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Kunle Afolayan’s Ìjògbòn: Maximizing Folklore as a Storytelling Vehicle in Nollywood
Cultivating folklore as a storytelling vehicle can be the ideal avenue for preserving our languages, stories, and culture.
A common saying amongst the Yoruba people of West Africa is ‘odò tó bá gbàgbé orísún rè, yó gbe’, which literally translates to a river that forgets its source would dry off. This saying comes to mind when thinking of Kunle Afolayan and his intentional urgency for cultural representation in film. His most recent project, Ìjògbòn, is another upper rung on his legacy of culture-infused storytelling.
Ìjògbòn follows the story of four teenagers in the town of Oyo Oke who come in possession of uncut diamonds, which would lead them to a series of events, some happy and dreamy, while others worse. They would face opposition from familiar and foreign parties with different motivations but, in the same end, to have the diamonds.
A few minutes into the film, we see an older woman seated with a group of kids around a fire, telling them a folktale about how the Yoruba ancestors blessed the town with diamonds per Oranmiyan's request. Albeit mythical, the tale of Oranmiyan and the ancestors blessing the little town mirrors the series of events that we see in the film — providing deeper insight into each character's motivation in their relationship with the diamonds. It also provides more context into the irony of Oyo Oke possessing so much natural wealth while its youths seek greener pastures outside the town, which is an allusion to the current state of many African societies, including Nigeria.
This practice of cultural infusion is not novel to Kunle Afolayan at all. It is present in his previous projects, especially The Figurine and Anikulapo.
Anikulapo is built on the ancient Yoruba legend that strangers accused of stealing are not buried but taken to the outskirts for the spirit of justice to effect a verdict of death on them. The much older The Figurine is a film about two friends who encounter a mystical sculpture in a forest shrine that grants seven years of good fortune to those who encounter it and harsh consequences in the period that follows. Both films weave an ardent combination of folklore and myth into immersive and suspenseful stories.
One can hold that it's been second nature to the filmmaker who was born into the legacy of filmmaking and grew up within it under the tutelage of filmmakers, who, in their time, were heavy on cultural representation, especially through folklore. He is the son of the late famous actor Adeyemi Afolayan and was mentored by Tunde Kelani, perhaps the most influential Yoruba filmmaker ever.
Afolayan has drawn from Kelani in storytelling, style, and cultural infusion. Kelani is, amongst other titles, a 'cultural filmmaker' in the intentional way he has depicted Yoruba folklore (Arugba), myths (Thunderbolt), and political systems (Agogo Èwò) in his films.
In Thunderbolt, for instance, Kelani combines cultural elements of folklore and superstition to explore love, jealousy, and juju. The film follows Ngozi, a lady who meets and falls in love with a fine gentleman, Yinka, who laces her with Magun out of his own deep-seated insecurity. Magun is a juju peculiar to the Yoruba’s, who believed it to help curb sexual promiscuity. It is common among parents, guardians or lovers who want to keep their partners faithful.
Lores are native to the culture of a people and speak extensively to their history and identity.
The ability to employ Yoruba lores and continuously evolve in their use over time with every new project is one outstanding quality of both filmmakers, especially as they used them to tackle socio-political, religious and moral issues in their films. More importantly, they are able to draw diverse subjects using these lores, relating them to the past, the present, and the future. Also, with careful intentionality, the set design, costumes, language use, character kinesics, and even the soundtrack selection are meticulously utilized to reflect these time threads.
Beyond being significant to the story itself, the use of Yoruba folklore in films, as seen in Ìjògbòn, is impactful in educating us, Nigerians, about our culture. The critical significance of all is for documentation. There has always been a challenge in documenting and preserving our language and history; cultivating folklore as a storytelling vehicle can be the ideal avenue for preserving the languages, stories, and culture, as well as the past and present.
Another significance is for global representation, as legends, myths and lore are efficacious in their unifying power across cultures and promoting our films globally. The precipice the Nigerian film industry is on now is one that affords filmmakers sizable control of their narratives with increasing international attention. Nigerian filmmakers take control of their narratives and, through the use of lore, can determine the way Africa and its cultures should be represented globally.
A perfect example is CJ Obasi’s Mami Wata, which, having been selected as the submission for the IFF Oscars category, is due to represent Nigeria at the Oscars. The gorgeously shot black-and-white film is a terrific example of deploying folklore to represent culture distinctively and present a different positive idea of who we are and where we come from.
Lores are native to the culture of a people and speak extensively to their history and identity. It is, in the most fundamental way, remembering the African source, documenting and representing it just like the river in the Yoruba proverb.
Nigerian filmmakers can explore folklore to set Nollywood films apart for cultural representation and global recognition.
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