From the current crop of Nigerian female directors and filmmakers, Genevieve Nnaji’s solid career as an actress is coming to an inflection point with her directorial debut Lionheart, set to premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival next month. Nnaji is one of the top-tier talents in Nollywood we have come to love and watch grow, even further trying her hands on music which failed to cross over in Nigeria but managed to chalk up a prescient song about being in a toxic, abusive relationship.
The last time a Nollywood movie premiered at TIFF was the 2018 EbonyLife Films vehicle The Royal Hibiscus Hotel, directed by Ishaya Bako. And it was the only Nollywood movie selected for the festival, which turned the Instagram accounts of the principal cast into an interesting curatory feed (I’m actually referring to Kenneth Okolie taking mirror selfies and looking dashing in a suit).
For Nnaji’s Lionheart, though, there’s a growing mass excitement and it’s easy to see why: Nollywood makes yet another return at the prestigious festival but this time with a female director at the helm. Listed as an entry into the festival’s Discovery Program, Lionheart puts a new spin on the old adage: family and business don’t mix.
Many first-time directors are known for starring in their projects and in Lionheart, Nnaji plays Adaeze, a level-headed executive in her father’s bus company. Called Lionheart, and per the plot synopsis, Adaeze has proven her keen ability to make a profit and to manage the most heated situations. But when her father (stalwart star Pete Edochie) falls ill, both she and her rival (Kalu Ikeagwu, boosting the marquee cast) are passed over in favour of Adaeze’s less-than-suave uncle, Godswill, who is played with considerable nuance by Nkem Owoh.
Determined to fight her way to the top but not wanting to go against her father’s wishes, Adaeze feels like the proverbial bus has left the situation without her. She must quickly shift gears, however, when she and Godswill discover that Lionheart is financially running out of fumes. Together, the unlikely duo must come together to save the company and their family name.
The official trailer, released yesterday, shows a strong cast toplined by Kanayo O. Kanayo and Onyeka Onwenu, whose firm, matriarchal voice gives the trailer an interesting tone. The glistening cinematography was what I was particularly drawn to, helmed by Yinka Edward, and the underlying issues of everyday sexism women face and how this is all cleverly distilled as a comedy-adjacent movie.
At last year’s outing of TIFF, only 11% of the top 250 films were directed by women, and only 18% of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers were women. Nnaji’s debut directorial offering is coming at a timely intersection with TIFF’s Share Her Journey movement, a campaign to support women in film, whether in front or behind the camera.
That said, it will be interesting to hear what critics have to say about Lionheart. The 2018 TIFF will hold from September 6 to September 16 in Toronto, Canada, and it will be its 43rd edition.