8 Apr 2022
Teniola Zara King
Teniola Zara King
Dorcas Shola Fapson, Ellis George, Susannah Harker
It’s never easy when you start studying a new subject, especially when it’s something like nursing where actual human lives are involved. That difficulty is multiplied a hundred times over when you’re moving to another country, especially if you’re black and moving to 1950s England.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Teju (Dorcas Shola Fapson), a young Nigerian woman, did in the 1950s, making the long flight into the unknown. She’s doing it not just for herself, but also for future generations, and all those who she’s left behind - intending to return once she’s gained the proper qualifications. That’s ‘Teju’s Tale’, though the title has a double meaning which is revealed a little later.
Sadly, though not unexpectedly, almost immediately Teju is greeted by the blatantly racist mindset of England’s predominantly caucasian population at the time. The matron (Susannah Harker) looks at her with suspicion, and certainly doesn’t treat her with kindness. There’s also a patient who leaps away in fright when Teju offers to help her - this, in particular, is perhaps the most disgustingly realistic portrayal of the racist attitudes which were deeply ingrained in society. Then there’s her two colleagues, Victoria and Verity (twins played by Francesca and Lily Knight), who go one step further than the disdaining looks and repeatedly harass Teju, hoping to find out whether or not she has a tail.
Fortunately, she has another Nigerian migrant to keep her company, the kind-hearted Sylvia (Ellis George), but even she doesn’t think Teju will last longer than a few days. In that kind of situation, nobody would. That’s what the film does so well, creating a sensational bond with Teju in the short fifteen minutes, that it doesn’t take longer than three to be fully on her side. Of course, she’s easy to empathise due to the horrific attitudes of those around her towards her, but writer-director Teniola Zara King does something else as well to bring Teju that little bit closer to us. She’s given a clear set of characteristics at the beginning and she sticks by them throughout - we immediately see Teju as kind, with a touch of anger; passive, but not afraid to speak up, and above all committed to her values no matter what.
King also directs the film with the kind of patience we expect from more experienced directors - carefully building the set up, and then unleashing a host of creative camera angles and shots at the right moment. In particular, there’s a scene in which a character has absolutely no idea what’s hit them - cue some disorientating shots that leap out of the shadows of a slow, cautious build-up.
The script is not to the same high standard, with the dialogue in particular feeling forced and stretched, when what it needs is some fast stichomythia. Perhaps most disappointingly of all, however, is the ending, which doesn’t so much peter out but comes to an abrupt halt. It feels extremely rushed and leaves an otherwise great film with a sour taste of what could have been.
‘Teju’s Tale’ is an impressive short for both Teniola Zara King and her star Dorcas Shola Fapson, who shines despite a botched script, as they tell the harrowing story of Teju, or Winifred Layiwola Savage in real life, and her spell studying nursing in England. Its an important short, not only for it’s sadly realistic representation of racism, but also to see a compelling story, complete with some creative camerawork. Whilst ‘Teju’s Tale’ may not have the conclusion to make it one of those famous tales of old, it does enough to get away with it thanks to Teju’s remarkable characterisation.