Now Reading
Filmmaker, Gelax Bolaji’s Documentary, “Silent Tumors”, Spotlights the Silence Struggles of Women with Fibroids in Nigeria 

Filmmaker, Gelax Bolaji’s Documentary, “Silent Tumors”, Spotlights the Silence Struggles of Women with Fibroids in Nigeria 

Gelax Bolaji - Afrocritik

“For me, this is not just a documentary, it is a mission to break the silence until someone with a louder voice takes it global.”_ Gelax Bolaji.

By Helena Olori

Nollywood has traversed two distinct phases: the cherished classics of “Old Nollywood” with movies such as Ijele, Egg of Life, Blood Sisters, Glamour Girls, and Aki na Ukwa, and “New Nollywood” which has produced some of the most captivating thrillers, award-winning fantasy dramas, heartwarming romances, and hilarious comedy dramas, that have caught the attention of both local and international audiences.

While exact timelines for these phases are difficult to pinpoint, I’d like to think that it dawned a new era for Nigeria’s film industry. A phase marked by filmmakers unafraid to explore Africa’s diverse and unconventional stories from an African perspective. One of these emerging brilliant filmmakers is Gelax Olubunmi Bolaji, the ever-bubbling powerhouse producer behind Silent Tumors. As with many producers behind the scenes, Bolaji’s name may not exactly ring a bell with audiences. But her impact runs deep, particularly on projects like the short drama, Ti e Nbo (2023), where she doubled as producer and actor alongside the rising director, Chinazaekpere Chukwu. She also worked on MTV Shuha: Season 5 as a Director’s assistant, and on Nigeria’s first queer title, All the Colours of the World are Between Black and White, where she was a production manager.

Inspired by her personal experience with the horrors of fibroids, Bolaji’s latest offering, Silent Tumors, is an intimate and emotional exploration of the pervasive issue of fibroids among women in Nigeria. Working with co-producer, Racheal Emem Isaac, and director-writer, Omoladun Adenuga — who also shares similar experiences — Bolaji’s documentary sheds light on the trauma and stigma faced by women battling fibroid through the stories of twenty women, each with a unique experience.

Silent Tumors - Gelax Bolaji - Interview - Afrocritik

The documentary’s trailer video has sparked conversations on the issue on social media platforms since it was first released, yet this merely scratches the surface of its overarching objective — to provide nuanced yet emphatic insight into what fibroid is and create awareness enough to break the silence surrounding the experiences of women affected by these tumours. “For me, this is not just a documentary, it is a mission to break the silence until someone with a louder voice takes it global”, she tells Afrocritik in an exclusive peeling back the layers of Silent Tumors.

Breaking the Silence 

As a former On-Air-Personality, a YouTuber, and a blogger, Bolaji has never shied away from sharing her stories, opening up to her over 10,000 readers on her blog, and a YouTube audience cutting across several African countries. So when she shared her experience with fibroids on her blog, the response from women with similar experiences was overwhelming. The resonance of her story swept through her circle and reached thousands of women far away, inspiring them to get tested for fibroids. It was the sheer success of this that birthed the idea for Silent Tumors.

For the emerging film producer, it was no longer just a shared story, it had become an advocacy mission prompting her to contemplate the right platform to use that would reach more audiences. A noble cause, she thought to herself. “But why you?”, her friend, Abigail had asked. “You’re not the only filmmaker who has gone through this? What puts you in the best position to tell the story?” The question was so direct and piercing that it made her doubt the rationale behind wanting to pursue the project. If it was a random person, she would have dismissed them as mere trolls. “But coming from someone very close to me, it prompted me to ask myself, ‘Am I taking on this project because it’s another opportunity to make money, to be the producer on the next big story in town?’ It made me realise that this was more than just another project”, she recalled.

Gelax Bolaji - Afrocritik
Gelax Bolaji

Abigail’s question, as incisive as it was, was not without merits. Bolaji had just begun her filmmaking journey barely a year at the time of their conversation. She had only worked on a few projects such as Love Does Not Look Like This (2021), a 10-minute short film where she played the character, Brianne, her web series, Single, Celibate, and Christian hosted on Gelaxchatroom, her YouTube channel, and the 2021 production, Tangerine, which explored sexuality and women’s agency. Meanwhile, she had been diagnosed with fibroid shortly after the production of Tangerine, bleeding every day in the weeks leading to the series premiere in November 2021. What Abigail didn’t reckon at the time was that these platforms — where she had previously explored femicentric stories — her traumatic fibroid experience, amongst other things, prepared Bolaji for this project. “Even as a blogger, I have always been open and very big on starting conversations that people would ordinarily avoid”, she quipped reassuringly.

Prior to her surgery in February 2022, Bolaji didn’t know there were women in her family who had gone through the same. No one talked about it, at least not until she came open with hers. She wonders if she would have handled her situation better, were it not for the societal stigma-induced silence which causes misconceptions. People have different perspectives about fibroids, many think it only affects older, plumpy women, and certainly not someone as young and slender as Bolaji, who despite her physique, had a fibroid the size of a foetus removed during the surgery. Despite the varied experiences women endure, there’s a prevailing expectation of silence, fueled by the belief that revealing reproductive health issues such as fibroids could negatively impact the chances of marriage or motherhood.

Although, no longer in doubt about why she had to tell this story, Bolaji still thought her personal experience was barely enough to drive the mission to break the silence and social stigma. At best, she could make a short film out of it but that would be merely scratching the surface. Hence the decision to tell the story of multiple women with varying experiences via a documentary route.

Defending Her Choices in Arts

Bolaji’s fast-rising career as a filmmaker wasn’t a straightforward path from the onset, although she had nursed similar dreams growing up. Born as the first of six children to a strong-willed father who was a police officer, Bolaji was raised to defend her choices, as that was the only way her father would allow them. “I think one of the privileges that my family and I enjoyed is the fact that despite how strong-willed my father is if you could defend what you want and why you want to do it, you get the pass”.  Growing up in Nigeria, it is not uncommon for students to feel pressured to study sciences if they are excelling academically in secondary school. So, it was a no-brainer that despite her keen interest in arts, she studied the sciences, being barely acquainted with the wide-ranging disciplines she could explore in arts.  “Knowing I come from a family where you have to defend your choices, I couldn’t tell my dad I didn’t want to be in sciences”. However, that didn’t deter her from sneaking off to attend literature classes while occasionally skipping her science classes, mostly drawn by her love for reading novels.

It wasn’t until her first year at Obafemi Awolowo University, where she gained admission to study Agricultural Science, that she realised the vastness of the art world. Motivated by her discovery, she had told her course advisor of her intentions to cross over to dramatic arts but found out she had no primary arts subjects to enable such a major shift. “Realising it wasn’t possible, I went to make friends with both lecturers and students in Dramatic Arts. Fortunately, in my 200 level, one of the lecturers hired me as a costume assistant. That’s where my interest in production started”. Now having a prospective path in this field, Bolaji went on from being a costume manager to stage makeup artist, and stage manager or whatever role that makes things happen in the production line.

The Big Leap

Nollywood may seem porous if you consider the number of films churned out annually. But starting a career in this close-knit industry, in any capacity, is never a walk in the park. For Bolaji, it began as a casual YouTube content creator in 2016 during her mandatory NYSC programme, when she also had a brief stint as a radio presenter. Transitioning to blogging shortly after, she quickly gained traction, attracting over 10,000 monthly blog visits, and earning a nomination for “Best Personal Blogger” from the Afrobloggers Community. Her decision to pursue filmmaking fully would come as an epiphany during the pandemic. Like many of us, the Covid-19 crisis prompted her to re-evaluate her aspirations. Fearing the regret of not living her dreams, she resigned from her job as a ghostwriter in November 2020, having earlier relocated to Lagos, the entertainment hub, to pursue her film career. But “Lagos is a no man’s land”, a historical slogan the aspiring filmmaker would learn. With no connections and limited funds, Bolaji took a job as a writer at a writing agency, with a conviction to tell unique stories and create a platform for unconventional narratives. 

Her breakthrough in Nollywood came in August 2021 after she got the CBN 1 million naira loan for creatives to produce the web series, Tangerine in April, launching her career as a filmmaker. The success of this production led to her first gig as a production manager shortly after. Coming from an academic background unrelated to filmmaking, Bolaji took advantage of masterclasses, though mainly on acting, with the hopes that being a good actor would be her best route to establishing herself and gaining the necessary access to thrive in the industry. Much of what she knows today are lessons learnt and hands-on experience as a production manager.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster journey for Bolaji and her team since the production of Silent Tumors commenced about a year ago. One poignant moment came during a lunch break with her collaborators after a filming session. As they sat at the table, tears welled up unexpectedly. Three women on the production team had experienced fibroids at varying levels — Omoladun had undergone surgery twice, Bolaji once, and Rachel had just been diagnosed — these stories hit too close to home. “Preparing ourselves for what’s to come made us cry,” she recalls with palpable emotions. “Frankly, I have been an emotional wreck throughout this journey”. Occasionally, even some of the male crew members were moved to tears while filming, as each of the 20 stories shared unveiled the silent agony and trauma these women had endured.

20240210 021046 jpg
Bolaji with co-producer, Racheal Emem Isaac, and director-writer, Omoladun Adenuga

The Very Essence of the Documentary

The mission to break the silence around fibroids is a daunting one that would require a great deal of trust and a safe space for women to share their stories without the societal stigma attached to discussing such personal health issues. This was where Bolaji’s experience with personal blogging played a crucial role. The warmth and vulnerability with which she shared her story opened the doors for more women to share their with her. “I found out that people relate to my story a lot. I shared how I died on the surgical table and was revived, and that vulnerability made it easier for them to connect with me and share their stories”. But not without some resistance. 

Older women would rather not share, believing it’s a topic best left unspoken. For some of them, not even their partners were aware of their conditions. While some refused to be filmed unless their faces were blurred, others resorted to using aliases to protect their identity from the stigma that comes with it.

These reactions are not exactly out of place in a society which talks little about women’s health. Growing up as young girls and now women, we’re often told never to let boys know when we’re on our periods. Save for a few homes, fathers are not privy to discussions on menstruation and its accompanying symptoms— as though discussing it openly is a taboo. In many a case, women cannot buy sanitary towels when male friends or classmates are in sight. This culture influences the lack of understanding and why women’s experiences are trivialised and has entrenched the mindset that people offer little to no support for women’s reproductive health – whether it is menstruation, PCOS, or fibroid. Invariably, the mental, physical, and emotional toll on women dealing with fibroids is often downplayed as seen with the respondents in the documentary. Providing further insight, Bolaji noted, “We had people from different classes; the middle class had more respondents and more supportive families. But with the lower class, one of the things I noticed is that these women shy away from even talking about what kind of support they got or didn’t get”. While they shared their traumatic experiences willingly, there was an underlying sense that they were holding back, particularly in how they glossed over their support systems. 

20240210 015955 jpg
During the production stage for Silent Tumors

20240210 015952 jpg

See Also
Joeboy 001 Cropped - Afrocritik

20240210 015947 jpg

This may not be far-fetched from the belief system that fibroid jeopardises their chances of marriage and motherhood, reflecting a societal belief system where women are primarily valued for their ability to bear children. Fibroids, also known as leiomyomas, are a prevalent condition among Black women. Research studies suggest that approximately 50% of African women of reproductive age will experience these benign tumours by the age of 50, more than twice as high as that in White women. Yet, for a society that prizes procreation, the predominant treatment for fibroids remains a life-altering procedure — uterus removal. Scarcely do medical professionals discuss the less invasive option of Uterine Fibroid Embolisation (UFE) as it is an expensive procedure offered only at a few specialised health centres. In fact, none of the documentary’s respondents were offered this treatment option. Women who have had children are outrightly advised to undergo a hysterectomy to prevent fibroid regrowth. “I would say, probably the most common option, for Nigerians is to pray it away and hope for a miracle, to be honest. There was a story of one woman who got healed through prayer while her friend, with the same condition, passed away, and questioned if more prayers or faith in God could have saved her friend. The next available option is to ‘go under the knife’”.

This is the very essence of the documentary, to create a more supportive environment for women dealing with fibroids and to inspire them to prioritise regular medical check-ups.

Rallying Support for Silent Tumors

It is a lofty goal; to demystify the idea that enduring “common” symptoms make us strong Black women — as early detection could prevent issues from progressing to advanced stages — and to rally more support for women. But rallying support for the cause also means appealing to everyone, including people (particularly men) who the gory nature of the visuals of tumours could repulse. To authentically convey the message without putting off viewers, the producers opted for a cautious approach, “As much as we wanted to be transparent about this topic, we also didn’t want to scare people away by showing the graphic visuals, because, introducing unsettling visuals upfront could mean losing our male audience engagement from the outset, which could mean less involvement from them”.

Being Bolaji’s first major project as an independent producer, Silent Tumors wasn’t without some constraints, chief of which was funding. Unlike Tangerine, securing financial support was arduous, and despite the project’s apparent significance, every pitch and application was met with rejection emails week after week.

After five months, Bolaji and her collaborators decided to self-fund the project, hoping that would set the pace for external funding. “Let’s just say we are still in the process of putting our money into it even as we are wrapping up the project. Our initial (budget) was 10 million Naira, but we have literally been winging it” she said with a tone fluctuating between moments of dismay and determination. The team is still seeking an Executive Producer for the project.

What Next?

Regardless, the quality of the film is paramount. While it tonally deviates from her fictional works where she controls the narrative to reflect her filmmaking aspirations, this project, inspired by personal stories, is about authentically representing the lived experiences of these 20 women, a responsibility she takes seriously. 

Silent Tumors is still in the post-production phase, but the brains behind the project are hoping to explore the 2024 festival circuit as a way of taking the conversation beyond Nigeria’s borders before its general viewing. “The plan is not to leave it on streaming platforms exclusively. We want to be able to take it to the local Cable TV so women with no access to streamers can see it too”. Already, the trailer has been translated into the three major Nigerian languages for a wider reach.

Gelax Bolaji - Afrocritik
Bolaji

In the meantime, Bolaji is looking to complete her pending projects which have been lagging due to her commitment to Silent Tumors.  “I feel really guilty every time I am working on something other than Silent Tumors, but I am glad the project is now in the last phase of production”. Currently, she has a short film, I Love You to the Moon and Back (Composition of a Couple) set to release later this month. The film is a rowdy take on the modern-day love story of life in Lagos. Also underway are two shows billed to launch before the first half of the year runs out.

Helena Olori is a talented multimedia journalist, she enjoys staying abreast with the latest happenings in the film industry and what makes the movie business tick. Connect with her on Instagram @heleena_olori or helena.olori@afrocritik.com.

What's Your Reaction?
Excited
1
Happy
1
In Love
1
Not Sure
0
Silly
0

© 2024 Afrocritik.com. All Rights Reserved.

Scroll To Top