Adura Onashile encountered so much racism when she was growing up in London that playing outside was impossible and, for almost a year, she had to be escorted to school by a council worker. “I felt very unseen,” she says. “There will always be that little girl in me who’s scared of being rubbed away.”
Her mum was an NHS midwife and during this period, the two “became even closer – often the lines were blurred between whether we were mother and daughter, sisters, or best friends”. Onashile knows it sounds perverse, but that time she spent with her mum was in many ways blissful. She drew on this intense relationship when writing and directing her Glasgow-set film Girl, about Grace, a Congolese cleaner, and her 11-year-old daughter Ama, who spend hours snuggling in their Gorbals home.
Onashile is quick to point out that Girl is only partly biographical. Through flashbacks, we discover that Grace was raped in the Congo aged 14. “The violence in Grace’s past,” says Onashile, “is not my mum’s story. I took our story and really pushed it. Because it’s important for characters like Grace and Ama to be seen. It’s always been important, but it’s even more important now. It makes me a bit emotional, actually.” Onashile widens her eyes to make the tears disappear. “Sorry.”
What Onashile was trying to capture was the “epic-ness” of the mother-daughter bond. She wanted to show how “dynamic and complicated” it can be. She succeeds. Grace barely reacts when banana skins are pushed through their letterbox: it’s just “everyday trauma”. Then, triggered by Ama’s pre-pubescent body, she decides it’s not safe for her little girl to leave the flat, and treats a hair in Ama’s armpit like a maggot that needs squishing. It would be comical, if Grace’s terror weren’t so real.
The chemistry between the leads is uncanny. Leeds newcomer Le’Shantey Bonsu is disarming as curious, eagle-eyed Ama. Meanwhile, Déborah Lukumuena, in her English-language debut, is astonishing as the embattled Grace. The French-Congolese actor – who was raised by a single mum on a council estate in Paris, albeit with siblings – didn’t need to have the script explained, says Onashile. “With me and Déborah, there was this unspoken understanding. I saw a lot of actors, but no one else got it. Déborah knows it.”
Onashile was born in London but lived in Nigeria until the age of 11, before returning. She has now been in Glasgow since 2013 and credits the move there with transforming her life. After studying at Dartington College of Arts, she worked in acting but was frustrated by the parts she was offered. “They didn’t charge my psyche or, for want of a better word, my talent.” Everything changed when, having relocated to Scotland, she wrote and starred in HeLa, a one-woman-show for the Edinburgh Fringe that took its name from the cancer cells, crucially important to medical research, that were taken from the Black woman Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge.
After that, Onashile wrote and directed the award-winning play Expensive Shit, which tracks the disenchantment of Tolu, a Nigerian dancer who once idolised the musician/activist Fela Kuti and now works as a toilet attendant in a grotesquely sleazy Glasgow nightclub where spiked drinks and two-way mirrors are the norm. Following a rewrite, Expensive Shit became a short film that ends with a desperate Tolu sticking it to the Man.
It’s a given, in Onashile’s work, that women are vulnerable, especially when they’re young, but her protagonists don’t wait to be rescued – they take risks. “Yes,” she says, “young girls have to be protected, but not to the extent where they can’t become their full selves.” Onashile strikes her hand for emphasis. “It’s about finding that balance. My god, the right to make mistakes might be the biggest sign of being safe and free.”
Girl is dedicated to Onashile’s four-year old daughter, Tanwa Onashile Darby. In Yoruba, she says, Tanwa means: “We have found what we are looking for.” Onashile is a single mother to an only child, just like her mother was. Yet where Onashile’s mum had to struggle on her own, Onashile has support. “The world is safer for Tanwa to live in, because she’s defined not just by me, but by friends and the community. That feels like a change. Different.” Her mother lives close by. “When my little girl was born, she moved to Glasgow. I know, that’s a big commitment. But my mum is special!” Tanwa’s father is also in the picture: “He’s around. Not in the house, but he’s her dad.”
When I ask Onasile if she can imagine making a film about fathers, there’s a pause. It’s such a long pause I panic and assume I’ve offended her. Then she lets out a wicked laugh. “Yeah, I can. Because that’s what my next feature is about. I mean, it’s about somebody who has grown up without a father, but is exploring what that father figure has given them anyway. I didn’t grow up with a father and my father has passed away now. But I do believe that a father figure is as important to us as a mother figure.”
Does Onashile have any actors in mind? Any famous people she’d love to work with? “I haven’t found the actor, yet, for the next film,” she says. “All I know is that they don’t need to be established. For me, it’s all about the sense of discovery.”
She’s careful to stress, with regards to this next project, that she is taking nothing for granted. Girl took five years to come together and Onashile knows that even directors who are lucky enough to make a splash with their first feature can struggle to get funding for their second. “As I’m sure you’re aware, this is a tough industry.”
Onashile is drawn to visually poetic dramas and is particularly keen on the work of Senegalse-French film-maker Mati Diop. “The way she lights brown skin,” she says, “that felt like a real influence.” Onashile is also a fan of Mogul Mowgli, the feature debut of Bassam Tariq. “I loved the weird things that that film did with time and memory.” Yet Diop hasn’t made a feature-length film since 2019s Atlantics, while Tariq, linked for a while to a Marvel project, has nothing new on his CV.
“I really wouldn’t want that to happen to me,” says Onashile, wearing the most brilliant of smiles. “I have so much to say.”
Diğer gönderilerimize göz at