Continual Re-enchantment: Tunde Kelani’s Village Films and the Spectres of Early African Cinema

By Nikolaus Perneczky

Download PDF

The video features of contemporary Nigerian director Tunde Kelani, which shall be referred to as “films” throughout this article, deal not only with the insistence of traditional ways of living and forms of perception, but also with the tangled relationship between these supposedly pre-modern residues and African modernity.[1] The main setting of Kelani’s films is the village, but even urban spaces appear as if inflected by a rural orientation. This reflects the blending of urban and rural spaces in contemporary Africa, but also serves an allegorical purpose: that of rendering visible and meaningful on a local level the encompassing dimensions of the national and the global.

Kelani’s profound investment in the rhythms and turns of traditional communality and its accompanying Lebenswelten (life-worlds)[2] has many, albeit conflicted, precedents in the history of sub-Saharan cinemas and can be traced back to a heterodox lineage of what I shall call the “village film”. The village film can neither be observed as a widely shared concept of generic classification (by social contract), nor do its shifting features invite definition (by necessary and sufficient criteria).[3] One might argue that it hardly qualifies as a genre at all, at least not in any conventional sense of that word. However, by situating Kelani’s village films within a genealogy of early sub-Saharan cinema, the topos of the village will become visible as a paradigmatic constellation in postcolonial African culture at large. As a mutable ensemble of semantic and aesthetic options, this constellation informs the whole gamut of artistic expression including theatre, literature, and perhaps most ambivalently, the entire field of the moving image from founding father Ousmane Sembène to today’s Western African videographers and beyond.

In anticipation of this article’s conclusion, the sign of said constellation may preliminarily be described, in the words of Harry S. Garuba, as “a continual re-enchantment of the world.”[4] “Re-enchantment” in this context does not imply a wholesale rejection of secular modernity but should be seen as giving rise to many different, even opposing scenarios: from innocent idylls to more ambivalent articulations of the old and the new, riddled with tension and compromise. While not all of the village films I will discuss under this heading can be said to fully embrace “the continual re-enchantment of the world” as an aesthetic strategy, they all struggle and contend with the haunting of modernity by the premodern. The ghostly presence of violently dis-placed pasts is certainly not unique to the African continent, but it is exacerbated there by a colonial history of epistemic violence. This is where the genealogical conceit of this article springs into action: reconsidering the canonical history of sub-Saharan cinemas from the more marginal point of view of a contemporary Nigerian vidéaste. In this way, a shared ethics and aesthetics of re-enchantment will come into relief.

The resulting constellation may not readily qualify as a genre. However, at least in one regard, it does act like one. The village topos subtends a variety of practices to different and, as some would argue, opposite effect, yet some elusive quality appears to persist in, and thus connect, all of them. Given that theories of genre (in cinema and elsewhere) find themselves grappling with precisely this complex and contradictory correlation – between the protean and the persistent, the generative and the generic[5] – my discussion of Kelani’s village films is pertinent to this problem.

This proposition – of hidden lineages linking Kelani’s (video) works to the history of African (celluloid) film[6] – should not distract from the many obvious differences between the modernist, and eminently political, sub-Saharan cinema of the 1960s (and its tenuous line of succession up to this day), and the relatively recent popular, and often populist, phenomenon of “Nollywood” (as the Nigerian videographies have come to be called).[7] Granted, there are considerable differences and antagonisms even within what could (somewhat anachronistically) be termed the “celluloid tradition” of sub-Saharan cinema.[8] Femi Okiremuete Shaka identifies “two major schools in African cinema”: the realist school of Sembène, retaining for the sake of broad appeal “a form of ‘classic’ – that is to say, comprehensible – narrative”, and that, more experimentally inclined, school of Mauritanian director Med Hondo.[9] To many commentators today, however, the “two major schools” now consist of the venerable celluloid tradition (mostly from Francophone countries) on the one hand, and the lowbrow video upstarts (predominantly from Anglophone countries) on the other. For example, Matthias Krings and Onookome Okome neatly define “African auteur cinema”[10] as “Nollywood’s other”.[11] A typically scathing assessment of the Nigerian video film industry comes from acclaimed Burkinabe auteur Idrissa Ouedraogo, who insists that Nollywood is “business, not cinema”.[12] Kelani’s oeuvre eschews such facile compartmentalisations. Because his films are part of the broader constellation of the village film, which informs Nollywood and African auteur cinema in equal measure, they are uniquely positioned to contour both fault lines and resonances between these two seemingly incommensurate strands of African film culture today.

Nollywood Rising

Before venturing further into Kelani’s world, a few introductory remarks on the remarkable rise of Nollywood are in order.[13] In the early 1990s, in a cultural climate characterised by faltering state media and waning internal security, a few resourceful Nigerian businessmen invested in the production of cheap video features to be enjoyed in the safety of one’s home. This prompted an unceasing wave of similar ventures that swiftly took hold of the whole of Nigeria and today constitute an important source of employment.[14] Before long, Nollywood had surpassed its American namesake by sheer quantity of films produced, and is now second (by numbers) only to Bollywood.[15] In truth, it has been forced to concede some of its terrain to challengers from Ghana, who overtly reproduced the successful formula under the name of ‘Ghallywood’, and from many other African countries particularly in the Anglophone world, such as Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.[16]

In the more than 20 years since its inception, Nollywood’s model has generated such an immense wealth of ethnically and regionally variegated genres, themes, and visual styles that it can now scarcely be contained within a single concept. Of the three biggest sub-categories within the Nigerian context (originating from the country’s three major ethnic groups), each possesses a distinctive tone and inflection: the Bollywood-influenced melodramas of the Hausa in Nigeria’s Islamic north, the Christian cautionary tales popular among the Igbo in the southeast, and the films of the Yoruba from southwestern Yorubaland (which stretches to neighbouring Benin and Togo). In search of a definition to encompass all of Nollywood’s myriad incarnations, the anthropologist Brian Larkin proposes as a unifying characteristic “an aesthetics of outrage”.[17] He defines this as “a composite of different elements key to which is the intense transgression of moral and religious norms, often heightened by exaggeration and excess.”[18] This description may well apply to a lot of Nollywood films, but it fails to capture some less exuberant productions that do not follow this general trend, including but not limited to Kelani’s village films.

Another crucial factor in Larkin’s account, flanking the aesthetics of outrage, is the postcolonial thought of “occult modernity”, coined by anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff.[19] With regards to Nollywood, this is best exemplified by the typically high incidence of witchcraft, Satanist rituals, and supernatural occurrences, often in the form of lurid, low-cost special effects through which the dislocations and imponderables of global capitalism are, according to the Comaroffs, translated into locally meaningful experience.[20] However, as Garuba argues in his essay on “animist materialism” in contemporary Africa, not all articulations of occult modernity are predicated on the lure of the lurid and outrageous. He illustrates how the mystic realm hidden from view may express itself in the most prosaic and mundane of situations. In so doing, he seeks to redeem “an animistic understanding of the world applied to the practice of everyday life” as providing “avenues of agency for the dispossessed in colonial and postcolonial Africa.”[21] Certainly, there are many Nollywood films firmly set in a secular or realist register devoid of any metaphysical fancy. Still, by broadening the application of Larkin’s terminology, so as to include quotidian as well as shocking and/or fantastic instantiations of “occult modernity”, an epistemic framework comes into view that reaches across styles and genres. In this way all sorts of Nollywood films – and not least those of Yoruba director Tunde Kelani – are imbued with the peculiar sensibility of a world re-enchanted.

The Beginnings of Sub-Saharan Cinema

In marked contrast, the early sub-Saharan cinemas of the 1960s were conceived by their proponents as an image-based and thus universally comprehensible instrument of secular mass education and enlightenment, and as the privileged medium for rehearsing a properly African modernity. The founders of African cinema would routinely challenge the developmentalist status quo of the post-independence era by alluding to oral storytelling traditions, for instance with the figure of the griot in several of Sembène’s early films, and, albeit sporadically, to aesthetic atavisms, such as the ox-skull adorning the cowherd’s motorcycle in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki / The Hyena’s Journey (1973). Nonetheless, this pre-modern posturing was for the most part contained within, and arguably annulled by, the progressive ideology of an Africanised Marxism, the purview of which spans Ousmane Sembène’s pioneering Borom Sarret / The Wagoner (1963), Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga (1973), and Souleymane Cissé’s Baara / Work (1980) and Finye / The Wind (1982).

Alongside the rhetoric of modernization, experiences of heteronomy and material lack prevailed. In early sub-Saharan cinema filmmakers were often untrained. As assistants to colonial film units they had been systematically kept in ignorance about their craft; afterwards they wrested moving images from the materials and equipment left behind by the ancien régime. Scarcity was not a matter of representation alone, even though it certainly was that too. However, undergirding the figure of the impoverished cart driver in Sembène’s The Wagoner one can make out another, non-figurative poverty. The technical and material processes that feed into the representation of the protagonist’s travails in recently post-colonial Dakar are marred by a history of structural deprivation. Having to make do without synchronous sound recording, the soundtrack of The Wagoner fails to match the image. Sembène, instead of hiding this technical shortcoming, foregrounds and exploits its aesthetic properties. The protagonist’s inner monologue and his exchanges with clients and passers-by take on the same hollow acoustics and odd, slightly disjointed quality. This makes for a strong link to early Nollywood, which at first had to rely on the deficient technology provided by the extant infrastructure of VHS-pirating, lending the earliest productions a decisively threadbare look – of “degraded images” and “distorted sounds”, as Larkin would have it.[22] It almost goes without saying that in most regards early Sembène and early Nollywood are worlds apart. Yet in both cases material privation can take a turn for the strange or the estranging.

From the early days of sub-Saharan cinema to the mid-1980s, when developmentalist and Marxist aspirations both paled in the face of the Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, sub-Saharan filmmakers’ political outlook was shaped by these two competing doctrines. In spite of many differences, developmentalism and Marxism concurred in their suspicion of the pre-colonial cultural heritage; a suspicion which could take the (ostensibly) opposite guises of appreciative musealisation or outright rejection. This is why even those directors who, like the Nigerien Oumarou Ganda, did invoke traces and residues of the pre-modern amidst contemporary African locales tended to hold them at a safe distance. For instance, in Ganda’s Le wazzou polygame / The Polygamist’s Morale (1971) a preponderance of long and medium shots renders the unfolding rural scenario as something to be critically appreciated rather than immersed in. Further evidence of this general trend can be found in Safi Faye’s Kaddu Beykat / Letter from My Village (1975), an auto-ethnographic essay film shot in the director’s family’s native village in southern Senegal, which offsets the nostalgic impulses emanating from its budding romance plot with stark invocations of a harsh and toilsome life-world.

“Return of the Repressed” or “Return to the Source”?

Nothing could be further removed from early sub-Saharan cinema’s ideal of (qualified) progress and specular distanciation than Nollywood’s uninhibited immersion in pre-modern affects and populist spectacle. Undoing the postcolony’s modern and aesthetically modernist self-image, Nollywood delves head-on into generic forms and arcane practices, in a manner so outrageous and unapologetic that something altogether more wilful, and potentially more critical, seems to be at play. Indeed, Nollywood’s defiance of the very ideologies that spurred the post-independence era is more than mere ignorance of the modernist canon. While early sub-Saharan cinema directed its criticism first and foremost against the colonial inventory of images – from exoticist Hollywood melodramas to ethnographic films – the iconoclasts of contemporary Nigeria can be said to carry out a critique of this criticism or, depending on where you stand, to relapse into bad habits thought overcome a long time ago.

Consistent with the notion of Nollywood as a kind of return of the repressed, Tunde Kelani embraces the traditional beliefs marginalised in the historical context of postcolonial nation-building. However, different from Nollywood productions that conform to Larkin’s aesthetics of exaggeration and excess, Kelani’s films do not render these beliefs as the spectacle of Satanism, black magic, or heresy. Not until they had come into contact with West African Pentecostalism did the existing natural religions take on the reified aspect of transgressions against the one true faith.[23] Before that, they had been integral components of a holistic life-world, which can be glimpsed in the word the Yoruba (among whom Kelani counts himself) use to designate the condition of possibility of magical acts: “Ayé”, meaning the physical as well as the magical realm.[24] This twofold yet unitary realm exists also in contemporary Nollywood, alongside the crass exploitation and Christian Manichaeisms for which it is still dismissed by the majority of African intellectuals, filmmakers and festival programmers alike.[25] And it is within Ayé that Yoruba auteur Tunde Kelani comes into his own.

Kelani’s return to autochthonous beliefs and value systems is not without precedent in the history of African cinema. Throughout the 1980s, Francophone African filmmakers as diverse as Souleymane Cissé, Idrissa Ouedraogo or Gaston Kaboré grew increasingly wary of the ideological certainties of the post-independence era. Consequently, they began to veer towards what Diawara has termed a “return to the source”. He maintains that “[a]ll of these films define their style by reexamining ancient African traditions, their modes of existence, and their magic.”[26]

Examples of this theme in African cinema include Kaboré’s Wend Kuuni / Gift of God (1983), Ouedraogo’s Yam Daabo / The Choice (1987), Yaaba / The Grandmother, 1989) and Tilaï / The Law (1990), and Cissé’s Yeelen / Brightness (1987). Deeply invested in rural and/or traditional life worlds as these films may be – sometimes to the extent that divining the stories’ exact historical moment in time proves rather difficult – the “magic” they give rise to is largely sublimated in a specific ethics of the image, in a certain appreciation of landscape, and of the villagers’ relation to their social and natural environment, in different, non-linear and decelerated temporalities and in deceivingly simple but often vexing spatial arrangements. With the exception of Brightness, which features a wooden pole with GPS-like localisation powers, a talking hyena deity and sundry magical acts supported by the film medium (from freezing an opponent to reversing their motion), no supernatural feats ever occur onscreen in these films. While the villagers in The Law may for a moment think to behold a ghostly apparition at the horizon, the spectator is never in any doubt that it is really just the remote outline of one of their own returning from a long journey. In The Grandmother, the villagers’ belief in witchcraft is castigated as a source of great injustice, and even in Gift of God – its depiction of village life at the time of the proud Mossi empire maybe the closest thing within this cycle of films to a ‘pre-colonial idyll’ – spirits are merely acknowledged but never shown.

Like the excessive magic of Nollywood, if not quite so summarily, this earlier and more measured “return to the source” was widely criticised in its time for allegedly pandering to nostalgia for a romanticised past (that incidentally would also play well on the film festival circuit of the Global North). More immediately pertinent to Kelani’s films in their native Nigerian and Yoruba contexts, however, are the works of seminal Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, or sometime Kelani collaborator Akinwunmi Isola.[27] Achebe especially can be credited with the inception of an original literary genre. He devoted his novels to the lived experience of pre- and early colonial villagers, which he sought to approximate by recourse to the rhetorical mode of free indirect discourse. This mode allows for the subjective voices of the dramatis personae to bleed into and merge with the voice of the narrator. This can already be glimpsed in the title of Achebe’s most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, whichdescribes a disintegrating world in the language of those who suffer the process of disintegration.[28] Throughout the book, Achebe’s authorial voice is inflected by the pre-modern belief system grounding his characters’ lived experience. It also registers the first signs of that episteme’s gradual unravelling – of things falling apart – in the confrontation with competing regimes of knowledge. Kelani, for his part, wants to make things whole again: transplanting the rhetorical mode of free indirect discourse onto an audiovisual register, his films invoke collectives that strive to console modern and magic modes of existence.

Another formative influence on Kelani’s films is the discontinued tradition of the Yoruba travelling theatre, which saw its heyday in the early 1980s, before it was absorbed first by state-run television and then by the ascending video “industries” (really an informal sector). The travelling theatre was a hybrid form, germinating at the intersection of African orality and European drama, which was introduced to the Yoruba by 19th century missionaries.[29] In keeping with its hybrid origins, the travelling theatre would merge African oral arts, such as praise poetry and incantation, with performative modes gleaned from elsewhere, for example the sitcom, resulting in an amalgam of heterogeneous formats and genres. Its practitioners conceived of their craft as a spontaneous and popular art form (in opposition to the supposedly more refined English language literary theatre), improvised in and inspired by proximity to the masses, with actors and directors often recruited from the lowest ranks of society. The travelling theatre’s lowly social status, together with its broad accessibility and cost-effective improvisational ethos, all invite comparison with today’s video industries.

Kelani’s Village Films

Kelani’s first film Ti oluwa ni ile / God Owns all the Land (1993), actually a trilogy, tells the long-winded story of a traditional village chief by the name of Asiyanbi (played by Kareem Adepoju aka “Baba Wande”, a former actor of the travelling theatre), who sold a piece of ancestral land to an oil company and so finds himself haunted by vengeful spirits. Fearful of their wrath, Asiyanbi is forced into exile. Later he returns, this time supporting a false pretender to the king’s throne. At the end, he is asked to put forth his claim in front of a secular judge, thus prompting the film’s transformation from a ghost tale into a courtroom drama, which occupies the larger part of the third and last instalment. In the detailed depiction of the trial, Kelani sets up a system of checks and balances, reconciling magical and worldly law, in a variant of what Aeschylus’ Oresteia did for Ancient Greece: when Asiyanbi manages to escape the vengeful spirits, modern jurisdiction catches up with him.[30]

Parts of the narrative of God Owns all the Land are not enacted by fully-fledged characters but related by way of a messenger’s report: two anonymous women at a market exchange a rumour, which is then handed on to a third party and then another etc., giving rise to an interstitial community of onlookers and bystanders. This strategy can also be observed in earlier African films dealing with village life such as the aforementioned The Polygamist’s Morale and The Grandmother. In all of these films, people who act are not treated differently from those who observe or comment on an action, thus diffusing the ostensible protagonist’s story towards their social environment. Conversations are often established in a shot-reverse-shot pattern, but this familiar back-and-forth may be interrupted at any point, opening out onto others, inhabiting adjacent spaces, whose presence we were unaware of before. Think for example of the unnamed elderly gentleman in The Grandmother, whose head pops into the image from behind a wall or a tree whenever somebody is having sex, and who always reacts in exactly the same manner, musing to himself that “such is life”. Instead of promulgating their critique of the village community from an elevated and external position, the director’s voice disappears amidst the polyphonic discourse the conflicted collective holds to, and about, itself.

As much as early sub-Saharan village films (and their successors in the celluloid tradition) may lean towards the aporetic ideal of a community’s self-narration, they remained, to a significant extent, outside of their subjects’ lived experience. Though in many ways similar to Kelani’s take on the village film, Ganda, Ouedraogo et al. never allow for the magical realm permeating the village to positively appear in the image (not even where they duly concede the power it still holds over the villagers’ lives). Taking a dim view of their motives, one might argue these directors thereby signalled their allegiance to a kind of postcolonial juste milieu. One of the reasons why Nollywood continues to scandalise is that it lends objective, and objectifying, reality to what many believe should only ever be intimated.

Kelani’s masterpiece Saworoide / Brass Bells (1999) and its sequel Agogo eewo (2002) are parabolic accounts of Nigerian history as both tragedy and farce. In a panoramic view spanning all social strata, all the while condensing them into a manageable number of players, Kelani creates a miniature version of the nation as a village. The films were shot in Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria (bordering on Benin). Downplaying its urban features, however, Kelani maps onto this locale a village-sized sociality. Both Brass Bells and Agogo eewo culminate in an archaic show trial, appealing to a magical object as the ultimate instance of judgement in times of political upheaval. At the end it is not the political opposition that brings about a regime change but a kind of divine intervention channelled through magical objects. It is worth noting that these objects (a drum, a crown, a set of brass bells) are shown to predate the history of Nigeria as a nation state – and indeed “history” (i.e. modern Western historiography) itself. They belong to times immemorial that persist only by virtue of the oral tale that serves as Brass Bells’ framing device. Because of this seemingly anti-modern twist, Agogo eewo was deemed unfit for minors by the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB), a decision Kelani took as indication of the censors’ deep “alienation” from the Nigerian populace.[31] What the NFVCB officials failed to appreciate is that in the logic of Kelani’s village films, a magical object, because it is intricately bound up with a larger, all-encompassing belief system, can be just as expressive of the will of the people as collective political action. “This is the parable of the drum as the voice of the people”, reads a caption displayed across the opening shot of Brass Bells. Furthermore, the goal that these pre-modern artefacts serve is itself thoroughly modern: their archaic powers ultimately yield (to) constitutional democratic self-rule.

Even though neither Brass Bells nor Agogo eewo ever leave the confines of the fictional town of Jogbo, obliging them to develop their critique from within this rather limited perimeter, both films manage not only to accommodate the whole of Nigeria in their allegorical conceit, but also to hint at the nation’s relation to its global outside. They make palpable on a local level the insight that the globalising interests of capital will, as a rule, trump the particular ones of sovereign nation states. They analyse the militarisation of African politics – themes shared with La Nuit de la Verité / Night of Truth (2004), an allegorical royal drama, by the Burkinabe director Fanta Regina Nacro, that seems firmly to appertain to the Francophone celluloid tradition.[32]

No other film of Kelani’s is as deeply rooted in village life as The Narrow Path (2006) and at the same time as deeply critical of it. After the girl, Awero, loses her virginity to a rapist, the village elders consider her damaged goods. Her marriage to the son of a neighbouring village is called off, the ensuing scandal pushing the two communities to the brink of war – and only Awero’s fierce determination can stop them. The uneasy mediations operating in all of Kelani’s earlier films, between the villagers’ pre-modern practices and the modern self-representations of Nigeria, are here reduced to a minimum. We are introduced to a young, urbanite teacher who tries to convince the village elders to let her build a school. However, apart from her struggle, which Kelani appears to be eyeing with bemused sympathy, no representatives of the official Nigerian state are anywhere to be seen. Circumventing the state’s understanding of tradition as either glorified past or reviled superstition, The Narrow Path seeks to access the village not as a place of archaic longings but as an already disclosed everyday environment, meeting the villagers on their own turf, and their own terms.

The film sports a proto-feminist critique of traditional Yoruba morality, but it does so in the company of ghostly apparitions and other supernatural entities, which enter the frame as if they were the most normal, self-evident thing in the world. This is precisely what they are: not sensationalist special effects, but ghosts from within, completely of a piece with the everyday phenomenology of the village’s life-world. As in all of Kelani’s films, The Narrow Path alternates between hugely diverse genres and tonalities, from comedy to melodrama to thriller. What holds these disparate components together is not a unifying generic code, but the setting of the village itself together with an interior or (for lack of a better phrase) embedded perspective.

In Kelani’s images, which slightly deviate from the “soap-opera” mise-en-scène typical of Nollywood, an aesthetic corollary to the village topos emerges. Where many other Nigerian productions work with flattened close-ups and static establishing shots, Kelani regularly employs explorative camera movements or rather, small camera gestures that follow the layout of a room or trace the contours of a chair, imbuing the world with an unusual, “ready-to-hand” plasticity. By dint of these gestures, Kelani breaks away from the specular visuality through which early sub-Saharan cinema sought to keep its distance. In Kelani’s vision, the village film no longer strives to recreate its locale’s physical reality but rather to approximate the villagers’ communal Being-in-the-World.

Conclusions

Village films are “village films” not always in terms of their literal setting but almost always in their allegorically charged smallness, even if they nominally take place in a town or a city. The term “village film” thus denotes a certain construction of communality, not entirely unlike that found in the American western of the classical period – consider the “universe-in-a-nutshell” model John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) brought to bear on the task of nation-building. Add to this construction the peculiar mode of embedded critique found throughout Kelani’s work – “conceptualising ‘tradition’ as a field while still inhabiting it”[33] – and the main pieces of the village constellation are all in place.

Tradition is an existential home to Kelani’s villagers as much as it is in dire need of critical change and understanding. However, instead of conducting this necessary critique from an external or, as in the Hegelian spirit of Enlightenment, self-universalising point of view, Kelani draws his critical tools from within a locally specific cultural framework. This apparent parochialism notwithstanding, the collective spirit thus represented by no means constitutes a homogeneous, self-identical whole. Although articulating what I earlier characterised as a holistic world view, Kelani’s village films retain a fundamental openness, instituted in both their hybrid generic DNA as well as in their allegorical mode, which brings into play ever wider circles of national, pan-African and even global concerns as they are felt on a more local level.

Arjun Appadurai states:

The megarhetoric of developmental modernization […] in many countries is still with us. But it is often punctuated, interrogated, and domesticated by the micronarratives of film, television, music, and other expressive forms, which allow modernity to be rewritten more as vernacular globalization and less as a concession to large-scale national and international policies.[34]

As a precarious film culture rising out of the vacuum left behind in the wake of faltering state media, Nollywood, in figures such as Tunde Kelani and genres such as the village film, participates in the reconfiguration “from below” of postcolonial aesthetics that Appadurai terms “vernacular globalization”. The continual re-enchantment of the world proffered in Kelani’s village films enables a whole range of mediations between the local and the global, often at odds with the official rhetoric of the state.

I have demonstrated that the generic template or constellation from which Kelani’s work springs has a long history in sub-Saharan African cinema (but also in its literature and theatre). As a model of vernacular globalization, however, the village film has an even wider reach than I could account for within the scope of this article. The first decade of the 21st century saw a number of Chinese documentaries about village life, some of which, like China Villagers Documentary Project (2005, various directors), were made by the villagers themselves. The independent Filipino cinema of the present, in the work of directors such as Lav Diaz, Raya Martin or Sherad Anthony Sanchez, also frequently returns to the remote countryside. Historically, one would have to look no further than the Third Cinema of the 1960s and 70s to find an entire film movement exploring the world of the peasant masses. The concrete concerns and grievances of these examples may vastly differ from those Kelani gives voice to. Yet they are all clearly village films, not just literally (i.e. in terms of their explicit subject) but also in my own, more technical sense of that designation. To outline the contours of such a (possible) “global village” – as a place where the past and the particular have epistemological purchase on a fast globalising present – is the subject of future research.

 


[1] It should duly be noted here that the ‘pre-modern’ is a vexing concept: It refers, often longingly, to an imagined past untinged by modernity, yet it is itself conceived and indeed logically conceivable only in relation to the ‘modern’ that it prefixes.

[2] This term translates as “life-world” and was introduced by Edmund Husserl in his The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston, ILL: Northwestern University Press, 1970 [1954]). It means the world of lived experience, shared with others as given and self-evident.

[3] The bracketed terms represent the two most common approaches to understanding genre. Defining genres (typically: the American western) in terms of persistent features was the gambit of much structuralist-inspired genre theory. However, the sought-after “structural invariants” proved notoriously difficult to pin down. In our everyday dealings we seem to ascribe a degree of self-evidence to most generic designations, which is why the structuralist approach was later criticised and revised in favour of an arguably more flexible model capable of reconciling our intuitive grasp of most genres with their apparent recalcitrance to positive definition. For this revision, which conceives of genre not as a stable object but as ongoing negotiation between various parties bound by social contract, see Francesco Casetti, “Film Genres, Negotiation Processes, and Communicative Pact,” in Communicative Negotiation in Cinema and Television (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2002), pp. 21-36.

[4] Harry S. Garuba, “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society,” Public Culture 15:2 (Spring 2003): 265.

[5] Cf. for example John G. Cawelti’s essay on “Chinatown and Generic Transformation”, in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, eds., Film Theory and Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 559-579, in which he tries to grasp the transformation of the western from a 1970s point of view. The fundamental changes the formerly stable-seeming western went through at the time prompted Cawelti to historicise, and thus mobilise, the structural invariants thought to determine the genre.

[6] This is not an entirely original claim: both Akin Adesokan and Michael J. Laramee have pointed this out. The latter scholar maintains that “Kelani’s films can be considered products of a political and social milieu marked by a particular complexity which shares cinematographic and narrative traits with both African cinema classics and Nollywood’s video films.” Quotation from Michael J. Laramee, “Digital Zoom on the Video Boom: Close Readings of Nigerian Films” (PhD diss., University of Miami, 2008), p. 95. Cf. Akin Adesokan, “Tunde Kelani’s Nollywood: Aesthetics of Exhortation,” in Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), pp. 81-107.

[7] For an introduction to early sub-Saharan cinemas consult Manthia Diawara, African Cinema: Politics and Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992). In a more recent book, Diawara devotes a chapter to Nigerian video films: “Nollywood: Popular Cinema and the Social Imaginary,” in Diawara, African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics (Munich: Prestel, 2010), pp. 162-190.

[8] Jonathan Haynes, “African Cinema and Nollywood: Contradictions,” Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination 4:1 (2011): 76.

[9] Femi Okiremuete Shaka, Modernity and the African Cinema: A Study in Colonialist Discourse, Postcoloniality, and Modern African Identities (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004), p. 37. The dichotomy he proposes mirrors that of Early Cinema, between the Lumières’ documentary approach and George Méliès’ playful trickery.

[10] This appellation is a sensible alternative to my “celluloid tradition”, which is both anachronistic (celluloid has long been replaced by polyester) and inaccurate (many African auteurs today work in digital video formats). However, I stand by the term because it captures something of the cultural status ascribed to, and derived from, the materiality of cinema.

[11] Matthias Krings and Onookome Okome, Global Nollywood: The Transnational Dimensions of an African Video Film Industry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 2.

[12] Cited by Bic Leu, “FESPACO 2011: African Cinema through Nollywood’s Lens,” <http://findingnollywood.com/2011/03/16/the-guardian-fespaco-2011-african-cinema-through-nollywood%E2%80%99s-lens/> [Accessed 12/09/14]. [Originally published in The Guardian [Nigerian newspaper], March 16, 2011.]

[13] For a brief overview see Pierre Barrot, ed., Nollywood: The Video Phenomenon in Nigeria (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008).

[14] Cf. the preface to Barrot, Nollywood.

[15] Haynes, “African Cinema and Nollywood,” p. 68.

[16] For an excellent account of the Nigerian video film industry’s “transnational dimensions” see Krings and Okome, Global Nollywood.

[17] Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 172.

[18] Ibid., p. 186.

[19] Cited by Larkin, ibid., p. 181.

[20] Note how close this ostensible superstition comes to Marx’ critical analysis of the commodity’s gespenstige Gegenständlichkeit, rather mistakenly rendered in the English translation as “unsubstantial reality” when it really should read something like “spectral objectivity”. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels (New York: Random House, 1906), p. 45.

[21] Garuba, “Animist Materialism,” p. 285.

[22] Larkin, Signal and Noise, p. 217.

[23] Ibid., p. 194.

[24] Karin Barber, The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theater (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 251.

[25] For an account of the exclusionary tactics employed by Africa’s most important film festival see Leu, “FESPACO 2011.” For a more in-depth discussion of the strained relationship between the celluloid and video factions refer to Haynes, “African cinema and Nollywood: Contradictions.” Further developments within this debate have since been brought to my attention by a judicious peer reviewer: at the 2013 FESPACO the organising committee finally agreed that non-celluloid films will also be accepted to the official feature film competition. It remains to be seen whether this change in policy will indeed be implemented.

[26] Diawara, African Cinema, p. 160.

[27] Kelani’s partiality to these authors is documented in an interview I conducted with him several years ago, published (in a German translation) as: Tunde Kelani, “Der nigerianische Filmemacher ist ein Realist,” in Spuren eines Dritten Kinos: Zu Ästhetik, Politik und Ökonomie des World Cinema, ed. Lukas Foerster et al. (Bielefeld: transcript, 2013), pp. 127-133.

[28] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994 [1959]), p. 3.

[29] This is how Barber characterises the critical mode of the Yoruba travelling theatre, see Barber, Generation of Plays, p. 2.

[30] I do not mean to align the African present with antique mythology, incidentally the (self-consciously) problematic project of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Appunti per un’Orestiade africana (Notes for an African Oresteia, 1970).

[31] Kelani cited in Barrot, Nollywood, p. 94.

[32] For an in-depth formal analysis of Saworoide cf. Laramee, Digital Zoom, pp. 105-129.

[33] Barrot, Nollywood, p. 14.

[34] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 10. [emphasis in the original]

 

Notes on Contributor

Nikolaus Perneczky studied Film and Philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin, where he is now employed as a research assistant. He is also a freelance film critic and programmer, as part of the Berlin-based curatorial collective The Canine Condition; he lives between London and Berlin.

 

Bibliography

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994 [1959].

Adesokan, Akin. Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Barber, Karin. The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theater. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Barrot, Pierre, ed. The Video Phenomenon in Nigeria. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Casetti, Francesco. Communicative Negotiation in Cinema and Television. Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2002.

Cawelti, John G. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, pp. 559-579. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics. Munich: Prestel, 2010.

Garuba, Harry S. “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society.” Public Culture 15:2 (Spring 2003): 261-285.

Haynes, Jonathan. “African cinema and Nollywood: Contradictions.” Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination 4:1 (2011): pp. 67-90.

Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Evanston, ILL: Northwestern University Press, 1970 [1954].

Kelani, Tunde. “Der nigerianische Filmemacher ist ein Realist,” in Spuren eines Dritten Kinos: Zu Ästhetik, Politik und Ökonomie des World Cinema, edited by Lukas Foerster, Nikolaus Perneczky, Fabian Tietke, and Cecilia Valenti, 127-133. Bielefeld: transcript, 2013.

Krings, Matthias, and Onookome Okome. Global Nollywood: The Transnational Dimensions of an African Video Film Industry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Laramee, Michael J. “Digital Zoom on the Video Boom: Close Readings of Nigerian Films.” PhD diss., University of Miami, 2008.

Larkin, Brian. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Leu, Bic. “FESPACO 2011: African Cinema through Nollywood’s Lens.” The Guardian [Nigerian newspaper], March 16, 2011.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels. New York: Random House, 1906.

Shaka, Femi Okiremuete. Modernity and the African Cinema: A Study in Colonialist Discourse, Postcoloniality, and Modern African Identities. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004.

 

Filmography

Agogo eewo (Tunde Kelani, Nigeria 2002).

Appunti per un’Orestiade africana (Notes for an African Oresteia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy 1970).

Baara (Work, Souleymane Cissé, Mali 1980).

Borom Sarret (The Wagoner, Ousmane Sembène, Senegal 1963).

China Villagers Documentary Project (PRC various directors, 2005).

Finye (The Wind, Souleymane Cissé, Mali 1982).

Kaddu Beykat (Letter from My Village, Safi Faye, Senegal 1975).

The Narrow Path (Tunde Kelani, Nigeria 2006).

Sambizanga (Sarah Maldoror, Angola 1973).

Saworoide (Brass Bells, Tunde Kelani, Nigeria 1999).

Stagecoach (John Ford, USA 1939).

Tilaï (The Law, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso 1990).

Ti oluwa ni ile (God Owns all the Land, Tunde Kelani, Nigeria 1993).

Touki Bouki (The Hyena’s Journey, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal 1973).

Le wazzou polygame (The Polygamist’s Morale, Oumarou Ganda, Niger 1971).

Wend Kuuni (Gift of God, Gaston Kaboré, Burkina Faso 1983).

Yaaba (The Grandmother, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso 1989).

Yam Daabo (The Choice, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso 1987).

Yeelen (Brightness, Souleymane Cissé, Mali 1987).