Ones to watch in 2023: Adura Onashile

Best known as a stage actor, having taken the lead in the acclaimed NTS production of Medea at last year's Edinburgh International Festival, Adura Onashile is now making waves in the film world, with her Glasgow-set directorial debut Girl premiering at Sundance later this month. Interview by Alistair Harkness

Adura Onashile PIC: Lisa Ferguson / The Scotsman
Adura Onashile PIC: Lisa Ferguson / The Scotsman

“Honestly, I just wanted to shout from the rooftops.” It’s early December and Glasgow-based playwright, theatre director, performer and now filmmaker Adura Onashile is recounting how she felt upon learning that her debut feature, Girl, would have its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Though the official announcement comes the day before we meet, for the previous few weeks she’s been sworn to secrecy, ever since the festival called her personally and asked if she wanted to come. “That’s how they put it,” says Onashile of the Glasgow-set film, which revolves around the complex relationship between a 24-year-old Black immigrant mother and her pubescent daughter. “I was like, ‘Is this a joke?’”

Girl’s selection certainly puts Onashile in some pretty exalted company. Quentin Tarantino, Chloé Zhao, Rian Johnson and Ryan Coogler are just some of the luminaries who’ve premiered their debuts at Robert Redford’s indie film festival over the years. For the moment, though, Onashile is trying not to let the pressure get to her. “The truth is, you can go to Sundance and nothing happens, so I'm just trying manage my expectations and go, ‘The thing to do is to appreciate the fact that I'm in this place at this time.’”

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Onashile, who fell in love with Glasgow after coming up from London for a theatre job over a decade ago and never left, is telling me this over a late lunch in an Italian deli in the city’s vibrant Southside. She shot parts of Girl round the corner. “Down Albert Road there’s a hostel and we shot some scenes there,” she says. “[The characters’] home was in the Gorbals and we shot some stuff in St Enoch’s Centre because that’s where the mother works at night. We did the rest on set. So it’s all Glasgow, it all feels like home.”

Déborah Lukumuena and Le’Shantey Bonsu in Girl

Girl promises something different from the usual gritty Glasgow film, though. The narrow age-gap between the protagonist Grace (played by French actress Déborah Lukumuena) and her daughter Ama (newcomer Le’Shantey Bonsu) hints at a darker past, one that Lukumuena’s character has tried to block out by creating a beautiful world for Ama at home. “It’s quite claustrophobic, but they feel safe with each other,” elaborates Onashile of the film’s themes. “As the child approaches adolescence, it triggers memories that make [Grace] come to terms with how she feels about motherhood, herself and her child. It’s a coming-of-age for both the mother, who’s 24, and the child, who’s eleven.”

Though the circumstances in the film are not autobiographical, the central idea behind the mother-daughter relationship was inspired by an incident from Onashile’s own childhood. When she was eleven, she and her mother lived on an estate in Bermondsey in southeast London that was a National Front stronghold. Having recently returned to London from Nigeria, where Onashile had been living since the age to two, she suddenly found it was no longer safe to play outside or walk to and from school without an escort. “It was only for six months, but what ended up happening is that my mother created this really, really beautiful home life for us. She kind of had to because we were stuck at home.”

Ever since, she says, she’s been fascinated with the juxtaposition of “how, from something so seemingly traumatic, you can get something really beautiful.” She shot Girl accordingly, eschewing social realism in favour of something more impressionistic (she cites Moonlight director Barry Jenkins and early 20th century artist and poet Kahlil Gibran as inspirations). “I find that just completely chimes with my sensibilities, and it chimes with how I grew up. I think sometimes in film we think working class-ness and trauma equals grit. And actually that's never been my experience.”

Although Onashile is well-established on the theatre scene – writing and directing work for National Theatre of Scotland and recently taking the lead in the acclaimed NTS production of Medea at last summer’s Edinburgh International Festival – the transition to filmmaking has, she says, been a baptism of fire. The scale, the budget, the schedule, the number of people on set, the number of people she has to answer to, not to mention having to make her first film under strict covid protocols… it’s all a world away from the intimate, hands-off approach she’s enjoyed when creating new work for the stage. “That was a struggle for me, because I had a very strong vision for this film and actually realising that vision was less in my hands than I thought it would be.”

Still, she credits Girl’s producers Rosie Crerar and Ciara Barry with convincing her she could be a filmmaker. They’d seen her Edinburgh Fringe hit Expensive Sh*t and subsequently produced the Bafta Scotland-nominated short film adaptation that Onashile wrote and directed in 2020. “When they saw the play of Expensive Sh*t, they were like, ‘We think you can write for film.' And I was like, ‘I'll give it a good go; I love film.’ I actually consumed more film than I did theatre,” she adds, running through her childhood love of westerns, Indian films and random dramas like Kramer vs Kramer and The Champ (she was also obsessed with Twin Peaks as a teenager). “I just didn’t think that was going to be part of my life.”

Why not?

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“I didn't know anybody in the film industry. There was just always a massive gap between where I was at and what I was seeing.”

It’s a part of her life now, though, and she’s steeling herself for that Sundance premiere. “I don’t like watching my work with an audience,” she confesses. “All I can ever see is what’s wrong, but I’m going to make myself do it. I’ve also heard the high altitude makes you quite…”

Euphoric?

“Yeah, so maybe I’ll be like, ‘This is fine.’”

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And what if she meets Robert Redford? “Who knows? Maybe I’ll say to him, ‘I had a posters of you up on my wall as a kid.’ Maybe I won’t say that.”

Did she?

“Yeah, I did. For Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Girl will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on 22 January and its UK premiere at Glasgow Film Festival on 1 March. Expensive Sh*t is available to stream on iPlayer