“Ijogbon” Review: Afolayan’s Teen-based Drama Is Rooted In Myth

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Kunle Afolayan often plays with folklore in his films, a tendency he does not spare in his latest Netflix film, Ijogbon. The filmmaker meant business when he recently spoke of how open he has always been to exploring “religion, beliefs, and the natural human angle.” In The Figurine (2009), the filmmaker built the story  around a fictional goddess, Araromire. A similar strain animates Anikulapo (2022), where a mythical bird wields power over death. In Ijogbon, which is set in the fictional community of Oyo-Oke, located in Oyo State (shot across Bab’ode, Komu, Ibadan and Igbojaye), an aged woman tells a  mythical tale involving the Yoruba god Oranmiyan to a group of children. The myth accounts for the existence of treasures in the community. Long ago, the tale goes, the ancestors gifted Oranmiyan treasures, which he gave in turn to the people of Oyo-Oke. But the gift proved to be a curse for the community, as they fought each other for a great share of it,   causing Oranmiyan to hide the treasures from the villagers.

The use of myth sets the background for the  major plot of Ijogbon; and even though the film is  set in  modern Nigeria, that aura of Yoruba cosmology overhangs. The film opens with Teju (Gregory Ojefua) running for dear life, before hurriedly burying a man-bag in a dense forest shortly before he is shot. Soon after, four high school friends—Oby (Ruby Akubueze), Jamiu (Kayode Ojuolape), Ranti (Oluwaseyi Ebiesuwa) and Omooba (Fawaz Aina)—stumble on the bag which contains uncut pieces of diamond, sell off some to a well-known wealthy smuggler, Chief Owonifaari (Yemi Solade), and use the proceeds to sponsor their materialistic cravings, all without the awareness of their parents. But their moment of happiness is short-lived , as a group of men disguised as potential investors—Banjo (Femi Branch), Kafachan (Funky Mallam) and Ming Ho (Chinese actor Robin Lee)—visit the community in search of the diamonds which belong to their boss, Chidera (Adunni Ade). The teenagers are set up for more trouble, as both Chief Owonifaari and Broda Kasali (Gabriel Afolayan) also make sinister moves to take ownership of the diamonds. As the film drifts to an end, there are clashes and murders, which is a physical manifestation of the old woman’s myth about Oranmiyan’s treasures causing discord among the people.

British-Nigerian scriptwriter Tunde Babalola (October 1, Last Flight To Abuja, Citation, Tinsel) is chiefly responsible for the narrative material of Ijogbon, but then, with some administrative assistance from long-term associate Seun Soyinka, its execution is largely credited to Kunle Afolayan who wears many hats on the project—he is producer, director, executive producer, casting director, art director, and production designer. Ijogbon is dedicated to late Pat Nebo, who used to be Afolayan’s frequent collaborator and go-to production designer and art director (Phone Swap, The Figurine, Omugwo, The Tribunal, Citation). In charge of cinematography is Adekunle “Nodash” Adejuyigbe; while famous make-up and  special effects artist Hakeem Effects is responsible for the  identity-defining scarifications on  faces of characters like Broda Kasali, Chief Owonifaari and Head of Amotekun (Femi Adebayo), as well as the prosthetic body used for the  rotting corpse of Teju. The tripartite genius of Tunde Babalola, Nodash and Afolayan has previously been seen   in films such as The Tribunal (2017) and Mokalik (2019). Yet Ijogbon neither has any of the grim atmosphere of The Tribunal, nor the enigmatic and documentary-like aura of Mokalik. Instead, it is  fast-paced and thrilling, with characters and dialogues that are quite accessible and barely alienate any demographic of Nigerian viewers. 

In his politics of filmmaking, Afolayan tries not to be stereotyped. His genius as a filmmaker is seen in his successful attempts at being unpredictable and macroscopic. He achieves this feat by addressing different themes in each of his films, while also shuffling his cast,  retaining only trusted faces from his production crew. Ijogbon has a slice of this. “Ijogbon is different from my other productions. It’s unique because I worked with some teenagers on the project. It is inspired by the location, which is my mother’s hometown, ” he says, prior to the release of the film.

On Ijogbon, Afolayan is himself: he incorporates dialogues rendered in English, Yoruba, with a bit of Igbo, Mandarin, Igbirra, French and local Beninois language, all tailored to meet the linguistic needs of the characters and eclectic taste of viewers; and, in  spite of the gore , he provides some comic relief as seen in the characters of the grandiloquent principal (Yemi Sodimu) and fanatically pious Rev. Sangodoyin (Sam Dede). There are a few other  comical moments, such as when Omooba displays his delight at having to acquire a new iPhone, when Broda Kasali wisecracks that “ki eyin to mo Bisi l’emi ti n bisi”, and when language barrier causes a momentary disagreement between Mama Oby (Tana Adelana) and Alabi (Bolaji Amusan) over the identity of a Chinese man. Also commendable is how Afolayan stays in touch with the plot, hardly digressing, as even what seems like the extraneous detail of Oranmiyan’s treasures helps to shape Ming Hoo’s motivations  and contributes to his decision to save the teenagers and relinquish the pieces of diamonds.

As simple as the story of Ijogbon is, it comes down with some narrative imperfections. For instance, while Chidera and her cohorts are believed to be involved in a subterranean illegal deal, it is not exactly clear to viewers what the deal is. Even though we  sense they are business partners, the film leaves viewers to figure out the nature of the relationship between Kafachan, Banjo, Chidera, Ming Hoo and Teju. Also, for a girl of her age who has never held a gun, Oby easily gets used to handling one and pulling the trigger within a short period of time. Then, no detail is provided regarding the money Ranti owes Broda Kasali, for which the older man stalks him. Towards the end, the film launches an indirect attack at the inefficiency of the Nigerian police institution when the investigators easily fall for the falsified explanations of the children and the Chinese man without, especially  since it is a murder case. When the Chinese, who isn’t a legal minor like the teenagers, is allowed to go scot-free, the film chalks off the credibility of the Nigerian legal system. 

Ijogbon is arguably not one of the best things that have happened to New Nollywood or Afolayan so far. The Figurine and October 1 broke new grounds. But Ijogbon is dispensable because it basically thrives on theme and visuals. The film addresses the japa wave, the craze for material wealth, and parenting, all of which are issues affecting teenagers and young adults in contemporary Nigerian society. The film depicts young people as rash and uncritical, as observed, for instance, in how Oby risks being killed when she attacks the gun-toting Chief Owonifaari with a tray. This intentionality is acceptable. Ijogbon is stuck with instinctive narrative simplicity that should not be over-thought and scissored to the bone; thus, in spite of its telling shots and aesthetics with commendable acting, the storyline feels like a wavering part of Afolayan’s filmmaking repertoire.