By Abimbola Adelakun –
In the past days, the social media has been agog with gossip of singer, Tiwa Savage, whose husband, Tunji Balogun, otherwise known as Tee Billz, voiced his personal frustrations. Balogun ranted about his wife’s failings — a narcissistic attempt to dredge sympathy while subjecting his wife to public lynching. I will sidestep Ms. Savage’s marital drama because I cannot yell over the din of agony aunts and uncles who are already hoarse over her private business.
However, I find Balogun’s rant unsettling: He complained his mother-in-law dimmed his star for that of his wife to shine. If you are a Nollywood patron — particularly the Yoruba variety — that accusation will be unsurprising. It is a staple diet of the Deux ex-machina plot structure filmmakers feed audiences to explain anomalies. Nollywood frequently materialises evil in a character(s), deploys every effort to quenching this person(s) that symbolises evil and with that imbued logic, drives the plot to melodramatic ends
One can argue that with the way this kind of mythification has been centred in Nigerian films, it should be considered a genre on its own. As against magical realism where the narrative logic is grounded in fantasy that we indulge to enjoy the story, Nigerian filmmakers present their material as realistic representation. That is a problem. The relentless presentation of these tall tales enforces a regime of credibility. Like Balogun, some people watch stories where someone is subjected to deserved violence because s/he stole someone else’s star and they grab an excuse for the hand life deals them.
A caveat: I am aware that there are people who genuinely believe these things but that do not make them true neither should these ideas be allowed to fester unchallenged. One only needs to listen to Tiwa Savage’s side of the story to see that we are dealing with an attention whore throwing a needless public pity party. If there was the faintest possibility that one’s fortune in life is a star that can be dimmed in another’s favour, there is also the fat chance it is just not true in this case. I just do not see how a hard-working career woman could have stolen the star of her husband, someone mostly famous for whom he married.
There is a reason I am putting the blame on the Nigerian film industry even though I am aware the industry is not solely responsible for the circulation of superstitious beliefs in our culture. The contemporary church/born-again movement, for instance, should share an amount of the blame. These are cultural channels that feed and interpenetrate each other.
Here’s why: The case of Ms. Ibinabo Fiberesima, the actress involved in the unfortunate road accident that ended the life of Dr. Suraj Giwa. Recently, she lost her case at the appeal court (nothing out of ordinary). What was baffling, however, was the drama that attended the case. First was the #freeibinabo hashtag created and promoted vigorously by some of her thespian colleagues. Then, came the insinuations that her legal travails were connected to the tussle of Actors Guild of Nigeria presidency she was embroiled in at the time. Then, there were those who enjoined the family of Giwa to “forgive and forget” and simply move on. By the time I had read and listened to a number of commentators crying that she be released without recourse to the law, I concluded we are dealing with a sincere army of ignoramuses whose juridical illiteracy and mis-education cannot be divorced from the industry which Ibinabo herself represents — Nollywood. As their zealous defence of their colleague — Ibinabo — showed, these “Nollywooders” who represent the world to us have barely educated themselves on how the world functions.
The film industry of any country is one of the greatest tools of cultural propaganda and public education. However, how many times does one get to see a film in Nollywood — from Yoruba films to Kannywood to the mainstream, English-speaking variant — where matters of the law are researched and presented to make useful critique of our society?
How many times has the law not been treated as an appendage in adjudicatory issues rather than made a foundational stone? How many times have characters in Nollywood movies not left a matter “for God to judge”? How many times have they not sought supernatural powers to decide terrestrial infractions? How many times have we not seen ghosts coming back to haunt their killers rather than their crime be painstakingly investigated and tried through courts? This is a hackneyed storyline in Nollywood — someone secretly commits evil; the person gets his/her comeuppance; a pastor/babalawo intervenes, tells the person to go atone for their sins; they do so and are free; everyone goes home happy. They manage to circumvent reality and attain a climax without recourse to jurisprudence.
The lack of rigour with which filmmakers engage matters of the law is the way they engage medicine and other aspects of life. A medical doctor once told me he could tell which of his patients is an avid watcher of Nollywod film when they ask if he would not refer them to traditional/spiritual healers — a regular plot turn in Nigerian films. These folk barely see a Nollywood where doctors refer people to specialists; where medical personnel employ science to diagnose diseases and actively fight for someone’s life. What they see is pastors, “alfas” and “babalawos” resolving every knot through spiritual intervention and they believe that is the order of things. Perhaps, filmmakers, as cultural producers, discount the power of their art in shaping public understanding of how the world works.
I once stayed with a family of four daughters that was hooked on Yoruba films. After we had watched several films where rich young women — for no logical reason — had fallen in love with some wretched-of-the-earth male with scant aspirations or prospects, I had to ask the parents if they were aware detrimental ideas were being pushed to their daughters. Do they not see that the underlying idea is that female success has to be subordinated under a male and in this case, any male as long as he has the right body parts? Does it ever occur to them that these filmmakers are bypassing parental authority/intervention to advance ideas that may impact their daughters’ perception of gender dynamics? Is that not why domestic violence/abuse is normalised in Nigerian films?
Come to think of it, is the Tiwa Savage marital drama itself not reflective of this narrative? Judging by the way people are judging her, female success in contemporary society seems regarded as a social threat. It is amusing how people have asked her to take her husband back and be humble with her material wealth. Why does female success need male legitimation?
I understand the appeal of selling stories that have no match in reality. I know that pushing radical ideas in an anti-intellectual society like Nigeria can backfire economically. I do understand also, that Nigerian filmmakers have far less resources to work with and are therefore limited. We may even add that Nollywood is merely representing Nigeria in all its dysfunctional glory. However, filmmakers have the duty to do more than reflect the society. They have to advance the borders of ideas beyond mundaneness. They need to discard mythical reality and give us stories that empower us with realistic tools to re-narrativise our lives.
One more grudge of Nollywood: flashbacks. In Yoruba films, flashbacks are so overused they can be regarded as a narrative technique. There are instances of flashback within flashback! Does this infatuation with looking back not reflect our society’s penchant for nostalgia, along with its paralysing effects? Why not flashforward for a change? Looking ahead is progressive as it involves projection, imagination and idealisation. Can our filmmakers start telling stories forward; in the hope they will create an ideal to which the society should aspire?