At a time when English language cinema can hardly be said to be providing great opportunities for female filmmakers or be paying much attention to the telling of women's stories, it is heartening to find world cinema moving in the opposite direction and frequently focusing its gaze upon female characters compromised and challenged by patriarchal cultures. One of the under-sung highlights of last year's London Film Festival was Jeremy Teicher's Tall as a Baobab Tree, in which a teenage girl in Senegal tries to prevent her younger sister's financially-motivated arranged marriage. This year, Haifaa Al Mansour's much-acclaimed Wadjda spun from its portrayal of a young girl's desire for a bicycle a wider portrait of women's position in Saudi society.
B For Boy feels very much like a companion piece to both movies (and also to Andrew Donsumu's similarly-themed Mother of George, which is also screening in this year's LFF) with loaded subject matter once again presented through a low-key, relatable, realist framework that draws the viewer into its protagonist's dilemma without recourse to speech-making or histrionics.
Chika Anadu's expertly-handled debut feature follows Amaka (Uche Nwadili), a pregnant middle-class Nigerian woman who's married to Nonso (Nonso Odogwu) with whom she has one daughter, Ijeoma. Under pressure to produce a male child this time — especially from her mother-in-law who reminds her that 'You've been married eight years and only have a daughter' — and threatened by the possibility that Nonso may be considering taking a second wife, Amaka is thrilled when she's given the news that she is indeed pregnant with a son. But when she ends up losing the child, she resorts to desperate measures, keeping the stillbirth a secret from Nonso and investigating the possibility of adopting a baby to pass off as her own.
Anadu's approach is wonderfully confident and clear-sighted. Giving the movie a spare, clean, uncluttered look that allows the viewer to focus on the characters' interactions without distraction, she uses each encounter that Amaka has — whether with Nonso, with her mother-in-law, her friends, or female healthcare professionals — to present a fresh perspective on the situation and to give texture to the drama.
The contrast between Nonso and Amaka's middle-class, professional life and the village life and customs of their relatives is subtly drawn and the humanity of the film is evident in its treatment of Nonso as a character: no mere representative of patriarchal oppression, he's actually a quiet and considerate man who also feels rather worn down by his family's complaints and demands. But Anadu is certainly unsparing in showing women's collusion in patriarchy. This is evident not only in the traditional attitudes of Amaka's mother-in-law, who's motivated by a desire to have her 'husband's name live on', but also in a chilling sequence in which a group of women, stirred by the rhetoric of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, take it upon themselves to denounce Amaka as a witch.
The movie benefits from assured performances from its cast but special mention must go to Uche Nwadili in the title role. Nwadili has such a strong presence that Amaka never seems a mere hapless victim of events; cool on the surface, she keeps us attuned to the characters' turbulent thoughts and feelings all the time. By the wrenching final scenes, in which Amaka is driven to an action that we really, really hope she won't undertake, B For Boy has built up a Dardenne-esque level of dramatic intensity. Dedicated simply to 'mothers', it's a terrific debut from a talented young filmmaker.
Oct 13, 2013: 15:15: VUE7
Oct 16, 2013: 20:45: Ritzy