Princess: “What if I test positive?”
Sophie: “We’ll go shopping.”
– Dialogue from the MTV produced mini-series Shuga
The popular mini-series Shuga makes as much points about youth, sex and HIV/AIDS as it raises them. A boon to be sure; yet its depiction of responses to people living with the disease is disturbing. After each episode featuring an HIV positive character, a question abides:
Is Shuga showing the reality of the Nigerian response to HIV/AIDS or is it showing what the response ought to be?
Characters receiving news of a friend’s HIV positive status show the following: a stunned look, origins from a lifetime of hearing “e-no-dey-show-for-face”, a shrug, and finally a hug. That’s it.
In Shuga announcing you have HIV is a lot like declaring you have dandruff.
Director Biyi Bandele and his co-writers, it appears, want to believe in the primacy of friendship over fear, and in sympathy over stigma. Admirable, yes; but also naive.
Anyone with a passable knowledge of the treatment of People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) is aware of the rank discrimination HIV/AIDS still elicits. A 2010 study put the percentage of healthcare providers in a south-eastern state unwilling to share a meal with a HIV positive person—or buy an item from same— at 35%. That is a significant discriminatory percentage in a group that by training should know better.
How much the general population?
Its failure, or optimism, in this regard luckily does not the mini-series’ benefit remove. Produced by MTV Base and the MTV Staying Alive Foundation with contributions from, among other organisations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Shuga is essentially an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign.
The series presents a group of young men and women, mostly in the university, caught in the romantic and carnal preoccupations of youth, as they live, love and fuck relentlessly, recklessly. Surely these young men and women know about the virus, but they behave, in the manner of youth, like it exists only elsewhere. Awakening awaits.
In keeping with its theme, bedrooms are lavishly furnished and sensually filmed, and after repeated episodes with characters whose only discernable drive is for sex and clubbing—Shuga is more extracurricular than scholar—these people may seem like props in their own story lines.
Still it is a series about HIV/AIDS and in giving the disease centre stage, the script by Bandele (and his many co-writers) may be forgiven for lapses in characterisation. A season of 8 episodes each about 20 minutes is hardly enough to handle a topic as complex as the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Shuga’s problems, however, are not limited to the realities of the disease.
Other concerns include acting and authenticity.
Watch Shuga’s first episode here.
Tiwa Savage, playing Shade, a club owner, employs a breathy voice that while a boon to her singing is a distraction in her role as mother to high school student Weki (Olumide Oworu, who while promising, seems unduly intent on channelling the goofy antics of a young Will Smith.) Savage is not very good in the role. As should be prescribed for many singers, her acting is to be limited to 4 minutes, half the time taken up by dancing, the rest by singing—in other words, the music video format or the television commercial.
Again, Biyi Bandele, based in London, in importing some cast members from the UK has to sacrifice local speech patterns. The UK based actress Dorcas Shola Fapson’s pidgin are at best attempts. Delivered with the British lilt, her pidgin is a fabrication as amusing as it is alarming. Fapson’s pseudo-pidgin combines smoothly with Savage’s breathy singsong to constitute a vocal distraction. Yet only one of them is an actress.
The characters are mostly well off, spending screen time in the one place connecting them all: Shade’s club, Badoo, which receives most of the screen time not spent in bedrooms, thus making “Shuga” mostly about the recreation of young people and how that downtime is spent. It is aimed toward hip young people after all, almost certainly aimed at people who can afford the DSTV decoder to watch MTV Base.
The series has a lax copyright and can be broadcast easily and anywhere, ensuring it reaches places and people it ordinarily wouldn’t. Still Shuga isn’t for the poor.
Fact is third world countries are most hit by HIV/AIDS. And it isn’t because a lot of the population have DSTV decoders or spend time at glitzy clubs. Any poor person seeing Shuga may not be looking at the programme’s lesson, but for the thrill of colour, and the glamour of the series. Shuga seen by the other unwittingly transforms into an aspirational map, the HIV/AIDS and domestic violence featuring prominently assuming the minor garb of necessary conflict. Every story must have one, yes? Yes. And the poor would have to look elsewhere for HIV enlightenment.
For its catchment class, despite its flaws, there may is a good chance a young person watching the series, becomes convinced of the need of a condom— the series avoids puritanism and adopts a honest view in its depictions of sex among young people. Guilt is a potent means of provoking precaution. And if a young person gets tested; or a victim of domestic violence is encouraged to speak out and seek help, then Shuga has transcended its moral failures. Pity then that there’s no sure-fire way to gauge that success.
Through its collaboration with the National Action Committee on AIDS (NACA,) which helpline 6222 is so helpfully provided at the end of each episode, the series may surpass its limitations, the politics of Sophie’s spotty pidgin be damned. And that is reason to celebrate.
It is necessary to point out an often overlooked aspect of the Nigerian film industry in the years since its initial explosion. Nollywood has nurtured the viewing habits of the public, breeding a followership finally educated in the difference between character and actor. No longer are actors susceptible to a possible misconception due to an merging of film roles with actual personas. And Mr Bandele fortunately adopts— in directing some scenes and key transitions— a music video’s cutting approach, in keeping with its MTV sponsorship, ensuring that, for any viewer, a berth exists between what’s onscreen and what’s real life.
Yet in portraying these characters who ordinarily would be stigmatised, these actors of varied competence— Ekene’s Okezie Morro and Malaika’s Leonora Okine are especially good— have done remarkably.
The situation evokes the explanation given by a character in Sonny’s Blues James Baldwin’s short story:
“They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen…”
Together with the crew, the cast may not be risking anything quite as malignant as ruin, destruction or death— in fact they may be courting celebrity— but they are bold, taking into account the general attitude toward even a hint of the HIV infection.
It is hoped that the series addresses its flaws in forthcoming seasons, particularly with regards to its portrayal of responses to people living with the virus. Sometimes a people need to be shown what they are, and not what they can be.
The first step to Shuga‘s relevance is for the series to produce discussion, and then significant change in the populace. So that maybe, just maybe, anyone sitting opposite the healthcare professional, in real life, would come to see receiving an HIV positive result, not as a death sentence, but as a condition so ordinary going shopping afterwards would not be entirely inconceivable.