Kunle Afolayan’s “Swallow” riffs on existential quandaries – Michael Kolawole
Swallow, Kunle Afolayan’s adaptation of Sefi Atta’s novel of the same title, is a story of poverty, corruption, and survival.
Set in 1980s Lagos, the film tells the story of two cash-strapped friends and roommates who work in the same bank. Tolani Ajao (played by the singer Niyola, whose real name is Eniola Akinbo) and Rose (impressively played by Ijeoma Grace Agu) and using the flashback narrative technique, the film gives an account of how the ladies struggle to survive in a misogynistic office and the harsh economic condition of the country.
Having fought off the advances of her old and dirty minded boss, Mr Salako who sexually harasses her, Rose is sacked from her job. Tolani would later be assigned to Salako as a personal secretary. She, too, is harassed by Salako who boasts that she’s a nonentity.
Stuck in an existential quandary, the ladies make life changing decisions. Rose choses the crooked way when she meets OC (Kevin Ikeduba) who introduces her to crime. Tolani, on the other hand, sticks with her poor working condition and languid boyfriend, Sanwo (Deyemi Okanlawon), whom she lends her lifesaving to start a business. Dejected and desperate, she would later succumb to the lure of quick money.
The emotion that permeates Swallow is not humour but history couched around the poor economic conditions of the 80s and the gruesome treatment meted out to women. The contemptible Salako and the crooked OC represent the corps of the morally depraved men of means who see women, especially the poor, downtrodden like Rose and Tolani, as playthings to be used and disposed of.
Afolayan is always clear about the political argument he is making with his films but at times his narrative technique and character selection undermine some of his films. The narrative technique of Swallow is not as scraggly as that of last year’s Citation, but it is plagued by the same languid mood and characterisation.
Although the tone and the historical context of this film is perfectly established from the opening scene, halfway through the film, the story wobbles and fails to convince on its political standpoint. Afolayan creates a good impression through his costume and set design. But while his props and costumes subtly positioned Rose as
Gloria Okon, the infamous drug mule whose death remains a mystery, his continuous showing of the football viewing centre is redundant.
Adapting literary texts into films is no picnic. To bring the action and dialogue in the source materials to life while also maintaining the wit, humour, dramatic verve and essence of the source materials, is no walk in the park. The screenplay, which is credited to Sefi Atta and Kunle Afolayan, needed more development and fleshing out: Some of the characters needed to be removed, while others need to be properly developed. Also, the screenplay does more of telling than showing, hence the reason why the action sequences lack dramatic verve. This defect in the screenplay appears to indicate that the writers are more novelist and film director than dramatists even though Sefi Atta is an award winning playwright.
Most often, Afolayan portrays his forte as an auteur through his desire to groom and cast seasoned and amateur actors into his films. But his penchant for casting untrained and inexperienced actors as lead at times messes with his character selection. For the most part, the actors’ performances in this film are blasé and insipid. Eniola Akinbo’s performance as the lead is bland, it has no vigour. It’s hard to connect with her role compared to that of the supporting act, Ijeoma Grace Agu whose acting is impressive.
The other characters are more like sketches or fillers, their roles are ephemeral and choppy. And what’s with Afolayan hubristic decisions to always appear in his films when he could assign the roles to someone else? Better still the roles can be scrapped since they neither propel the stories nor add to his films.
The cinematography offers impressive camera angles and shots to the storylines while the set design, props and costumes perfectly reflect the epoch.
And if there is anything the film harps on, it’s the continuum in the country’s economic crisis, abject poverty and crime, the unruly nature of male bosses and lovers, and the hypocrisy in Nigerian offices.