In a small Igbo village, Kidnappers snatch Ikenna, a boy from an impoverished home, from his mother and sister, but he escapes. Alone on the streets in a town, he meets Mrs. Mbah, a kindhearted and childless woman, who raises him as her child. Years later, haunted by memories of his brokenhearted biological mother, an adult Ikenna wishes to find her, and his village.
Unlike his lead character’s dilemma, director and scriptwriter Victor Iyke is confident about where the story is going and how to drive it there. Nne doesn’t bolt through; for 1 hour, 44 minutes, it moves at an unhurried pace, showing us the abundant love in the lullaby of Ugochi, Ikenna’s biological mother (Chiege Alisigwe); in her son’s bonding with his new family; and the general beauty of their unadulterated Igbo dialects.
As an adult, Ikenna is played by Swanky JKA, the breakout star of 2019’s Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, the sequel to the Igbo-language classic Living in Bondage. He is absorbing, especially when using his facial features to relay emotional distress. His head drops when he receives a hurtful remark or learns discomfiting news; the tears quake his body and fall freely when the weight of uncertainty presses on him; and his grief-cracked singing mends the audience’s hearts.
There is understated chemistry between Swanky JKA and Frances Nsonwu Ikoroha’s Mrs. Mbah—chemistry fused with kindness. Though her husband and her friend try to discourage her from bringing Ikenna into her home, Mrs. Mbah waves aside their worries. For her, Ikenna is an opportunity to do good and be human. She gives the boy her love without reservation, even as she is worried that Ikenna will never forget his birth mother and might leave her, his mother, to go in search of her. She gives Ikenna as much care as she gives her own son, played by Victor Iyke.
As Ikenna’s birth mother, Chiege Alisigwe has lesser screen time—which works considering Ikenna’s non-knowledge of her whereabouts—but it is an immersive performance. Before her son’s kidnap, she is a loving, doting mother: singing lullabies, kissing her children’s cheeks, calling them sweet names while feeding them. As a grieving mother, Alisigwe uses her tears, wails, and mumblings to devastating effect: it is a perfect depiction of a woman lost at sea, reaching for anything that will guide her to the shore but clutching air. It reminds me of Funke Akindele in Tunde Kelani’s Maami.
Nne is bogged down by its interest in educating the audience about social responsibility. But it is at its best when it is showing what love and motherhood could be, not through dialogue but through the characters’ griefs.
There was a time, in the 1990s, when Igbo-language stories dominated Nollywood. They gave the industry such unforgettable features as Living in Bondage, which singularly transformed the industry, and other classics as 1994’s Nneka the Pretty Serpent, 1995’s Ikuku and Rattle Snake (1995). As the industry became bigger in the early 2000s, the scripts focused on English. But in the last decade, Igbo-language films withimportant stories to tell have made something of a comeback, with Obi Emelonye’s Onye Ozi (2013) and Ikechukwu Onyeka’s Chetanna (2014). Nne, which won Best Indigenous Language (Igbo) at the 2020 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, is as important a story as those. ♦