Film Africa focus: Nataal talks to Akin Omotoso about his feature, which foregoes dialogue to tell a tale of broken hearts

A Hotel Called Memory has been dubbed ‘Nigeria’s first silent movie’ yet it is anything but quiet. The film’s emotive soundscape in many ways speaks for and through the characters, expressing their thoughts and relationships as the dialogue-free drama unfolds. From the lapping of the oceans to the basslines of afrobeats, it is wrought with feeling.

Shot in Lagos, Cape Town and Zanzibar, A Hotel Called Memory follows Lola (Nse Ikpe-Etim) as she grapples with finding happiness after the break up of her marriage to Wale, played by Akin Omotoso, who also directs. The award-winning film receives its UK premiere at this year’s Film Africa, so as one of the festival’s media partners, Nataal speaks with Omotoso (whose other directing credits include God is African, Man on Ground and Vaya) about his immersive new film.

What appealed to you about doing a non-verbal film?
I have always liked films with no dialogue or long passages where you as an audience member are truly enjoying the visual aspects and following the story and filling in the blanks. With this film, I really wanted the audience to have a lyrical and visual experience. I think the challenge was to make sure as a team we kept the emotion and feeling without dialogue. Dialogue can cover a few things but here we have the actors with nowhere to hide, so balancing that out was exciting. Mmabatho [Montsho, who plays perturbed girlfriend, Aya] put it best when she says that for the film she found a way to 'speak' from her heart.

The soundscape is multi layered and helps to gives the film life. How did you go about developing it?
Continuing from that idea of having an experience, the sound designer Guy Steer and I had long discussions around how we wanted to carry that complexity throughout and not be repetitive. Along with Joel Assaizky who did the score we were able to find the right tone.

What role does water and the ocean play in the storytelling?
It's the idea of healing, the calming sounds of the water and for Lola, it represents the solace that she is seeking.

Ambiguity is everywhere in this film. Is this a comment on the inability of our memories - whether personal or collective - to accurately convey truth?
I think you are right and that's true in terms of 'how do we remember' and that's part of the ambiguity that I wanted in the film. Also I hoped that as audience members watch the film, their own memories take over and that hopefully carries on to discussions where even memory of the film is questioned.

We go on an emotional - and geographic - journey. Was it important to you to present these different parts of the continent in a positive light?
I love travelling and different places around the world to me are beautiful. One of the things we can do as filmmakers is to convey and capture that beauty, which is what I wanted to do here.

How has the film been received so far?
It has been very well received. It’s been wonderful seeing audiences debate the film and what the experience means to them. It won The Favourite Experimental Film Audience Award at The BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia and it received six nominations at the African Movie Academy Awards in Lagos.

Is this a good time for experimental filmmakers in Africa?
I’m always very excited at the work being done and Film Africa is showcasing the best of that work for 2018.

What are your next projects?
I just completed a documentary called The Colour Of Wine and I am in post on a new feature film called The Ghost And The House Of Truth.

A Hotel Called Memory screens on 3 November at 6.30pm at BFI Southbank, London

Film Africa runs from 2-11 November 2018 at venues across London

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Published on 19/10/2018