It is only natural to understand life as inherently complex. Capturing this difficult yet, at times, beautiful truth is a commitment award-winning British-Nigerian artist Adura Onashile has remained faithful to, throughout her multi-hyphenated career. With GIRL, her compelling feature directorial debut — which makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival — the actor, director, and dramaturge centers what, in her opinion, rivals the most profound of obsessions: the exploration of a mother-daughter relationship, and the trials and tribulations emerging from this special bond.
Although primarily concerned with the intricacies of a child-parent relationship deeply compromised by trauma, Onashile’s film addresses thematics of considerable proportions. GIRL tackles questions pertaining to migration, trauma-rooted anxiety and paranoia, isolation, and the looming consequences of sexual assault.
Anchored by the moving performances by lead actresses Déborah Lukumuena (Grace) and Le’Shantey Bonsu (Ama), GIRL invites its audience to consider the natural yet often overlooked intrinsic coevality of trauma and beauty. Intending to uncover the film’s intricacies, Akoroko sat with Onashile and Lukumuena to reflect on its essence and the process involved in realizing the project.
Through her short film “Expensive Shit” (2020), about a Nigerian toilet attendant in a Glasgow nightclub who manipulates the behavior of unsuspecting women for the titillation of men, Onashile has proven skeptical of universal notions of morality and justice, and their inherent subjectivity. “My belief as a storyteller is that multiple and contradictory truths can and do coexist at all times,” she said.
This conscious decision to distance herself from black-and-white constructions of righteousness permeates the film, thus informing the narrative’s construction and pace.
Though tempting to see GIRL as a reflection on migration and isolation, Onashile’s film is mainly concerned with the exploration of the chaos that results from an obsession with controlling the outside world by immersing oneself into a self-fabricated reality. The film never explicitly establishes the reasons behind Grace’s wariness and paranoia, however, both she and Ama are found stuck in an anxiety-ridden routine from which they long to escape.
Mother and daughter dream of a life void of fears and limitations — Ama through the binoculars she uses to experience the mundanity of life in a Glasgow council estate, and Grace through her clubbing daydreams, wearing a sequin dress she fell in love with while cleaning the halls of the mall where she works. Nonetheless, Grace remains adamant about remaining isolated and continuously repeats to her dear Ama, “We cannot trust anyone,” further committing to a life of exile and anguish.
Theirs is a mother-daughter dynamic where boundaries between child and parent become blurred which spoke to Onashile’s own experience growing up.
“I am a mother and an only child from a single-mother household,” said the filmmaker and daughter of an immigrant, whose childhood family housing insecurity led to a six-month stay at a London council estate riddled with National Front fascists. “I’ve always been a little obsessed with mother-daughter relationships and I am very interested in how the boundaries are sometimes blurred, sometimes best friends sometimes not, I was always fascinated by what this deep closeness to my mother gave me and what it took away from me.”
Her mother, desperately seeking to shelter Onashile from the brutal realities of the world, insulated them in their small one-bedroom flat.
The consequence was a complete merge and dispelling of a normal and necessary sense of boundary. Having experienced both high codependency and an abrupt separation caused by her coming of age, Onashile felt the need to explore this phenomenon.
“I wanted to explore the legacy of separation,” she said. “The need for a mother to separate so she can understand who she is in the world, and allow her daughter to do the same, particularly in a Black mother-daughter story.”
It’s this narrative and character complexity that drew Lukumuena to the project.
“As a Black woman learning to express my trauma and my emotions, being able to carry Grace’s story contributed to my growth and knowledge of self,” the actress said.
Having predominantly starred in French films, notably Uda Benyamina’s DIVINES (2016) — for which she became the first Black woman César Award winner for Best Supporting Actress — and Anais Volpé’s THE BRAVES (2021), GIRL is significant for the French-Congolese Lukumuena because Onashile is the first Black woman director she has ever worked with.
The pair found each other thanks to Isabella Odoffin, the casting director behind EAR FOR EYE (2021) by British playwright, screenwriter, and director Debbie Tucker Green.
Grace in GIRL is loosely based on Onashile’s mother, and Odoffin was charged with finding a talent with a similar physique. However, Lukumuena’s audition tape was so compelling that Onashile could not pass on the opportunity to work with her, thus leading to a slight rework of the character. This unintentionally provided more opportunities for complex and inclusive representation, which the director affirms elevated her work. “It’s the meeting of the two of us,” she said. “It’s the rub that makes it something a little more charged.”
Though addressing various forms of racial and state violence, notably that of social housing neglect, reminiscent of the 2017 Grenfell council estate disaster, GIRL resists retraumatizing audiences by conveying much through the use of silence and kinesics, thus aiming to illustrate traumatic occurrences such as Grace’s sexual assault.
Key to the process of bringing such a cryptic story to life without relying on words, Lukumuena revealed that much of her performance was guided by the writer/director’s ability to capture the nuances of Grace’s experience of anxiety, paranoia, and PTSD. “Adura really knew what she wanted,” Lukumuena said. “Being driven and directed by her helped a lot, in addition to relying on my own interpretation of Grace.”
The French actress then elaborated on how synchronized her work with both the director and director of photography (Tasha Back) was. “We had a code with the DP and she would tell me where to place myself, and how much to reveal, often encouraging me to just perform the feeling, go through it, and she would focus on capturing the body language,” she said.
Additionally, DP Back’s use of deep contrasting colors and shades of blue was fundamental to the film’s overall visual richness. It’s a choice that was instrumental in visualizing the emotional complexity of the narrative, as directed by a filmmaker with a penchant for cinematographic beauty, even when capturing torment in a story as emotionally taxing as the one told in GIRL.
Consequently, the mental well-being of the cast and crew during principal photography was carefully considered. “I had to take a little bit of distance from Grace to make sure I did not lose myself,” Lukumuena said. She felt protected by her director. “I knew Adura and the team needed me to stay focused.”
For Onashile, for whom the production was traumatic given her proximity to the story, and the fact that this was her feature directorial debut, catharsis is a continuous process. “It’s getting better, but I will still need to take the time to decipher what material of the film was triggering versus what aspect of making the film as the director was unnerving,” she said.
As with any story tackling trauma, GIRL has seemingly proved to be a challenging but gratifying experience for both Onashile and Lukumuena who are grateful for the opportunity to tell this important story. Connecting with people who see themselves in Ama and Grace is what the director and actress now look forward to, hoping audiences experience the film feeling as seen and as fulfilled as they did once production wrapped.
GIRL has been seen commercially for the first time at the ongoing 2023 Sundance Film Festival, for which the film was selected to compete in the World Cinema Dramatic category. It’s a dream come true for Onashile. “As a filmmaker, Sundance always loomed large in my head,” she said. “A lot of films I loved watching growing up had the Sundance tag. Here, it feels like experimenting to find your cinematic voice, and I am so proud to be part of it.”