An image from the film of a woman with her arms wrapped around a young girl.
Photo: The Sundance Institute

Through an Immigrant Story, Adura Onashile Brings a Mother's Love into Focus

The writer-director is making her first foray into feature filmmaking, with the intimate 'Girl,' which is debuting at the Sundance Film Festival.

Films about immigrant stories can often be weighed down by the doom, the tragedy, of all the things that go wrong for those seeking a better life in another country. And while there are many aspects to an immigrant's story that cannot be overlooked, it’s what happens in the moments in between – the moments when a mother is just a mother, when a daughter is just a daughter – that deserve to be given space, too.

“People are still living their lives,” says Adura Onashile, the director behind Girl, which is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. “You tell a story about immigrants, and then we want to know how long they’ve been here, how they got here, what's happening with their residency. It just becomes about the reality of being an immigrant in the west and, of course, that's in the background, but people still have to have relationships. Your life isn't immigration. Immigration is this thing that happens, but your life continues.”

Onashile, who was born in London but spent her formative years of two to 11 in the university town of Zaria, Nigeria, has made a film that is a tender love story about the relationship between a mother (played by César-winning actress Déborah Lukumuena) who is trying not to smother her daughter with her own fears and worries. Yes, the mother is a Nigerian woman, living within the public housing system in Glasgow, but for Onashile, the story goes beyond the traditional one often seen on film.

"I wanted to show that the mother and daughter relationship can be as complex and as varied without lots of terrible things happening," she tells OkayAfrica. "Yes, there's trauma, but geez, I mean, what women go through as mothers -- there is a whole world we can explore culturally in film, because it's wild. Like, all gamut of emotions, all of them all."

Her fascination around this subject is the bedrock of Girl, which marks Onashile’s unassuming but assuredly remarkable entry into feature filmmaking. Having been lauded for her work as a stage actress, drawing critical acclaim for the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Medea at the Edinburgh International Festival last year, her sights are now set on showcasing this side of her creative talent. And we, the audience, are all the better for it.

Onashile spoke to OkayAfrica about what working in film gives her, and how motherhood informs her filmmaking.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your previous short film, Expensive S***, was about a Nigerian woman working in a Scottish nightclub, and in Girl, we see a Nigerian mother and her daughter living in Glasgow -- are these the kinds of stories that you got into film to make, to explore this subject matter?

Often debut features feel like they're quite personal, or they come from a personal place, and I wonder whether that's just because with funders and stuff, there is a sense that filmmaking is such an epic journey, that in your first iteration of it, it should feel like thing that sustains you is because there's a story that you're burning to tell. So, it's not like I have this desire to tell stories just of Nigerian women -- of course, I would love to do that because I believe there are myriad stories we can tell that don't necessarily have to do with them being Nigerian per se, but has to do with them being mothers, has to do with them being women, so I'm quite open to trying that out. But in these first stages, this was the burning thing. When somebody asks you, if there's one film you've got to make, well, as the beginning of my journey, this was the one film I had to make.

And why was that? It's partly personal, correct?

Yeah, it is. Because I'm an only child of a single mother, I think I've always been fascinated by the ways in which that relationship kind of nourished me and made me really independent, but also the fact that its boundaries were quite blurred sometimes. We were more like friends and sisters, and how I'm a mother, too -- my daughter is four -- and how some of that lack of boundary makes it difficult for me to know what mothering looks like. I was interested in this idea of legacy and history, and what we pass on as mothers.

Obviously, the film is a drama, so that's not my life. But there were themes that I wanted to explore in that, and I put them within the plot of the film, which is much more dramatic than my own life. But essentially, I think that when I became a mother four years ago, I started writing the film before that, but it became more potent when I became a mother four years ago because, no matter what your intentions are, it is so tiring, and you're pushed, so to the edge, that you just fall on what you know, like, it goes into instinct and DNA. That was really interesting to me, about how if you don't work on stuff, it can carry on. And it's not because it's intentional, it's because it's such a intense, intense thing for us to do as women, become mothers.

An image of filmmaker Adura Onashile smiling at the camera

In her first feature film, Adura Onashile wanted I wanted to show an immigrant story in which "the mother and daughter relationship can be as complex and as varied without lots of terrible things happening."

Photo: The Sundance Institute

What did you find most challenging and most rewarding about making a full-length feature?

What was most challenging about going into the feature was the desire to hold onto a voice and a vision when there are so many vagaries that are out of your control. That was quite difficult for me because obviously, you have this baby, and you have this vision, and you just want to see it through. And you can't see it through without collaboration but so many things are out of your hands. So that was difficult.

The most beautiful thing was probably my relationship with my editor. I try and gather people around me who elevate what I've written and elevate what I've done -- from the actors to the crew -- because there's something about the way that they're looking at your vision that just opens it up in a slightly different way. My editor Stella [Heath Keir] had this really interesting way of looking at all the other dynamics that are present in Grace and Ama's life, and how we could edit to lean into those dynamics, and pull them out in a way that the script was always trying to kind of illuminate.

For me, it's very political because Black characters are not often afforded reality like that. It's [usually] like, What's happening? Where's the drama? Where's the trauma? And it was so lovely to be able to go let's just linger as much as we can. Because that in itself, just asking people to look at these people, to look at this mother and daughter in a 360-degree way, felt like really political but life-enhancing act.

How did Déborah Lukumuena, who became the first Black woman, and the youngest ever actor, to win a César award for best supporting actress, come to play Grace?

I really have to thank my casting director, as it often is, because she was like, 'So this is an African character, why are we focusing on just Black UK actors? Because there are African women all over the world, so let's open it up. Let's see women in Kenya, let's see actors in South Africa, let's see actors in Belgium, let's see actors in France. It just says something about how global our industry is now. I think we forget, or I forgot, certainly. So that's how we met Deborah. I was absolutely in awe of the way she was able to hold all of this complexity in stillness. I think she's a phenomenal, phenomenal actor. But what she also is, is an artist. She's always looking at the work in terms of the deeper aspect of what it's trying to say, and that was really important.

An image from the film of a mother and daughter in a close embrace

Déborah Lukumuena and Le’Shantey Bonsu play Grace and Ama in Adura Onashile's 'Girl.'

Photo: The Sundance Institute

What do you enjoy about film, the visual aspect of it, that you perhaps don't get from theater?

What I love most about film, if I'm really honest, is that I can create a complete world; I'm in complete control of the context of how you watch the world I'm creating on screen. I can never have that totally in theater. I have something else in theater -- the immediacy, the heartbeat, the breath of the audience and the actors in the moment; film can never capture that. But what it can do is, I can zoom in and make you watch my character and not be distracted by anything else. That, for me, the totality of that, is intoxicating.

Then the fact that in film, I don't have to rely on dialogue. I know it's a visual medium, and that's a very obvious thing to say, but so much of a film happens in the audience's head. Because you're not telling them, you're showing them something and then it's up to them to decide what the story around it is. I love that in film, I really do. And I love the editing process, as well. I love what you put next to each other, the decisions you make, and how that lands, emotionally. You can't completely decide how an audience feels about your film, but the journey of leading them or telling the story, I find it invigorating. That's the only word I can think of.