Ọlá Balógun (*1945) is one of the most important artists and pioneers of Nigerian and Yorùbá cinema. Apart from his feature films he has published theater plays, numerous essays, a photo book, documentaries and music albums. From the very beginning as a 22-year-old student and his publication of “Shango, suivi de ‘Le Roi-Èlephant’” in Paris to his latest documentary “Gods of Africa in Brazil” he dedicated his work to the traditional culture in the global setting of modern life. As a political activist he contributes to the Pan-African movement and throughout his work he has always maintained a critical voice, that makes it worth being reviewed in detail.
Gary Vanisian, member of the Filmkollektiv Frankfurt, recently edited and published a beautiful book entitled „The Magic of Nigeria. On the Cinema of Ola Balogun”. It contains fascinating essays about Balógun’s work from the perspective of ten authors, from Françoise Balógun to early collaborators like Túndé Kèlání or film critics Olaf Möller and specialist for African cinema Jonathan Haynes, and is including an interview by Nigerian journalist Shaibu Husseini. Gary Vanisian accomplishes the book with a commented filmography, bibliography and lots of images, from 1970’s movie posters to film stills and newspaper reviews. The essay written by Françoise Balógun and photos from the film sets give an extraordinary insight and a very intimate view of the artist’s life and the early filmmaking scene. In addition, the book has a great design and is highly recommended to everyone who wants to read about the beginning of the Nigerian movie industry, before cheap Nollywood productions took over.
Ọlá Balógun left Lagos to study in Senegal and France, where he finished with a doctoral thesis in film direction at the L’Institut des hautes édtudes cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris and a bachelor in modern literature. In 1971 he moved with his wife Françoise and their daughter back to Nigeria and became a research fellow at the University of Ile-Ife in the Department of Black Studies. There he had access to film equipment, like a 16 mm camera and a tape recorder. At the palace of the Ọọ̀ni of Ilé Ifẹ̀ he shot “Fire in the Afternoon” about the Yorùbá heroine Mọ́remí, who helped to gain victory by sacrificing her son to a river goddess. A new so-called "Statue of Liberty" was dedicated to Mọ́remí by the current Ọọ̀ni Adéyẹyè Ẹniìtàn Ògúnwùsì, the king of the Yorùbá people. Balógun's documentary “Thundergod” followed the year after, it was about the famous Ṣàngó festival in Ẹdẹ. Together with the Orí Olókun theater group the filmmaker rehearsed for “In the beginning…”, a feature film about the Yorùbá creation myth that tells the story how Olódùmarè sent Ọbàtálá down to earth. As we know, he fell asleep and got his work done by Odùduwà. Ọlá Balógun tried to sell those documentaries to the Nigerian TV, but as they received free programs from foreign countries they weren’t interested at all. Hard to believe, but this might speak of the minor value Nigerian authorities gave their indigenous traditions at that time – or still give, if you read this recent interview with the filmmaker.
Balógun started his own independent movie company and founded the Afrocult Foundation in Nigeria – in a country without any infrastructure for the film industry. Not only was Nigeria lacking all kind of production facilities, e.g. film reels had to be sent to laboratories abroad, also the distribution system was in the hand of foreigners and hardly accessible. In the Youtube documentary on Hubert Ògúǹdé above you can see how cinema worked at that time: Ọlá Balógun bought film projectors and trained people in operating them. He scheduled tours, rented spaces throughout the country, printed his own posters, advertised in newspapers, bought a minibus, employed a team of people and had to organize the screenings of his movies by himself!
His first film “Amadi” (1975) was shot in Igbo language and tells the docu-fiction story of a young man, who returns from Lagos into his small village, introduces new ideas and gets into a complicated love story. Many villagers participated in the cast and local deities were appeased before the project was started. This movie, the first one ever shot entirely in Igbo language, met an enthusiastic audience.
In the 1960’s and 70’s the Yorùbá travelling theater had a revival and became known internationally. Dúró Ládiípọ̀’s “Ọbà Kò So” toured with the help of the influential linguist Ulli Beier through Europe and the US. Hubert Ògúǹdé, Moses Ọláìyá Adéjùmọ̀ (Bàbá Sàlá) and Oyin Adéjọbí also ran popular theater companies. Their performances were considered a kind of “opera”: the actors were also engaged in singing and dancing, accompanied by drumming ensembles, with stories often based on Yorùbá mythology. It was a very creative period, the M̀bárí M̀báyọ̀ Art Club opened, Òṣogbo became widely known as an artistic center through the work at the Sacred Grove of Ọ̀ṣun and its many artists involved.
Ọlá Balógun was thinking of how these travelling theaters could fit into a screenplay for a movie and started to collaborate with Dúró Ládiípọ̀ on a new piece: “Àjàní-Ògún” (1976), a film on the subject of the widespread corruption, became Balógun’s first Yorùbá movie starring Adé Love and a big success in Nigeria. A young hunter falls in love with the daughter of a chief, who took away all the property of the hunter’s family. As the hunter’s guild is closely related to Òrìṣà Ògún and powerful among the Yorùbá society, various ceremonies accompanied the production of the movie. Hunters are especially famous for their knowledge on Ìjálá ọdẹ, traditional praise poetry and magic incantations. When the new installed Ọọ̀ni of Ilé Ifẹ̀ toured through the US a few months ago he was e.g. accompanied by Ìjálá singer Lateef 'Ọrúnmìlà' Omísore. Françoise Balógun remembers the shooting of one scene: “I can still hear the powerful voice of one of the singer-hunters that could certainly be heard several kilometers away and would make the animals of the forest tremble. It was beautiful and penetrated right deep inside you into an area rarely reached where it vibrated unexpectedly” (quoted from “The Magic of Nigeria. On the Cinema of Ola Balogun”). "Àjàní" is a common Yorùbá oríkì and means "one (we) fought to have", the appendage shows that the child is from an Òrìṣà Ògún family, a hunters family. Some critics compared these early Yorùbá movies to Indian Bollywood productions that were also popular in Nigeria, but their roots lie in the traditional Yorùbá travelling theater, where music and dance are an essential part of its dramaturgy.
This successful collaboration with Ladipo led to projects with other theater companies and actors, like “Ìjà Òmìnira” (Fight for Freedom, 1979) by Adéyẹmí Afọláyan aka Adé Love, “Aiyé” (Life/The World, 1979, today in modern Yorùbá it would be written "Ayé") by Hubert Ògúǹdé, “Ọ̀run Móoru” (Heaven is Hot, 1982, literally "heaven possesses heat") by Moses Ọláìyá Adéjùmọ̀ aka Bàbá Sàlá and “Owó l’àgbà” (Money Power, 1982, literally "money is the elder") with Juju musician Shina Peters and Twins Seven Seven, artist from Òṣogbo. I really would love to see “Aiyé”, as it is known as the first Yorùbá horror movie on the topic of witchcraft and full of special effects, it was a huge success. Some scenes are shown in the Youtube video above. “Ọ̀run Móoru” was partly shot at the Sacred Grove of Òṣogbo, in the film stills entitled “Lamidi in the land of the dead” the actor is walking through the “Ọjà Oǹtótóo” area of the Sacred Grove, where artist Àdùnní Olórìṣà Susanne Wenger installed many sculptures. Those cement figures depict ancient primordial spirits, as Wenger explains: "Ọjà Ontótóo is a market for gods, subterranean and supernatural beings, angels and clairvoyant humans. It is an amphitheatre where earthly and heavenly beings are actors and audience combined." Sounds like a perfect place to shoot the scenes which show the main character after his successful suicide attempt on his way to heaven.
It is sad that at least four of Balógun’s films and some documentaries are completely lost today! They were projected until they fell apart. An initiative exists to restore a stash of forgotten film reels recently encountered in a rather rotten condition in Nigeria by the Lagos Film Society. Other copies survived outside of Nigeria, like in the Cinematheque Française, or are in private property. Hopefully with the initiative of the Filmkollektiv Frankfurt Balógun's lost films can be shown again in the future. I would be among the first ones to download them or get a ticket! All the collaborations between Balógun and the traveling theater scene led to very unique and successful films. However, some of the theaters started their own movie business and later assigned other film directors. They tried to save money, lowered the technical level of production and used the new technology of video, while Nollywood was born. Every living room now could easily become a movie theater and cheap productions could satisfy the taste of the masses.
Ọlá Balógun is not just a pioneer of African cinema, he was the first black film director who shot a movie in Brazil! “A Deusa Negra” (Black Goddess, 1978) is another amazing story - click the video above for a preview. We recently published an article on this blog (see The 19th century Yoruba repatriation) that was shared very often on Social Media. It explains the intense relations between Yorùbáland and Brazil and the returned Aguda slaves from Salvador da Bahia, who became a kind of elite among the early Lagosians. One day a Brazilian businessman appeared in Lagos and asked Balógun, who himself has ancestors among the returned slaves, if he was interested in shooting a movie. Balógun developed a very unique screenplay: A young Nigerian Yorùbá man, called Babátúndé, talks to his dying father, whose last wish is that his son travels to Brazil to search for the lost part of the family. The father speaks to his son about their Aguda ancestors, who returned as freed slaves from South America to Yorùbáland. One of the establishing shots for the scene focuses on an old house in the Brazilian quarter in Lagos, probably demolished today like the Ilọ́jọ̀ Bar, as the architectural heritage, built by returned slaves in the baroque "Portuguese" style, is not protected by the city of Lagos. The dying father continues to tell his son that it was promised to the rest of the family, left in the diaspora, that one day they would be taken back to Yorùbáland. Unfortunately, this never happened, and now all the hope lies within the young man to fulfill this promise of his ancestors. His name, Babátúndé, literally means “the father has returned again”. Traditional Yorùbá believe in reincarnation, in the sense that a part of the ancestor's multi-dimensional soul - and not the whole individual soul - shapes the newborn child's destiny.
Babátúndé, who thus bears the "Brazilian heritage" in his name, then receives from his dying father a carved statue of Òrìṣà Yemọja. Let's better call it in Portuguese spelling Orixá Iemanjá, because the statue has been brought back from Brazil. The father gives it to his son and wishes that the deity may guide him on the way. In Brazil he should look for a similar carving, a replica, and find the lost family members. The carved image is interesting, it is shaped in the form of a typical “abẹ̀bẹ̀”, a ritual fan, used very often in the Brazilian diaspora for Oxúm or Iemanjá. Françoise Balógun describes this statue in her essay as “sea goddess”, which is a Brazilian (Iemanjá) or Cuban (Yemayá) expression and a view that became popular in the West through many academic diasporic publications on the Orisha religions. To the Yorùbá people in Nigeria and Benin Yemọja is a riverine deity, associated with the river Ògùn and not connected to the ocean, where Òrìṣà Olókun (Yor. “owner of the ocean”) resides. In the movie itself it is never mentioned that Yemọja was the deity of the sea. I am quite sure that Ọlá Balógun himself is aware of this story and chose Yemọja as a symbol for both the connection and separation of the Yorùbá people, she is the perfect symbol for this movie. All the actors were Brazilians, but the ones who are playing the Africans pronounce the Òrìṣà as Yorùbá "Yemọja", while all the others in the Candomblé temples call her in Portuguese "Orixá Iemanjá". They clearly must have been instructed by the Yorùbá film director.
Babátúndé arrives in Rio, gets into contact with Candomblé practitioners and in a ceremony a mounted priestess of Iemanjá sends him to the city of Salvador da Bahia. It is an interesting image, that this young Yorùbá man gets explanations on Orisha trance by the Brazilian practitioners of the religion. I am sure when the movie was shot in 1978 the Yorùbá traditionalists at home were in an even worse situation than today, discriminated by Christians as idol worshippers, while in the diaspora Yorùbá culture was already officially supported by the state since decades (see Communism and Yorùbá culture). On the other hand Babátúndé answers contemporary questions on African languages or politics to the Brazilians. He enters the mystical and magic world of Òrìṣà, abroad from his original Yorùbá home. All the houses Babátúndé enters in Brazil have split palm fronds, Yor. màrìwò, above their entrance doors, a typical Yorùbá sign for sacred Orisha spaces that have certain taboos - while the dying father in Lagos had an image of Jesus Christ next to his bed. It is really funny getting into the movie's details and all the different levels of what is "original" and what "diaspora" Yorùbá culture. Babátúndé gets a reading with cowry shells, Port. "jogo de búzios" or Yor. "ẹ̀rìndínlógún", and participates in Orixá ceremonies and Afro-Brazilian folkloric dances. At the end of his journey his ancestors appear to him in trance. The story goes back to colonial times and the cruel life of the plantation slaves. Like in every good movie, Babátúndé also falls in love and at the end - no, I do not tell the whole story here... What a great movie! It addresses many topics of the diasporic dimension of Yorùbá culture, from the point of view of a Yorùbá filmmaker. As far as I know this is absolutely unique. The Portuguese version is on Youtube now. Many of Balógun’s original movie soundtracks were released on vinyl, the records are highly sought after by collectors and DJs. Ọlá Balógun had to face some difficulties in the organization of “A Deusa Negra”, but at the end he got a professional film crew and actors and all the production facilities he needed. It is “Ola’s best film, the one which comes closest to a successful work” (Françoise Balógun). Highly recommended for all the people interested in Yorùbá transatlantic culture!
In his political movie “Cry Freedom!” (1981) Ọlá Balógun lets the viewers partake in the lives of African freedom fighters. Because of the staged fights between the army and guerilla troupes it was too risky shooting the film in Nigeria, but in Togo and Ghana it caused many troubles as well. In those instable times actors holding guns in their hands were extremely suspicious to the authorities and the film team almost got arrested to prevent a “hidden coup under the cover of a film”. Crazy, unbelievable stories that can be read in detail in the new book. This shows how necessary it was to focus on these issues and why the work of Balógun is so outstanding.
Ọlá Balógun later returned to the genre of documentaries, some examples are “River Niger, Black Mother” (1989), “Children of Africa” (1990), “Juju Roots” (1993), “The Magic of Nigeria” (1993), “Destination Barbados – Calypso Island (1994) and his last movie “Gods of Africa in Brazil” (1998), where he returned again to the diaspora to document Yorùbá culture in Candomblé houses.
In a review the German Newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" lists three special features of Ọlá Balógun's movies: First one is the music, which makes up 50% of his films, with the actors playing instruments themselves or traditional and contemporary composed music in the background. Second is the documentation of Nigerian culture. Also in his feature films the actors are often involved in rituals, incantations, ceremonies, dancing and myhological story-telling. Third is the manifestation of his personal attitude. Life is more important than death, the presence more important than the past. The traditions guide the hero on the way into the future, like Babátúndé in "A Deusa Negra". Searching for the roots of his family and resolving issues of the past he finds his personal destiny and an optimistic future.
After a tragic fire incident in Lagos took away everything Ọlá Balógun owned in 2015, today he is living in Cotonou, Benin, where he is currently setting up a film and music studio. A Nigerian Newspaper published a very interesting interview with him a few months ago. He shares his thoughts on the Nigerian art scene from the view of someone who participated over many decades in a very active political role and does not spare with criticism. With the new publication by the Filmkollektiv Frankfurt and the ongoing work on the restoration of several films I am sure his work will be shown on an upcoming film festival close to you, so watch out for Ọlá Balógun!
Our readers in Berlin, Germany, have the chance to see Ọlá Balógun’s movies very soon at the Arsenal Cinema, from January 13 to 19, 2017, from early documentaries to feature films: Àjàní Ògún; Gods of Africa in Brazil; A deusa negra; Owó l’àgbà; In the beginning…; Alpha; Iron Eagles; Pana – Une voix pour l’Afrique; Cry Freedom!; River Niger, Black Mother; Destination Barbados – Calypso Island; Eastern Nigeria Revisited. See the detailed description of the movies in German language here.
Thank you to film critic Gary Vanisian from the Filmkollektiv Frankfurt for sending me the images used here in this article. Those are just a few examples of hundreds of images published in the new book! Thank you also to Lagosian linguist Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún from the database www.yorubaname.com for helping me with the correct Yorùbá spelling of the artist’s names.
Gary Vanisian (ed.): The Magic of Nigeria – On the Cinema of Ola Balogun. Filmkollektiv Frankfurt, Frankfurt am Main, 2016 (order it here).
Arsenal Berlin – Institut für Film und Videokunst e.V.
Wikipedia on Ọlá Balógun
Cinematheque Française on Ọlá Balógun