Why You Should See Ego Boyo’s New Film

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Without dialogue or artificial lighting, ‘A Hotel Called Memory’ is an ambitious movie that challenges the fundamental fibre of Nollywood storytelling, writes Solomon Elusoji

Last weekend, at an open terrace that overlooked the Atlantic, film enthusiasts converged to witness a screening of ‘A Hotel Called Memory’, a film produced by vintage superstar, Ego Boyo and directed by Akin Omotosho (Blood Diamond, Vaya). There was music – jazz, rock and everything in between – and drinks and finger food; then there was restlessness as the evening dragged and guests were led upstairs to watch an eclectic, feisty ballet. “Are we going to India to see this film,” one woman joked.

The ceremonial prelude, of course, had a purpose. The screening, which had been marketed as “an immersive art experience” by the organisers, Temple Production, was designed, apparently, to showcase ‘A Hotel Called Memory’ not just as the ordinary, average movie, but a kind of artistic masterpiece, a collage of ideas that, mashed up together, evolved into something unique, a grand spectacle.

To be clear, the film is strange, not least because it does not make use of conventional dialogue or that no artificial lighting was used in shooting any of its scenes. Its theme, too, the exploration of memory and how it – this atom of remembrance – helps us heal through difficult periods is a combustible topic, as ancient as Aristotle, but no less important in a world overwhelmed with the frail facade of joy.

The film opens with a wide shot of the beach, a location that features prominently in the narrative, hovering in the audience’s mind like a cursed metaphor for life’s chequering. Essentially, the film follows the story of a woman going through a divorce, as she attempts to, like a snake, shed the skin of her old life and breathe through new pores. But, as in every good narrative, there is conflict. Because there is no dialogue – the only semblance of such being text messages between characters displayed onscreen – the nature, the value of that conflict is left for the audience to decide and to debate; decide comes before debate because while the former has an end, the latter, like binary, will never know unity.

“The idea for making a film like this was to challenge ourselves and create something that not only engages people, but also gets them talking,” Boyo would say later, during the screening’s after-party. ‘A Hotel Called Memory’ definitely did that. At the end, THISDAY Style’s Fashion Director, Ruth Osime engaged Boyo about the plausibility of the plot.

There was also the unmistakable audience-confusion at the film’s culmination. I spoke to several audience members at the end and none of them was certain about the meaning, the message of the film. Some asked for ‘Part Two’ while others shook their head in mystery, probably questioning the worth of their intelligence quotient. But ‘A Hotel Called Memory’, if nothing, is a classic example of the ‘meaningless’ form of modern art. Forget the superstitious, religious classicists, our modern geniuses say, art, great art, is not about meaning, it is about the delicate arrangement of shapes, it is about the enthronement of pattern over essence.

Boyo, who donned a glittering red dress on the evening of the screening, and Omotosho will not necessarily agree with the nihilistic portrayal of a film that took them three years to make. During the after-party speeches, Omotosho, while thanking the production team, especially Boyo (“it required a lot of trust from her,” he said), noted that ‘A Hotel Called Memory’ “is about silence and healing”, the kind of film that shows how people use silence to defeat life’s dark wars. Of course, at the end of the movie, the protagonists wears a smile that hints at victory and ties the plot into a neat knot, a Nollywood-esque performance. But, between the bad beginning and the ecstatic end, there is no doubt that the film is a minefield of debate, of persistent internal interrogation.

Silent movies are not novel things. In fact, the first films were silent, and they dominated cinema for almost four decades, giving us memorable stars like Charlie Chaplin. But in a world of pithy quotes and what has been described as ‘low attention span syndrome’ by psychologists, silent films have become scarce; rare in Hollywood, rarer in Nollywood, Nollywood with its corny, bloated use of dialogue. So, curious about what sparked such a bold venture from Nollywood players, I emailed Omotosho.

As it happened, he and Boyo had been developing a project for about six years which, in the end, failed to live long enough to meet the beautiful sunrise. So, when A Hotel Called Memory’s screenwriter, Branwen Okpako, presented the story, Omotosho, intrigued, decided to present it to Boyo, hoping the first failure had not dampened her enthusiasm. It hadn’t. “The fact that it was silent, just the Director of Photography and I and a few assistants and the different countries required a level of trust that she gave me and I am forever grateful to her for it,” Omotosho said in his response to my email.

Omotosho’s gratitude is a tribute to creative permission, the dearth of which has turned the movie industry – whether Nollywood, Hollywood, or their other cousins – into a relentless factory churning out rolls of cheap, formulaic movies designed to titillate popular consciousness. Like Netflix – that unexpected Unicorn helping to save the art of filmmaking from the money-grabbers, from the cold grip of capitalism – Boyo has collaborated to produce an ambitious movie that challenges the fundamental fibre of Nollywood storytelling.