An image of cast members of the film, '14 Years And A Day,' behind the scenes.
Photo courtesy of Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim and Ayo Lawson.

With '14 Years And A Day,' This Filmmaking Duo Wants to Improve LGBTQ Representation in Nollywood

Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim and Ayo Lawson are on a mission to expand queer stories in Nigerian film.

As directors, Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim and Ayo Lawson have individually aimed to push the boundaries of Nigerian cinema as much as they can. Ikpe-Etim’s debut film, Ìfé, earned her a spot on BBC’s 100 Women of 2020 list, even as it received notable backlash for being one of Nigeria’s first lesbian-themed films. Lawson has made her name known through her debut film The Nightmare on Broad Street, a horror film with queer characters, which was released in 2021.

But the pair soon realized that by combining their talents, they could better serve their aim to represent Nollywood LGBTQ characters humanely–through writing and directing films.

Their debut film as a creative duo, 14 Years and A Day, is an equally profound and light-hearted film rooted in the reality of queer Nigerians. The film charts the journey of Amal, a queer woman in a frustrating emotional tango with her partner of 14 years, who eventually has an epiphany after she encounters a magnetic stranger on a night out. The film was recently selected for the seventh edition of the Toronto International Nollywood Film Festival (TINFF).

Driven by the lack of proper representation in Nollywood, Ikpe-Etim and Lawson are committed to making films that allow a wider spectrum of people to see themselves on screen.

The directors talked to OkayAfrica about being blacklisted in Nigeria for making queer films, and screening 14 Years and A Day for Pride month in Lagos.

An image of the two directors, Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim and Ayo Lawson, standing next to each other looking at something.Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim and Ayo Lawson have joined forces together as co-writers and co-directors in an effort to improve LGBTQ representation in Nigerian film.Photo courtesy of Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim and Ayo Lawson.

The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What inspired the making of '14 Years and A Day'?

Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim:14 Years and A Day is akin to a coming-of-age story. It’s about Amal who hasn't really experienced queerness in Nigeria because she hasn't lived in Nigeria long enough. She has been in a queer relationship for years, and she’s demanding more from her partner. She wants a relationship that she wouldn’t need to constantly hide and when her partner cannot give her that, she goes out by herself and meets someone. She has an amazing time with this person and who opens her eyes to the possibility of actually having a fulfilling queer life in Nigeria. It's like an awakening for her.

Ayo Lawson: What inspired 14 Years, for me, is a lot of times I visit places and these spaces tell a story. We were at a restaurant in Lagos on a date, and that restaurant is a space queer Nigerians visit to feel safe and not judged. So we had the idea to write a story in that kind of safe space for queer expression. A lot of people outside of Nigeria feel like we're trapped here even though we still manage to have lives and create spaces that bring us joy.

Uyai, in your films, queer relationships are usually ripped apart when someone in the relationship succumbs to societal pressure and remains in the closet. Can you tell us more about this running theme and if it mirrors your life in any way?

Ikpe-Etim: I think that theme is just a way of keeping the audience grounded in reality. While we as queer people can find community and can find joy, many times we cannot find romantic love. As a woman in her thirties, I find it hard to even find other lesbians in their thirties because many of them are married to men. And so I don't want to focus so much on the joy and then remove the reality that we face.

It may be easy for some to label queer people who stay in the closet as “cowards” despite the many factors that contribute to the decision to stay closeted. How do you avoid that cliché in your storytelling?

Ikpe-Etim: That's intentional. I always want to make sure that nobody ever watches the film and comes away feeling like we are trying to force them to come out or make them feel like coming out is better. In the film, if you pay attention to Amal's conversation with her partner, Enitan, she wasn't forcing her to come out. She just wanted her to stop hiding who she was – there’s a difference. An important theme in this film is living authentically. You don't have to be out before you can live an authentic life.

Lawson: Also, one thing we agreed on when we were writing the script was highlighting the fact that everyone has their journey. That’s what Amal realizes: she can be out and proud, and Enitan does not have to be with her on that journey.

14 YEARS and a day - official

The film takes place in one primary location similar to both of your debut films. Was this an intentional choice or just a hazard of shooting a queer film in Nigeria?

Lawson: With short films, I love to work with a singular space and maximize its potential and I feel like Nollywood doesn't really do that. You can use a small space, even a corner, and make it the focal point of different experiences and things like that. We tried to utilize the restaurant while filming as much as possible. We used every aspect of it. In my first film, we used Freedom Park in Lagos, and I think that gave it its own essence. But another aspect of it was the budget.

Ikpe-Etim: In Nigeria, queer people, when we fall in love, we fall in love within closed spaces because we can’t really date outside. It is very symbolic. And I also intentionally try to remove heterosexuals when I'm making a film that’s queer because I just want to center queer people and just close in on them. It's almost like building a world where only queer people exist, without the opinions or judgments of heterosexual folks.

How difficult was it to make '14 Years and A Day' in a country like Nigeria?

Ikpe-Etim: It was extremely difficult to make because we had significantly less funding than our previous films for a story that included more characters. Bear in mind that we had all these queer and queer-presenting characters, and so we constantly had to maintain a respectful environment on set with regard to people’s pronouns and making sure everyone felt safe.

Lawson: With regards to shooting at the location, we had a specific time frame and we had to shoot round the clock. Also finding actors that were willing to publicly play trans characters, even knowing that they are trans themselves was hard. Getting people to come for auditions and send videos [and] monologues was hard.

Ayo, the film is significantly different from your last film, 'The Nightmare On Broad Street.' How did it feel to direct your first queer film?

Lawson:The Nightmare on Broad Street had queer characters in it but it wasn't a queer story. I've always been passionate about making queerness the norm and not constantly highlighting it. I’m bolder with my queerness than I was while making my first film and so my mentality is different. Now, I want to tell queer stories and change the perspectives of people, and educate them as well. I love the concept of edutainment. So that's what inspired me to write and direct this bold queer film with Uyai.

Uyai, you got a lot of backlash from the Nigerian public including the National Film and Video Censors Board for your queer film, Ìfé, and you’re back with 14 Years and A Day. In a deeply homophobic country, what motivates you to keep making queer films?

Ikpe-Etim: I feel like it's that thing that happens when you've been silenced for a long time and you finally gain your voice. I've been working in Nollywood for over ten years, and I know how many times I was shut down when I tried to incorporate queer characters in films. Creating Ìfé blacklisted me and took me off of Nollywood. I even got threatened by a director. After that experience, I had nothing to lose, and I realized I could keep making the films I wanted.

You screened 14 Years and A Day as a part of Pride celebrations in Lagos. How difficult was this to pull off?

Ikpe-Etim: The screening and the ball are happening on Friday, June 23rd. The location will remain undisclosed but people can visit the film’s Instagram page to RSVP and receive an invitation.

Lawson: Trying to organize and fund the screening and the after-event has been difficult. Luckily, we worked with a few people and managed to get some individual donations. It felt right to premiere the film during Pride month. Since ballroom culture is becoming popular in Nigeria, we also plan to host a ball on the same day after the screening.

Can you tell us more about the ball?

Lawson: The theme of the ball is “Resilience in Retro Reel,” and it will be a reimagining of queerness in old Nollywood: a merging of the essence of ballroom culture with the vibrancy of old Nollywood. There are also cash prizes!

Ikpe-Etim: We also plan to involve some old Nollywood stars and celebrities as judges for the ball competitions.

What do you hope viewers take away from this film?

Ikpe-Etim: Like Amal at the end of the film, I hope people can accept the idea of choosing themselves in situations that don’t serve them. Another important thing that matters to me is that everyone watches this film and comes away with the conviction that queer people are gorgeous!

Lawson: I feel like we want everyone that watches it to see themselves in it. I feel like anyone, even heterosexuals, can watch this and take something away because everyone can relate to the process of having to find themselves and figure out what they want out of life.