A groundbreaking new film is currently in production that elevates the life and story of the first and only man to publicly come out in Nigeria.
Bisi Alimi made history when he publicly came out as a gay man on Funmi Iyanda’s popular show “New Dawn” in 2004. The backlash, however, was extreme, with the show being cancelled and Alimi facing public, violent attacks for years.
Alimi was eventually forced to flee Nigeria and found asylum in the United Kingdom. “THE BOY FROM MUSHIN” is a feature-length film that documents the activist’s story. Head here to visit the project’s Kickstarter and check out an interview with director Joe Cohen below.
The Huffington Post: How did this project about? What are you trying to accomplish?
Joe Cohen: I met Bisi about 3 years ago. I was at a party with friends dancing to disco music. Bisi and his friends arrived and I was drawn to their energy and Bisi’s infectious smile. We started chatting and immediately my filmmaker’s instinct for a powerful story kicked in. We stayed in touch and slowly became friends. We were having dinner one evening with a friend of Bisi’s who was waiting for a decision from the UK home office about whether they would grant his application for asylum based on his sexuality. Despite them laughing and joking together, I could feel very real tension and anxiety as his friend was dangling in limbo waiting on a decision that would have an intensely dramatic effect on the rest of his life. I have always struggled to find creative ways of telling stories set in the past, but it hit me over that dinner that Bisi’s tale is a window into an ongoing story, which affects LGBT Nigerians now, and potentially everyone around the world. As a community, how do we support those who we come into contact with that have experienced suffering and abuse because of their sexuality, or for any other reasons? That evening I timidly asked if I could begin making a film about him. I had no idea what his answer would be, and I was delighted when he agreed.
Who is Bisi Alimi? Why is it important that people know his story?
Bisi was the first person to ever come out publicly in Nigeria as a gay man. By 2004, gay rights had gained significantly more traction in the international arena, and the Nigerian president at the time declared that there were no gays in Nigeria. To discuss this, Bisi was invited to speak on Funmi Iyanda’s popular show "New Dawn." He then came out to over four million people, live on the show. Neither Bisi nor Funmi could possibly imagine the backlash that followed. Funmi’s show was pulled off air and Bisi’s proud declaration was debated in parliament. He suffered years of hateful attacks, including one that saw him stripped and beaten at gunpoint within an inch of his life. Fearing for his safety, he eventually fled to Britain for asylum in 2007. He now lives in London, working as a human rights activist and passionate advocate for progressive change. He speaks all around the world on issues such as LGBT rights and poverty to HIV prevention and access to medication. He also campaigns and fundraises for grassroots groups that are doing important work. Bisi’s story is specifically about growing up as a gay man in Nigeria, yet the story of courage and determination against the odds is something I hope will resonate universally.
Can you describe the current political and social climate for LGBT people in Nigeria?
Bisi is still the only person ever to have come out publicly in Nigeria. That’s not to diminish what others are doing -- there are many people and organizations carrying out very important and courageous work. Rather, it shows what a hostile place it still is for LGBT people to live. Culturally there is this idea that homosexuality is un-African, something that Bisi has written a lot about. Part of this legacy comes from a colonial heritage and the British Commonwealth Law forbidding sodomy, and much of it comes from the borrowed and now entrenched cultures of fundamentalist Christianity and Islam. This combined with a society that has huge income inequality, and places emphasis on masculinity and machismo, becomes the perfect breeding ground for homophobia and prejudice. In 2014 the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was signed into law. Since then, Nigeria has seen a dramatic increase in horrific battery/assaults, mob violence, blackmailing and arbitrary arrests amongst the LGBT community. For some people, they are constantly at risk, looking over their shoulders and in fear for their lives. For others it is less dangerous and they operate in more affluent circles going to secret house parties by night, and back to their closeted jobs and families by day. If they are caught the new law means they could receive up to 14 years in prison. It goes further to prosecute anybody who knows someone is gay but does not report them, potentially putting all Nigerian citizens at risk of informing on their neighbors, colleagues, families and friends, or breaking the law.
What do you want people to take away from this film?
I’m a filmmaker first and foremost. I don’t presume to be an activist, so I want to tell an inspiring story and make a great movie. I also want people to be moved by the film, in either a small and personal way that means something to them or in a big way that could shake up the debate surrounding LGBT rights in Africa. In Uganda, the international community stood up and fought against the hideous Kill the Gays Bill. Unfortunately, less attention has been focused on Nigeria despite it being one of the biggest players in African politics. Effecting change there could have a dramatic effect on surrounding countries. To tell this story the film needs all the support possible to raise the necessary funds to reach our crowdfunding target. Bisi and many others are at the forefront of this fight, and I hope as many people as possible will be able to join him.