The Return of Traditional Yoruba Films: A Resurgence of Cultural Richness

By Michael Kolawole

Film-making is cyclical. It’s an ever-evolving art that often goes back to the old period to pick inspirations and concepts, then repackages and presents them as new. The Yoruba film industry, renowned for its rich cultural heritage and storytelling prowess, is on the cyclical trajectory of rebirthing and returning to the old concepts of traditional Yoruba films, with each iteration adding something contemporary to their stories.

Elesin Oba, The King’s Horseman (2002): 

This is an adaptation of Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman, directed by the late filmmaker Biyi Bandele. 

This film is based on real events that took place in Oyo, an ancient Yoruba city in Nigeria, in 1946. That year, the lives of Elesin (Olori Elesin), his son, and the Colonial District Officer intertwined with the disastrous results set out in the film. After the king’s death, as convention demands, Elesin Oba (the king’s horseman) must sacrifice himself to serve his deceased king in the afterlife. On the night of the king’s burial, Elesin must commit ritual suicide. Through Elesin’s ritual suicide, the king would gain free passage into the land of the gods and save the community from disaster. 

Elesin Oba harps on the Yoruba supernatural matrix to disseminate the message of virtue and cultural renewal to the world. 

Ageshinkole (King of Thieves, 2022):  

Ageshinkole, known as the King of Thieves, opens the door to a world of daring heists and banditry, intricate plots, complex characters, stunning and distinctive visual effects, and compelling performances strung together to create a magical tale of retribution and forgiveness.

Ageshinkole effortlessly weaves together the fabric of Yoruba culture, captivating audiences with its authenticity and depth.

At its core, Ageshinkole pays homage to the age-old tradition of oral storytelling—a cornerstone of Yoruba culture. It showcases the craftsmanship of Yoruba storytellers, where narratives are passed down through generations, preserving history, values, and wisdom. This film embodies the essence of Yoruba cinema’s return, reminding us of the importance of connecting with our cultural roots.

Deftly directed by Adebayo Tijani and Tope Adebayo, Ageshinkole is passionately acted. This film serves as a compelling reminder of the power of traditional Yoruba storytelling is set against a backdrop of moral dilemmas and societal issues, 

Anikulapo (2022): 

Traditional Yoruba films have always been a window into the Yoruba world, and Anikulapo, directed by Kunle Afolayan, the offspring of the late Yoruba actor and filmmaker Adeyemi Josiah Afolayan (popularly known as Ade Love), is no exception. 

Anikulapo ventures into the mystical realms of Yoruba culture, inviting audiences on a journey of love and betrayal, death and resurrection. Despite its two-fold chronology, this cinematic piece explores the profound connection between mortals and the supernatural, capturing the essence of Yoruba spirituality. With breathtaking visuals and a narrative that tugs at the soul, Anikulapo transcends the boundaries of ordinary cinema.

The Yoruba Ifa corpus is the ideal basis for this story. It serves as a reminder of the enduring allure of Yoruba mythology, where gods and spirits coexist with humanity. The film’s mysticism is proof of the intricate belief system that has shaped Yoruba culture for centuries.

Orisa (2023): 

Written, produced, and directed by actor and filmmaker Odunlade Adekola, Orisa bears the bones and flesh of Ageshinkole (King of Thieves) but has a slight variation of deference for the gods as a heartbeat. The king, who is supposed to respect and worship the gods of the lands, loses respect for the gods and his people. The gods inflict him with sanity. The king’s insanity puts the kingdom at risk of being captured by a terrorist, with whom the king once struck a deal. 

This cinematic expedition is an embodiment of the Yoruba storytelling tradition, where myths and gods come to life on the big screen. The film’s visual brilliance and narrative transport viewers to a world where the boundaries between the earthly and the divine blur.

Jagun Jagun (The Warriors, 2023): 

Jagun Jagun (The Warriors) takes us on an emotional rollercoaster, depicting the harsh realities of war and the indomitable spirit of the Yoruba people. This bloodletting war story doesn’t shy away from the brutality of conflict, yet it also highlights the unwavering courage and determination of its characters. 

The film is set in a fictional kingdom where intra-ethnic battles are the order of the day, and Ogundiji, a charismatic but ruthless warlord, manipulates his way to reign over other kingdoms. Working from a story by Femi Adebayo, and drawing strength from his rich Yoruba heritage, Adebayo Tijani penned the delightful screenplay that not only transports us to a world steeped in history and mythology but embodies cultural resonance, character depth, and emotional complexity.

In the Yoruba tradition, storytelling has always been a means of reflecting on the human experience, including the trials and tribulations faced by communities in times of conflict. Jagun Jagun serves as a reminder of the resilience that defines Yoruba culture, showcasing the enduring spirit of a people who have weathered countless storms throughout their history. 

After it was released a couple of weeks ago on Netflix, Jagun Jagun swiftly climbed and landed in the fifth spot on non-English global charts within just a week, with a staggering over 2 million hours of viewing. 

There’s something special about watching each creator’s perspective on these classic fantasies or dramas, which lets us experience them through a fresh lens every time. As much as these elements remain consistent across genres, it is this variation that continually breathes life into film storytelling and encourages us to come back to these timeless tales with enthusiasm! These films transform the mythical repertoire of old Yoruba theatre troupes by injecting it with a modern technique and vigour and preserving it for posterity. 

The Cultural Significance of Yoruba Cinema’s Revival

Beyond their entertainment value, these films hold profound cultural significance. They are more than just movies; they are cultural ambassadors that reintroduce Yoruba heritage to a global audience. Through the lens of Ageshinkole, Anikulapo, Orisa, and Jagun Jagun, we see how Yoruba cinema preserves and celebrates the values, traditions, and spirituality of Yoruba culture.

These films bridge generational gaps, uniting audiences of all ages in their appreciation for Yoruba storytelling. They are not just a return to tradition but also a bridge to the future, ensuring that Yoruba culture remains vibrant and relevant in an ever-changing world.

The Future of Traditional Yoruba Cinema

As we celebrate the revival of traditional Yoruba films, we can’t help but look forward to the future. With a new generation of talented directors, actors, and storytellers emerging, the future of Yoruba cinema appears bright. The resurgence of traditional Yoruba films is not a mere nostalgia trip but a reinvigoration of a timeless cultural treasure.

These films invite us to immerse ourselves in the captivating myths and legends of Yoruba culture. The return of traditional Yoruba films, epitomized by Elesin Oba (The King’s Horseman) Ageshinkole (The King of Thieves), Anikulapo, Orisa, and Jagun Jagun (The Warriors), is a celebration of cultural richness and storytelling brilliance. These films transport us to the heart of Yoruba culture, reminding us of the enduring power of cinema to connect us with our heritage and inspire us for generations to come.

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