ThePingOfPong

Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Tag: Kunle Afolayan

WHO THE GODS WANT TO KILL: REVIEWING AFOLAYAN’S FIGURINE

Kunle Afolayan’s Figurine (subtitled: Araromire)seeks to change cinema culture in Nigeria- he wants viewers to think about film not just see it.

Figurine begins with a prologue on goddess, Araromire:  For seven years she blesses those who touch her statue with prosperity and fruitfulness; there is rain, plenty of harvest and the people are fruitful. The snag is she withdraws all her blessings, and brings despair and hardship for an additional seven years when the pleasantries are over.  Figurine somewhat modifies Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream about Egypt from the bible. Figurine is however not an adaptation of the bible story, it is something sinister…The Figurine

Sola Fajure (Kunle Afolayan), Femi (Ramsey Nouah) and Mona (Omoni Oboli)are the major characters featured in Figurine. The trio are former University mates caught up in a bizarre love triangle that develops into a grotesque revelation of human behavior. All three are posted to Araromire (a mysterious town named after the goddess) for their National Service. During an endurance trek, Femi and Sola come in contact with some artifacts in a shrine. Unwittingly, they have opened “Pandora’s box” and set in motion a cascade of events.  It was the year 2001 and the seven year clock begins to tick…

We are moved in time to 2007; Sola and Mona are married with a son and another baby is on the way. They are rich and happy. Femi is also well off. He has had a very impressive run in his company. His respiratory problems have vanished, his father’s cancer has gone into recession and he doesn’t use his glasses anymore.  The three meet again after a seven year separation at a party hosted by Sola and Mona. Femi’s feelings for Mona is evident even after seven years and he seems not to be interested in any other woman, not even the forceful but delectable Ngozi played by Funlola Aofiyebi.

The Yoruba language spoken sometimes in the movie helped create a certain level of realism. The characters spoke Yoruba to themselves in private and reverted to the English language for more formal conversations as regular people would in real life. This level of detail would ensure a wider audience watches Figurine.

The movie shifts to second gear when Mona visits her college history professor where she recognizes a picture of Araromire from a text of the figurine in her husband’s study. The Professor relays to her the myth surrounding the seven years of good and evil.  Something doesn’t feel right by her. She starts to worry and then begins to piece information together; the sudden wealth and prosperity in career and family begin to make sense. Mona admits to Femi in a private meeting that she and Sola had lived a charmed life for seven years.

By now, Afolayan knows he has the viewer’s attention.  At this stage, because we know the seven years of prosperity are up, we anticipate calamity. We expect equilibrium and normalcy restored.  Femi’s charactermakes this possible and sends the movie into third gear. The viewer begins to think… He does not picture murder and obsession in Femi’s personality. He certainly doesn’t fit the profile of a psycho killer who orchestrates a fourteen year plan.

Afolayan doesn’t leave us wondering, he shows us Femi’s motive and intent. Like a good story teller, he shows as well as he tells. The viewer begins to understand (and probably accept) Femi’s actions in reclaiming the love of his life.  After all, “all is fair in love and war”.

Figurine ends with the question: what do you believe? The intention is clear though- Afolayan set out to make a mystery movie that engages the viewer.

On one hand, it is said: “who the gods want to kill they first make mad”. So it is possible that Femi was a pawn in the hands of Araromire and therefore we may conclude that Araromire set the tone for the love affair and the convergence at the Youth Camp just to destroy them. On the second hand everything could have happened by sheer coincidence.

Viewers of Figurine: Araromire will leave the cinema neither happy nor sad. They will ask themselves questions, thus fulfilling what Afolayan set out to do: make us think.

 

Otaigbe Ewoigbokhan

 

IN PRAISE OF BABY JOWO REMIX

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Popular old songs are fragile keepsakes. And remaking a song that has become a classic— that elusive, hard to define label— is a delicate act. A little tampering on either side of time’s trajectory threatens the balance of beauty, and of symphony: the producer aiming to honour the past without modification courts indifference from the public who may respond with ‘why bother?’. Worse, pandering to the new and trendy, by applying massive adjustments to increase an old song’s appeal to the younger, greater demographic, may render a song indistinguishable from modern radio, reducing a classic to pop ephemera. It is a tightrope— skill and daring are needed; both are useless without a sense of balance.

It is this balance that makes the new remix of Baby Jowo a triumph.

The song has been remixed before— famously by Lt. Shotgun in the ’90s and a few years ago by a gathering of Nollywood stars. Those versions make a case for the song’s indestructibility. Yet neither were truly transcendent. The former was reggae tinged to attract the young; the latter barely survived the fanfare associated with actors singing. This last version had an atrocious verse by Basorge Tariah which escapes rebuke only because of its tongue in cheek delivery.

Certainly, some of the older generation were unimpressed with these infrequent tampering, and may have prayed these young people, with their wholly different notions of the divine and profane, leave their music alone. That wish has since been granted. But there is something about the song that calls the young—perhaps, it’s the timelessness of love and romance set to a tune, perhaps it’s the whimsy of highlife—so it always seemed another version was inevitable.

Now, with the remix featuring Tuface, it is hard to conceive of any person, old or young, quarrelling with the results of the newest tinkering. Why does it work so? What makes this version brilliant?

For one, the inclusion of the old singer brings an ironic novelty to the proceedings. The average follower of contemporary has not been treated to a lot of live instruments which Victor Olaiya brings with the use of the trumpet and band.

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Again, the conservative experimenting: In the heyday of Primetime Entertainment, Kenny Ogungbe and company had tried to modernise a few old school tunes by featuring a rap verse— one of these experiments was accompanied by an ill advised video which unlikelihood culminated in the older singer donning a face cap. Asked to generate enthusiasm and suspend incredulity for over 3 minutes, the public ignored the product of that meeting. The new version succeeds with the addition of a sung verse, rather than a rapped one proving that great singing is always in demand. Singing may be the the least likely form of melody to annoy.

The true masterstroke, however, is the selection of Tuface Idibia as Dr Victor Olaiya’s partner. Tuface more than any other contemporary artist, is the voice of today’s music. His inclusion on the song goes is sound musically as well as symbolically. The debut of his old group, Plantashun Boiz, heralded the new wave of music. It was poised between the tunes of the 1990s and today’s radio. And his use of his native Idoma and English on songs puts him, linguistically, in the middle of Nigeriana and the foreign. He is also both a middle class delight and an elite indulgence. The man maybe the one unifying Nigerian artist for all classes. 

For the Baby Jowo remix, his verse harks back to the qualities that endeared him to the populace upon the release of his own classic African Queen, and also sees him using the celestial imagery used to mixed results on his last album, Far and Away. This time it works: “I see the sun in your eyes…I see the colours of the rainbow in your eyes” is as likely, in certain circumstances, to win a lover back as the plaintive cry of Olaiya.

Asked what he scores the younger man, in an interview following the song’s release, Dr Victor Olaiya said, laughing, “85 percent”. Far from a hoarding of marks, this is modesty—the man fully understands the score he gives the younger singer is what he scores himself as well.

Yet for this remix, the whole surpasses the sum of its parts since the greatest gift here is the potency of the combination. So great is the musical chemistry, both men could be calling out to the same woman: Olaiya to the woman, older; Tuface to the same woman, younger. Or, considering the release dates of the original and the remix, perhaps it is Tuface serenading the older lady and the younger Olaiya singing to the younger lady.

The video, directed by Kunle Afolayan, winks to this idea as it flips the chronology of motion picture history by filming Tuface, the younger singer, mostly in black and white, while Dr Olaiya, performs exclusively in colour. Eventually, a young woman, won over by Tuface in early scenes, dances between both men, apparently enjoying the performance and, in terms of her position, onstage also embodying a link between the past and present. Her youth is irrelevant: she could be older and more clearly suitable to Dr Olaiya’s overtures and yet not be out of place.

Whatever the case, whatever the age of the woman, a gift has been handed to her: she has defied age by achieving transcendence—which is precisely what Baby Jowo, in both incarnations, has attained.

 

NOLLYWOOD AND THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

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The films made in Nollywood and now shown in the cinema are visually united by the airbrushed faces of famous faces, of pretty faces and the newest fascinating camera shot: the close-up and ideologically tied together by a lack of a philosophy. Maybe these disparate tropes can be considered a leap, an aesthetic leap: not too long ago what obtained were script writing movements.

The inaugural episode of these movements ( as seen in Living In Bondage and later, Rituals) featured ritualism and witchcraft- distinctly not the Harry Potter brand- finally defeated by the assured potency of Christianity; followed by melodramatic dramas presenting chasms between in-laws; by the 2000s, bolstered by the influx of young men and women attracted by the glamour of the small screen, Nollywood turned to the love story. The love story turned out to be the last major phase of the movement era before the entry of the big screen. Hybrids of all these have since been prevalent with a possible plot involving say two young lovers having to battle the ritualistic tendencies of a mother-in-law with the force of their piety and the unbreakable bond of an asexual love. Love wins; Religion wins; what is art?

(A few films had managed to have some merit: in the 1990’s, the films of Amaka Igwe, especially the deservedly praised domestic drama Violated, were highlights; before he veered into organizing comedy shows, Opa Williams, though often dipping into bathos, made few films capturing the plight of Nigeria’s lower class accurately; the early films of Emem Isong which combined the personal and the political were successful; even films preoccupied with anachronistically dressed villagers had minor champions- the Norbert Young vehicle, Igodo remains the peak of that sub-genre’s achievements.)

The entry of the cinema has seen the setting of films move to urban locations ostensibly to cater to the needs of the emerging middle class. This readjustment to the whims of this class with supposedly elite taste propels the faux-sophistication threatening to sweep the industry into artistic irrelevance using false elements of our culture.

Put simply; the middle class, for whom the average film making its way to the cinema is targeted, appears to be different only with regards to bank balance; its aesthetic taste struggles between the abyss of vulgarity and the uncertainty of the middlebrow and is satisfied with the former clothed in the garish apparel of the latter.

The rich, a more accurate label for this class, unwilling and perhaps unable to discern the shape of things from their nature, lap up these story lines persuaded by bright lights and the prohibitive price of movie tickets- this last, in supreme obeisance to the laws of capitalism, keeps the poor effectively out of sight.

Nevertheless, the elite/middle class/rich are not the only forces keeping the film industry in stagnant perpetuity; the (print) media has a share in the blame.

Nigerians are happy when the industry gets western coverage- recently The New York Times and The Guardian have devoted inches to Nollywood. Members of the industry are quick to point this out as a mark of success intentionally ignoring or perhaps oblivious of the condescending tone adopted in such reports: there is always a ‘biased balancing’ of the reportage, for instance in a piece hailing Kunle Afolayan as the African Martin Scorsese (a dubious praise as even Marty was not the Martin Scorsese after his first two films,) the New York Times presented the ambition of the man alongside the perils of film making in Nigeria and the antics of Osita Iheme (Pawpaw).

The fact is it is volume, not artistic vision or merit, that has garnered Nollywood these mentions in western media. These pieces subtly express surprise and mockery; never envy, never unreserved praise- two forms of acclaim regularly bestowed on Korean cinema in recent times.

This clamor for western validation is a product of the failure of our media to go beyond celebrity news and scandal; a refusal to delve into critical commentary of the film industry. It is the reason, the observation made by English literary theorist, Terry Eagleton, expressing the lack of a social function for criticism in the 80’s, adding that literary criticism at the time was stuck between ‘inchoate amateurism’ and ‘socially marginal professionalism’ is particularly true of the Nigerian film making industry today.

Actually, it is worse: it can be said that there is no professionalism in the media coverage of film in Nigeria as reports are confined within centerfold gossip and the spectacle of red carpeted premieres. The big papers in the country do not run reviews beyond plot summaries in what amounts to paid adverts by the cinemas or film sponsors. Or in extreme cases, a peer-cum-friend review is adopted. It is shameful the majority of the country’s newspaper and magazines do not devote pages to critical dissections of the arts even in the prestigious publications.

If the status quo must be altered (and it should): Big Media would have to do what it should: run reviews/criticisms that are, to paraphrase Odia Ofeimun, themselves works of art even if it means commissioning competent critics/writers; actors will have to do more than gesturing and grimacing, then hoping longevity in the industry will confer the neo-meaningless term ‘veteran’; directors, especially, will have to establish a guiding ideology and actually learn the craft; viewers, will have to be more critical and discerning.

For only then can the shape of things to come be anything near beautiful.

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