14 Years and A Day: A Distinct Love Story Intimately Representing Queer Identities
“Maybe it’s idealistic, but maybe it could inspire people to come out and live authentically.”
“Maybe it’s idealistic, but maybe it could inspire people to come out and live authentically.”
The history of queer representation in African cinema is unpleasant—to say the least. A large part of that results from the widespread criminalisation of homosexuality and gender non-conformity in Africa. When the queer community isn’t grappling with censorship and under-representation, they are poorly represented in distasteful and degrading scenarios. The growth of the digital atmosphere has enabled a significant increase in queer representation but despite the recent advances of the entertainment industry in Africa, our filmmakers omit these stories. As a result, queer people have begun bypassing industry gatekeepers to tell their stories and make it accessible to all audiences across the globe.
However, the stories that have made it to our screens often take a tragic tone in a bid to spotlight the injustices the queer community face. Understandably so. According to the creators of ’14 Years and a Day’, this disregards the beauty of a genuine queer love story we have around us. Ayo Lawson and Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim, the movie’s writers and directors have taken the responsibility of spotlighting these crucial perspectives of a queer person navigating life in these parts, while celebrating love and self-discovery within and outside relationships.
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“The few times I remember seeing queer characters, they were displayed in very terrible light,” Uyaeidu Ikpe-Etim tells The NATIVE. “They were either begging people for change or deliverance. It just made it seem like there was something inherently wrong with queer people.”
Ahead of their screening in Lagos, we caught up with Ayo and Uyai regarding their creative process, choosing queer collaborators for the film the intricacies of telling a queer love story and more.
Our Conversation, which follows below, has been lightly edited for clarity.
NATIVE: Hello guys, thanks for joining me today. Take me back to the beginning. What sparked the idea to work on a film for Pride Month?
Ayo: What really inspired the film was La Tarvena, the location we shot the film. Uyai and I were at dinner and we thought that it would be a nice place to shoot. We thought the fairy lights looked very romantic and it could be a great setting for a love story. It also crossed our minds that La Tarvena has become a safe place for queer people and there’s so many different stories we could tell there. We were also inspired by our own love story.
Uyai: We’re screening the film this month because it’s a great time. We don’t really have a lot of pride celebrations. We do have a couple and we wanted to be part of that. We wanted to include more celebrations for queer people this month. We’ve built so much anticipation for the film and it just clicked to do this during pride month.
Let’s talk about your background. What are some of your directorial experiences? Uyaiedu, you’ve directed ‘Ife,’ a short film with queer themes. Did that experience make this film a less daunting task?
Uyai: Absolutely. ‘Ife’ was my first time directing and it was also a queer film. There was a lot that came with that especially being a first time director. However, making ’14 Years and A Day’ was a lot less daunting because I already had the experience of negative and homophobia. I was aware that they are just fear tactics. With making this, I was not too worried. Also, I was making ’14 Years and A Day’ with Ayo and that took away [some pressure]. We could really bounce off each other. We worked so well together. Finding actors and putting a crew together was still very difficult but because of my experience with ‘Ife,’ I knew how to navigate that.
Ayo: ’14 Years and A Day’ is also my second time directing. I directed ‘Nightmare on Broad Street’ with Femi Johnson but as much as it had queer experiences, I wouldn’t say it was a queer film. Going into this having met Uyai, I’ve become more confident in my queerness because I want it to be the forefront of the story. Let people choke on the queerness literally. I wanted it to be clear and in-your-face that the characters were queer but not let that be the only topic of the story. I also didn’t want to represent queerness through the lens of homophobia or all the hardships that come with living in Nigeria.
What’s it like working on projects with your real life partner? Are there any unique challenges and benefits that come with it?
Ayo: It’s interesting. I think we make a really good team. Obviously it’s difficult because when stress levels get high, it’s natural to snap at each other. Sometimes we’d have an idea and the other person is not getting it. All in all we really had an eye for what we wanted. We had spoken about it a lot so we were mostly on the same page. I’m really someone that wants to talk about how everything looks. I mostly come from art filmmaking so I want to ensure it looks nice and has the great aesthetic but Uyai is more particular about the story line and acting. Coming together, we both got to look at the other sides more than we would have normally.
Uyai: I really agree that we make a great team. Even beyond making the film, preparing for the screening and the ball has been great. Last night, Ayo looked over to me and said we make a great team. We’re on the same page and when we’re not on the same page, our ideas complement each other.
Given the conservative norms we have in our society, what made you take a more positive perspective/standpoint as opposed to the more daunting realities? Why did you think you had to paint that picture for the audience?
Uyai: We wanted to tell the complete story. I grew up watching a lot of Old Hollywood and there was hardly any representation of queer characters. The few times I remember seeing queer characters, they were displayed in very terrible light. They were either begging people for change or deliverance. It just made it seem like there was something inherently wrong with queer people. For Ayo and I, we wanted to tell the full story. Here we are, queer people and we have an amazing community. We exist. We love and we live here. We experience life and heart break like every other Nigerian. We wanted to bring that to the forefront and put it in your faces. This exists and these people are happy despite the negative stories you’ve tried to tell us. We’re here to tell a different story.
Ayo: As much as we have positive realities also, being queer in Nigeria is still hard. We wanted to create an escape. Some of the other recent queer films still talk about struggle which is very valid but we wanted to change the narrative so people can have a story to aspire to. If not that, feel some sort of hope that there is light somewhere at the end. People are having positive experiences. We can have spaceS. We can have love. We can meet people and life can be positive. We also wanted to change the narrative for our international audiences. When we screened in England, people asked us why we live in Nigeria and suggested we seek asylum. We’re not hidden and prisoned here and while they aren’t many, there are spaces we are accepted. We wanted to create more spaces and inspire people to create more spaces.
What factors informed your choices of other people to collaborate with on the film?
Uyai: Allyship. It’s very difficult to find queer crew in Nigeria. It’s very difficult to find queer crew in Nigeria, that’s another thing that we struggle with. I had worked with someone on ‘Ife’, the same person who did the cinematography. He was such a great ally and respectful of the cast. We also went with him because there was a way we wanted the film to look. For the actors, we went with almost 100% queer actors. We had a nonbinary actor play a non binary character. That was very important to have that kind of representation.
Ayo: Another thing that was important to us was finding new talent. People have a tendency to use the same faces. I don’t know how many people in Nigeria would even be comfortable playing those roles. We did a casting call for people to send monologues and that’s how we narrowed it down. We also just reached out to some people and said, “We think you’d be really good at this.” A lot of them got cast that way. For example, Alex, who plays Max, this was their first time ever acting. That was a good way of finding and nurturing talent.
Dating as an intersex person I think creates such a unique struggle both in and out of the queer community. What inspired you to explore this theme in the film?
Uyai: While we’re very particular about telling queer stories, we’re also particular about having teachable moments. Initially we were just going to go with a non-binary character but we decided that we should infuse other identities, especially those that aren’t highlighted in the media. The intersex identity is not even highlighted in Hollywood, let alone in Nigeria. We think about how we can infuse entertainment with education, that’s why we had that character.
Ayo: Even in the queer community, we realised that a lot of people aren’t in the know. It’s not just educating the masses but also educating the queer community.
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Let’s talk about the main characters, what inspired the main character Amal and Max?
Uyai: We wanted to tell a love story and tell it from different perspectives with different kinds of queer people. I feel like in Nigeria, there are different kinds of gays. We’ve noticed the more oppressed you are in Nigeria the more willing you are to be more visible to fight for your freedom. As opposed to class gays who have so much to lose and would rather be closeted about their sexual identity and we wanted to bring that together. Not in a way to judge either ends of the spectrum but bring that up in conversation. A class gay can say ‘this is my reason I don’t want to come out’ and that’s ok. We wanted that to be visible in the story. We also put other kinds of gays who are visible and loud and that comes as a shock to the class gays who assumes they can’t have another kind of life. We wanted to show all these journeys are valid and they matter.
Why did you think Adunolaoluwa Osilowo and Alexandra Maduagwu would best play the lead roles?
Uyai: So we spent lots of time looking for actors. Like Ayo mentioned earlier, finding queer actors willing to play these roles was very difficult. We did put out a casting call and got responses. However we still didn’t find a person who fit our Max character. While we had other people in mind—Ayo had actually worked with Adu in the past and thought she’d be a great fit for the role—we couldn’t possibly find someone for Max. randomly we remembered Alex and thought they would fit perfectly in the role. We just thought, “hmm, can they act?” That’s another question but let’s just try. So we hit up Alex and asked them to come for the screening and then we did a chemistry test with Adu. It was the chemistry test that sold us and showed us that it was a perfect match.
I’m sure you had some reference points when creating the film. Did any piece of media have a significant impact on your film?
Ayo: At the time we were really inspired by K-Dramas and old Asian film aesthetics. We were inspired by the colour and lighting of films like that. Some of the films we watched were ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Parasite’ for their cinematography and camera movements.
Uyai: Story wise, we really drew from our community and the people around us. I remember when we sent Fola Francis the script to play the trans woman, Divine, she was so excited. We drew from our own lives because we wanted it to be relatable.
Are there any particular characters you each take particular interest or liking to and why?
Ayo: I’d probably say Max. I feel like Max’s experiences are somewhat like mine. They never felt they were able to fit into the closet. I feel like once I realised my queerness there was no going back. Also with how masc representing I am, I resonate with that. Even in the situation where Amal and Max come out of the bathroom and the cleaner was like ‘Ah ah, this is a woman’s bathroom.’ That’s my life. I get that on a constant basis. That’s my struggle. I feel like I could just relate with their experiences.
Uyai: For me I think I can relate to almost all the characters. I can relate to not fitting into the closet because as soon as I realised my queerness I accepted my new life. Another character I resonated with was Max’s ex Zara (Funmbi Toye’s character). In the film, Max finds out they’re intersex and doesn’t know if they’re transitioning. I could really relate to that as a partner who’s not sure what their partner is becoming and constantly thinking about how it would affect the relationship. I can really relate to a character just packing up and leaving while being unsure that they actually wanted to leave.
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Comparing your script to the final copy, were there any major changes that had to be made through the course of production?
Uyaidu: Not really, because we were the writers and directors. We really stuck with the vision that we had in mind. I would say there were some changes based on our shooting schedule because we only had a night to shoot and the entire film was meant to happen at night. However, the shooting time had to go into the morning so we had to make that change.
Ayo: There were also meant to be cameos by iconic gays. We wanted to have cameos by people who were activists and public figures but we didn’t have the time.
The landscape for queer youth has changed in the past few years, especially in Nigeria. How do you think the film would be received now compared to five or ten years ago?
Ayo: I think it’s going to be a lot of mixed feelings. Because of the growth of the queer community, I feel like there’s going to be acceptance for our film, even though there’s going to be the normal backlash. We live in Nigeria. When things are hyped up that’s when the homophobia comes in and the homophobic people want to shit on it. But because of the changing and the acceptance of people, I feel like there’s been change created so ’14 Years and A Day’ can be more accepted.
Uyai: I don’t even think I could have made this film 10 years ago. There’s been a lot of change and a lot of people being more vocal about their sexuality. That of course has helped us feel bolder to make this kind of film.
What was it like shooting this film in Lagos? Did you encounter any challenges?
Ayo: Like Uyai said we only had a night to shoot. We had booked La Taverna for one day and we had to make sure that everything was done within that day. There were some logistic issues. I think the main issue was just timing because we had less than 8 hours to shoot. To get everything in was just difficult to do because we had to change camera and light set ups. Another thing I’ll mention was just getting the crew. Because the crew wasn’t queer, we were educating them on pronouns and how to interact with people. We had a few slips here and there but it was still alright. It was an educative moment for them.
You’re having your Lagos screening soon. What have the days leading up to this moment been like for you?
Uyai: Initially, there was a lot more anxiety. However, we’ve gotten a lot of help from international organisations who have agreed to host it and take a lot of that pressure off of us. I’m honestly just really dazed and excited. I feel like what’s happening in a few days has been a dream for me; to have the queer community come together and party in a really queer way. I can’t wait for people to see it and see themselves represented. That’s not a thing that happens a lot for us. I’m also hoping that this leads on to more screenings across Nigeria and internationally. That’s really our dream, that everyone in Nigeria gets to see it.
Ayo: I’d say that for me, it was quite anxiety inducing. The whole purpose of making this film was for queer Nigerians to see themselves represented on screen. When we did the RSVP link, it closed in less than four hours. It just shows how many people want this and how many people have been waiting to see themselves represented. It was such a big deal and that I feel has taken all my anxiety away. I know that at the end of the day it’ll just be joy. It’s fulfilling for me. And the ball, I’ve always wanted to do the ball. I’ve been huge on ballroom culture as well.
We are having a Ball!! Come party with us after our screening Old Nollywood style. 💅🏿 Link in Bio pic.twitter.com/aXPn6S1Atd
— Lawson (@ayoo_lawson) June 5, 2023
What sort of impact do you hope this has on the audience, especially queer Nigerians grappling with self-identification and sexuality?
Uyai: I really hope that creators and artists are inspired to make more queer art. I know that everyone will be excited to see themselves represented, but I really hope that it inspires more creators to make more films with queer people and create more art with queer people centred. That’s one impact that will make me super grateful and happy.
Ayo: For me, I didn’t watch old Nollywood and I didn’t really have any representation of queerness in Nigeria at all. Even internationally, I don’t think I was watching any shows that had any prominent queer characters. Later, I heard about ‘L Word’ but it was so white that I couldn’t relate to it. The impact I want to make is creating that representation in different forms. Not just a gay man or woman. Trans people, non binary people, intersex. I feel like the impact is going to educate people and create some kind of acceptance. It’s going to change people’s perspectives as well. I feel like it will inspire people to do more. Maybe it’s idealistic, but maybe it could inspire people to come out and live authentically.
[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]