The search for greener pastures beyond the Nigerian shores will always be a relevant theme in our stories. But the great thing about stories is that they can make room for numerous themes, and the quality of thematic execution is dependent on the director’s ability to present the story in a way that makes it transcend its themes. Chineze Anyaene’s 2010 film, Ije: The Journey, follows precarious themes, from rape, rape stigma, immigration and sisterhood. It juxtaposes an idyllic world of childhood tainted with the dark nature of human conflict. The theme that shines through in Ije, more than others, is sisterly love. The test of the movie is how this love perseveres against the backdrop of sinister discoveries.
Anyanwu Opara Michino (Omotola Jalade Ekeinde) has been arrested and charged with the murder of her husband, Michael Michino (Jon Morgan Woodward) and two of his associates (Pele Kizy and J. Kristopher). Anyanwu insists she was defending herself, that she didn’t murder her husband. She writes a letter to her estranged sister, Chioma (Genevieve Nnaji), in Nigeria, who promptly comes to her aid. Once in America, Chioma fires Anyanwu’s lawyer, Patricia Barone (Ann D. Carey) and hires the young Jalen Turner (Ulrich Que) who, predictably, she eventually becomes romantically involved with. As the movie proceeds, darker truths are revealed, and Anyanwu’s freedom will rest on their unfettered disclosure.
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Omotola Jalade and Genevieve Nnaji deliver remarkable performances but Genevieve easily steals the show. It is quickly obvious that she is more fluent in Igbo than her counterpart and this adds some nuance to her deliveries, making them seem spontaneous when they are anything but. They do well to carry the movie and they share their responsibility with Ulrich Que, who is convincing as the young, novice lawyer with the do-or-die case. However, Omotola’s final monologue could have been paced better than the long, slow rhythm she went with. Her general performance has a lethargy to it, although it isn’t utterly damning. Beyond the aforementioned and Don Deccio (Jeff Swarthout), no actor appears exceptional, which reinforces the running joke that when Nigerian directors direct a diasporic film, they go to pick foreign actors from the bottom shelf. The actors who play the rappers are atrocious to watch.
The theme of rape is a rather precarious one. Chineze Anyaene is concerned about the stigma and quiet that comes with the act. It is the sad reality that women everywhere live with, and the mentality of shame is so persistent that when within a working system that could bring them justice, victims still refuse to speak. In some cases, it is fear, and in others, like Anyanwu, it is precaution bred from “what will people say”. Little has changed since Ije’s release. However, the happy-ending need feels heavy-handed. Let us assume that by a jolt of adrenaline, Anyanwu did murder three men and the need to preserve her honour has made her keep the secret of her assault from her sister whom she summoned all the way from Nigeria; made her keep that secret from her lawyer; but she told a random, fellow inmate just because: let us assume all of that went down accordingly, and Anyanwu reveals this in court belatedly, the fact remains that Anyanwu killed three men and, realistically, her sentence would have been longer. The odds are unfairly stacked against her favour, too unfairly for the outcome of that verdict. But it is important that narratives like this, where the victim speaks up and actually gets justice and leaves with their honour, are upheld. At least to encourage more victims to speak up. The only honour lost, always, is that of the perpetrator.
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- Anyanwu, so fluent and generous with Igbo as a child, almost never speaks a word of it with her sister as an adult. Yes, she has been in America for a while, yes she has undergone a western transformation, but still, there are far too little Igbo exchanges between her and her sister.
- Clem Ohameze barely has anything to do in the film other than beat his first daughter. They probably just said, “sir, come and act but it is only beating you will be doing.” Grossly underused. See The Last Burial for vintage Clem Ohameze.
Ije: The Journey is currently streaming on Netflix.