January 2017, arsenal cinema

Ola Balogun, 
pioneer of Nigerian cinema

AJANI-OGUN, 1976

Ola Balogun (b. 1945) is a unique figure in Nigerian cinema. In the 1970s and 1980s, he influenced the film industry in his country like no other person and paved the way for the Nollywood boom that began in the early 1990s. The fact that he is virtually forgotten outside of Nigeria nowadays is also a function of the fact that many copies of his films have disappeared. Only five of his ten feature-length films are currently available, many of them in a fragile condition. Thanks to the initiative of the Filmkollektiv Frankfurt, which presented Ola Balogun's films in that city in 2015, a large part of Balogun's cinematic oeuvre is accessible again for the first time. We are extremely pleased to be able to show the five feature films and a selection of his shorter documentaries at the Arsenal.

After obtaining a degree in literature, Ola Balogun completed his studies at the IDHEC film school in Paris, where he also made his first feature film, ALPHA, in 1972. He later returned to Nigeria and made documentary and feature films there, in other African countries and in Brazil. In the absence of a technical and financial infrastructure in Nigeria, he founded his own production company, Afrocult Foundation, and personally organised the screenings of his films. The films are often exuberant, full of passion, uniting a wide variety of influences in a unique manner. Aside from clearly political films, which address the freedom struggles against colonial power and the connections between Nigeria and Brazil wrought by the slave trade, he also made enjoyable entertainment films modelled on the popular Yoruba Travelling Theatre. Apart from English, he also made films in Yoruba, and created the very first film in the Igbo language, the unfortunately lost "Amadi". Music plays a central role in all of his films, often also assuming a narrative function. His films always focus on the cultural and human richness of the African continent, seeking to provide his country with images of itself. Ola Balogun did not simply make films, he also wrote books and plays. He now lives as a musician in Benin.

AJANI-OGUN (Nigeria 1976, 13.1., introduction: Gary Vanisian) was Nigerian cinema's first box office hit and incorporates the culture of the Yoruba Travelling Theatre. This very popular theatrical form, which emerged in the 1940s and combined music and dance with expressive acting and folkloric elements, gave Ola Balogun an opportunity to address a broad audience. The titular hero Ajani-Ogun is a young hunter who tries to regain his late father's land, which had been wrested from his mother by a corrupt official. In the process, he must fight against traditional authorities as well as modern corruption. AJANI-OGUN was made in collaboration with the well-known theatre-maker Duro Ladipo, who also wrote the music that was released on LP at the same time as the film.

THE MAGIC OF NIGERIA (F/Nigeria 1993, 13.1.) explores the culture and traditions of Nigeria as they are expressed in religion, art and everyday life, accompanied by a poetic and hypnotic voice-over.

A DEUSA NEGRA (Black Goddess, Brazil/Nigeria 1978, 14.1.) At his father's deathbed, the young Nigerian Babatunde promises to go to Brazil and search for traces of their once-enslaved ancestors. Beginning with a Candomblé ritual, his journey takes him ever deeper into an alien culture and, in a dream-like sequence, affords him a deeper understanding of his ancestors' suffering and powers of resistance. Balogun effortlessly links present with past, real with magical worlds and discourse with trance. The hypnotic atmosphere is also heightened by the music of the Nigerian drummer Remi Kabaka, which plays with repetitive patterns and distortions. The film is shown in a copy with Japanese side-titles (!) and English subtitles.

GODS OF AFRICA IN BRAZIL (Nigeria 1998, 14.1.) Twenty years after A DEUSA NEGRA, Ola Balogun's final film documents a Candomblé ceremony and recalls the documentaries of Jean Rouch with its portrayal of ritual and trance.

MONEY POWER / OWO L'AGBA (Nigeria 1982, 14.1.) was Balogun's last feature film, and was made in Yoruba with actors of the Travelling Theatre. The film, set in an unnamed city in Nigeria, is about corruption and love, fortified by numerous sub-plots, and takes the form of a bold, noisy satire full of music and fascinating dream visions. The young journalist Jide Durojaiye is doing research on two candidates in an upcoming election. The corrupt Chief Ade, nicknamed 'Money Power', faces the idealistic opposition leader Mr. Akinwale, who is fighting for an improved infrastructure for all. In the course of his investigations into the hidden recesses of Nigerian politics, Jide falls in love with the beautiful Yemi, who has also caught the eye of Chief Ade. Love finally wins out over corruption and takes the hero to a happy end.

ALPHA (F 1972, 15.1.) Ola Balogun's first feature film was made in France and focuses on a group of young Black intellectuals and artists. At the centre is Alpha, whose scepticism about fixed appellations is also expressed in his own chosen name. In his Parisian garret, the characters debate politics, art and philosophy and negotiate Black identity and cultural heritage. The action continues on its improvised way in the cafés, parks and nightclubs of Paris until Alpha finds himself between the fireworks and the celebrating masses on Bastille Day – in the middle and yet on the margins. A film of wanderings through streets and thoughts, with borrowings from Jacques Rivette.

With it, we will show the short film IN THE BEGINNING … (F 1972, 15.1.), a mystical-seeming performance about the sea and the earth filmed in Normandy with the actors and team from ALPHA.

CRY FREEDOM! (Nigeria/Ghana/UK 1981, 17.1.) Balogun's most political film is a confrontation with the African wars of liberation. Based on Meja Mwangi's novel about the Mau-Mau uprising, 'Carcase for Hounds', it is set in no specific country and thus offers the vision of a pan-African struggle for freedom and against colonial oppression. The central figures in the straightforwardly and powerfully told story are the guerrilla leader Haraka and his adversary, the English colonial official Kingsley. In the end, the film becomes a homage to the freedom fighters from all over Africa: The final images show Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and Amílcar Cabral, among others.

In the same programme, we will show the short films IRON EAGLES (Nigeria 1988), a sponsored film about the Nigerian Air Force, and PANA – UNE VOIX POUR L'AFRIQUE (F/Nigeria 1989) on the Pan-African News Agency.

A short-film programme assembles Balogun’s documentaries (19.1., introduction: Dorothee Wenner):
OWUAMA – A NEW YEAR FESTIVAL
(Nigeria 1973) footage of ritual dances during the Owuama Festival in south-eastern Nigeria. RIVER NIGER, BLACK MOTHER (Nigeria/F 1988) follows the 4184-kilometer-long River Niger from its source in Guinea through Mali, Niger and Benin to Nigeria. A passionate ode to the river, the cultures that have arisen on its shores and its role in African history, accompanied by a lyrical commentary. DESTINATION BARBADOS – CALYPSO ISLAND (F/Nigeria 1994) takes a cheerful look at the carnival tradition in Barbados. EASTERN NIGERIA REVISITED (Nigeria 1973) Everyday life and street scenes in eastern Nigeria, three years after the end of the Biafran War. (al)

The programme was developed in collaboration with Gary Vanisian, Filmkollektiv Frankfurt. Our thanks to Gary Vanisian, Emilie Cauquy, Françoise Balogun and Ola Balogun, Derin Ajao.

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