“African Folktales Reimagined” Season 1 Samples Tropes in Thriller and Fantasy, But Has Its Doubts

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African folktales are stories about the autochthonous people of Africa which are just as old as the continent and are usually handed down from one generation to another. These stories often feature anthropomorphic characters such as animals, ghosts, djinns, etc, and may contain elements of superstition and myth. Ruth Finnegan, in her book Oral Literature in Africa, describes folktales as stories of survival and points out that they may as well be stories that provide explanations for elusive phenomena such as the origin of death, of mankind, or of authority. Originally, African folktales were narrated through word of mouth, but with the spread of the writing tradition in the continent, they have become documented. The relatively recent existence and growing popularity of electronic media vis-a-vis television, film, and social media, has triggered the efflorescence of these old tales by making them re-imaginable through adaptations. It is this media trajectory that Netflix and UNESCO are exploiting at the moment as their partnership presents us with the maiden season of African Folktales Reimagined.

In this production, six short stories, of mild fantasy or thriller, are put together by adventurous filmmakers from six countries of the continent. UNESCO, through its mouthpiece, says “it is important that the film sector acts to ensure the voices of Africa are heard, by supporting the emergence of diverse cultural expressions, putting forth new ideas and emotions, and creating opportunities for creators to contribute to global dialogue for peace, culture and development”. This looks like a good manifesto on paper, but in reality, it sounds like just another politically motivated move of the UN branch. Before this partnership, hasn’t Africa been doing the job of selling her “diverse cultural expressions” through films to the world? Haven’t African films been preaching against domestic and communal violence or addressing women’s rights, or other such themes as observed in this series? Before Netflix & UNESCO, we have had African films inspired by folklore. In Nigeria, for instance, we have Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine (2009), Femi Adebayo’s King of Thieves (2022) and C.J. Obasi’s Juju Stories (2021) with his January release, Mami Wata (2023). From Guinea-Bissau,  there’s Saloum (2021) directed by Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot. From South Africa, we have Jerome Pikwane’s The Tokoloshe (2018), and The Soul Collector (2019). These are just a few.

While UNESCO’s plan may be nothing novel and less patronising, the contributing African filmmakers and cast must have been impressed at the opportunity to have their crafts out there, even if it is for a second, third, or umpteenth time. A UNESCO push is always worthwhile, you know.

But even as these films are executed in the languages available to the regions, including Hausa, English, Swahili and Arabic, the limited episode time and sparse conversations detract from the power of the languages to convey the beauty of the cultural tropes. The shorts are mostly meagrely plotted, which sometimes compromises the clarity of the traditional messages, and it is hoped that they don’t end up obfuscating the non-African audience, particularly those who hold the preexisting sentiment that African tradition is irredeemably esoteric. Only Violine Oguta’s Anyango and the Ogre and Loukman Ali’s Katera of the Punishment Island seem to be expressive enough on their own.

Before Katera, which is the first episode of this season, the Ugandan filmmaker Loukman Ali has been making things happen in the filmmaking world, even beyond his domestic boundaries. Nigerians remember him as the director of the sixth all-time highest-grossing Nollywood film, Brotherhood, a film that is considered by some to be consequential to the making of a new era in the Nollywood action film genre. On his YouTube profile, he calls himself a struggling filmmaker. But you should not be misguided by this. There are many shorts and some full-lengths to his credit, and Katera is yet another boost to his profile. Katera is woven around a Ugandan tale of an island where ladies who got pregnant out of wedlock were dumped to die. A good samaritan saves Katera, the titular character, together with other young women from perishing on the island. After a brief period of integration into her helper’s society, she decides to go back home to avenge the deaths of her father and brother, both of whom were killed by one war veteran Gregory who is equally responsible for her banishment on the island. It’s a risky thing for her, but with some help, she overpowers and drowns Gregory. Loukman Ali’s film thematises power play, as the relationship between Gregory and Katera may be likened to that which exists between the coloniser/oppressor and the colonised/oppressed.

Korede Azeez’s Halima’s Choice marks the second episode. Here, technology meets tradition, which makes for a bizarre marriage. Bordering on science fiction and fantasy, Halima’s Choice is about a young Fulani lady, Halima, who, in order to escape being married off to her father’s choice, decides to elope with a man that reveals himself as an AI. Let’s say the story is Azeez’s way of highlighting issues of early and arranged marriages in Fulani culture. Perhaps, with how it ended with the female protagonist wooed away from home, Azeez is giving a slight edge to modern civilisation over dated tradition while making a clear statement on women’s rights.

“The one thing that we can change or determine to some extent is the future”, the Nigerian filmmaker stated during an interview with Nollywire some months ago when the film, still being finetuned in the pre-release stage, was called Adieu Salut. She is also responsible for directing the short films Tip of The Edge (2019) and Man Coin (2021) and is keen on the sci-fi genre. Her story, Halima’s Choice, which has Kenneth Gyang as producer, is developed from a Southern Nigerian tale of a proud beautiful girl who spurned all the men interested in her in the village because they were not good-looking enough, until she inadvertently got married to a skull that had dressed in borrowed body parts as a handsome man.

The third episode, Voline Ogutu’s  Anyango and the Ogre, is a tweaked, modern version of the Kenyan tale of a boy who had to shield his siblings from the aggression of an Ogre. This time around, with the innovative acumen of Oguta, Otis the older of Anyango’s three children seeks refuge in the folktale while trying to escape an abusive father. Themes of domestic violence and family relationship are captured in the film. Towards the end of the film, in a radio announcement rendered in Swahili, the government implores women below 30 years to visit the Blue Zone. In an exclusive with Nairobi News, Oguta described the blue zone and grey zone as references to how women in society were valued on the basis of either being married or not.

The fourth episode takes us into the world of Mauritania and their belief in djinns. Djinns are magical creatures found in early pre-Islamic Arabian stories and are said to take the shape of humans or animals to perform deeds beyond human reason. Mauritanian filmmaker Mohamed Echkouna capitalises on this belief in Enmity Djinn as he briefly plays around the mystery surrounding the reappearance of a djinn seventy-five years later in a random human terrain where he encounters a familiar older woman. The film may have taken its cue from lore, but the message is cryptic at best.

A similar sense of the unknown is sustained in the Tanzanian film Katope, directed by Walt Mzengi Corey, as the story revolves around a discovered rainbird and what it augurs for a drought-afflicted community. Told in KiSwahili and ciGogo, the film, set at barely 14 minutes, helps to consolidate Corey’s talent once demonstrated through his directing of 2019 shorts Timêla and Gulf.

In the final episode, based on another once-upon-a-time narrative, Gcobisa Yako’s MaMlambo explores identity and gender-based violence. When Amandla is about to commit suicide by drowning, she is saved by a strange woman with magical abilities from the River of No Return. Memories of abuse, however, haunt Amandla while she spends some time with her saviour, trying to make sense of the woman’s enigma. There are not many details in between, as you can only put the bits of conversations the two women have together and infer the rest. 

When you finish watching the series, you are left with mixed impressions. The whole package is an artful re-programming of African traditional tropes along acceptable cross-continental genres, but you may not find it holistically orgasmic.

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