In the face of caricatures and erasure, filmmakers must defy the odds to tell authentic stories of queer lives.
The first time I saw two men in a romantic relationship was in a Nollywood film. Released in 2010, Men In Love starred Nigeria's Muna Obiekwe (Alex) and Ghana's John Dumelo (Charles) as former classmates, turned business associates, turned lovers.
The story of their "romance", however, is deeply problematic. At the start of the film, Charles is heterosexual and married. It is only after he is courted, drugged, and raped by Alex that - after initially being furious - he realises he is in love with his colleague.
It would be dishonest to say that the film offended me when I saw it. I was eleven at the time and struggling to understand my attraction to some of the boys in my class. Watching Men in Love validated those feelings. Seeing men attracted to each other meant I was not alone.
Yet something was clearly off. Even then, I was aware Nollywood could not be a judge of right or wrong. Our film industry often excelled at reinforcing harmful misconceptions and was misogynistic. I had seen films where a rapist would not only be spared a comeuppance but receive forgiveness or even marry their survivor. It is no surprise that when queer characters were depicted in films like Emotional Crack, Women Affair, Beautiful Faces, and even 2017's Busted, queer people were caricatured as perverts and predators.
As I grew older, I grew hungrier for more truthful storytelling. In 2020, I stumbled upon Cinema Escapist's list of the best film from each African country, and watched Mohamed Camara's 1997 classic Dakan from Guinea.
I was delighted to discover a story about two African boys in love and one in which the narrative was not homophobic. It was nothing like Men in Love. It was empathetic and honest in its depiction of what it means to be queer where it is taboo. Unlike in Nollywood, the storytelling did not reinforce stereotypes of queer people or, worse, frame homosexuality as a consequence of rape or grooming.
What made Dakan especially outstanding is the portrayal of its lead characters. In the film, Manga and Sori are not conflicted about their sexuality. They are not ashamed of their attraction to each other. They wear their love proudly and demand that society let them be. To see a film in which the characters are not battling to accept their own sexuality -a dominant theme in many, even Western, queer-friendly films - dignifies the characters.
Although made more than two decades ago, Dakan feels oddly modern as most of the issues highlighted still affect queer Africans today.
Like Manga and Sori, most queer Africans cannot hold their lover's hands in public, so must create safe spaces. These safe spaces allow people to express intimacy and vulnerability, but they do not - even momentarily - relieve the burdens of living in a homophobic world.
While Manga and Sori seclude themselves in a car on a deserted road, away from their overbearing parents and classmates, they worry about the fate of their relationship. The only representation of love and togetherness in their community is heterosexual. Manga worries that they are unable to procreate. He says to Sori "If God were fair, he'd let me bear your child".
And then there's the isolation where the characters suffer as the only queer people in their world. Manga's mother says to him, "boys have never been attracted to each other". And as though to prove her assertion, she kidnaps her son and dispatches him to a traditional priest tasked with exorcising his attraction to Sori. This proves futile. Same-sex attraction is as natural as heterosexuality. It cannot be undone. Dakan's message is even more pertinent today as conversion therapy remains prevalent in Africa, including in the form of physical abuse and corrective rape.
The film also explores how persecution often forces queer Africans to leave their homes in search of a better place. Many times, this "better place" is in some Western countries. Living in these places does not guarantee queer people complete safety from homophobia, but at least their very existence is not illegal and punishable by jail time. In Guinea, Camara's home country, homosexuality is a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison.
Camara defied many odds to make Dakan. He lost government funding and had to deal with an angry mob that tried to stop him filming. But he kept his resolve and, thanks to his defiance, Dakan exists today as a source of strength to me and other queer Africans.
It has been 25 years since Dakan was released, yet African queer cinema has still not taken off. African films about queer people remain few and far between. Part of this is because homosexuality is criminalised in many African countries. For instance, Kenya's censors notoriously banned Wanuri Kahui's Rafiki and Pete Murimi's I Am Samuel. The difficulty associated with making and distributing queer-themed films makes African filmmakers understandably reluctant.
In explaining his motivation for making Dakan, Camara said: "I made this film to pay tribute to those who express their love in whatever way they feel it, despite society's efforts to repress it."
These words remind me of the dual, opposing possibilities of storytelling as elucidated by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when she said that "stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise". I can't help but juxtapose Dakan with Nollywood's misrepresentation of queer people, using storytelling to debase an already maligned minority. With Dakan, Camara effectively debunked misconceptions about queer people by simply being authentic to their lived experiences.
After years of propagating harmful misconceptions of gay people, today's Nollywood has chosen queer erasure. The responsibility now lies on Nigerian queer filmmakers to expose the dangerous falsehood about homosexuality Nollywood helped spread. Camara's strength and resilience in the making and telling of Dakan become instructive.
I think of eleven-year-old me and imagine how much he would have benefited if he saw Dakan instead of Men in Love. He would not only have recognised that he was not alone in his attraction to the same sex, but he would have come to appreciate that there was nothing sinful about those feelings. It would have saved him some tears and many unfruitful prayers.
As a filmmaker-in-training, I am determined to make films for eleven-year-old me, for a young African boy conflicted about his attraction to other boys. And nothing solidifies this resolve like Dakan's uplifting ending. Manga and Sori choosing themselves. Their enduring love, their triumph in spite of opposition, says queer love is valid and deserves to thrive. Camara's bravery in making Dakan is an insistence on the right of queer stories to be told.
Dika Ofoma is a writer based in Enugu, Nigeria.