International media reports have painted many dire pictures of African struggles in recent years: Nigerian women and girls trafficked for exploitation, African migrants caught in slavery-like conditions in Libya, and others dying as they cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in search of better lives. As these situations continue, African filmmakers have started to take note. Mati Diop’s Cannes-prize winning “Atlantics” provided one high-profile recent example, but it’s hardly alone. In Nigerian filmmaker Kenneth Gyang’s Netflix film ‘Òlòtūré’ (“Endurance”) tackles the same troubling subject matter in unflinching detail.
Set in Lagos, “Òlòturé” is the story of a naïve young journalist (Sharon Ooja) who goes undercover to expose the brutal underworld of human trafficking. She’s caught off-guard by the dangerous environment she finds, a place teeming with cruel traffickers, pimps, madames and unscrupulous politicians. She ultimately bonds with a group of prostitutes and becomes deeply buried in their world. Yet in her unrelenting pursuit to tell their stories, she’s so successful in inserting herself inside the trade that she doesn’t know how to get back out again, or whether she even wants to.
In an interview, Gyang said he was inspired to make the movie after absorbing the experiences of Nigerians suffering in exile around the world and realizing some of them didn’t get very far. “I travel a lot, especially in Europe and I see Nigerian sisters, West African sisters in dark corners of countries like Luxembourg,” Gyang said. “But I was especially outraged by a BBC documentary series a few years ago about a Nigerian girl who left to go to Europe because she was promised work, and ended up in Agadez [Niger], sold to different men everyday to make enough money so that she could earn enough to Libya.”
Gyang was already working on a trafficking project when EbonyLife, the production company belonging to Mo Abudu, otherwise known as “Africa’s Oprah,” approached him in 2019 about “Òlòturé.” The film is the first of a multi-title partnership that Netflix and Abudu’s EbonyLife entered earlier this year, as the streamer continues to make inroads into the African continent. Under this partnership, Abudu is producing Netflix Original series and branded films that will be licensed to the service. The dark, gritty film is unlike anything EbonyLife — which is mainly known for comedies like “Chief Daddy” and soap operas like “Fifty” — has produced before. The movie is also a break from Nollywood conventions. Nigerian cinema continues to evolve beyond a stigmatized Nollywood, as up-and-coming filmmakers challenge stereotypes about their country’s cinema. As a Nollywood production, “Òlòtūré” is atypical for the local industry with its larger budget and adventurous style.
Gyang assembled the film out of disparate real-life stories. “A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a friend from Malta about Nigerian women coming to his country,” Gyang said. “He wanted to understand what the root of this was. These are the real-life stories and discussions that informed the film. With ‘Òlòturé,’ I got to tell this particular story from a Nigerian perspective.”
The film also draws on the true story of Tobore Ovuorie, an investigative reporter with Nigeria’s Premium Times, who went undercover in that country’s human trafficking underworld and penned a report on her experience that won her the Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting (which is named after the famed Nobel Prize winning Nigerian playwright, poet and essayist). “Six out of every trafficked persons arriving in the West are Nigerian,” Ovuorie states in her report. “So we need to look at what causes all these, mostly young, people to put their fate in the hands of these criminals.” She also noted in the piece that many women willingly go into prostitution hoping to escape from impoverishment. Sex work in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe, seems like a much more promising proposition than staying home. It is known as going to “the next level,” a phrase which is used in “Òlòtūré.” (Gyang thanks Ovuorie and the Premium Times at the end of the film.)
The film concludes on a very bleak note, with Òlòtūré’s fate uncertain. It’s not quite the happy ending that audiences might be hoping for. For the filmmaker, that’s the point. “I didn’t want a ‘Hollywood ending’ for this film because I want people to talk about the film, and the only way you can really talk about it is to show the reality of these women’s lives,” he said. “Because very few of them are actually saved in real life. “
He referenced a 2019 report that said as many as 20,000 Nigerian girls were sold to prostitution rings in the west African nation of Mali alone. “I watched the report on Al Jazeera and it made me so mad,” he said. “I didn’t want all that stuff about them being saved because it’s just not the reality of most of these women, and it would not make sense to represent this fantasy that people will watch and maybe believe that that’s how it ends for most of them, because it’s not the case.”
It is impossible to say how many women are trafficked within and outside of Nigeria, because the data available isn’t dependable, according to Human Rights Watch. However, Nigeria is currently listed as one of the top countries with trafficking problems, particularly in Europe, with victims located in over 34 countries in 2018, per the US State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
‘Òlòtūré’ falls into a long tradition of African cinema that tackles the effects of colonialism and the aspiration to find what are expected to be better lives elsewhere, dating back to Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene’s “Black Girl” (1966). Like the migrants risking their lives to reach the shores of Europe, Gyang suggests Africans should not ignore these stories in favor of films from North America and Europe. He calls for an investment in cinema made at home, on the continent, and emphasized that there are plenty of real-life stories for filmmakers to tap into. “Nigeria is a huge country where we have a lot of trafficking happening, but none of us has ever made a film on the subject at this scale, so we need to actually start telling our own stories, and not allowing Nigerians to be influenced by films they see from the west,” he said.
While “Òlòturé” is brutal to watch, it explores a world few know anything about in unflinching detail. Despite movements to change the Africa narrative overseas of poverty, famine, war, disease and despair — what novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the danger of the single story — Gyang also wants to tell stories that have social impact and reveal truths that could lead to change.
“If you look at the conversation that’s happening on Twitter about the film here in Nigeria, it’s encouraging,” he said. “It’s raising awareness of the issue, because it’s in a film. People are saying that they were not aware of the conditions of these women. Most people won’t watch documentaries, so you have to show these realities to them in a way that they will watch and appreciate. It just confirms to me that we need to be telling these kinds of stories.”
He’s hopeful that the film could inspire the Nigerian government to act more aggressively on the issue of human trafficking, although that has yet to happen. “I’ve seen a lot of important personalities talking about the film in Nigeria and I think that should get the government’s attention,” he said. “Organizations like NAPTIP [National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons] are not really doing enough to protect these women. But yes, I feel that as long as the conversation around the film continues locally, it’ll start driving towards policymakers in the country.”
“Òlòtūré” is now streaming on Netflix.