Michael Kolawole is a screenwriter, playwright, poet, and critic from Lagos, Nigeria.
Tainted Canvas, Segilola Ogidan’s semi-autobiographical and directorial debut, is a dark, tear-jerking, compelling, and atmospheric film. The film paints a gut-wrenching portrait of how mental health issues and child molestation affect the lives of a mother and her daughter. Tainted Canvas won the Special Jury Prize for Best Feature at the just concluded African Film Festival (AFRIFF).
The film follows the story of Rayo, a Nigerian artist living in London who strives to be successful in her career. When she gets a call from her aunt in Nigeria that her mom has cancer and she’s been hospitalized, Rayo is torn between meeting her art gallery submission deadline and going back home to cater to an ailing mother who despises her. Verbally abused and pimped out by her mother, Rayo struggles her whole life from this betrayal; she longs for an honest conversation from a mother on her deathbed.
Tainted Canvas opens in a school compound where we see a beautiful teenage Rayo (played by Jemima Aderemi) pouring sand from her hand before putting some in her mouth. The school bell rings, and she starts running towards the classroom when the scene transitions to a grown-up Rayo (Played by Segilola Ogidan) pulling her luggage from the airport terminal.
Through well-executed flashbacks, we see how Rose (incredibly played by Kehinde Bankole) navigates her life through the haze of depression and cancer and how she makes some insane decisions that tainted and marred the life of her daughter, Rayo.
As the film progresses, we understand why young Rayo ate sand in the opening minutes. Her pervert and paedophilic class teacher (played by Nonso Bassey) is fond of molesting her. To keep him off, Rayo pours sand in her mouth and spits it out on him when he tries touching her again. The teacher is angry; he locks her in a wardrobe as a punishment. Sadly, Rose discredits Rayo when she returns home late and reports the incident to her. Rose calls her a liar and a witch and threatens to send her away to her dad.
The generous use of flashbacks, plot twists, and art infusion is overwhelming. Segilola artfully portrays the aftermath of mental health issues and child molestation. We see how the depressed Rose badly treats her daughter through well-enacted scenes. We see Rayo's hands tied behind her back, and Rose watches as some boys grope her in one scene. In another scene, we see how she pimps out her daughter to Tony, a clothing vendor, to get some money for her antidepressants. The latter scene is very disturbing. Though the scene is darkened and the camera occasionally focuses on Rose, waiting anxiously by the door, still, the scene hurts. Tony gleefully and roughly has carnal knowledge of the little girl with no remorse. The spatter of blood on the floor shows how rough Tony handled Rayo. Rose is furious with Tony on how roughly he slept with her daughter; she threatened to scatter his shop. But the deed has been done. And judging from Tony’s attitude towards Rose, one can deduce that he used to sleep with her; he is glad to have her daughter, too.
Like the Nigerian society, Nigerian filmmakers shy away from the topics of Mental health and child molestation. Even when done, it’s mostly haphazard, more like a scratch on the surface. Nollywood orthodox modes of framing mental illness and child molestation are antagonistic: it’s inimical to mental health patients and victims and often leads to psychiatry stigmatization. Though Sylvia, the 2018 Daniel Oriahi’s paranormal thriller, briefly deals with mental health issues; Unbreakable, directed by Ben Chiadika, carefully illustrates how mental health issues affect marital affairs; and Damilola Orimogunje directorial debut: For Maria: Ebun Pataki, portrays postpartum depression, films that examine these topics are scarce in Nollywood.
Segilola’s directorial technique sways from many Nollywood filmmakers’ frantic and scrambling styles. Tainted Canvas is both plot and characters’ driven. Segilola Ogidan painstakingly paints touching pictures of how Rose and Rayo navigated their broken lives.
And using a panoply of techniques, dark palette and naturalistic lighting, Segilola creates some impressive shots—long takes, wide-angle shots and insinuatingly slow camera movements. The camera framing and the carefully organized shots make the film feel as though it belongs in an art gallery. And it truly belongs in an art gallery. To give a cathartic relief, Segilola takes us to an art gallery and shows the brief chemistry between Rayo and doctor Fola (played by Efa Iwara), the doctor tending to Rose.
Seeking answers and finding closure as to why her mother mistreated her, trying to appease her mother, Rayo, learning from a YouTube cooking video, prepares Jollof rice for Rose. Unfortunately, Rose doesn’t appreciate Rayo’s effort; she censures her that the meal is spicy. And when Rayo demands to know if Rose ever loved her. “I didn’t want you,” Rose blatantly replies, blaming Rayo for her misfortune and depression. “I still don’t want you now,” she adds. “I don’t deserve to be your mother.”
Tainted Canvas is thought-provoking and brilliant. The screenplay, credited to Segilola Ogidan, is finely written. The rich physical and human textures, absorbing and well-articulated plots, and patches of beautifully written dialogue grab and immerse the audience in the depth of the film. Its plot construction is impressively directed.
The cast perfectly executes and display both heartwarming and touching performances. The acting is calm but forceful; subtle but impactful. The newbie, Jemima Aderemi, gives a stunning performance as younger Rayo; Segilola Ogidan as the older Rayo is impressive. Kehinde Bankole's role as the depressed and ailing Rose is remarkable. Tina Mba, as the caring and understanding aunt Bisi is lovely. Together, these characters paint vivid and touching pictures of mental illness, child molestation, the tainted aftermath of abusive relationships, and the need for succour in times of hardship.
Tainted Canvas is a dark vignette: a social observation on the insidious impact of death, abusive relationships and mental illness in a person’s life.
All these add to the film aesthetics, a cohesive and persuasive vision of vibrant intent. The storylines wonderfully draw a huge connection between things that happen and things that matter and need to be talked about.