Directed by British Nigerian Akinola Davies Jr, the live-action short film Lizard tells the incredible story of an eight-year-old girl with an ability to sense danger.
After being kicked out of Sunday school service for misbehaving, Juwon – brilliantly realised by young actress Pamilerin Ayodeji – unwittingly discovers the underbelly in and around a Mega Church in Lagos, Nigeria. Sinister women count bundles of donation dollars, the pastor has a secret assignation with a member of his flock; all witnessed by Juwon on her journey as she curiously follows in the trail of an agama lizard.
Premiering at last year’s BFI London Film Festival, the film written by Davies and his brother landed a BAFTA nomination and was awarded the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival. With past credits including campaigns with fashion brands Gucci and Kenzo, Davies’ stylish flair is evident in every single frame of Lizard and marks him as an exciting auteur to watch for the future.
We spoke to Akinola Davies …
Please introduce yourself …
My name is Akinola Davies Junior. I am Yoruba by a way of Nigeria; born in London. Citizen of the world. I am a visual artist and tell stories through moving image across different mediums (commercials, music videos, films).
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now...
Constant state of evolution.
Your background lies in directing music videos, a format where the visual is all-important. The imagery and cinematography of Lizard are absolutely stunning. Did your past work inform the looser narrative approach of Lizard?
The process that evolved from my past work is what allowed me to approach Lizard in the matter that I approached it. I am very specific about the emotion and am very disciplined about trying to focus on that emotion and not getting too distracted by aesthetics. I am trying to be attentive and submissive to the politics and the emotions.
Tell us about your experience at the New York Film Academy and what if anything that you learned there informs the way you work?
I was there for 3 months in a workshop program and it was right at the beginning of my journey of becoming a filmmaker. I wouldn’t say there is a lot from there that served me in moving on. It’s like a baby taking their first steps – you don’t exactly remember that. But it gave me a lot of confidence in myself as a person, in me being myself. I wouldn’t say there were any techniques that I can specifically say influenced me. But it gave me confidence after being in this learning environment for the first time. It was nice hearing someone saying you are good at this, let’s encourage you to do it.
How did the opportunity from Rose Garnett at BBC Films to make Lizard come about?
I have assisted directors for a few years and I learned that the main people used to sell themselves by commissioning themselves. If you are always waiting to be given money, you might never make it (the project). I have adopted their approach and I ended up making my first film as a director with the money I saved up. I met the composer Micah Levis through this show I used to program and I wrote a film for her and brought these artists she was producing for. And I am still trying to get that film made 5 years later. Micah introduced me to Rose. I sent her an email and then we met. She expressed interest in wanting to work together and maybe develop something, at the time I didn’t really know what short films were. The script wasn’t written. In fact, I actually offered a different idea to film and withdrew that idea which they were shocked by, and presented what ultimately become Lizard.
You wrote Lizard with your brother Wale Davies, who is also the film’s producer. What’s the dynamic of your working relationship?
It’s a pretty good dynamic. He produced a lot of my work in Nigeria when I was first starting out. He is also an artist and he writes. He co-produced Lizard with Rachel. We have very similar sensibilities in the sense of how we see the world in terms of how we want to build and the ethics we want to build. We are both super sensitive and protective of our nature for right and wrong and we are very interested in being extremely honest and showcasing it with as much balance as possible.
Wale is great, man. I love all my brothers and my sister a lot. I think it’s very difficult working with family but luckily I have an honest family and we keep our emotions at the forefront and talk about our emotions. We always express our emotions to each other and no matter how we feel, if you can do that with your family, you can do that with the rest of the world.
Tell us about some of the creatives you worked with to materialise your vision for Lizard; particularly the Nigerian and Lagosian talent and why you felt it was important to work with them on this film?
We worked with some fantastic talent. Daniela did our costumes, Ian Hassan was our location scout, Lala was the casting director. We worked with Yanka Edwards who is a huge actor in Nigeria. There are loads of people to mention but ultimately I think what is really important is that people behind the camera know the story and know the honesty of that story and they know the detail of that world. The more people who are natives to the story, the more honest a story you can tell.
Also, Nigeria has the third-largest film industry in the world and has all the talent and infrastructure in order to make internationally viable brilliant films. It’s a landscape that is yet to be captured on the celluloid of the film. It is very important to harness the local talent to show the quality that can be made using what you invested in and nurture. If you treat people right, you achieve the best things. It’s really important that my trajectory as a filmmaker service my community. I would rather work with my community than bring in outsiders to come and tell a story that we can tell for ourselves.
Lizard is filled with symbolism and omens. As a child of African or West Indian descent, it’s part of our culture growing up. Do you still believe or subscribe to the ideas of superstitions?
I guess it depends on how you define superstition. I think in sort of traditional African culture superstition is not like a linear thing, it’s a cultural thing. In the global North or the West that superstition becomes a superstition. Originally there were no real boundaries between superstition and what was considered more normative. Yes, I do believe in superstition but also I think categorising superstition does a disservice because human beings are very capable of much larger spectrums of beliefs than we lend ourselves to.
Have there been screenings of Lizard in Nigeria and what has response been?
Sadly no screenings yet because of the pandemic but I have shared the film with critics and friends and it’s been a pretty interesting response. Lots of people saw themselves in it and understood the film. Lots of people equally saw it as a means of a platform to ask questions and investigate which a lot of questions we are asking ourselves currently. For the most part, we got really wonderful warm feedback. But what I am looking forward to most is screening it in Nigeria.
Congratulations on your win at the Sundance Film Festival. Does that kind of award provide you with a calling card to Hollywood? Is that even the direction you want your career to take?
On a very basic level, yes, it kind of does and it has got me on the radar of American production companies and writers and agents. I think yeah, in the long term for sure. My first priorities are making films for my community. That would be making films for Nigerian British audiences and hopefully in the future, Hollywood. Nollywood first then Hollywood.
You’re working on your next project, the sci-fi film X Us. What can you tell us about its premise or its major themes?
That’s the first time anyone has asked me this question. It’s a story about value and relationship with the things we value and the things we decide don’t have value anymore. The premise is two young brothers who fly unaccompanied from Earth to the main planet of Saturn called Titan.
After X Us, do you have another project already lined up or is there an idea that’s keeping you up at night?
I have numerous ideas that I think of them as seeds. Sometimes you plant a seed in the ground and different seeds spring at different times. I don’t rush ideas, I just let ideas present themselves. But there are numerous things and people who I am trying to work with for sure.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU..
- A favourite book you have to have in your collection? Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? The Wire
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you? Fela! (on Broadway) as that is the first production that represented my culture to a global audience.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? I am moving house so sad that I’ve got lots of packing to do. Mad that I live with five guys and I look forward to living by myself. Glad that I am moving tomorrow so I am so happy about that.
Lizard is available to watch via BFI Player