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Elesin Oba Movie: A Director’s Burden of Transmedia Storytelling

Elesin Oba Movie: A Director’s Burden of Transmedia Storytelling

New on Netflix, the much anticipated Biyi Bandele flick, ‘Elesin Oba: The King Horseman,’ a film adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s classic tragedy, is a rich assortment of actors, spectacle and bull’s eye moments. But could this movie by EbonyLife Films upstage its textual and theatrical forms? Yinka Olatunbosun asks.

‘You have no respect for what you don’t understand.’ This is the defining line conveying the very essence of the drama that the Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka penned against the backdrop of actual events that took place in Oyo, South West of colonial Nigeria around 1946. First performed in 1975 as a stage play at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, the movie becomes Nigeria’s second flick to be screened at the Toronto Film Festival.

Elesin Oba, a 1 hour 36 minutes long movie, opens with an establishing scene that points to Elesin’s tragic flaw- his indiscriminate love of women. Through the visual narration, Biyi Bandele, a transmedia storyteller and film maker transports the same themes of universal struggles of the will, culture clash, colonial subjugation, racial prejudice from text to screen while beaming lights on traditional Yoruba worldview and cosmology.

Arguably, the story of Elesin Oba-in its movie format- is simplified and perhaps shorter than most theatre productions of it. The multi-racial drama tells the story of Elesin’s fall from a pedestal of honour to a place of shame. His reluctance to fulfill his cultural mandate of committing ritual suicide upon the King’s demise is the conflict of the drama  woven on the threads of a multi-racial cast.

For a play that has been staged repeatedly in theatres across the globe, Elesin Oba’s film treatment comes with some freshness rooted in its casting, original score and translation. It could well be a critic’s delight to see the metamorphosis of Nollywood’s screen regulars. 

Odunlade, largely known for comedies exerts his physical assets -his voice and his height -in delivering his lines and nailing the characterisation. What a better match he finds in Iyaloja (Shaffy Bello) during the confrontational scenes. Bello’s marked deviation from impeccable English to sweet-sounding Yoruba accentuated her flawless artistry. The seasoned actor, Jide Kosoko who has a slew of yoruba movie credits in the leading surprisingly takes on the supporting role of Sergeant Amusa in Elesin Oba while Joke Silva and Taiwo Ajai-Lycett delivered a spots-on screen chemistry to project their upper-class characters in the ballroom.

Deyemi Okanlawon represents one of the best casting decisions for the movie. He understands the degree of rage needed to make the character of Olunde believable so he brings the fury. 

And the biggest discovery by the director is Olawale Brymo who doubles as a singer and praise singer in the movie, without necessarily making one skill look better than the other. His emotive soundtrack ejects life into the sung narration thus complementing the poetic structure of the original play.

The movie has two distinct locations: the home of the District Officer and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Pelkings (Mark Elderkin and Jenny Stead) and the surrounding village where Elesin, other chiefs, traders and others reside. Undoubtedly, it’s a tough call for a movie director to recreate to perfection the locale of the period drama. However, efforts were made to situate the epic drama in its socio-political contexts with the use of costumes as well as diction. 

But can this movie upstage its textual and theatrical forms? That’s debatable. Certainly, the literary text is the basis for all other transmedia storytelling. However, due to the depth of Soyinka’s language, some readers don’t consider the play an easy read. Thus, the movie makes the story more accessible to non-readers of Soyinka’s works except for the younger audience that are excluded. The movie adaptation of ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ is more conversational than incantatory. Some conservative audiences would argue that the literary text is better.  Every theatre buff would probably remain biased towards the stage interpretation for its often detailed rite of passage scenes.  

Asides being EbonyLife Studios’ cinematic maturation from the transgressions of Chief Daddy 2, Elesin Oba is considerably an  audacious and contemplative experiment into recreating a history totally lost in cultural dislocation.

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