Set in a 1970s flat, Timi Akindele-Ajani’s domestic drama sheds light on contemporary stories of racism
Focusing closely on dialogue and taking visual cues from Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, Guests is a masterclass in short filmmaking.
- 25 September 2023
- Olivia Hingley
When it comes to storytelling, few do it better than photographer and filmmaker Timi Akindele-Ajani. In May 2022 his photo series My Dead Ends took us on a trip through the familiar faces and spaces of his east London hometown of Barking. Later that year, we saw the release of his documentary short, Nubia Way, which deftly blended existing footage with Timi’s own to create a pertinent look at a community of Black Londoners who built their own housing community in the 1990s. Now comes Timi’s short film Guests, a powerful domestic drama that uses a dinner invitation in 1970s Britain to speak volumes about the Black community’s experience of racism.
The film follows Cecelia, a Nigerian woman who invites her English colleague and his wife over for dinner, in the hopes of getting her “prideful” husband Abiola a job. Over the course of the dinner, things slowly fall out of place in a compelling exploration of the power of words and the damage they can cause. “In a racist society, no one sees you for who you are. As a Black person your humanity is under constant question and the burden of proof lands with you,” Timi says. “We’ve all heard the adage: ‘You have to do twice as much as them, to get half of what they have’.” In the film, this reality is examined through Abiola and Cecelia’s experiences. “Living in England has placed their sense of self-worth and identity under constant attack and this dinner is an attempt to preserve what little pride they have left.”
From the very start of the film, Timi wanted audiences to know that “something isn’t right”, and this feeling of tension is present from the very opening scene, which focuses on private, tense conversations between each couple before the dinner commences. With such a focus on dialogue, Timi and the director of photography Stephen James Dunn wanted the four performances to be the central focal point of the film. Many of the lingering shots expertly capture the playing out of emotions and intensity of words, painstakingly building the narrative suspense.
Though, to create a sense of the drama taking place in the 1970s, the authenticity of the set was integral. Timi was blown away by the work of set designer Elena Mutoni, whose thorough research brought immense detail to the set, and who wove the backstory Timi had written for the characters of Abiola and Cecelia into their home. Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk also served as great inspiration for the look and feel of Guests and Timi and his team took many pointers from its “beautiful” interiors.
Guests is also accompanied by an insightful behind-the-scenes film to outline the process of making a short film with the BFI Network, directed by Rosa Kimosa with camera operation by Giovanni Edwards. “Through no fault of their own, the process of making shorts with the BFI is clouded in mystery,” says Timi. “I would have loved to have this kind of insight on the process of making a short so it felt like a no-brainer to make an accompanying film.”
Compared to Timi’s last short film, Tony – a short shoot which consisted of only Timi and its lead, Cora Kirk – Guests took place over a two-day period and had a sizable cast and crew. For Timi, the “sheer volume of high quality collaboration” is his proudest takeaway from the experience. “I think every director should dream about seeing their team working together and collaborating really well,” he says. “It’s a sign you’re doing your job right.” As for how the film is received, Timi hopes the core themes resonate, pushing the audience to consider a new perspective. “I hope people are moved to think differently about immigrant stories. I want audiences to come away feeling unsure as to whose side to take,” he says. “The only clear perspective they should have at the end of the film is one that identifies racism as a poison that affects us all.”
Timi will be talking about Guests at our upcoming Nicer Tuesdays on 3 October. Get your tickets here.
GalleryTimi Akindele-Ajani: Guests (Copyright © Timi Akindele-Ajani, 2023)
Timi Akindele-Ajani: Guests Trailer (Copyright © Timi Akindele-Ajani, 2023)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.