Light in the Dark opens with what may be becoming cinematographer Muhammed Attah Ahmed’s signature flourish. The camera, placed upside down, zooms in on Joke Silva, lying down on a bed. She is in a testy conversation with her daughter Jumoke (Rita Dominic) and as they converse, the camera slowly and deliberately adjusts itself right side up. If this shot is meant to telegraph any major upheaval to come, it isn’t quite clear.
The heroine Jumoke, played convincingly and with large doses of sensitivity by Rita Dominic is going through some anxiety though. She is travelling East to meet with the family of Emeka (Kalu Ikeagwu,) her soon to be fiancée. Her mother doesn’t approve of the inter-tribal union. Emeka assures her his mother is a peach. His mother is played by Ngozi Nwosu though so expect nothing juicy from her.
For a while it seems like Light in the Dark, helmed by first time director, Ekene Som Mekwunye, is going to be an against-the-odds inter-tribal romance, the kind that old Nollywood could knock out of the park with little effort.
But it gets even darker. Fast forward a couple years and Jumoke and Emeka are great parents to a lovely child. Swords have been sheathed. Because their mothers are battle scared survivors of the civil war, resentments still simmer just beyond the surface. But for the most part, things seem to be going smoothly. There is even talk of another child. Then one night, the young family is visited by intruders and nothing remains quite the same.
Light in the Dark deals on some heavy themes and the score by Michael Ogunlade strums a note of foreboding every time it is deployed. Leisurely paced, the screenplay by Babatunde Ojo is packed heavy with dialogue but Mekwunye’s direction is muted, incorporating slight visual flourishes that elevate the material.
The color green signifies life, renewal and fertility and Mekwunye seems obsessed with it. it is the color of choice for the characters, the production design team and even for those working on the color grading.
Due to budgetary factors, a lot of the film is constrained to closed, small spaces and this helps build some intimacy with the characters while giving out a sense of claustrophobia at the same time. By the end though, it is harder to say what the idea is with the tribal friction that seemed all important in the first act.
Jealousy is the green-eyed monster and it rears its ugly head eventually as Light in the Dark becomes a micro-study of obsession and the destructive effects of discontent. But if this is the thematic area that sets the tone for the directorial choices that Mekwunye makes, he doesn’t give it the proper attention that it demands. Even when the film goes overboard with the run time.
This lack of commitment is a recurrent thread and is perhaps the film’s biggest weakness. It could be a lack of imagination on Mekwunye’s part or it could be plain rookie’s error. Perhaps it is both. Whatever the case, the film loses a lot of its potency because of this.
Ojo’s screenplay isn’t particularly novel but it often hints at some edginess. Mekwunye is fixated on keeping everything chaste and letting in light at the end of the day, just as the title suggests. Rght up to the tied-in-a-bow ending that seems to take its cue from Mahmood Ali Balogun’s Tango with me.
Despite some strong performances, especially from Dominic, Silva and Kiki Omeili who plays Jumoke’s supportive neighbor, Light in the Dark feels entirely too tame, especially for a story that delves into some uncomfortable places.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.