"The Oratory": From the streets of Lagos, a film on the cry of the poor

Premiering in movie theaters across Europe, a feature film produced and directed by Nigerian director Obi Emelonye tells the story of a group of Lagos youth whose survival is often linked to crime. Despite the gloomy reality marked by degradation and poverty, the light of Laudato si' shines in this modern reinterpretation of the figure of Saint John Bosco and the desire of young people to save the environment.

Aurora Simionato and Marta Miotto - Venice*

"You will be very much in tune with this film, because we are really promoting the cause of Pope Francis". Fr. Cyril Odia is a Salesian originally from Nigeria, currently director of the 'St. Catherine Centre' in Maynooth, Ireland, and executive producer of the feature film 'The Oratory, St. John Bosco African Story'. With this film he wished to immediately emphasise the harmony that exists between this story and the encyclical Laudato si'. It is a modern reinterpretation of the figure of Don Bosco and the Salesian charism set in a web of African relationships and landscapes. It offers a glimpse of the reality of poverty and degradation present today in Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city, in which care for the common home and for legality present elements of human and Christian salvation.

Young people in training at the Don Bosco Child Protection Centre
Young people in training at the Don Bosco Child Protection Centre

Nigeria: a land of a thousand faces

Located in west-central Africa and divided into 36 states, Nigeria is among the world's ten most populous countries, a nation with a thousand faces. It has an estimated population of 211 million inhabitants, consisting of some 250 ethnic groups and more than 500 local languages. Although not the largest nation territorially, it has carved out a prominent position for itself in West Africa due to its cultural vibrancy. It is also one of the few African countries that hosts prominent film production agencies, such as The Nollywood Factory, producer of 'The Oratory'. Nigeria, as is well known, also suffers from a significant economic imbalance: according to the Nigerian Nation Bureau of Statistics, 40% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2020, a figure that could increase due to difficulties caused by the pandemic.

The appeal that Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja launched from St Matthew's parish in March 2021 still resounds today: 'feeding the hungry is an ethical imperative and a powerful form of prayer,' and the Church is in the forefront of hearing this cry. In a country already suffering from infighting, terrorist attacks and kidnappings that constantly undermine civil coexistence and the delicate balance of internal politics, there is the added environmental emergency, marked over the last 50 years by a mad rush to extract oil, without regard for safeguarding ecosystems and the environment. From an uncontaminated and lush land, Nigeria is turning into a very worrying scenario from an environmental point of view: the forests have been devastated following the creation of oil pipelines, the air polluted from the gas flaring technique and water contaminated to the point of compromising the entire food sector. The work of the Salesians in Nigeria also fits into this context, committed following in the path of Laudato si' on the front of integral ecology that requires both the protection of human dignity and the environment hosting it.

Salesian Youth Centre in Lju produces masks - Source ANS
Salesian Youth Centre in Lju produces masks - Source ANS

The Salesian mission in Lagos

At the same time, Nigerian society appears very dynamic and determined to participate in change. On the other hand, the average age of the population is rather low, and the majority of young people do not seem to have much of a future, although there are many who wish to offer their energies and talents to the care of our common home. Lagos, though not the capital, is not only the largest and most populous city, but also the commercial and economic centre of the state. Fr. Augustine Okeke, director of the Salesian outreach explains that many young people leave their homes, attracted by the possibility of work, money and wealth, but once they get here 'they realise they are alone and have nothing, and end up living on the streets'. It is precisely in this difficult context that the young people can encounter the presence of the Salesians, thanks to whom they find help, and moral and psychological support. Later, with the help of public entities, assistance is provided by the Salesian Centre for the Protection of Minors (DBCPC), where the religious are assisted by professionals in the work of training and prevention. The Salesians are also involved in interreligious dialogue in Nigeria with the aim of building a more inclusive and dialogue-oriented society, especially through the efforts of the younger generations.

“The Oratory” movie poster
“The Oratory” movie poster

The plot

"The Oratory" is a film that tells the story of Fr. Michael Simmons, played by actor Rich Lowe Ikenna. Fr. Michael is an American-born Salesian priest who is sent to the elite parish in Ikoyi, Lagos, which is frequented by groups of well-to-do believers who do not take kindly to the fact that their parish priest also wants to take care of street kids. Fr Michael is particularly interested in the plight of the children in a slum called Makoko, trapped in a criminal network that does not allow them to redeem their existence. He does his utmost to save as many of them as possible, later founding an oratory, inspired entirely by the work of Don Bosco. To better understand the context in which much of the film is set, in 2012 some Nigerian government officials attempted to eliminate the Makoko settlement, deeming it 'embarrassing for the city's image.' They implemented a general eviction and set fire to the shantytown, actions that triggered a domino effect of discontent with heavy repercussions on the entire city community. "The choice of this location," says Fr. Odia, executive producer and advisor of the film, "was effective in highlighting the critical environmental conditions, due to pollution and poverty, which further worsen the reality of those living in this precarious environment.

The film was made by The Nollywood Factory, a Nigerian film company, in collaboration with the Salesians of Don Bosco, and directed by award-winning director Obi Emelonye, originally from Nigeria and now living in the UK. The cast brought together professional actors and dozens of children from the Mokoko slum, Fr. Odia's own idea who believes that the opportunities and positive experiences offered to young people can strengthen their self-esteem and lead to positive transformations. The premiere of the film took place in September 2021 in Dublin, generating interest in the unique initiative and very encouraging critical feedback. In Italy, the feature film had its national premiere in October 2021 at the Valdocco theatre, the place where Don Bosco's work originated and spread throughout the world. In the following month it was screened for the first time in cinemas in Lagos and Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

Press conference in Abuja for the film “The Oratory”
Press conference in Abuja for the film “The Oratory”

How Laudato si' features in the film

Gbenga Adebija, chairman of the committee that organised the premiere of the film in Lagos, told the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard News how "The Oratory" is not just a film but a documentary that shows a concrete outcome of the many areas of outreach the Salesians provide in Nigeria. He emphasised how the feature film recalls individual and collective responsibilities towards street children and how the work of inclusion helps prevent violent and illegal behaviour. The values of Laudato si' are highlighted in the feature film: from the fight against the culture of waste to the care of our common home, with a perspective of integral ecology that puts the human person, his dignity, and his personal and collective wellbeing back to the centre, calling on us to redefine the future through the careful use of the territory's resources.

The Oratory also highlights the need to protect work and make it accessible to all, especially to the most fragile, by renouncing a perspective that privileges only profit. "With this film," Fr. Cyril Odia explains, "we are also promoting the causes of Pope Francis, not only by trying to get children off the streets, but also by highlighting that if we do not respond to the urgency of what is happening in the world now, as is well emphasised in the feature film, we are only preparing for disaster.” The positive response of film critics and audiences, although with all the limitations of movie attendance caused by the pandemic, have inspired the film's production crew to start a crowdfunding campaign to distribute it on a wider scale. At the moment, screening is possible by making prior arrangements with executive producer, Fr. Cyril Odia, who can be contacted via, (St. Catherine Centre, Maynooth University) or by email  

*Cube Radio - Istituto Universitario Salesiano Venezia e Verona

07 June 2022, 08:46