On a quiet evening in Lagos, a girl walks home alone.
The neighborhood is safe enough, the people are familiar. She isn’t the only nine-year old to be out unaccompanied. But somehow, she is the one who doesn’t return. Her mother, Bola Ogun (Susan Wokoma) who works as a grief counsellor goes to the police expecting to find help. And hubris, and maybe some corrupt officers. She is prepared to take them all. What she finds instead is officer Folashade Adetola (Kate Henshaw), a pregnant policewoman whose unsmiling countenance belies a thorough and empathetic professional.
Officer Adetola is known as Stainless by her colleagues because in the cesspool that is the police force, she has managed to maintain a spotless reputation, eschewing bribery and other conducts unbecoming of an officer, even as she rises through the ranks. Anyone with only a passing knowledge of the Nigerian police force recognizes this for what it is, a minor miracle.
While Bola Ogun is losing her mind and patience, Officer Stainless, embodied by Henshaw in a performance that is a persuasive and definitive career highlight, must keep hers intact in order to crack the case. She will need her wits about her because of the mental and physical exercises that come with pursuing investigations on missing persons.
Recalling the committed professionalism of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the original Fargo film, Officer Stainless goes about knocking on doors, questioning suspects and updating her list of persons of interests. She is gentle but firm with Bola, sensitive enough to relate with her pain, but distant enough to understand that emotions get in the way. Stainless will also require lots of patience because as a product of the system, she appreciates fully the various impediments that can delay or even derail the most thorough of investigations. In one scene, she is on the phone with a contact from the pathology office, urging them to push forward the turnaround time for a crucial test.
While Wokoma’s Bola Ogun is the emotional core of The Ghost and the House of Truth, Stainless, whom Henshaw plays with physical alertness that is constantly doing mental calculations, is the potential energy, carefully stacking the chips and keeping the boat afloat. The Ghost and the House of Truth is a slow burn but the tidy run time (70 minutes) and concise, assured screenplay credited to the trio of Roger Smith, Brian Tilley and Tracy A. Whitaker avoids the tediousness that could easily envelop the picture. Every scene is stacked.
Winner of the grand jury prize for best narrative feature (world cinema) at the Urban World film festival in New York, The Ghost and the House of Truth marks the second collaboration between elite producer Ego Boyo (Keeping Faith, Violated) and director Akin Omotoso. The high-powered duo first got together in 2017 for the experimental tone poem A Hotel Called Memory. The Ghost and the House of Truth which won the Oronto Douglas prize for Best Nigerian film at the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) is the more conventional pairing.
Which is not to say that it goes down easy. Omotoso has gone to dark places with his previous work, exploring the traumatic effects of xenophobia in South Africa in Man on Ground, and the violence associated with urban settlements with Vaya. The Ghost and the House of Truth tackle the criminally under-discussed scourge of missing children and the dangers they are exposed to, but Omotoso goes for emotional and mental violence as opposed to gratuitous physical scenes.
He elicits strong performances from his impressive cast (Seun Ajayi, Tope Tedela, Lala Akindoju inclusive) and succeeds in conveying a mood that is at once desperate yet holds out a tinge of hope.
The ugliness that makes a person kidnap innocent children from their loved ones is instead transported to the physical environment where Omotoso and his cinematographer, Kabelo Thathe make use of elaborate drone shots to capture the filth that has taken over the city. It is an environmental crisis that Lagos is currently facing and Omotoso seems to be proposing salient questions that should bother every single inhabitant of Nigeria’s mega city. What kind of people dwell in such squalid conditions and what kind of interior lives do they live? Can a society that cannot protect the environment protect children, and in what ways are crime and punishment still linked?
There is a sensitivity that Omotoso and his cinematographer take while approaching filming the slums of Makoko, making the famous waterside community appear both ugly and beautiful at the same time. Omotoso also stages a terrific chase scene- on land and on water- that should probably have gone on longer to make more of an impact.
The emotional punch of The Ghost and the House of Truth however is more insidious than aggressive, and ultimately comes up short, partly because Wokoma, hard as she tries, isn’t quite able to sell the image of a working-class Nigerian woman. Much of the film depends on how she is able to trace her character’s journey from thorough professional to unhinged victim. And the quiet power of the film lies in how the tables are turned and Bola Ogun who works in a reconciliation centre finds herself overwhelmed by her own situation.
A profile on empathy and a study on crime, reconciliation and the darker side of humanity, The Ghost and the House of Truth says as much with images as it does with words. It is a compelling, aching piece that devastates, uplifts and shines a light in hidden corners of the human experience. It might break your heart but to miss out on the experience would be the real tragedy.