Speculative view

Bolaji Kekere-Ekun
Rafeeat Aliyu

Two new Nigerian films explore the world of traditional worship in Nigeria

Still from "Call me by my name" directed by Bolaji Kekere-Ekun.

Interview by
Alithnayn Abdulkareem

Speculative works of art are no stranger to the African fictional canon. Before the groundbreaking Rafiki, another Kenyan film, the afrofuturist short film Pumzi, debuted at Sundance. Even earlier, Jean Pierre Bekolo’s Les Saignantes, a sci-fi erotic thriller, collected the Silver Stallion Award at the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ougadougou in Burkina Faso. More recent are, Dilman Dilla’s Her Broken Shadow and Daniel Oriahi’s Sylvia, two films dealing with imaginary people tearing into reality and running amok. In addition, CJ Obasi’s short Hello Rain, an adaptation of novelist Nnedi Okorafor’s Hello Moto, has made the rounds on the festival circuit. Still, the contemporary Nigerian film medium has arguably left some wide gaps. Many of the films with any kind of speculative tilt in Nigeria are under-produced in Nollywood, thin and based around the subject of urban myths and/or evil spiritual forces.

In 2018, two films were released covering overlapping themes of spirituality within a Nigerian context: the short film Call Me By My Name and the documentary Beyond Tolerance. Both films premiered at The Ake Arts Festival in Lagos.

Inspired by Helen Oyiyemi’s novel The Opposite House, Bolaji Kekere-Ekun’s Call Me By My Name is an exploration of memory, sacrifice and the supernatural—in particular, as the director describes, “this idea that the more our gods are forgotten, the more they cease to exist in a literal form.” In Oyiyemi’s novel, the psychodrama and mystic themes are a fit with Call Me By My Name. For those unfamiliar with Oyiyemi, a similar theme is being explored in Showtime’s adaptation of Neil Gainman’s American Gods. Yetide Badaki gives an electric performance as the goddess of love Bilquis, who has to find ways to adapt to a world without the feverish followership she once enjoyed.

Kekere-Ekun’s film jumps between timelines to portray a spirit come for her overdue pound of flesh. The film is bolstered by the director’s technical proficiency: fluid editing and expressive camera angles aim to service the story wholly rather than act simply as cinematic flourishes.

Beyond Tolerance sets out to achieve a very clear aim. Producer Rafeeat Aliyu described a process where the crew had already mapped out a clear list of shots and goals to achieve while making it. As the narratives and cultural exports around this part of the world continue to gain more prominence, it is only becoming more important that those behind the helm of our diverse stories come at it with a level of craft and confidence. In one hour, Beyond Tolerance works at simultaneously creating a learning and unlearning experience while presenting the world of traditional worship in Nigeria. Spanning worshippers of Ifa, Sango and Osun, the documentary conducts interviews with practitioners across all levels and social conditions within Nigeria. Often being depicted on screen in negative and comical methods, the community was open to the experience of presenting themselves in this multifaceted manner.

Below are the conversations I had with Kekere-Ekun and Aliyu.

Call Me By My Name

AA

Let’s talk about your affinity for speculative work. When did you begin cultivating that?

BKE

My first featurelength script is in the genre. That was in 2009 in film school. I then made a short film, also in the same genre, that was released online in 2012, so it’s interesting that speculative work is gaining more popularity now.

AA

Considering how much spiritual myths are discussed in Nigeria, what were you looking to add with your short film?

BKE

I was looking to take a step back and start a story from the point of view of absolute belief in a spiritual myth rather than skepticism. This made the writing of the story a fresher and more empowering experience for me.

AA

Let’s talk about the technical aspect a bit. I really liked the transitions, and the cinematography really lent itself to the story. This is something that can be taken for granted as cameras these days seem almost wired to do some of the work. So tell us how you achieved this?

BKE

Thanks! I made a visual structure for the film based on the ebbs and flows of the story in terms of color, lighting, space, etc. Then I had a few meetings with the cinematographer and we discussed the structure, and then on set I stood back and watched him do his magic.

AA

This is one of those films that require one hundred percent audience engagement. Is that more of an effect of your personal style, or is it that the story itself needed to be a little convoluted to get its point across?

BKE

I’d say I agree with you in that the actual form of the story itself does the same thing its content does. They both do not fully define themselves and hopefully leave a bit of space for the audience to be active participants.

AA

We have to ask the obvious, what experience/book/event etc. inspired the film and its title?

BKE

Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House was one of the inspirations for the short. Something I got from the book was this idea that the more our gods are forgotten the more they cease to exist in a literal sense. So that is why one of the characters in the film keeps insisting that she is called by her name. She literally wants to be spoken into existence.

AA

Nigeria is very steeped in supernatural myths and beliefs, yet somehow this influence mostly seems to translate in a very narrow way in cinema. Why do you think that might be?

BKE

I think it’s been translated in a wide variety of ways. I think what I haven’t seen a lot of is filmmakers trying to trace the superficial distorted everyday manifestations back to the purer belief systems that existed. I see a lot of that in Nigerian literature though.

AA

You are probably known more for your documentaries. Have you considered making a documentary along supernatural lines, or is a fictional medium better suited for you to explore your interest?

BKE

I have made one. It’s a mammy wata documentary called Lady in the Water and it was released alongside the short film Nkiru in 2012 on YouTube. Interestingly, the documentary has gotten a lot more engagement than the narrative interpretation.

AA

Is Call Me By My Name feminist?

BKE

It’s not my place to say. What I would say is people who are having progressive gender conversations, and have seen the film, have reacted positively to it and I appreciate that.

Beyond Tolerance

AA

First of all well done to the team. This documentary reminded me again why it is really important to be able to represent as many facets of society as we can. Now, did you encounter any resistance in the process of making it?

RA

Thank you! When my friend and now business partner, Amaka Vanni and I decided to start making documentaries together, we knew we wanted to highlight the complexities present in Nigerian society. We did not encounter any significant resistance in the process of making the documentary.

AA

Aside from the usual filmmaking challenges, how did the community receive you?

RA

The community was very open and generous with information. Growing up in Nigeria there is this idea that you don’t question things, elders particularly. Spending time with Nigerians who practice traditional religion threw that notion out the door, because with them we really could ask anything. Even questions that must have been absurd to them were patiently explained. At Osogbo, I asked an Ifa chief priest to tell us about the figurines and clay pots he had in his shrine. He explained that they were representations of different Orisha and even lifted the jars off the pots to show us what was inside them. In Oyo town, the Sango chief priest explained why Sango initiates braid their hair regardless of their sex.

That said, the community was initially wary because there have been instances where outsiders approach them for their cooperation in projects but then go ahead to portray their beliefs negatively. The impression I got was that the community was tired of the negative stereotypes about them and were ready to challenge them. Once they met us and knew we were coming with an open mind, door after door kept opening.

AA

Did you go into this with a prefixed agenda or the point was just to point the camera and let it work?

RA

We did have a prefixed agenda, we wanted to encourage Nigerians to think differently about traditional religions. We also wanted to show that there’s a larger community that upholds the traditional spirituality even though those of us who live in the cities are disconnected. Before any camera was pointed we knew what we wanted to capture as we already had a script and a shot list.

AA

Let’s talk about religious exports. Islam and Christianity were religions brought to us. Yet, today it is estimated we have more churches than schools. Why do you think that replication has not taken off as well with traditional worship?

RA

Both religions follow a different trajectory because they are closely tied to colonialism. Christianity with European efforts to control Nigerians resources and Islam with the jihad of Usman dan Fodio. Furthermore, both religions have elements of proselytization where the aim is to win more followers to the faith. On the contrary traditional worship is very live and let live. There’s an understanding that each person has their own unique destiny. In a situation where different members of a family can worship or be initiated to different Orisha, there’s a certain openness. 

I personally think that this, along with the effects of colonialism leading Nigerians to reject our roots and traditions, is why traditional worship isn’t as openly acknowledged as it could be. I say openly because one of the reasons it is so hard to put an estimated figure on the number of traditional worshippers in Nigeria is because people who claim to be either Christian or Muslim participate in it.

AA

With the increasing prominence of Nigeria’s culture across the world, how do you think traditional worship could factor into the rising narrative? Especially as culture and religion are so closely associated in Nigeria.

RA

Traditional worship is already making waves across the world. I was in Seattle this summer, and through a friend met an Iyalorisha who had been to Nigeria a couple of times to learn both Yoruba and Bini traditions. This Iyalorisha mentors several young people who study traditional spirituality under her tutelage. None of them are Nigerian and a good number aren’t of African descent. If you speak with a babalawo chances are that he has clients who consult with him from places as far as Mexico and Russia. This is what drives some to say that traditional worship is more appreciated outside Nigeria.

Indeed culture and religion are closely knitted. Those of us who grew up in Christian and Muslim households are removed from our cultures in ways we cannot really fathom due to our distancing from traditional worship. It is in traditional worship that aspects of language, history, philosophy even foods are preserved. Working on this documentary has taught me that to fully appreciate our traditions and cultures, we have to learn and understand traditional worship. This isn’t to say that every Nigerian should stop being Christian or Muslim, they just need to keep an open mind.

AA

So if one wants to become a believer, there are certain that are still only passed down orally. As a filmmaker who utilizes technology, how does that impact the reach of such practices?

RA

The things that are passed down orally can also be found online, on Facebook and in forums. I’ve seen videos of the initiation process into different paths on Youtube. There’s even an app in the Apple store that replicates the throwing of the opele chain and that helps users better understand the Odu Ifa (Ifa corpus).

From my understanding, what can be passed orally comes into play when one wants to actively participate in traditional worship. It’s like, you can learn about something through technology but it’s only when you experience it yourself that you really feel its depth.

AA

If the government could fix one challenge within the traditional religious community, what would you recommend?

RA

There’s a lot to be done! For one, we need to save what remains of the shrines and other bits off our cultural heritage that have not been destroyed. I would recommend that the government work closely with organizations like the Supreme Council of Traditional Religion on this.

Further Reading

The house of exile

Edward Said once said of the usefulness of exile for intellectual work: it involves adopting “a spirit of opposition, rather than accommodation.” James Baldwin and Sisonke Msimang took it to heart.