Berlinale 2023 review: All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White (Babatunde Apalowo)

“Subtle and undeniably beautiful, this film captures that rare spark that is propelled by many of the greatest queer films of recent years.”

The highly influential American photographer Diane Arbus once wrote “a photograph is a secret about a secret – the more it tells you, the less you know”. It is hardly surprising that the protagonists in Babatunde Apalowo’s masterful directorial debut All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White encounter each other as a result of their shared interest in photography, which follows them throughout a meaningful friendship that eventually transitions into something deeper, although neither man is willing to refer to it by name. Set in the bustling metropolis of present-day Lagos, this remarkable film takes many risks in telling this particular story – homosexuality is still illegal in Nigeria, and those caught engaging in these supposedly immoral acts face legal challenges that have forced many members of the LGBTQIA+ community to remain hidden, in fear of the consequences they will face should they dare challenge the status quo by expressing their deviant identity. This film tells their story, through the eyes of Bambino, a young man who has found himself in a precarious situation, caught between adhering to the morals he was raised to strictly follow, and his own internal desires, which manifest in his growing friendship with another young man, who seems to be experiencing the same existential crisis. Apalowo immediately announces himself as a major new talent in contemporary African cinema, an essential voice that brings not only a powerful directorial vision (with the vibrant colours and strong aesthetic perspective instantly emphasizing his prowess), but also his skill as a storyteller. He is someone who knows that the most striking statements are those which are delivered with more subtlety and elegance, which is precisely the approach taken in weaving together this hauntingly beautiful and deeply meaningful elegy to the queer community and their perpetual struggles to find a place in a world in which they have never felt a sense of belonging.

As is often the case with films centred on queer stories, All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White takes the form of an intimate character study, in which we see our protagonist undergoing the spiritual and emotional journey that results from the process of questioning their own identity. The film presents a portrait of a young man who is growing into his own queerness, realizing that those subtle feelings are actually indicative of something much deeper, which only complicates the trajectory of his life, since he has reached adulthood and seemingly had a plan for his future, which is now in danger of being derailed by the sudden realization that he may not be the person he initially imagined. We don’t get too many insights into his psychological state prior to the events of the film, since the catalysts for the story are his encounters with Bawa, which go from brief interactions to a fully formed friendship, and stop just at the start of what seems to be a much more complex interpersonal relationship. Both men find themselves torn between accepting their desires as valid and suppressing them to avoid any potential controversy, since they don’t have the benefit of living in a society accepting of homosexuality. As we see throughout the film, accepting one’s queer identity is far from a linear journey, which is complicated by the social standards that surround them. They both encounter feelings of deep insecurity, and begin to doubt their own place in society. Bambino’s journey in particular is the focus, with his silent moments of reflection being beautifully portrayed by Tope Tedela, whose performance is very quiet and internal, but simmers with an understated complexity that only grows as the film continues to explore his voyage of self-examination, portraying his efforts to feel less lost and isolated in a rapidly changing world, although one in which his identity is still a source of considerable contention amongst those who are more aligned with traditional values.

An aspect of this film that is important to keep in mind as we navigate these increasingly challenging scenarios with the main character is that his journey is not unique, and that what we see reflected on screen is not some bespoke story of a young man succumbing to his urges against his will, but rather a deeply moving meditation that represents the lives of a myriad of people who have been forced to conceal their true identities, whether it is due to familial concerns or bigger social limitations that restrict their freedom to be themselves. There is a common trait in queer films set in specific places or eras where anything that deviates from heteronormative, patriarchal standards was immediately seen as morally wrong, which is the contentious relationship between tradition and modernity, two concepts that are often in fierce opposition in these stories, normally due to the belief that they cannot co-exist. All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White does not meditate too long on the archaic cultural standards – themes such as religion or the laws established to punish homosexuality are not widely discussed in this film, with the focus being more on the social aspects, as manifested in the main characters’ own journeys, rather than the beliefs of those outside of their unique relationship. As we learn throughout the film, it is not the culture itself that keeps these two men from surrendering to their urges, but rather their own sense of insecurity, which contradicts their very clear feelings of ardent yearning, which is not explicitly stated in words, but is extraordinarily clear throughout the film, in terms of the tone used to tell the story. There is a poeticism to this film, which reflects the longing and desire felt between these two men. What pulls them together at first is not even a physical attraction, but rather something far more profound, their friendship sparked by the shared urge to feel a genuine human connection. The spark is ignited by their shared interest in photography, but it only grows as they soon find themselves having far more in common than they anticipated, which ultimately calls into question the entire social system which they were raised to believe as sacrosanct, as well as their own place in it, which is precisely where many of the film’s most fascinating discussions occur.

There are a few different ways to view All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White – we can look at it as merely a story of a burgeoning romance between two men who find love coming from the most unlikely of sources, or we could focus on its social and cultural nuances, as the director explores contemporary Nigeria and its perceptions of homosexuality and queer issues, with which it has a long and complex relationship that is often quite disturbing, and paints a haunting portrait of the conditions faced by the LGBTQIA+ community in most parts of Africa. However, more than anything else, this film is a vibrant and compelling portrait of human desire, as seen through the perspective of the two main characters, who work laboriously to find their place in the world, but struggle to accept their own internal psychological and emotional changes, which impacts their ability to feel any sense of self-acceptance or joy from what should be a beautiful experience, where one finds another person with whom they share many tangible and ethereal connections. This is a beautifully detailed and compassionate depiction of the experiences of the queer community, as seen through the eyes of two characters that represent the challenges many encounter in their daily lives. It can occasionally be quite bleak, and the final act is extremely harrowing, but there is a subtle beauty in how Apalowo approaches this subject matter, using a quiet but still meaningful set of techniques to weave together this compelling story, using bright colours and gentle touches of humour to soften the distressing moments in which these characters not only have their identities called into question, but their entire existence. Subtle and undeniably beautiful, this film captures that rare spark that is propelled by many of the greatest queer films of recent years, and from it forms its own unique, striking identity, a vitally important process for a film produced in a country that continues to persecute and alienate the members of a community that simply wants to live with freedom and pride.

(c) Image copyright: Polymath Pictures