All lizards lie prostrate. No one knows which of them has belly ache.
African proverbs are usually multi-layered in terms of meaning, and the one referenced above is no different. It is often used to illustrate how the naked eye is unable to read minds, but it also points out how the underbelly of certain systems could be laden with attributes that are not particularly dignifying, and how the things we revere most could be hugely flawed. It is this grim reality that Nigerian filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr. attempts to illustrate in Lizard, a short film released in 2020 by Pot Boiler Productions.
Set in 1990s suburban Lagos, the film stars Pamilerin Ayodeji, Rita Edward, Osayi Uzamere and Charles Etubiebi. There are also appearances by Jamal Ibrahim, Kemi Lala Akindoju, and Patrick Diabuah.
Lizard opens with a scene that is as ironic as it is hilarious. On a Sunday morning, a robbery kingpin (played by Uzamere) rocks his little baby to sleep, then joins the rest of his gang to say a prayer to God for “a successful day at work”, before leading them into a rickety yellow bus that serves as a getaway vehicle.
Not too far away, an 8-year-old girl named Juwon (Ayodeji) is disciplined for a minor infraction during Sunday school at Heaven’s Gate, a thriving church that caters to the city’s religious upper-middle-class. While serving punishment outside the hall, she begins to see strange things, including rapidly transformed vegetation and an unusually large lizard. Her curiosity guides her decision to take a walk around the church compound, and she stumbles on a few things that unsettle her: she sees some church staff counting money in a secret room (with the aim of pilfering from the church’s treasury), and she spots one of the pastors frolicking with a woman he’s not married to.
In 18 minutes, Lizard succeeds in painting a grimy side to the sanctimonious glamour that is organised religion in Nigeria. In doing this, the film doesn’t dwell on much dialogue, but instead relies on the actions of the characters, deploying them as metaphors for the unpalatable layers of Christianity as it operates in Nigeria. What is interesting is that while the film is set in the 1990s, its nuances are still applicable to urban contemporary Nigeria as we know it today.
Juwon’s actions in the minutes preceding the film’s final act foreshadows the disillusionment of a younger generation with organised religion, and subtly portrays a rebellion of sorts: she sneaks out of a highly-charged sermon and refuses to drop her money in the offering box, using it to buy food instead. In the end, though, she’s not totally innocent, as she has to bribe Adamu the security guard (Etubiebi) so he can help her bend the rules a little bit.
Full credit should go to Kit Jennings for doing a brilliant job with the film’s editing, as well as Shabier Kirchner for aiding the translation of the scenes with commendable cinematography: the shots are integral to the overall layout of this short narrative. For the protagonist, much of the emotion is conveyed in what is unsaid, and Pamilerin Ayodeji pulls that off spectacularly. The concluding scene seems vague — the robbery sequence may look like it is peripheral to the film’s plot — but considering Juwon’s clairvoyance, it ultimately makes sense.
For a short film, Lizard is rounded in ways that would give feature-length narratives a run for their money. Akinola Davies Jr. manages to weave a compelling narrative that rides on the finest of details, and at the same time passes a strong message: in the end, there isn’t much difference between the sinner on the street and the sinner at the altar.
(Lizard won the grand jury prize for Best Short Film at the 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, as well as the award for Best Short Narrative at the 2021 Blackstar International Film Festival.)