chronic dysfunction in the Nigerian justice system. With each passing day, Nigerians are often reminded, through the infuriating attitudes of police officers, politicians, and judges, of how feeble the Nigerian justice system is. But when it comes to convicting the poor or setting examples of the poor –the ALUU 4 Killing, the justice system roars into swift action. Although the film doesn’t actively interrogate this pressing topic, James’ story is steeped in how feeble the Nigerian justice system is. 

What viewers might find ear-pleasing is James’ cryptic and often poetic dialogue which originates from Napson’s script. The dialogue, for me, is one of the intentionally developed aspects of the film. Napson’s script deserves attention as it passively worked social commentary into itself. For reference, James requests cigarettes during James and Isabel’s first meeting (the intention behind this is quite blurry). Wanting to get it, Isabel, for some seconds, forgets her phone and bag in the room. Realizing her “mistake”, she quickly dashes into the room. This awkward situation recalls that trite axiom of not judging a book by its cover. With leisure, the film passes this salient point that though stealing and other violence-inclined acts are the playing field for criminals and inmates, not all have that violent history. 

Napson’s script, on two occasions, pays homage to British novelist and social critic Charles Dickens. The film’s title directly contrasts Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Published in 1859, the novel depicts the perils of class inequalities in society. Napson’s second act of devotion to Dickens is noticed in the dialogue. James tells Isabel, “Love makes you an Oliver Twist for suffering.” For cinephiles with feeble or firm roots in literature, it’s easier to recognize where the Oliver Twist allusion is from. You guessed right. It’s from Dickens. While there is a feeble possibility that Napson isn’t aware of these influences while writing and directing the film, these influences exist. And it shows Napson’s possible exposure to literature and its alluring impacts on filmmaking. 

What’s strong and attractive about Napson’s film and by extension the actors’  performance is the prevalent subtleness and carefreeness. In Nollywood, it’s a rarity for directors to trust audiences to pick up information and character nuances without being prosaic. And Napson’s film achieved that feat. It relies more on implying its message than uttering it. And what viewers will come to appreciate is that what is implied carries more weight and depth. 

Bonding and developing a blooming relationship with two socially separated strangers, a prisoner, and a Ph.D. student is possibly one of the mysteries of the film. Nelson’s script approaches this relationship with care and understanding of the characters’ story. Isabel is in the midst of her divorce and James’ life is on a countdown. Though unaware of each other’s stories intimately, the two characters bonded on their need to share their story with someone who might understand it and not interpret it from a religious or judgemental lens. This makes their bonding to be seamless and understandable. 

For a director or writer to reference themselves in their film isn’t a rarity in the history of filmmaking. Celine Song’s Past Lives is a creative effort of Song, who wrote and directed the film, to understand the complexities of various epochs in her life. Greta Grewig’s Lady Bird is an ode to Sacramento and her teenage years in the city. According to the veteran filmmaker, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is “an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. Thus being outrightly or ambiguously autobiographical in one’s film isn’t a new endeavour for filmmakers. However, what Nepson does in A Tale of Two First Dates while being autobiographical becomes prophetic. 

For the filmmakers who stuff their personal lives into their production, it offers a lens and avenue to project their story. For the audience who watch these productions, it is a social contract entered into with the need to decipher not just the filmmaker’s story but gain perspective about life. But, all these are lacking in  Nepson’s film. The referencing of himself is at best an additional dialogue with no fragment of meaning or insight into the blooming story of James and Isabel. Though inventive and comical, Napson’s placement of himself in the story is unmerited. It’s more or less a writer-cum-director indulging in one of his fantasies at the risk of subverting the story. 

How you describe Rotimi and Olowu’s performance in the film is subtle yet menacing. For a one-location short film that doesn’t lend itself quickly to meaning. It’s the actors’ performances, captured by Feranmi Abiola’s lens, eager to lay bare the actors’ ever-changing emotions, that keep viewers enthusiastically involved in the unfolding drama. With every body movement, every carefully uttered dialogue, and every intimate shot, the film slouches in confidence and zest toward its finish line. Unperturbed about losing the viewers’ attention nor caring about the need to “act”, the actors’ performance shows two young talents in a firm grasp of their capacities. 

Created by a team of young filmmakers with the throbbing motive of making a mark and introducing themselves to Nigerian cinephiles, industry stakeholders, and older filmmakers, A Tale of Two First Dates is a collective effort; from the writer to the makeup artist on the set, everyone on the film set had something to prove, and they did prove themselves. As they push forward in their career, one only hopes that this eagerness to prove themselves won’t dissipate or be sucked out by the troubling demands of the Nigerian film industry. 

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