If we take Bela Tarr’s Dancing in the Pub as an exciting encounter with silence, then Akin Omotoso’s A Hotel Called Memory, however, does something less aesthetic—if not outrightly absurd—with the form.
Firstly, Mr. Omotoso tells us memory is synonymous with silence, and goes on to render memory dumb, cuts off a vital part of its nature like a quack doctor doing a surgery. But is memory actually dumb?
The first film I saw by Omotoso is Tell Me Sweet Something, a romantic-comedy shot in beautiful Johannesburg. It’s a story about two young pretty-faced male and female surmounting their petty challenges to find themselves, to reach happiness. They do find themselves and reach a jolly ending.
In HCM, Omotoso tries to outwit himself, tries his hand in a more critical film genre. The result is a colossal faux pas. This sort of a sudden switch almost doesn’t happen. Most times it stems from trying to impersonate, engaging some sort a fraud. Does Omotoso escape with this loot? I’ll say, no! His attempt to operate at that level of greatness clearly outweighs him. He sinks.
In what comes out to be a failed experimental film, or pseudo-avant garde, Mr. Omotoso has made a film, sat down with it and deliberately (rather than give room for the narrative to influence his directorial actions) denies his character’s voice. He cheaply edits out voices made, and in most of the scenes, simply refuses that his characters engage in any verbal interactions. It is most awkward in shots were the characters can be seen adlibbing, and where they gaze helplessly in moments only spoken words would make a sense of their actions.
The story is simple enough: a man and a woman weigh out possibilities after a strain in their marital relationship. The woman wants out, the man wants in. The narrative could have taken its rightful place among the berated Nollywood films if the director hadn’t loosely experimented with sound in a deliberate attempt to make the narrative complex or new or both—new and complex. But complexity doesn’t necessarily translate to depth or relevance.
A disregard for natural phenomenon begins the film: In the very first scene, a lone horse, unbridled, stands docile well into water, backing the sea. An unusual sight that must have been staged. But for what purpose? We, the audience, would never know, not through the film at least.
This sort of unusualness plagues the entire film. There would be more horse scenes and landscape pictures having nothing to do with the narrative. A keen viewer, eager for lucidity, would want to metaphorically imbue the horse scenes with the story. But this would only be in futility, as the director never intends the scenes to add anything than just to be mere filler.
A man would lose his wife to her boyfriend on the dance floor and gets angry enough to just walk away; a woman would think she has lost her son to the sea and runs like a mad person along the shore without the privilege of calling her son’s name; a man would seduce a woman, have a relationship with her and sleep with her in the same bed for several days without saying a word. Yes, the director is didactic like that.
The idea is to follow the protagonist’s mind, trace back the memory of her complicated love life. The human mind is complex, agreed, but does this film explore its complexity? No. It tries instead to exploit it. Who decides that worshipers at a beach be heard as against the actors? Who decides the soundtracks— which range from traditional sounds to American pop to classical sounds just to fill in barren scenes? Who decides that a conversation takes place, but be muffled within a noise proof glass because the camera is to remain there while the converse moves outside? Definitely not the protagonist’s memory, for the mind is not dumb.
My own mind tells me something loud and clear. It says I can only look in a different direction for answers: the director’s ardent didacticism.