Burden of a legendary King
(Review of te film Sango by Obafemi Lasode, 2003)
To send off his troublesome wives, Alaafin Sango is so worked up that he emits fire from his mouth. And when he is to destroy his enemies at the war front, he belches fire. The rhythm of his fury has no limitation. But this is just a cut away.
Sango: The Legendary African King, the "epic film" in the African Heritage Video/Film series of Afrika N'Vogue (Even Ezra Studios) is a film about effects and spectacles, rich and flamboyant display of the wealth of the Yoruba and African material and immaterial resources. And of course, there is a good attempt at technical inventiveness, especially in the deployment of computerised machine effects.
Spectacle is indeed the bite of the effects, which lifts the actions beyond ordinary dramatic effects. The appropriateness of such effects at moments and action frame of the film is something else, though. Substantially however, Sango deepens the depth of the myth of the god of thunder or of any of the gods in the African pantheon, particularly in the sensibility of non-Africans.
In essence, however, structural alignment of the many materials -- effects, plot ideas, actions, stunts and others -- into a composite unit to properly enunciate the entire experience and movement seems the problem of Sango, the film. There is a likelihood of the director being caught in the intentional fallacy syndrome. The flick being a Femi Lasode-directed film has strong cultural, albeit African-centric predilection… it almost throws it agenda in the face of the viewer at every point in its plot. Well, this has also being expressly stated in the apparent intention of the producers: to produce a film that will celebrate, flaunt and impress on the viewers (specifically Africans in the Diaspora) the beauty and riches Africa, its cultural philosophy and its people.
In fact, this had been the fore-grounded objective of Lasode's Even Ezra as would be seen in the company's existing repertory of mostly documentaries -- including ‘African Legacy’, ‘The Lost Heritage of Africa’; ‘Osun, The River Goddess’ and the African N'Vogue musical video and audio series.
Sufficiently celebrated is the vegetation landscape, which had been generously explored in ‘Back to Africa’, an earlier film, which the company had jointly produced with Tony Abulu's Black Ivory Communications, with essentially the same mission of selling Africa to people outside the continent.
In the footages on the environment is also spotlighted the redoubtable beauty of the African architectural heritage including the cultural essence and socio-spiritual functionality of designs, art, decorations, crafts, symbols and other attributes.
Location choice of the film -- recorded in villages around Ilorin (Kwara State), Ijebu (Ogun State), Ikorodu, Epe and Aja in Lagos -- deliberately picked on the very rare structures and landscapes.
Embellishment, in terms of complimentary sets are appropriately created by the technical/location team led by Biodun Abe. And except on one occasion that a close up shot exposed rough edges of the wood, it is difficult to decipher village from the constructed set. Sango, the film also picks a crown in the best costume category, with its intense exploitation of the divergent colours and designs of the Yoruba dress culture. Except that Ogunde's series of film ‘Aye’, ‘Jaiyesimi’, and especially ‘Ayanmo’ as well as Ola Balogun's ‘Ija Ominira’ have set a very high, but not unbeatable standard, not only in periodic costume but also in creative adaptation of such dress patterns to suit the creative cultural themes and motifs in their films.
But all these are still effects. And it does not just stop there.
Technically, Sango the film elevates the level of sophistication of an African film with its flourish of special effects. But it appears overwhelmed by the huge patronage of effect materials that the unity of artistic resources suffers.
There is some precedent though -- and it suggests that earlier statements by critics of Nigerian films, especially in the manner of composition are correct; it has been contended that most of the times, when an artiste -- dramatist, director, musician, poet among others-- has a story to tell, he "overtells" or 'overstates' or 'over-dramatises’ such story. The statement is blanket and may not necessarily be true, but the new Nigerian films -- video dramas especially-- have not challenged such contentions.
Sango, over-dramatises its effects. That is obvious. Just like Owo Blow directed by Tade Ogidan for Cinekraft overstates its case. But whereas, in the latter, the excess is in physical actions, which are themselves interesting, the extra in Sango is machine-generated — cold and less effective.
So, Sango, the fierce King rains fire-balls on his cantankerous wives whose offence is as grievous as maltreating his latest and youngest wife, Oya. And to stop the ferocious army of Owu, which is threatening to submerge his kingdom, he explodes in fire balls. There is no cadence to the character of the god’s emotional psuche or temperament.
On his coronation, he destroys by fire a chief who insisted that it is improper to crown Prince Sango when his brother King Ajaka had only been sent on exile by King Olowu. Twice, Sango set a bonfire on his chief warrior Eliri who disobeys him.
There is fire everywhere in the actions of the film that eventually the myth of the fire-spitting deity is rendered ineffective.
When Oya invoked a shower of water simply by raising her arms skywards, the hall of Eko Hotel where the premiere of the film held last Sunday exploded with ovation. The action was shocking and the effect breathtaking. But when she did it the second time, the house merely giggled.
Yet it was a vulnerable Oya completely devoid of her magical prowess that married Sango and she is as powerless as not being able to challenge the senior wives -- Osun and Oba, who had decided to terrorise her before Sango would return from an outside mission. When Oya begins to cry like a baby, the weight is excised from the character.
It is not enough for the producers to explain that because Sango, in order to force Oya to marry him had seized her magical skin (which makes her transform to an antelope), thus she has become so vulnerable. It has nothing to do with her water power.
And in any case, when after Sango's apotheosis into a deity, the essence of transmission of Oya and the two other wives, Osun and Oba into three rivers (as they exist today) to be worshipped, is not realised in a film that relies very much on special effects.
Apparently, Sango: The Legendary African King is a film in progress requiring a further clipping in the editing studio. The screened two-part version last Sunday is three and a half hours in duration. But with a further clipping and especially objective restructuring, the film will run the normal length of an epic in its nature.
Every time the chiefs in the four locales of the action -- Owu, Oya, Nase and Oyokoro -- are making a visit to their king, there is a session of singing and dancing. Every action there has to run from the very beginning of arrival of the chiefs on to the exit. Every little achievement or moment of triumph calls for celebration. The war seems not incomplete without moments of dances and chants. But in the culture of war -- even the precocious tribal warfare of the past -- only the period of preparation for war is celebrated in theatres, not the actual action of fighting.
Those are still, however, the fallouts of the producer’s exuberant intention to showcase the rich African culture, itself an overused term and over-stated matter. It is possible that by now the African culture of music, dance, masks and others is available on cassettes and CDs in the homes of many people in the West -- the obvious target market of the film.
Sango, the film obviously has two directorial styles; one that is stringent, economical in use of pictorial language, a bit more impressing and very much movie-like; and the other that is so over generous with duration of action, preferring more the words over picture; not necessarily expressionistic or naturalistic but seemingly more stagy or melodramatic, like a television drama piece. Thus, the film can be divided into two halves: the first, the movie; the second, the drama. This results in a discontinuity in form, plot, idea, and techniques.
In the frame of the second technical framework is the indeed very dynamic shot of Owu soldiers hopping over a gaping hole in a thick forest formation on their way to the war-front. At a low angle shot, the camera records endlessly as about 25 soldiers hopped over same obstacle. There is no attempt to see the determined expression of the soldiers as they overcome the obstacle. The innuendo of a looming violence, which the camera had captured as stunts in the texture of a thriller is thus whittled.
The much of the second part of the film, which essentially records the fight between Sango and his two chief warlords, Eliri and Timi Olofaina, fall in the framework of the second directorial technique of saying it all in words, action and in picture. But the most of the story is told in long shots, much of which is blurred, perhaps due to unfavourable weather condition at the time of recording. For instance, in the re-match of the right between Eliri and Timi, which itself appears as a patch up in a story that is already overstretched, the allure of the African marital art which the director wanted to exhibit is lost in a contracted long shot that does not even show the face of the fighter, nor the tension on the set.
Another instance of protracted action is the journey of Sango out of Oyo, trailed by his acolytes pleading after him. A serious action, but it becomes stretched unnecessarily in the protraction and the repeat of the action of Sango eliminating the stubborn followers one after the other. By the time Eliri emerges from the bush to confront his former master, and in the process compels Sango's transition into a deity, the god had overstayed his presence on the cine-frame. Other instance is the tatooing scene where Sango decided to adopt the body beautification art as an expression of his liberty and assertion of his control over his fate. Earlier in the film, and as a prince he had been shown to be tatooed, but another frame, when he is already a king shows a debate between him and Oya on the desirability of Tatoo. Yet another footage shows the king and people of Oyokoro in about five minutes action of Tatoo by his followers, just to show allegiance to the whims and wishes of Sango, the king.
The deity the man
BEYOND the effect, a retouch of Sango: The Legendary African King in the studio might need to re-examine the structural format of the actions in the film.
At the outset is the encounter of a white anthropologist Mr. Thurston with a local chief in which the latter tries to convince a disbelieving Thurston that Sango indeed is the force behind thunder and lightning.
The voice of the chief locates the story in a narrative format which means that every action, and indeed the entire story of the film, is experienced through the narration of the chief, but nowhere else in the course of the film is the narrative voice recalled; not even at the end of the film; even for purpose of unity of action.
Prince Sango is the focus of the first movement in the film: how he is summoned from his base at his mother's place in Nupe to rescue his troubled brother, Alaafin Ajaka who had been held hostage by Oba Olowu of Owu. Conotatively, the action is to spotlight the prowess of Sango as a potential force to liberate the people of Oyo. But in his encounter with the Olowu, who is his cousin, there appears a mixed up between Sango, the humble prince and Sango the fire-spitting, belligerent egotist.
His effrontery and tough words on the Olowu scratches the face of same Sango, who would plead for a truce. And as early as now, he could wield magical power that made him conjure the set of properties with which he paid the ransom to secure freedom of his brother. Such extra-human prowess, even while a prince reduce the effect of the supernatural power of Sango the deity as well as the believability of the action.
The import is that a natural progression in the development of the character of Sango is distorted. This is also unhelped by the brash, arrogant, boastful, commandeering character of Sango who literally 'kidnapped' (or through forceful acquisition) Oya to be his bride. Later, Sango the king almost becomes a terror to his own subjects even for the slightest offences.
Only a villain of a king would overrun Oyokoro, the way Sango does, moreso to a people that have moments earlier adopted the deity’s moral and behavioural codes, for instance the Tatoo as fashioned by Sango. How could the same leader- king turn up their names; so soon? Or maybe it is deliberate that Sango should be so destructive of his own benefactors, because at the end of the film, he also destroyed his own loving servants who were pleading with him not to abdicate his throne and his own homestead. In that case, there is the case of a tragic flaw in the heroic character of Sango.
A matter of grave structural unevenness is the unclear delineation between the human and the extra-human actions and characteristics of the figure. Sango. At the time he transmutted into a deity, Sango had already been characterised a god, by his many super-human actions in the film.
But this is usually a pitfall in an epic work like Sango. It is usually difficult to draw a line between the acts of the super-forces and human beings. Again there is the tendency for the artiste to become subservient to the dictates of history or the myth or legend that informs the film.
Perhaps the safest means is that adopted by the A' Production team that produced ‘Ose Sango’ in 1991. The human actions are configured in human beings who merely invoke the extra human powers of Sango to solve their problems. It was thus clear to see when the human desire clashes with the will of the gods such as in excessive abuse of the powers of the gods to impact negatively on the society.
A most constant attribute of the film Sango, The Legendary African King is its vast repertory of music and songs which are effectively (in most part of the film) employed to aid the progression of the story and as well as sound track, which is soon to be released in audio format. This alone would draw to it a mass appeal.
The film is also, as in the cliché, 'star studded'. In fact it is about the most loaded with some of the best actors on the screen and on the stage including Kola Oyewo Laide Adewale and Peter Fatomilola (he can’t stop playing the priest, can he?), all of who also played lead roles in ‘Ose Sango’ by the Adesanya brothers. Others include Jide Ogungbade, Ayo Akinwale, Antar Laniyan, Olu Okekanye, Remi Abiola, Rachael Oniga and others.
The lead role Sango is played by a relatively new name, Wale Adebayo, a law student at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife. Oya, the second lead is by Bunmi Sanya, a back-up singer for many pop musicians. The problem with the two young actors is in terms of artistic direction, especially in role internalisation, and ability to master mood, cadences and rhythms of action; and especially to understand the dynamics of the screen as different from that of the stage.
Peculiarly though, Adebayo' speech pattern is not properly doctored, which makes him to gabble most times his opening and end syllables. Most times he loses his lines in inappropriate sense grouping. It is not helpful to him too that he has to shout most of his lines, so that whereas the physical carriage in properly established, there is no colour or rhythm in what comes from Sango's mouth. There is volume alright, but little intelligibility.
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