Nigeria’s ‘Ìfé’ film reclaims love at the center of LGBTQ stories

Nigeria’s ‘Ìfé’ film reclaims love at the center of LGBTQ stories

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Bianca Hillier

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“Ífé” film features two women in love in Nigeria. 

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Courtesy of The Equality Hub

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“Ìfé,” one of the newest Nollywood films coming out of Nigeria, is unlike any that has come before. Upon release, it’ll be the country’s first positive love story made by queer women about queer women.

“I have never been proud to release anything to the world as much as I am proud of this film.”

Pamela Adie, “Ìfé” film producer

“I have never been proud to release anything to the world as much as I am proud of this film,” said Pamela Adie, an LGBTQ advocate and producer of “Ìfé.” The film, Adie said, follows two women falling in love over a three-day date, “who then have their love tested by the realities of being in a same-sex relationship in a country like Nigeria.”

Related: This senior center is helping Mexico’s ‘invisible’ LGBTQ seniors

Those realities can be wide-reaching. Under the country’s Same-Sex Prohibition Act, queer Nigerians face up to 14 years in prison for showing affection in public, a law which 75% of the country supports, according to a recent survey by The Initiative for Equal Rights.

The love story between Ìfé and Adaora is fictional, Adie said. But the plot will be familiar to queer Nigerians.

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“We fall in love. We break people’s hearts. Other people break our hearts. You know? And … we also want family. … So, all of these things really present a picture of the complexity of love — of same-sex love — in a country like Nigeria, where you have to deal with a lot of homophobic attitudes.”

Pamela Adie, “Ìfé” film producer

“We fall in love. We break people’s hearts. Other people break our hearts. You know? And … we also want family,” Adie said. “So, all of these things really present a picture of the complexity of love — of same-sex love — in a country like Nigeria, where you have to deal with a lot of homophobic attitudes.”

Adie said she knows the film “Ìfé” won’t get rid of all homophobic attitudes in Nigeria. Instead, she hopes it helps to reclaim the stories of Nigeria’s LGBTQ community on screen when it’s released later this year. 

But the film won’t be played in theaters. Cinemas are largely still closed due to the pandemic, but the crew also knows the film wouldn’t be approved by Nigeria’s National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB). The Board’s executive director, Adedayo Thomas, said he’s seen the trailer and read about the plot.

Related: Thailand set to legalize LGBTQ unions, a rare step in Asia

“The law criminalizes LGTB [sic]. … Such things are classified under obscene, blasphemous, indecent. So, it’s not going to be passed for public viewing.”

Adedayo Thomas, executive director, National Film and Video Censors Board

“The law criminalizes LGTB [sic],” Thomas said. “Such things are classified under obscene, blasphemous, indecent. So, it’s not going to be passed for public viewing.”

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Can you guess what was happening here?😅 . Cc @equalityhub @kristigbemi @uyaiedu @uzoamaka_a @dynaziie #ÌFÈ #ÌFÈtheMovie #ComingSoon #BTS #ShortFilm #Naija #Storytelling

A post shared by ÌFÉ the Movie (@ife_movie) on Jul 6, 2020 at 6:25am PDT

For now, that’s OK with the “Ìfé” team; they’re planning a surprise release online. But Thomas said the NFVCB monitors streaming platforms, too, and “Ìfé” on the internet would also violate Nigerian law.

“So, if it goes [to an] online platform, the producers [and] those who act in it would be called for prosecution,” Thomas said. 

“Ìfé” producer Adie said she isn’t worried about the censors board.

“They don’t matter,” she said. “Because we don’t need them for anything. This is art, this is film. And there is no law that says that we cannot produce this kind of content.

The point of this kind of content, according to Adie, is to show that queer people exist in Nigeria, and lead full, complex lives that Nollywood films have not previously featured. 

“The whole essence of making this film is to really correct some of the wrong narratives that have come out of Nollywood,” she said.

A 2003 film called “Emotional Crack” is widely regarded as the first Nollywood movie to feature a lesbian couple. The film follows a relationship between a woman named Camilla and a married woman, Crystal.

“It was actually a nice film,” said Lindsey Green-Simms, an associate professor of literature at American University who has been researching LGBTQ representation in African films for the past decade. She added: “It ended with the death and psychotic breakdown of the lesbian character, but up until that point, it was a complex, emotional relationship.”

“Emotional Crack” has been criticized for suggesting that the character, Crystal, was only attracted to a woman because she was being abused by her husband. Critics also say that the violence at the movie’s end reinforces a homophobic stereotype. Green-Simms agreed that those negative stereotypes are prevalent. But, she said, “Emotional Crack” needs to be put in perspective.

“Especially in 2003, there was almost no representation of queerness in popular culture. … And even some of the films that are — hands down — stereotypical, homophobic films, they still worked to affirm the fact that there are queer people in Nigeria. And that, in and of itself, is groundbreaking.”

Lindsey Green-Simms, associate professor of literature, American University

“Especially in 2003, there was almost no representation of queerness in popular culture,” Green-Simms said. “And even some of the films that are — hands down — stereotypical, homophobic films, they still worked to affirm the fact that there are queer people in Nigeria. And that, in and of itself, is groundbreaking.”

While negative stereotypes dominate in the majority of Nollywood films, LGBTQ representation in Nigeria’s entertainment industry has expanded over the past 20 years. Both Green-Simms and Adie said this was most notable when LGBTQ organizations like the Initiative for Equal Rights began producing their own content that centered queer characters. 

The films — “Hell or High Water,” “Walking with Shadows,” and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” to name a few — all featured gay men.

“But they haven’t been love stories,” Adie said. “They’ve been stories about the difficulties of being a gay man in Nigeria.” 

In contrast, “Ìfé”’s title translates to “love” in the Yoruba language. The film’s director, Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim, believes it will stand out from the rest.

“I think that anyone who’s watching it is definitely going to be surprised. Like, ‘ooh, nice. Two Nigerian women in love.’”

Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim, “Ìfé” film director 

“I personally haven’t seen any films like this from Nigeria,”  Ikpe-Etim said in a video posted on the film’s YouTube page. “So, I think that anyone who’s watching it is definitely going to be surprised. Like, ‘ooh, nice. Two Nigerian women in love.’”

This trans woman sparked Kuwait’s biggest LGBTQ movement in history

This trans woman sparked Kuwait's biggest LGBTQ movement in history

Maha al-Mutairi filmed herself after being called in to the police station for being an openly transgender woman in Kuwait, where “imitating the opposite sex” is illegal. Her message went viral, and sparked a groundswell of support and attention for the LGBTQ community in the country.

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Bianca Hillier

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A transgender rights activist waves a transgender flag in New York, May 24, 2019.

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Demetrius Freeman/Reuters

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Remembering Sarah Hegazi, the Egyptian LGBTQ activist arrested for unfurling the rainbow flag

Remembering Sarah Hegazi, the Egyptian LGBTQ activist arrested for unfurling the rainbow flag

Sarah Hegazi will be remembered as someone who just wanted to be herself — and was imprisoned and tortured for doing so. On Saturday, the Egyptian LGBTQ activist died by suicide in exile in Canada. She was 30 years old. 

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The World staff

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Joyce Hackel

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Crowds listening to Mashrou Leila concert in Cairo in 2017. 

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Sarah Hegazi will be remembered as someone who just wanted to be herself — and was imprisoned and tortured for doing so. On Saturday, the Egyptian LGBTQ activist died by suicide in exile in Canada. She was 30 years old. 

Hegazi’s friends trace the lead-up to her death to a moment in 2017 during a music festival in Cairo. As the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila played, Hegazi hoisted a rainbow flag above the crowd — a daring move in a country where homosexuality is taboo. A friend took her photo, and Hegazi became famous after the image spread across on social media.

But Hegazi’s friend, Aya Hijazi, says that moment came back to haunt her. The two women are both activists who have spent time in Egyptian prisons.

Hegazi was arrested after her photo spread on social media. Upon her release, she fled to Canada, where she was granted asylum.

“She told us, I always felt depressed and not able to express myself, and I wasn’t trying to make any political statements, I wasn’t being courageous, I was joyous,” Hijazi told The World.
 

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السما احلى من الارض! وانا عاوزه السما مش الارض.

A post shared by Sarah Hegazi (@sarahhegazi89) on Jun 12, 2020 at 10:57am PDT

Today, activists in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria are remembering Hegazi. Upon learning of her death, Hamid Sinno, the openly gay lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, sang a few stanzas in her honor — taken from Hegazi’s own last words.

Hegazi posted these lines online before her death: The sky is more beautiful than the Earth. And I want the sky, not the earth.

The World’s Marco Werman spoke with Hijazi about how people Hegazi is being remembered and the consequences of her decision to wave the rainbow flag.

Related: Egypt is raiding its LGBTQ community after rainbow flags flew at a concert. The West is silent.

Marco Werman: Aya, take us back to 2017, if you would, and that moment when a friend of Sarah’s snapped that picture and what became an iconic photograph. The Lebanese pop band Mashrou’ Leila just taken the stage at a festival in Cairo. What happened? 

Aya Hijazi: Right. She raised that flag and then some people put it on social media. It wasn’t her. And then after that, people posted it, it was a week later that she was arrested. She was sexually harassed by the authorities. And she was asked very private questions. She was electrocuted and she was tortured just because of raising the flag, nothing else. 

Which was a horrible experience and a complete 180 from the kind of jubilation that she was feeling at that concert, right?

I think that was the last moment of joy she ever felt. She was taken afterwards to solitary confinement as well. And then she was placed with two women in a cell, and they were forbidden from talking to her. And then ultimately, of course, she was deported and made to leave Egypt. And her mother died, as well. And so she just felt depressed afterwards.

How did Sarah get out of prison in Cairo? 

There was advocacy for her case, and then she was just released. She wasn’t acquitted. And then she was basically deported, never allowed to go back home. And I want to say that she never felt comfortable living in exile. She told us repeatedly that she wants to go back home, even if she’s going to go back to prison.

Related: Egypt is ramping up its harsh crackdown on the LGBTQ community

She then struggled with depression and she took her life this past Saturday, what’s been the reaction in Cairo to her death? 

I mean, it is mixed, an unequal mix, with 90 percent of the people just being vile. [But] fellow activists and friends said if this was 10 or 15 years ago, no one would have been outspoken in her support. But now, even 10 percent are able to be outspoken and really speak their opinion freely about the issue and even changing their profiles to the rainbow flag. It is very taboo. That is change. And we think this change is made by Sarah. So she left, but I think her legacy for rights and freedoms and peace and love will live past her.

We’ve been reflecting on the Supreme Court decision here in the U.S. to support protection for LGBTQ people in the workplace. Clearly, different countries are seeing the urgency for LGBTQ equality and justice through different lenses. When you think about what needs to be accomplished in Egypt, where do you even begin? 

In America, all of this happens, even legislation banning discrimination, it’s because of democracy. It is because there is freedom of speech and you can’t have rights, if you’re ruled by a tank and a government.

Aya, you spoke about the legacy of Sarah. What do activists in the Middle East do with this moment?

So people are arranging vigils for her in Beirut. They’ve already lit candles for her yesterday, even in Syria — it’s war-torn and people are dying. Because she was a strong supporter of Syria, Syrian activists did a vigil for her and raised banners. A lot of people really loved her and came out in support of LGBTQ rights and this was the first time that I seen Egypt people changing their profiles to the rainbow flag.

This interview has been condensed and edited.