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Barbican Chronic Youth Festival: Delphine's Prayer and Conversation with Chukwuma Ofungwu

Chukwuma Ofungwu stands outside Screen 2 in the Barbican Centre surrounded by excited, young film enthusiasts, swarming like bees round honey. We have all shared the past 90 minutes trapped within the confines of Delphine’s bedroom, in the film Delphine's Prayer. Here, a young Cameroonian woman shares the hardships of her life in an unapologetic manner. I leave feeling conflicted. Do I know Delphine? Or was it an intrusion of privacy as I watched this 30-year-old woman sit on her bed and light another cigarette amongst the clutter of clothes, children’s toys, and boxes of paracetamol. I had seen her share childhood photos, reminisce on past lovers and perform mundane tasks, as though we were living her life with her. In the film, she slowly does her makeup and hair for work as a sex worker, which seem to be one of the only things keeping her sane. The viewer witnesses a reality that is unfortunately not unique to Delphine but one that speaks for many West African women. It becomes clear that no matter where she is, whether it be in her bedroom in Belgium, where she has lived for the last seven years, or back in Cameroon in West Africa, she remains powerless.

Image Courtesy of Barbican Chronic Youth Festival

The programmer, Chukwuma, a young Nigerian man living in London, relates to her story of dislocation and otherness.

“Europe is not your space” he says. “There is a difference between how you present yourself when you are outside, it is not your space.”

He tells me that to capture her within the confines of her home was a deliberate choice by the filmmaker, Rosine Mbakam. She wanted her to feel comfortable, despite her underlying fear of ejection as an alienated figure in a European country. He tells me that by portraying Delphine in the safety of her bedroom, this fear is circumvented.

“At least for a moment Delphine is able to get isolation, in a space that is free from external threats”.

The power of this film lies in Mbakam’s ability to capture Delphine, a powerless and repressed West African woman, within her own reality. The film-maker portrays her subject in a raw and unaltered way.

“She brings you the individual, up-close and personal, for 90 minutes,” describing those long 90 minutes as “unwavering and challenging… unlike many theoretical expressions of post colonialism and patriarchy which often misplace the individual.”

This unwavering gaze creates an intimacy between Delphine and the audience, with Chukwuma telling me that as she becomes more comfortable in front of the camera, “You feel like you know her”.

The truth, however, is more brutal.

“The film, it lures you into a false sense of security that everything is going to be ok, but it’s not.”

We are faced, Chukwuma suggests, with two disparate realities.

“This is our reality, that we can sit here, and watch from a cinema in East London, whilst her reality, it continues far past the film.”

We have the autonomy to dip into her world for a brief moment, experience the desired dose of the repressive and claustrophobic life she endures but in reality, we do not know her and never will. We are mere spectators of an unjust existence.

“We are forced to confront ourselves and the systems in which we are so implicit,” Chukwuma tells me.

Image Courtesy of Barbican Chronic Youth Festival

Delphine is not the one with the power to press stop. It was a deliberate choice by the director, he tells me, to include the background noises of her kids and husband showing that her life continues indefinitely. For her, it is not a simple 90-minute process with a beginning and an end. She has to learn to live with a life in which she is the victim. This reality is one in which she is subservient, she cannot dictate when, and if, she wants to experience it. We watch Delphine plead to God for forgiveness for the sins of her past – prostitution, abandoning her family. Despite it all, she is still able to remain good humoured.

“Do I have ‘will suffer forever’ written on my forehead?” she asks the camera.

Chukwuma thinks Mbakam “Wanted young people to watch this film and feel challenged” and I think this is exactly what it did. We watch her laugh, cry, and experience these emotions through the power of her narrative.

“I may not have gone to school or be educated,” she says as she sits on her bed, “but that does not mean I am not intelligent’.

The film leaves you feeling like you have just lived another life and as you exit the intimate vortex of Delphine’s world, you quickly realise that you are, in fact, still in East London, the same person who entered but with an informed, new perspective.

The Barbican Chronic Youth Festival took place over April the 22nd to the 23rd, 2023

Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Editor-in-Chief


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