A cursory recap of Bariga Sugar might sound like a mash-up of Nollywood cliches: rival sex workers fighting for supremacy in a brothel owned by a madam. The sex workers are also single mothers whose kids are involved in a friendship that mirrors forbidden love from Romeo and Juliet to Ramsey Nouah and Genevieve Nnaji in your favorite Nollywood romantic comedy. But this short film is really a quiet exploration of friendship.
There are few good Nigerian narratives, save those rooted in historical facts, that have not been told to the point of becoming clichés. This is the consequence of having an industry that can make a film in the time it takes paint to dry on a wall. Contemporary stories are hastily explored and shoddily executed. The challenge, therefore, for a new class of filmmakers has been finding ways to inhabit modern stories and make them feel fresh to viewers who have seen all the tricks behind Nollywood's magic.
Bariga Sugar’s emotional core is delivered through its child characters: Ese (Halimat Olarewaju), the narrator, and Jamil (Tunde Azeez). Child narrators are often employed as a crutch, a way to temper the more gritty parts of a story by restricting the audience to the naiveté of the little one and refracting the story through the prism of their innocence. Bariga Sugar doesn’t avoid this entirely. There’s a version of the story that could be told with more R-rated grit and sensuality.
What the film affords by letting the audience wander through its world through a child’s eyes is a gap to process what is left out. When Ese wonders about her mother’s plenty friends, the audience sees them swagger in and out and knows they are not there to break bread and sip tea. When she tries to peep into the room and has the window closed on her face, the audience understands why her eyes need to be protected. You’re allowed your assumptions, but also presented an alternate view that bypasses latent voyeuristic tendencies.
While the story of the children is the supposed center of the narrative, its real triumph is in how the women are shown. Hanatu (Lucy Ameh), Jamil's mother, and Tina (Blessing Samuel), Ese's mother, are coworker’s in Madam Sugar’s business. The former is calm, stately in composure and confident in speech. The latter is quick to take offense and insecure about her place in Madam Sugar’s establishment. Madam Sugar (Tina Mba), the boss, rules over her brothel with order and settles quarrels with justice.
It is easy to present the lives of stock characters—sex workers, poor maids, wicked in laws—via details accumulated through pop culture. The schtick for films like Bariga Sugar is to show Allen-junction montages of women leaning into car windows while tugging at the hem of barely-fitting gowns, tripping over heels, and adjusting errant bra straps while munching chewing gum. This isn’t an inaccurate image of some sex workers in Nigeria. The problem is when it’s the only image out there. Chukuwogo resists this hackneyed telling by showing us more of their lives as emotional mothers, fierce friends, and compassionate bosses. By setting the film in mid-1990s Lagos, she also shields herself from the temptation to use today’s slangs and mannerisms that might come out trite. Her care isn’t just visual; the language shows it too.
In the end, Bariga Sugar shows a director who is clear about her vision and pursues it diligently. It can be argued that the brevity and control of a short film is suited to this. But there isn’t a glut of Nigerian short films that can make that statement a forgone conclusion. Towards the end of the film, Ese, the little girl, has her head on her mother Tina's lap. She is wondering about Jamil. Tina pauses her beauty routine to react and shows compassion where a lesser film would have dragged the conflict between the women to the point of melodrama. It is a choice, out of many in the film, that reveals the director's preference for a tight story that over one with overwrought dramatic turns.
In a nation where being labelled prostitute offers many the license to dish out inhumane treatment to women, Ifeoma Chukwuogo’s presentation of these women whose stories are often told flatly feels revolutionary. By enlivening one of Nollywood's most abused stock characters, she shows the kind of attentiveness required if other Nollywood cliches will be rescued in due time