Words: Edwin Okolo

Photography: Omowunmi Ogundipe

The cinema room at the 2017 Ake Books and Arts Festival seemed the unlikeliest place for Bariga Sugar to find an audience. The year’s theme was “The ‘F’ word” – feminism (or female depending on who you asked) – and the room was packed with writers, essayists, activists, and generally just people who negotiated the tricky job of stirring up emotions with words. But by the end of the film, everyone was in tears. Even the film’s director, Ifeoma Chukwuogo.

Though Chukwuogo made her first short film in 2013, she only started sharing her work professionally after she graduated from film school in 2015. In many ways Bariga Sugar is her real debut. First premiered in 2016 at the Africa International Film Festival in Lagos, it has quickly grown into a cult favourite, loved as fiercely by critics as it is praised and shared by viewers. Chukwuogo uploaded it to Youtube for a limited time, but it has since been taken down and returned exclusively to the film festival circuit, popping up most recently at Ake.

How does it make you feel to be seen by many as the most promising director of your generation?

“Nervous. Because [now] people now have very high expectations of me. As an artist, risk is always involved in anything that you do.”

Every young Nigerian understands this perfectly; we are very vocal people, mix that with a deference to “culture”, any ideas that do not run through worn channels are feared and destroyed. But the pressure and the increased expectations are a crucible in which Ifeoma is ready to be tested. Staying consistent and outdoing her previous work are metrics she’s sieved from all the noise around her, and all she is focused on achieving now. She tells me she’s read almost obsessively since she was a child, dabbled in writing during her early teens, before spending her late teens immersed in the rigour of theatre. Filmmaking was a natural progression, because her stories were always visual. Being behind the camera allowed her the omnipresence to fully re-enact her internalised stories in the way she always hoped.

She has been telling stories in some form throughout her life. The process has always been intrinsic to her identity, to the extent that she has given up on separating her work from her everyday life. There were questions and allusions in Bariga Sugar that mirrored her personal life in some way. Bariga (which she conceptualised with her co-producer Ikenna Edumund Okah) was inspired by a friendship that thrives in a bleak environment.

“Friendship can save you, and a good friend can be like a saviour to you”, she explains, as she walks me through the story’s tragic leads, a boy and a girl born to sex workers. But the film is more than that: it explores how the failures of a system can ripple out, irreversibly changing the lives of people who feel far removed from the system itself. The world in Bariga aligns a fantastical world with the one we live in, and connecting us to both is what Chukwuogo does best.

The work she intends to finish and share later this year spans several genres, most notably book adaptations, starting with the ones from her childhood. She mentions Ngozi Achebe’s Onaedo – The Blacksmith’s Daughter, and the narratives from Chimamanda’s The Thing Around Your Neck, and a certain freckled mixed raced Nigerian author whom she asks me to keep a lid on temporarily, so we don’t jinx it. She also wants to collaborate with other filmmakers, building leverage for other emerging writers. But Chukwuogo allows herself some wistfulness when she talks about her laundry list of actors she wants to direct; Somkhele Idhlama for obvious reasons, Fabian Ladoja for his work in the South African drama Jacob’s Cross, David Oyelowo and Lupita N’yongo. There is one more person, a wild card she offers hesitantly, after negotiating with herself.

“By the time I blow enough to afford Meryl Streep, she’ll probably be retired, but yeah, Meryl.”

It is a big dream, but ifeoma Chukwuogo has shown she is built to upend improbabilities.