It would seem an overstatement to term Saworoide the most important political movie in Nollywood’s history. Released in 1999, more than two decades ago, with a portion of its cast either aged or deceased, our establishing sentence is bound to be met with umbrage. The film itself was scripted by the late Yoruba novelist, Akinwunmi Ishola, who also authored the material the film was adapted from; and it was directed by Tunde Kelani—a partnership that scored gold numerously until the novelist passed away. If the obvious reasons for the film’s greatness—two ingenious artists at its creative helm; a potent source material; an assembly of veteran, talented actors, if these aren’t enough reasons, then the polemical statement that the now-absent will to make something timeless by the film’s director should be put forward.
Saworoide transcends time. It is a film that speaks potently to our current political situation. On one end is the impressiveness of the material and on the other end is the tragedy of the Nigerian political situation—that a 1999 film still aptly comments on modern Nigerian politics correctly. And because time flows both ways, the film’s perpetual nature means it also chronicles Nigerian political history. Set in the fictional Jogbo, a place where it appears as though the characters are unaffected by time; only situation changes and their reaction to it; where the only markers of time are character declarations of it—usually not the characters benefitting from the political situation—and the two youths, Aresejabata (Kunle Afolayan) and Araparegangan (Kabirat Kafidipe), on whose juvenile shoulders the people of Jogbo’s future rest.
The new king, Lapite, has avoided a sacred ritual which binds the king to serving his people through a mystical drum, Saworoide. He grossly abuses power, murders anyone who stands in his way, embezzles money, and rules with such ineptitude that the military takes over government from him. The military, led by Lagata, isn’t any better. The youths, who have protested all along, fight until the end alongside the sacred drum, Saworoide. What becomes of their struggle is left in the hands of fate and that ominous ritual that binds the king, talking drum, and the people in a political trinity.
The film’s allegorical nature aids its political expressiveness. Lapite (Kola Oyewo) could easily represent every democratic president Nigeria has had and Lagata (Kunle Bamtefa) represents the military rulers this country has endured. The chiefs are our senators and ministers and the international lumberjacks who, at the behest of Jogbo’s rulers, respect neither the forest nor the indigenes. These lumberjacks represent the international countries that have exploited our natural resources over time. When fictive national characters meet eternal material as has happened in Saworoide, what results is a film that, two decades in, no matter the possibility of argument against the claim, remains conversant.
Beyond political statements, Saworoide transposes the nuance of the Yoruba culture onto Nigeria as a whole. This is a difficult thing to do because the country is multi-tribal. At its heart is an eloquent Yoruba film expressing the Nigerian horrors, the universal covetousness of powers, and the violent response of power to any form of opposition. The youths of Jogbo gather to challenge the ineptitude of their leaders, under ‘democratic’ and dictatorial rule. In both cases, they are met with violence; some are murdered and others are jailed, and a small faction are bought. Saworoide presents the full cast of political drama. Yet, the film doesn’t stop at that. The subplot of domestic rivalry culminates into a portion of the climax: the bastard daughter of the king teams up with the heir whose parents the king murdered and they rule the kingdom. It is the only chink in the film’s argument, that a readymade messiah awaits, and the usual post-dictatorship power-scuffle is easily averted. But this is a fictional world, and at some point, even fiction pales.
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- The cinematic language of the film is fluent. Tunde Kelani is one of the masters and no matter how many times I watch Saworoide, there is always something new to learn, the pacing, the plot structure, the editing, the proverbs; this is a gift that will not stop giving.
- This film is so old that Rasheed Ladoja and Bola Ahmed Tinubu were still political saints when it was released. They helped fund the film.
Saworoide is available on Youtube.