Retro Nolly: Saworoide Remains an Ever-Relevant Political Commentary
Tunde Kelani's Saworoide is a timely piece of cinema with a critique of Nigeria's political landscape in the early 2000s, but still very much relevant today!
Retro Nolly is a weekly series of retrospective reviews of classic Nollywood films by Seyi Lasisi. We will be looking at these films with modern eyes, dissecting what made them unique and how they speak to today’s filmmaking, culture and society.
I first saw Tunde Kelani’s Saworoide at the S16 Film Festival, an indie film festival curated by the Surreal 16 trio comprising Michael Omonua, C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, and Abba T. Makama. Programming the film into the festival’s lineup was a bid to recognise and celebrate Kelani’s groundbreaking work and contribution to Nigerian cinema. Tagged The Story of Tunde Kelani: A Nigerian Cinema Retrospective Exhibition, the exhibition featured a special screening of Saworoide and a presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Kelani.
Watching the film amongst film nerds and enthusiasts who have repeatedly seen the film is one memorable cinematic experience.
Written by Akinwumi Ishola, Saworoide, which translates to Brass Bells, coils its narrative around the story of Lapite, a modern king with an established interest in amassing wealth when he gets to the throne, and the response of his subjects to his lip service effort in providing succour to their pain. Prior to Lapite’s ascension to the throne of Jogbo, the village he presides over, the film provides necessary backstory, acquainting viewers with the cultural and spiritual importance of certain rites every crown king in Jogbo must do. This ancestral rite is established to serve as a check and balance to a ruler’s excesses. However, Lapite, a man of excesses, has no intent on performing any of these religious rituals. With the help of his stalwart, Balogun, he devises a sinister way to his enthronement while also eliminating possible threats — serving as a metaphor for Nigerian rulers enthroning themselves through illegal means, a message Kelani’s film preaches throughout
After Lapite’s illicit ascension to the throne, a pair of social hardships cradled the citizens and their means of existence. In Lapite and his council of chiefs aligned interest of lining their pockets with public wealth, they put in place policies that favour the pillaging away of the village’s resources by foreign loggers who have bought them over.
Destruction of farm products, desecration of ancestral bushes, and making existence hard for the villagers become the hallmark of these foreign loggers.
As the king and the chiefs bask in unmerited wealth, a certain Fadiya, the head of the farmers’ association and other youth who act as the mouthpiece of the village, constantly protests the practices of the leaders. Though the constant diplomatic approach to resolving the farmers-loggers conflict attracts the attention of the king, it doesn't result in any logical change or result. Their cries are treated with scorn and disinterest. Rather than offering workable solutions, the king keeps creating more favourable policies for the loggers at the expense of the villagers’ environmental and cultural well-being. When their civil and diplomatic approach to resolving the conflict proves futile, the youth embrace a guerilla approach to solving the problem of the loggers that threaten their livelihood. Soon, the military takes over the administration of the village.
As these various political and social subject matters are being expanded upon, the film graciously creates a space for a familial conflict between Lapite and his wives: Asabi, who is interested in being the recognised queen; Tinuola, the king's favourite mistress-turned-wife. The film’s dialogue — the song-like parable of the wise man and speeches anchored on the metaphysical worldview of the Yoruba people, is a gripping poetry that successive films have aimed to replicate. It's important also to note that while the film treats a politically sensitive topic, the dialogues accommodate a comedic tone that allows a gentle landing for the film’s tense moments.
Kelani’s political feature film is forever relevant for its political intonation: corrupt practices of a despotic king, the killing of vocal citizens and the exploitation of citizens. Poised as an allegorical film about the dictatorial rule of both civilian and military rulers in Nigeria, the film is a meta-narrative of political realities in Nigeria many years ago, and by extension other African countries with similar sinister leaders. Politically-sponsored killing of citizens, bloody coup d’etat that lead to disruption of peace and orderliness, and passiveness to addressing political and economic realities of citizens are daily realities of various Africans. Saworoide draws viewers’ attention to these illicit affairs of rulers at that point in Nigeria's history. Watching the film decades later, it's alarming to see that the nefarious and gang-related attitudes of those leaders still exist in present-day Nigeria.
As Nigeria and other neighbouring countries in the continent keep spiralling into chaos due to the selfish interest of the rulers, the film is an uncomfortable reminder of how worse things can get. And even when a sense of orderliness grips the continent, Kelani’s Saworoide will be remembered as an audacious and timely piece of cinema that mirrored the society from which it was made.
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