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Isoken
(2017)

Director: Jadesola Osiberu
Cast:
Dakore Akande, Joseph Benjamin, Mark Rhys, Funke Akindele


It goes without saying that some things in our cultures have become easier as time has passed, whether the passage of time has been centuries, a few decades, or even less time. The Internet and computers have certainly been a boon towards finding information and getting it organized; I would have killed to have those things at my disposal when I was in high school and my teachers forced me and my fellow students to write reports whose results would dictate a lot of our final grades at the end of the school year. One thing that seems in many ways to be a lot more difficult now than it was even just a few decades ago is finding and securing a romantic partner. In my childhood, I saw that people found their mates in ways such as going to church, doing volunteer work, meeting someone in the workplace, or being participants in some kind of fun activity. While I am not saying that there are no people in this day and age who find their true loves in those places, it certainly seems to be a lot less frequent. Church to many people seems boring and intolerant. Many people don't have time to participate in volunteer work. And in this day and age, if a man were to ask one of his coworkers out for a date, he may risk getting a bad reaction because of the #Me Too movement. Shared fun activities may still be a choice, but there are new factors that may still hamper a person's pursuit of love. For example, many people - men and women - simply have given up on dating, or have had no desire to pursuit it in the first place. There are also an increasing number of men and women who don't want to have children, which would clash with other singles who do want them. Then there is the fact that many people would only date someone else if it was in their best financial interest. Someone who is poor, weakly educated, or stuck in a dead-end job doesn't seem like a good catch, yet the number of such people increases each year.

So even when you consider new advances in dating, such as apps like Tinder, finding a steady romantic partner in this day and age is quite a challenge. However, there is one possible avenue many people could pursuit to find Mr. or Mrs. Right, but generally don't seem to consider that greatly. I liken it to a fisherman who has cast his net into the same familiar pond over and over without getting a fish, and then deciding to drag his net to a new pond to see if he has success there. I am talking about looking for someone who comes from a new culture and/or a new country. This way, you can find an extremely wide range of people, and increase the odds of finding someone who clicks with you. This is an approach this author has personally tried himself. After several years of trying to date on my home turf by various local means, it became clear to me for a number of reasons - internal and external - that the odds of finding the right woman for me here in my country was extremely low. As a result, I decided to see if I could find someone compatible from other country. But I certainly didn't want to go to a foreign bride agency website - the "meat market" vibe of them has always made me feel very uncomfortable, and I heard a number of women on those websites were actually scam artists. So instead, over a course of time, I signed up for various international pen pal websites, and began corresponding with a number of women. While a few of the women I corresponded with had, to put it kindly, a lot more bad intentions towards me than good, the majority of the women were kind and interesting, and I got something out of them even if one day a correspondence with one of them stopped. Eventually, things really clicked with one woman I corresponded with. We progressed to video chatting, gift exchanging, and eventually I made the big decision to travel to her country to meet her and her family. Once there, it didn't seem very long for either of us to realize we were destined to be with each other for the rest of our lives.

I am certainly not saying that this relationship I had was always an easy one. There were certainly a lot of challenges that both of us had to face, many of them being challenges I wouldn't have if I was dating someone on my home turf. There were language misunderstandings, the necessity ofIsoken learning aspects of a different culture, and feeling to a degree I kind of stuck out like a sore thumb at times. But trust me, there were a lot more good things coming out of this relationship than negative things, and it was never boring. You then might understand why when I came across the movie Isoken, I was interested in giving it a look, because it dealt with the topic of romance between people of two different cultures. Making it especially interesting was that it was a Nigerian movie; for years I have heard of a movie boom happening in Nigeria, and I was interested in taking a look at one such movie to see how it fared compared to the cinema from other countries. Isoken in its beginning sets up its situation by introducing us to the title person of Isoken (played by Dakore Akande), a Nigerian woman in her mid-30s living in the city of Lagos who has up to this point of her life achieved a lot of success, ranging from her career at an art gallery to the caring family and friends in her life. However, there is something that she has yet not managed to get - a husband. Since being married is something that's very important in her Edo culture, her friends and her family are trying to get her hooked up with a good man, her mother (Tina Mba) going as far as being matchmaker and arranging for her to go out with a desirable and successful Nigerian man named Osaze (Joseph Benjamin). However, around this time, Isoken goes to the laundromat and has an embarrassing encounter with another laundromat customer named Kevin (Mark Rhys), who returns to her a pair of her panties she accidentally left in a dryer. However, Kevin from this incident is both amused and attracted to Isoken, and when they happen to bump into each other again a short time later, the two slowly start to form a friendship while she is still officially with Osaze. As time passes, Isoken seems to slowly be building feelings towards Kevin. But there is a problem with the relationship, at least to Isoken - Kevin is not only not an individual from the Edo culture, he is Caucasian - and Isoken is quite worried that her friends, family, and Edo society may react negatively to her relationship with Kevin.

I have a feeling that Isoken's writer/director, Jadesola Osiberu, got a significant amout of inspiration from the 2006 major Hollywood studio movie Something New, which was also about a career-successful yet unattached black woman finding romance with a Caucasian man. (That movie, by the way, is also pretty good - check it out if you have the opportunity.) However, I will give Osiberu some slack about this, since not only was that other movie not the first portrayal of a black woman / Caucasian man romance, but that Osiberu gives this particular telling some unique flavor. Naturally, since movie was set and filmed in Nigeria, we get to see many aspects of Nigerian culture. We see various headdresses and outfits the characters wear (cowboy hats seem to be a thing for some Nigerian men), how Nigerians like to celebrate (party!), and hear their interesting language, which is a mix of English with local dialects. (You will need subtitles to understand some of the dialogue... but I know you are not one of those anti-subtitle boneheads, right?) We even get to see some possible negative looks at Nigerian culture, ranging from the pressure to marry early in adulthood, to officials expecting bribes from regular Nigerians. All of this is not only interesting to see, it never comes across in a forced or heavily explained manner - it comes naturally, but in a way that you'll catch on pretty quickly as to how things are done there. Actually, you will see from Isoken that Nigerians in many ways act just like people in a western culture. They use words like "freaking" and "jeez", they talk about topics like the Kardashians, or if someone in their lives is involved in adultery or homosexuality. Their homes, places of employment, or various stores and service places look no different than what you'd find in your country. So despite the aforementioned cultural differences, I had no problem understanding this world, and the new angles gave the movie a definite freshness in my eyes.

One other interesting cultural perspective in Isoken that I have not mentioned yet is the movie's perspective on Nigerian attitudes towards interracial relationships. It shows both sides of the coin; when Isoken's friends learn about Kevin, they do bring up long held Nigerian attitudes that such relationships are akin to "inferiority complex" and "post-colonial blues", but they still value Isoken all the same and don't demand their good friend stop seeing Kevin. As well, Isoken's father has no problem with Kevin, but Isoken's very traditionalist mother freaks out at the news. It's a pretty realistic approach, especially since writer/director Osiberu gives this, and the other drama in the movie, a surprisingly low-key approach. The characters are not caricatures; they act down to earth, and if they do get angry or upset, they don't go over the top. Plus, they are written to have attitudes and feelings that are almost certainly like what the people in your social circle have. When Isoken is preparing for her first date with Osaze, she laments all the trouble she has preparing, saying, "Nobody expects to see the real you on your first date." Towards the end of the movie, Isoke has a heart-to-heart talk with her father, where he reminds her that she has to sometimes think about her happiness, not just with the others in her life. While other movies have done this before, in this case it's pulled off to become a quiet and believable scene of drama that shows a warmth that you can identify with. The "be yourself" message of this movie really shines. However, when the movie gets to show its comic side, it manages to be often funny without seeming outlandish or heavy handed with its humor. An example of this is when Kevin returns Isoken's panties at the laundry, and is instantly attracted to her and starts to prattle on for a few seconds before he stops himself and embarrassingly says to the equally embarrassed Isoken, "I'm just making things worse, aren't I?" Who couldn't identify with that? We laugh, because we can see ourselves.

As Isoken and Kevin, actors Akande and Rhys do manage to generate some great chemistry. It isn't only because their characters show attraction to each other. Both characters show some shyness, a little uneasiness that I think anyone in such a new kind of relationship would express. Akande also gives some subtle yet effective acting when not paired up with Rhys, showing frustration and sadness from Isoken not satisfying her circle or herself. Rhys is also good, though we get to see almost nothing of his character away from Isoken. In fact, I thought there weren't quite enough scenes between Isoken and Kevin to show how they slowly built romantic feelings towards each other, despite their aforementioned chemistry being very good. The narrative of Isoken also has additional problems related to this. There are some scenes that end so abruptly that we don't get to see how the characters absorb and process what has just happened before the story jumps to a new location with new characters. Whether this was bad editing or bad writing, I cannot say for sure. Another reoccurring problem with Isoken is with the sound department. Maybe it was because of the inevitable low budget that sometimes sounds you should be hearing (such as the "hiss" of a fire extinguisher) are just not there at all, or in several scenes where people are gathered in a room and start talking, but the voices apparently were poorly recorded or not bothered to be overdubbed in the post-production stage. I will say, however, that in any other technical part of the movie you can think of, the movie is solid; the cinematography is crisp and colorful, the lighting is professional, and the camerawork was considered well. Also, the set designs and dressings are constantly convincing. So don't think that (for the most part) Isoken comes across as a cheapo filmmaking exercise. Plus, the movie has a lot to say, and often says it in a very interesting and relatable way. This is definitely not a time where you can give an excuse as to not to see a foreign film.

(Posted June 12, 2024)

Check for availability on Netflix (Netflix)
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Check for availability on Amazon for book covering 30 years of Nigerian cinema (Book)

See also: Breezy, Making Mr. Right, My First Mister

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