Events in Akin Omotosho’s new film A Hotel Called Memory are set off by a text message from Lola (played by Nse Ikpe Etim and her expressive bad-for-poker face) to her husband Wale (Akin Omotosho) requesting divorce. She’s at a beach in Lagos.
From there, Lola takes off to Zanzibar, another coastal city, where she is shown attempting to “live-her-best-life”. Here, we’re introduced to Harrison (Abdi Hussein), DJ and fellow traveller in Zanzibar, who is seen meeting and teasing Lola. From here, what is a tale of finding happiness after divorce becomes a love triangle when Wale travels to Zanzibar to see his wife, ring on finger, heart still pining after his lost wife. The tale is rounded up in Cape town, also by waters, where we’re introduced to Harrison’s girlfriend Ayana (Mmabatho Montsho).
The entire film is shot in close-ups with shallow depth of field restricting the viewer’s gaze to each actor’s point of view. Emotions are translated first and exclusively from the faces of the characters as they receive messages translated to viewers through text on screen. The primary conceit of the film, of course, is that these text messages are the only words used in the film.
“Most of the moments in the film are interstitial; the story is conjured and suggested rather than shown, and the emotions are evoked and induced rather than performed,” wrote critic Anthony Lane about Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. Everything about that sentence is true of Omotosho’s A Hotel Called Memory. Omotosho adopts suggestion rather than narration to tell a story of love and loss.
Omotosho, like Malick, isn’t overly concerned with plot. Dialogue is discarded, linearity toyed with, and the viewer is expected to, in a way, complete the film by filing in gaps. But whereas Malick is often interested in the past, Omotosho’s film is present, both in time and setting. Malick uses voiceovers to nudge viewers towards understanding, Omotosho uses text messages.
Now, the mere possibility of a technique isn’t enough justification for its use. Anyone who has fallen out of or into love knows the agony of living in the present with memories sweeping unbidden into consciousness to either justify a return to a former lover or pursuit of one supposedly out of reach. The mind isolates memories that match specific desires: a kiss on the beach, a hug underwater, a walk through paved streets of an idyllic town. And memories, more often than not, come like films with separate audio and visual files waiting to be mastered.
At the start of the film, there’s a fairly linear structure. Effect follows cause. And not until we’re shown an image of two horses wrestling on a beach, close to the start of the film’s third act, is the full effect of memory unshackled to time brought into full effect. The linearity of the first act and the text messages feel like considerations for an audience used to plot. But even these concessions don’t – and won’t – prevent some members of the audience from leaving. It is akin to making them endure 45 minutes of staring at an impressionistic painting.
“The film is a succession of art touches. …but I didn’t admire it, I didn’t enjoy it, and I don’t like it,” wrote Pauline Kael about Terrence Malick’s debut film Badlands. Again, these criticisms, if lobbed at Akin Omotosho’s film, will find their mark, but they are by no means the only ways to judge the film’s ambitions. A lack of ambition, after all, is one of many reasons Nigeria still awaits her first Oscar.
A Hotel Called Memory stays in the mind, indeed, like the fragments of a memorable night. It is what makes it possible, for instance, to imagine what would have happened if we saw Lola’s actions in Zanzibar without the motivations of Lagos.
Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, it is possible to move parts of the movie around in the mind and imagine its possibilities. Good art is often the kind that makes place for the existence of these possibilities. Unlike movies with just one way to be seen, this puzzle called memory holds its appeal even when its pieces don’t fit right.