AiW Guest: Babatunde Onikoyi
Tunde Kelani is the preeminent Nigerian filmmaker and one of the most distinguished in Africa. His cinematographic endeavours, under the stables of Mainframe Television and Film Production and situated in the heart of the city of Lagos, have become a group of visual texts that have contributed to the transformation of the culture of the Nigerian film industry. His various sojourns to film festivals, workshops and collaborations with other film enthusiasts around the world have contributed immensely to the growth and reputation of Nollywood at the continental and international fronts. Kelani has also inspired a generation of young and aspiring filmmakers who are determined to tell African stories like never before.
For more than three and a half decades Kelani has distinguished himself in an industry that is constantly in transition. His yearning for and interest in pursuing what is deeply cultural, even in a world that is subverted by modernist inadequacies, have given him the opportunity ‘to develop an instantly recognizable, idiosyncratic style which has permeated every single thing that he has touched’. Cinematic instances can be seen in his filmic oeuvre: Ti Oluwa Ni Ile (Part 1, 2 & 3), Campus Queen, Saworoide, Agogo Ewo, Arugba, Kosegbe, Magun: Thunderbolt, and The Narrow Path among others.
His films are of lasting substance, coupled with a sophisticated level of high-handedness. They are deeply and firmly rooted within the Yoruba cosmology, suggesting a universal appeal to his films, but these works also maintain a foothold in the political terrain of Nigeria and Africa. His ability to examine socio-political matters through the film medium is unique—leading his works to occupy a conspicuous global space in view of an expressive explication and examination of urgent political themes, and his personal ideological vision.
Kelani’s works display a unique modernity that is portrayed through cultural tropes able to address all kinds of issues—social, political, economic and even environmental—a quality that is rare among the cinematic forte and visual rhetoric of several other filmmakers, including his contemporaries. Kelani has partially addressed the issues of the environment in some of his full length features, and throughout his career, he has paid close attention to relationships between his characters and environmental elements. A few instances can be gleaned from works like Arugba (2008), where the source of Adetutu’s (the votary’s) power lies in the water, and in Ti Oluwa Ni Ile (1, 2&3) where the crimes surrounding land sales and purchases send a few dubious men to their early grave.
Much revered for his hard-hitting feature films, Kelani’s latest attempt is Pyrolysis or Paralysis—a documentary concerned with Nigeria’s environmental issues. The film was produced in 2015 and was one of many documentaries featured prominently at the 2016 IREP Documentary Film Festival at Freedom Park, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria between the 24th and 27th of March. The festival is organised yearly by a group of Nigerian cineastes, cultural advocates and film enthusiasts. The festival showcases documentary films which reflect and illustrate the core realities and complex matters that affect African countries, as well as stories that encourage one to think about the developments that African countries have undergone in recent times.
Pyrolysis or Paralysis is a very short documentary film which centres on the process of charcoal production. In most parts of Africa, charcoal is mainly used as fuel to meet domestic needs. The film’s action occurs through a series of moving still-photographs, showing figures who make their way into the forest with tools and machines to hack down trees in large numbers. The remaining stumps—which number over a hundred—are lumped together, covered with dry leaves and sandy soil, set on fire, and then left to burn for several hours. Subsequently, buckets of water are poured over the large mass of burnt stumps that have been transformed into charcoal. The produce is then stacked in large sacks numbering more than a thousand and hauled into massive trucks, pickup-cars and motor-bicycles to be sold. The end sequence reveals variegated coloured pictures of a depleted and barren land, stripped of its possessions and natural beauty only to be left and neglected to rot, with birds trying to negotiate this sudden transformation.
Pyrolysis or Paralysis (179 seconds) is timely, touching on a very sensitive environmental issue. Significantly self-reflexive in style, it resonates differently from the conventional documentary film, which relies heavily on live movement. In place of such technique, Kelani lends still photographs textual prominence throughout film to complement the voice of the narrator who refers to various occurrences in the film. Kelani draws on composite media to illustrate this narrative of devastation as he provides moving still-photographs of the various events that take place in the forest, while providing a melange of sundry diegetic sounds and aesthetic elements that accentuate the affective images. These include the chattering of voices of people talking and laughing; the sounds of the machines’ hipped stumps; the splash of water; the sound of car engines. The audio is presented as if the sounds originally occurred in real time, with soft music also accentuating the mood.
Kelani turns to a poetic-subliminal language to give clarity to the narrative. The poetic prose, which is steeped in sadness and pithy retrospection, was originally written by popular theatre performer Segun Adefila. This raises questions about the condition of the land following the unsightly destruction. Another problem the documentary raises underlines the threat to the trees and why it must end. Although Kelani’s goal is to draw the audience’s attention to the process involved in charcoal production, he does not call for government intervention in an environmental effort. Only a few years ago the former governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Raji Fashola, initiated a programme which was meant to help the people of Lagos understand how trees perform significant environmental functions; protecting the trees became a crucial task of citizenship. The program, though popular in Lagos, attracted less patronage in other states of the federation.
Rather than using overtly political language, the documentary features still-photographs, the narrative tool upon which the film’s content rests. This style demonstrates how the economics of filmmaking must be considered. Kelani’s uncommon attempt at making this documentary, coupled with its pace, offers genuine lessons to African filmmakers, notably that inexpensive techniques can be successfully employed. Pyrolysis or Paralysis demonstrates, as an exemplary work, how important it is for African documentary filmmakers to recognise that it is not necessary for all documentaries to come in lengthy forms.
The IREP festival, at which this film was featured, is noted as a forum where audience participants and filmmakers can enter a dialogue and create insightful conversations about the best documentaries from around the world on the African continent. In addition to curating and featuring documentary films by African filmmakers, the IREP Documentary Film Festival gives room to filmmakers from America and Europe who make documentaries capturing African realities and conditions. Already in its seventh year of establishment in 2017, the IREP Festival has featured more than 500 films to date. The festival has changed our perception of how documentaries are made and conceived in our present time.
The import of the festival is further evidence of the power of Kelani’s short film. Kelani’s non-conforming and short documentary is a testimony to the fact that digital media technology is expanding, and narrative freedom is becoming possible, as it shapes audiences’ experiences of how realities are articulated. Not many filmmakers enjoy producing documentaries that engage issues or matters of environmental concerns. That is why Kelani’s brief attempt has become a mine for African filmmaking, as the film radicalises perspectives on how films can be approached economically, and screened through visual clarity and coherence. And in this, Kelani’s Pyrolysis or Paralysis is a significant innovation for documentary filmmaking in Africa.
Babatunde Onikoyi is a Lecturer in the Department of Performing & Film Arts at Elizade University, Akure, Nigeria, where he teaches Film and Studies in African Cinemas. He earlier taught African and Postcolonial Cinemas in the Department of Film & Photography Production, at Kwara State University, Nigeria, between 2013 and 2016. Babatunde has given lectures and seminar workshops on African Cinemas both locally and internationally, and has contributed several academic essays to international books and journals such as African Studies Review, African Theatre, Journal of Pan African Studies, Journal of Media and Communication Studies and Journal of Theatre and Media Arts Studies.