JOHANNESBURG - "Ife" is a love story, pure and simple, the film's producer said. The title is taken from the word for "love" in the Yoruba language of Nigeria.
But this love story between two women, in a society where homosexuality is largely shunned and where same-sex marriage is illegal, is a little more complicated. It is the first such cinematic release from a nation that leads the continent's film industry.
Nigeria's censorship board threatened to "go after" the filmmakers for "promoting homosexuality" in a film industry that despite its huge output, is largely conservative in its themes.
The threat has led filmmakers to not push for local release. Instead, they plan to debut it online December 10. Viewers can access it for a fee on the Nigerian LGBT-centered website ehtvnetwork.com, said producer Pamela Adie.
"Filmmakers here, mainstream filmmakers, usually shy away from telling stories that center on LGBT people," Adie told VOA. "And even when the stories are told, they are told from a very negative point of view. And lesbians and gay people are portrayed usually as people to be feared, people who should be imprisoned, people who should be killed, people who deserve no rights in the Nigerian society."
More than 30 African countries criminalize non-heterosexual relationships, and many others hold views against same-sex relationships. In 2018, Kenya's first lesbian feature film, "Rafiki," was banned at home, despite the fact that it was the nation's first piece to premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
U.S.-based writer and filmmaker Noni Salma, who is Nigerian and transgender, said everyone should watch the film.
"I think it's a big deal for queer people, for lesbian women, for people who are not lesbian women who just want to watch stuff that's outside of the mainstream narrative, or even people who might be uncomfortable. Sometimes you need to step outside of your comfort zone to see stories from other communities," she told VOA. "I think that having films like 'Ife' is very important for that reason."
The film is also a story of pain, said Adie, a feeling many members of the community can relate to.
"When I came out of the closet, I was pretty much rejected by my whole family, especially my mom, who at some point asked me to move out of our family house. And later on, she asked me to change my family name so as not to bring shame onto the family name," she said. "And so, my story, my experience, is really not unique, it's very common here in Nigeria."
The same holds true in South Africa, which was the first African nation to decriminalize homosexuality and allow gay marriage. Though activist and storyteller Welcome Lishivha said lesbians still are overlooked and subjected to horrible treatment.
"A lot still needs to be done in terms of representing women and representing lesbians and getting their stories and their voices out there," Lishivha said. "The story of lesbian women is no different from the story of women in general in relation to men, because we live in a deeply sexist society, a deeply patriarchal society, that even within the LGBTI movement, we are seeing that the representation is still not matched across the different letters or subgroups of the community."
"Ife" will be released on Human Rights Day.