BFI is back with the London Film Festival, and even though this year is mostly digital, there are still some amazing movies that you can watch online. Namely, a stunning short by London-based, Nigerian-raised Akinola Davies Jr. Backed by BBC Film, Lizard is a short tale following an eight-year-old girl named Juwon who is kicked out of Lagosian Sunday school service. She goes on a bizarre and perilous journey as she curiously follows a red-headed lizard.
She stumbles across the dark side of a megachurch, watching as women sinisterly handle bundles of cash from the offering baskets and seeing a pastor getting off with a woman from the congregation next to a bobblehead Jesus figurine. The high-octane journey almost ends with a car robbery which halts when the gunman catches eyes with Juwon. Throughout it all, it’s unclear whether the girl is attracted to immorality or has some sort of divine sense to interrupt it. Akinola (the artist formerly known as Crack Stevens) is not a fan of forcing his opinions onto his viewership but a hint to the film’s intentions can be traced back to its titular role: the lizard.
“Animals carry a lot of symbolism in their personalities. Growing up in Lagos, there were so many agama lizards that I never considered they were native to West Africa. I just thought they were all over the world, sort of like the pigeon in London. You take them for granted,” he explains. “The male agama lizard is very territorial and nods its head when it feels threatened as a show of dominance. Where does that intuition come from? You don’t know why you have those gut feelings but you do, you weren’t taught it.”
In that way, Lizard is a nod to the audience to become more in tune with their base instincts. “It can be read in so many different ways, those are my favourite types of films,” he explains. That explains why the film is light on dialogue, most of the tension is built via the film’s score or Juwon’s on-screen reactions. “If you want her to have mystical powers then I suppose she can, If you think it’s born out of the unpredictability of humanity then that’s plausible too,” he adds.
Anybody with any links to Nigeria will have an innate knowledge of the prevalence of faith and spirituality in people’s lives. The congregation joyously engages with the service while Juwon sees another side to the operation on her own personal wander. In the end, she’s subtly told by the pastor to keep his affair to herself via a passive-aggressive prayer. “I pray that the holy spirit wisens the words that come out of her mouth so that she won’t use her words to offend God,” he says, clearly abusing his power. By basing the storyline around an off-kilter church experience it opens conversations around how some people perceive the same space as either “virtuous” or “oppressive” depending on their own experiences. “Are we not allowed to be critical of the spaces our spirits are nurtured, just because?” Akinola asks.
The film came together after Rose Garnett at the BBC offered him the opportunity to collaborate with the broadcaster after years of making music videos and fashion films for the likes of Blood Orange, Neneh Cherry, Kenzo, and Carharrt. He revisited a few incidents from his childhood that he then wrote up with his brother Wale Davies who he’s developed a working relationship with over the last couple of years.
“You don’t know why you have those gut feelings but you do, you weren’t taught it”
Pulling in the likes of filmmaker and stylist Daniel Obasi who just collaborated on Beyoncé’s Black is King, Anti Design (“they’re killing it in Nigeria at the moment, any music video worth its salt within the last few years has been their production design”), the film is teeming with fresh Lagosian talent. “It’s a list of great creative powers coming together. Shabier Krichner who just shot all of the Small Axe anthologies was on principal photography; Christain Epps who has an extensive list of lighting credits from Selma to Clockers to Belly, the guy is a legend! It was the best combination of a lot of people I really admired under one roof led by a driven production team.” The incredibly talented young actress Pamilerin Ayodeji brought the story to life.
His almost 20-minute short is a beguiling snapshot of Nigerian life, one that vivid and authentic owing to Akinola and the crew’s love of the country. “It’s paramount to work back home, it really affords an opportunity to build bridges and empower the community of artists in Nigeria, as they equally champion themselves. It is space for our combined efforts to project a world, albeit through another lens that we see for ourselves,” he says.
Lizard will be shown online alongside other projects Akinola is excited for film lovers to see like Steve McQueen’s offerings of both Lovers Rock, starring Top Boy’s newcomer Michael Ward, and Mangrove that looks at a Notting Hill restaurant that was the epicenter of community resistance and solidarity; Mogul Mowgli a story following a British-Pakistani rapper co-written by Riz Ahmed, and The Reason I Jump a sensorial insight into the world of non-speaking autistic people.
You can watch Lizard in full here.