Friday, January 30, 2009
THE DECONSTRUCTION OF ‘JENIFA’
A REVIEW OF FUNKE AKINDELE'S MOVIE
by Wole Oguntokun
AS PUBLISHED BY THE GUARDIAN OF FRIDAY JANUARY 30, 2009
There are no never-seen-before plots or sub-plots in the movie, Jénífà, no twists and turns that are unprecedented, yet the producer, Funke Akindele, succeeds in showing the truth of the adage that “Originality does not consist of saying what no one has said before, but in saying exactly what you want to say”. Through the protagonist, Jénífà whose name is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon “Jennifer”, the movie succeeds in meandering through a potent mine-field of well-worn clichés and easily-recognizable situations, ending up as a box-office success, the kind of which has not been seen in Nigeria in recent times.
The movie in its two parts as is the weird way of all Nigerian movies now, tells the tale of a village bumpkin, Suliat, confident in her mastery of her hometown, Aiyetoro, until she is admitted into a University in the city of Lagos. Suliat’s ego is crushed time after time as a new student who discovers her brash ways are considered uncouth and vulgar by the more ‘refined’ city girls. She is adopted by three girls on campus, Ronke Odusanya who plays ‘Becky’, Mosunmola Filani (Tracy) and Iyabo Ojo (Franca). These three musketeers play their roles of opportunistic harpies to the hilt, and Suliat rapidly loses the freshness of a village beauty, evolving into a hardened undergraduate always looking for an angle.
With an array of mostly girl-actors, the cameras range across a university campus and into the city with the total number of actors and extras at about one hundred and five. This kind of numbers are peculiar to the Yoruba film industry, which is alive with alliances and collaborations ensuring that entire groups and caucuses back each other up in casting and technical matters if and when the need arises. There is a pecking order in this industry with the younger ones playing as extras until their own time and ‘freedom’ comes.
The acting sometimes bordering on the farcical, has many fine points, at least of the main actors, with the lead actor, Funke Akindele, apparently following in the footsteps of actors like the British-born Sacha Baron Cohen who studied to create and become the sometimes-vulgar but always very funny character, Ali G, and the equally funny but bumbling character known as ‘Borat’. Funke Akindele, who in real life is a smooth-talking graduate of the University of Lagos, slid well into the persona of ‘Suliat’ a.k.a. Jénífà, showing there had been back-ground work done. Her supporting actors, Ronke Odusanya, Mosunmola Filani and Iyabo Ojo match her in their portrayal of girls in a desperate quest for social relevance and financial security. Kola Olaiya and Tola Oladokun who played Sulia’s parents were well-cast with Kola Olaiya performing superbly as her father. If there ever was anyone born to a role, it must be Eniola Badmus as ‘Gbogbo Big Girl’ (translated roughly as ‘The embodiment of all big-girls’). Badmus, whose presence commands respect on the screen, and not only because she has more weight than the average female, plays a female-pimp that holds the viewer spell-bound with her self-assurance as the Lord of all she surveys on campus. Since Badmus’ performance, the term ‘gbogbo big girl’ has become common parlance in Nigeria.
Giants from Yoruba filmdom were there to lend a steely edge to a movie that might have been considered very light in their absence, with Jide Kosoko, Bayo Salami, Yinka Quadri and Yomi Fash-Lanso weighing in and making it a well-rounded cast. Other noticeable roles are played by Sola Asadeko as the wayward ‘Tutu’ and Honey Ikemefuna as ‘Bobo Ibo’.
Technically, the camera angles and shots are basic, the movie itself easy on the eye, not requiring any pretensions to high intelligence from its watchers. The translation of the Yoruba idioms and phrases to English on the screen, will not score anywhere near a hundred percent in accuracy, and the editing and sound are not always up to par (there is a spot where the boom microphone shows in the shot). Voice-level discrepancies can be heard from shot to shot, even when it is the same character still talking. However, even Hollywood blockbusters like Russell Crowe's 'Gladiator', had many errors in them visible to the discerning eye, including one where a mound of sand was heaped on the ground like a pillow so Crowe the star, could lie comfortably on the ground during a shot, and another where the engine powering a chariot was visible. All these were left uncut in the final movie.
Effort is taken in ‘Jénífà’ , however to have a fairly acceptable musical score and soundtracks.
‘Jénífà’ the comedy, suddenly takes a cruel turn in its Part 2 (which was most probably shot in the same period as Part 1). The style does not deviate from the age-old Yoruba formula for story-telling, where the story gradually unfolds to a didactic or moralizing climax, an end in which people pay for their sins, and the ‘righteous’ are rewarded for keeping to the straight and narrow.
Becky dies for engaging in anal sex, Franca for going to a party hosted by people who needed human fodder for rituals, Tracy loses her ability to bear children because of too many prior abortions and Jénífà is rewarded with expulsion from school and the HIV for her wayward ways. There is no escaping the wages of sin in this movie.
A lack of fluency in the English Language is an impediment to many Nigerian movies, often manifesting as a stilted delivery of lines and an obvious lack of ease in extended dialogue. The producers of ‘Jénífà’ easily overcome this obstacle by sticking to their first language, Yoruba, and manipulating it as they wish. It is a wonder to see language in flight, dipping and soaring in the mouths of experienced users.
This movie will not pass the test in the Western world on account of technicalities but it has found almost unprecedented acceptance in Nigeria, a kind unseen in recent years. The most obvious questions – Should we allow external standards influence our judgement of work or let the public, whether discerning or otherwise, make its own decisions? Can we set Hollywood or Bollywood as the pass-marks of a good movie here? If the people love a work, is cultural acceptability enough?
The ‘problem’ with the critic always, (this writer inclusive) is that he (or she) always imagines he knows more than the public he writes for, and is the person best suited to tell them what they must like and accept.
At The Future Awards, the entire audience numbering more than two thousand, cutting across social strata and class structure stood to its feet as one and clapped all the way as Funke Akindele mounted the podium to receive the award for Actor of the Year primarily for her role in Jénífà , easily beating the Stage actor, Jennifer Osammor and the Nollywood actor, Mercy Johnson to first place. And that might be the final answer to all our questions. Let the people speak.