How folktales told under the moonlight have shaped Nigerian screenplays

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An analysis of “The Figurine: Araromire”

A film still from the movie: the figurine, Alchetron

America’s got Hollywood, India’s got Bollywood. Both are arguably the two biggest film industries in the world. The former is so iconic that saying “Hollywood films” is as obvious as saying “American films”. In that pool of recognisability, Nollywood is present as well. The Nigerian film industry is the “world’s second-largest in terms of content output, producing more than 2,500 films yearly”. This number exceeds Hollywood’s and is only surpassed by Bollywood in India. According to recent statistics, Nollywood is one of the most prolific film industries around the globe, producing over 2,000 films in the year 2021/22.  

The film Industry that is Nollywood

Colonial filmmakers started producing films for local audiences within Nigeria in the 1920s, a quick google search revealed that the earliest feature film made in Nigeria was 1926’s Palaver: A Romance of Northern Nigeria produced by Geoffrey Barkas. It was a silent film that explored the conflicts between a British District Officer and a local tin miner which led to war. Many would argue that “Palaver” wasn’t Nigeria’s first feature film ever made, rather the first to ever be made entirely in Nigeria. Instead, it is a consensus that Nigeria’s film industry gained traction in the 1950s before expanding in the 1960s and 1970s. 

A substantial change occurred in the 1960s when first generation Nigerian born filmmakers started to create films, thereby laying the foundation for the Nigerian film industry which would become known and widely referred to as Nollywood, a term coined in the early 2000s. It first appeared in a New York Times’ article written by Matt Steinglass while he penned down a description of Nigerian cinema – it is a portmanteau of the word “Nigeria” and “Hollywood”, the American film industry. 

Hubert Ogunde, Ola Balogun and Eddie Ugboma are just a few of the notable pioneers who paved the way for film production in the country. Hubert Ogunde in particular is often regarded as the father of Nigerian theatre on account of his contribution in the creation of the Nigerian movie industry. He is most recognised for creating the Ogunde Concert Party also known as Ogunde Theatre in 1945 (Britannica.com), the first professional theatrical company in the nation. 

In this article, I will explore how Nigerian films draw allusions from folk tales under the moonlight and how much influence the latter has had and continues to have in forming ties between entertainment and life lessons. Every Nigerian born individual has, at some point in their lives, watched a Nigerian home movie that reminded them of some of the stories that enriched their childhoods for the longest time. Our grandparents wielded the power to instill life lessons into every child through their enigmatic ability to bring to life the characters in those captivating tales; with every story embodying a moral lesson. The question was always the same, at the end of every story: “what is the moral of the story” or “what did you learn?” To our grandparents, every storytime was a learning time. 

Nollywood is very much rooted in Nigeria’s rich oral traditions, it draws inspiration from centuries of storytelling under the moonlight through songs and dances soaked in cultural relevance and references. This long-standing practice can still be seen in Nollywood films – even till this day, where plots frequently incorporate traditional lessons, providing a distinct cultural vibrancy to the film industry that is Nollywood.

Oral storytelling such as folk legends plays a substantial role in its preservation and transferring of values to the younger generation; fortunately, there is no threat of this peculiarity being a thing of the past. If there is something consistent in the Nigerian film industry (Nollywood), it is its unwavering ties to tradition and culture. Such strongholds have allowed the film industry to stay relevant and recognisable even to younger generations who continue to be influenced by lessons that still linger after many years. Even though films are primarily made to create a sense of passivity in their viewers, Nigerian films add another ingredient to that mix: morals, life lessons, advice/warnings, cultural heritage and traditional relevancy – they have other goals such as constructive criticism, instructive learning, which tend to rely heavily on narration.

So, how have some of those stories shaped Nigerian screenplays?

The Figurine: Araromire

A still film that depicts a pivotal scene from the movie
A still film that depicts a pivotal scene from the movie, NnadiTV

The film The Figurine: Araromire, a supernatural suspense thriller that has since become a critics’ favourite, was written by Kemi Adesoye, produced and directed by Kunle Afolayan and released nationwide in 2009. A national success, The Figurine went on to win 5 awards of the 10 it was nominated for at the sixth African Movie Academy in 2010, including Best Nigerian Movie, Achievement in Cinematography and Achievement in Visual Effects.

Araromire is rooted in old Yoruba folklore, it is a fictional village and a goddess by the same name, who ordered a priest to channel her essence into a figure carved from the bark of a cursed tree. The figurine or statue is never to be touched or removed from where it is placed by anyone because doing so would result in seven years of prosperity and wealth, followed by seven years of poverty, loss and suffering; essentially leaving the person in a worse state than they were previously in. Our three protagonists Mona, Sola and Femi find themselves in Araromire village following a mandatory National Youth Service Corps posting – the NYSC was established in 1973 and it is a mandatory service for every Nigerian graduate, with the aim of “inculcating the spirit of oneness and brotherhood of all Nigerians irrespective of cultural, religious and social background” (nysc.gov.ng). Femi and Sola have been friends for a long time and Mona is the girl they both like.

The two men, Sola and Femi, find the figurine by accident at the shrine close to where they lived. Sola decides to take with him the figurine without knowledge of the implications of his actions. As the legend goes, the figurine did indeed possess magical powers and Sola’s life transformed drastically, in the next 7 years of his life he became a successful businessman and married Mona. Femi, who continued to harbour strong romantic feelings towards Mona also prospers even though he didn’t touch the figurine. The following 7 years however, the tides turn and Sola is overpowered by a wave of misfortune and calamities. Regardless of the many efforts to throw away the figurine, it kept finding its way back to them. 

The suspense mounts when an important detail is revealed to the audience, Femi who, drenched in jealousy of Sola and Mona’s relationship, had plotted the demise of his friend, Sola. The audience is left with the poignant question: was the figurine the source of the misfortunes that had befallen Sola or was it all Femi’s doing?  

The storyline, like the tales told by our parents and grandparents, retained the attention of its audience through a beguiling performance. The Figurine: Araromire is a superb amalgamation of superstition, folklore and reality that leaves the audience wanting more and questioning prior knowledge. The dynamism is found in the magical powers possessed by the figurine. The film ends tragically, the two best friends Sola and Femi return to the village of Araromire where they did their NYSC years ago to return the figurine; there, Femi unveils his plot to kill Sola. The former ends up dying from Asthma. 

In line with all tales told under the moonlight, this one doesn’t disappoint, the audience is given the licence (so to speak) to make of the movie what they may, essentially asking: what is the moral of the story? Who was truly responsible for those demises, the figurine or Femi?Mythologies and folk tales integrate smoothly into Nigerian screenplay precisely because there is still a strong set of beliefs that many people hew to. Folk tales not only hold significance in terms of the cultural values it instils, it goes as far as to provide room to develop attitudes that portray characters and their actions – giving an underlying meaning that forces the audience to unravel those hidden clues or messages in the film. Storytelling, style and compelling narrative in Nollywood films is rooted in Nigerian authenticity and in the figurine: Araromire, the writers understood the power of motifs and kept alive the weight that superstition played and still plays in the minds of many Africans and Nigerians to be exact.

A word from the screenwriter, Kemi Adesoye

Nigerian screenwriter Kemi Adesoye penned the screenplay of the critically acclaimed film: the figurine
Nigerian screenwriter Kemi Adesoye penned the screenplay of the critically acclaimed film: the figurine

Sandra Aisien: Do you agree with the statement ‘stories told under the moonlight do in fact influence Nigerian screenplays’  and how, in your opinion? 

Kemi Adesoye: It’s not that simple. It depends on the writer and what genre of story he/she is telling. Not all stories have to be centred around folklore, that’s a specific genre. Stories can be about the myriad experiences of being an African in today’s world which can be told from different perspectives.. Then again people are the same everywhere with similar flaws and strengths, but it’s the culture, the language, the belief system and values that makes us unique. So a screenplay can tackle a folklore, culture or belief system but that doesn’t mean all screenplays have to. I could write a screenplay about working in a modern day African bank that will have nothing to do with stories under the moonlight. And what generation is growing up with tales under the moonlight in this modern age where kids are more familiar with Disney’s frozen than the story of how the tortoise got its broken back? 

Question: Was that the case when you wrote “the figurine”? 

Kemi Adesoye: It is a deliberate choice to infuse a thriller genre with a folklore (that was entirely made up by the way) just like Allah in and the lamp genie in. I decided to weave a fantastical tale using elements of African superstition. 

Question: Why did you choose to not give a definite answer to the audience as it pertained to the cause of Sola’s demise? 

Kemi Adesoye: Because I wanted the audience to make their own choice knowing that a largely African audience would embrace the superstitious even if arguments were laid to counter it. The intention was to make it ambiguous with strong arguments on both sides.

Question: Would you say that the Nigerian film industry could lose its individuality/authenticity if and when it cuts ties with stories that remind us of our childhood traditions? 

Temi Adesoye: Yes. Like I answered earlier about “Frozen”. The Nigerian experience can be so diverse and told across many genres. So it’s important we keep telling our authentically “Nigerian stories”, even if it’s not about a Nigerian folklore as long as it is told from a Nigerian perspective. The Nigerian experience is so diverse. 

Sandra Aisien: Thank you so much for your time

Kemi Adesoye: Hope this helps. Best of luck.

Footnotes:

By Sandra Aisien