A Love Letter to Daniel Oriahi’s Sylvia: On Creating Moments, by Damola Layonu

What makes a great, defining moment is its culmination not in and of itself, but centered on everything that happens before and after, which helps to make the actual moment stand out. Here’s an example of a moment in a film:

Can anyone recall exactly what happens before this scene in Jurassic Park? I honestly can’t. At least not without re-watching the film. That’s the beauty and power of a moment in a film — it sticks out and sticks with you. I think there is a tendency (especially today) for creatives (especially writers and/or directors) to try and cram as many moments as possible into their work in order to keep the audience engaged. It is, after all, a scientific fact that audience attention spans are dwindling, thus triggering a preoccupation with spectacle and what can only be described as “VFX porn” in the worst cases. In my opinion, perhaps a rule of 3 should stand. Give the audience no more than 3 major well-spread moments per film, which will be hopefully be forever etched in their memories.

Sylvia, in my opinion, has at least two unarguably powerful ones. Both elicit emotion and speak a simple but highly effective cinematic dialect. Oriahi knows exactly what he wants to say in a scene and says it “with his chest”. It’s subtle but direct (if at all that makes sense). Take, for instance, the flashback to Richard (Chris Attoh) first seeing his wife, Gbemi (Ini Dima-Okojie) from across the room in a restaurant:

The snap between the two as their eyes meet and that slow zoom between the characters helps us experience this moment as if through their eyes, not our own. The rest of the world fades away, giving complete focus to the objects of affection. If we think back, we’ve probably seen this type of shot a few times, but regardless, the effect is usually the same. Even without the enchanting score done by the masterful Michael “Truth” Ogunlade, this is an unforgettable moment in the film.

Notable Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman once said “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls”. The essential difference between film (cinema) and TV in its purest form is this very ability. So watch the clip again and ask yourself, “Isn’t this essentially what love at first sight looks and feels like?” That is, of course, if you believe it truly exists. Whatever the case, Oriahi faithfully commits to this moment, and consequently, so do we — brilliant directing! I’d like to turn to what is in my opinion, perhaps one of the most (if not the most) definitive moments in Nigerian cinematic history in the last decade. I’ll also add that from the limited chatter or commentary on it, it may have been sorely missed by the bulk of audiences who saw the film.

When Sylvia (Zainab Balogun) falls to her knees in tears following the desertion by her dream-world lover, she dips her head in despair and pauses momentarily before raising her face to the camera to reveal her now maleficent manifestation. This is Oriahi’s directing, Ogunlade’s composing, Kagho’s cinematography and Balogun’s acting culminating in a luscious visual concoction. The emptiness of the first frame signifies the emptiness which has been thrust upon Sylvia; the score soars, distorted to alert us that this is a pivotal turning point in our story; the close-up on her newly acquired dark makeup hits right between the eyes. Oriahi has abandoned all subtlety here, but is committed to gaining the audience’s empathy for his femme fatale. (Side note: Ogunlade stated, when I interviewed him, that he deliberately used a clean version of his score for Sylvia’s innocent scenes, and a distorted one for her maleficent ones to denote the character’s transformation). Regardless of age, gender, or social status, Oriahi wants to tap into the primal instinct of the viewer and make them feel one universally relatable emotion — the agony of a scorned lover. This frame achieves it admirably. These two moments are arguably sufficient to make the film emotionally evocative, utterly re-watchable, and most of all, memorable.

Now I did promise to delve briefly into why Sylvia is a love story. I, for one, was not in the least bit terrified of the character, and I can’t help feeling that neither Vanessa Kanu, who wrote the script, nor Oriahi wanted this from the audience. If anything, I believe Oriahi and his creative team were attempting to upturn the concept (and consequently, the audience’s perception) of villainy, especially in romantic relationships, thus begging the questions — “Who is the real villain here?” and “What is real, and what isn’t?” This is emphasized in the exchange between Richard and Sylvia where he literally tells her “You’re not even real”. This throw-away comment stabs subtly like a thousand tiny needles, but cements Richard as the film’s true villain. This is a staple of the “monster in the house” horror genre by the way. We must always have at least a niggling feeling that the victims of the monster have brought its wrath upon themselves.

I should stop here, but as always I admit the possibility of my analysis being misguided and can only hope that at the very least, I have warranted the attention of the filmmakers in the hope they will set it right. I would also hope that my humble musings have spurred you to give the film a second or third watch, perhaps gleaning fresh insights of your own in the process. It’s on Netflix. Until next time,

Yours affectionately.

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