Saturday, June 18, 2011


MPAA (unrated)  Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -
Official Website -

Arugbá (written and directed by Tunde Kelani) a Yoruba language film with English subtitles from Nigeria played recently at the 9th Annual Chicago African Diaspora International Film Festival held at Facets’ Multimedia in Chicago between June 17-23, 2011.

As I’ve written here before with regards to the widely regarded South Korean movie Shi (meaning Poetry) and the recent Egyptian film Sheherazade tell me a Story, one of the joys of going to the movies is that for the price of admission (or rental) one can travel to widely varied places and times.  If then, a film comes along which is written, directed and produced elsewhere, it’s all the more remarkable/authentic.  This is because it comes from the time, culture and place where it was made with the people of that time, culture and place (or at least the director coming from that time, culture and place) telling their own story.  Such is the case with the acclaimed movie Arugbá coming from Nigeria, which earned 9 nominations at the 5th African Movie Academy Awards in 2009.

Arugbá takes place in a provincial town in contemporary Nigeria.  Whatever else the law may or may not have said or whether or not a nominally elected government existed, the town is presented as being run by a local “king.”  This fact, reminded one that “kings” and “chiefs”/“nobility” everywhere had their roots in basically mafia-like structures.  What made a “king,” “chief” or “nobleman?”  Such a person was/is simply the strongest/street-smart person around.  In the Godfather movies, these people were called “Dons.”  In Arugbá, they are called “kings” and their advisors “chiefs.”

In the case of this story, the “king’s” name was Adejare (played by Peter Badedo), and yes, he lived in the biggest house in the neighborhood, held court in his living room, often holding a traditional staff/scepter in his hand and sitting in a rather comfortable chair.  His advisers kept tabs on what’s going on in the neighborhood and reported to the king.  The system was financed through extortion/corruption.  There was no particular need to "bang heads" too often, except if someone for some reason suddenly decided not to make the customary payoff or a “chief” suddenly became too greedy and didn’t properly report/share his extortion earnings with the "king."  (Both kinds of incidents happen during the course of the film).  In the movie, no one really questioned the system.  It was simply ingrained in the people of the town, even though everyone, _including the king_, was fascinated with Barack Obama’s campaign and election in the United States.  Still no one asked, “Hey, who exactly ever elected our king?”

Living with this kind of "day-to-day disconnect" was presented in the film as occurring in many other areas of life.  It became clear, for instance, that this traditional culture valued women’s virginity before marriage.  Indeed, the movie in good part revolved around a traditional festival in the town in which an Arugbá (a ceremonial virgin) from the town played a vital role.  On the other hand, it was made clear in the movie that it was very hard for women pursuing any kind of education to maintain their virginity through the course of their studies because the men of the town considered unmarried women fair game to simply take (and therefore rape).  Here there was more opposition to the status quo by young women, who tended to stick together, organize themselves into all women’s clubs and so forth.  But it was clear just how difficult it was to protect themselves.

The story’s primary protagonist Adetutu (played by Bukola Awoyemi) was a university student, hence obviously bright and already quite educated, but also of some years.  It was clear that in that society it was favored for women marry early (while their virginity could not be questioned).  But this also meant that most women had only minimal education.  So one could imagine the relative surprise in the town when Adetutu arrived to sign-up to play the role of the Arugba in the town’s festival _even though she was of university age_.  The “chief” responsible for the festival’s planning didn’t believe her and later neither did the “king.”  But she was wishing to prove a point, if with great difficulty, indeed many points, in a culture that would have liked very much to find excuse to dismiss a still young (but older than most of the young mothers/wives) but educated woman as “useless.”  And yes, she did have a sincere love interest, Makinwa (played by Segun Adefila).  He wanted to join her all female dance troupe (again, that’s how the young unmarried women organized to keep themselves safe).  But she had to keep at a distance so that she could both (immediately) have the role of the Arugba in the traditional festival and (later) finish her studies prior to getting married. 

Finally the attitude of fatalism played out in the movie with regard to AIDS.  A NGO came to the town to setup an AIDS testing clinic and treatment center.  The king and the chiefs didn’t mind as long as they got their cut.  But the big problem was that many people didn’t want to get tested.  Indeed, many died as a result of AIDS without ever knowing that they had it.  A particularly touching if somewhat inevitable story in the midst of the film (given the sexual behavior of the men described above) was that of a woman who had been a virgin when she had gotten married (at a very young age) and remained completely faithful to her husband throughout her marriage.  Despite this, she found that she was HIV infected through the promiscuity of her husband. 

Still, in the midst of so much denial and political apathy, the beauty, _color_ and richness of the culture was also presented in the film.  Even the poorest of people dressed in wonderfully colored clothes.  The music was beautiful and intricately choreographed dance so much part of the soul that it seemed all but effortless. And as dysfunctional as the government was portrayed, the society functioned and given that expectations were very low, it arguably flourished.  Most people were portrayed, almost certainly truthfully, as being basically happy most of the time.  And yet present was the repeated theme of societal apathy and resignation in face of endemic corruption and social ills (especially with regard to the treatment of women).   

Finally, a some words on how Christianity was portrayed in the movie.  Christians appeared twice in the movie.  The first time, at the beginning of the movie a somewhat crazed (understood by bystanders to be despondent) Nigerian came to the local square with a Bible in hand, preaching a fire and brimstone to whoever would listen: “Repent, for judgement is at hand.”  Most of the people appeared to dismiss him as being crazy, but at least one woman noted that he was simply despondent since his wife had left him for a rich man in Lagos (the capital).  The second time that Christians appeared was somewhere in the second half of the movie.  In this case, a missionary couple arrived in the town, and asked for permission to build a church.  As with the NGO asking to build an AIDS clinic in town, neither the “king” nor the “chiefs” had a problem with the missionaries building a new church in town, as long as they used “approved builders” (as long as they got a cut...).  From the expressions of the missionary couple as one of the chiefs negotiated the deal them, it would seem that they “didn’t have a clue” as to how the town (or society) worked.  And that is something that Christians and missionaries perhaps ought to take note of – each society has its ways of doing things (for good and ill).  It behooves missionaries to learn how the society works as well as both the society's positive and negative values and then, yes, uphold the good and challenge the bad.  

All in all, I found Arugbá to be outstanding film, well deserving its acclaim and its nine African Movie Academy Awards nominations and I was happy to have been able to see it here at the Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival this year.

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