Not quite a fairy tale
I am a Nollywood fan and a die-hard Kelani groupie. I have seen every film of his, from Abeni to Saworoide, and have loved them all. Striking cinematography, lyrical writing, gripping drama, and careful treatment of social issues are just a few of the feats that make Kelani's work peerless.
Kelani is able to craft the most unforgettable stories on film with very limited resources. But, for all my admiration for the Kelani collection of movies, I was a somewhat disappointed with The Narrow Path.
Working with a novel by Bayo Adebowale, Kelani tells a story not just about the loss of virginity but the stupidity of placing too much value on it.
The Narrow Path has all the Kelanic features that set movies like Thunder Bolt and Agogo Eewo apart from the typical Nollywood production. The cinematography is compelling.
Village life is portrayed in beautiful scenes of children playing in the river, streamside exchange of village belles, dance festivals, folk songs, etc. The scenic, bucolic Yoruba village is both pleasing and believable.
The plot is simple and entertaining, if not excitingly fairytalish: Odejimi finds out on his wedding night that his wife, Awero, is a "broken pot."Crushed and disappointed, he sends her away. As men from both villages march to war, Awero leads a mob of women to the battle ground and averts the war. Virginity test is abolished.
Up to this point, I am entertained even though unimpressed. Awero seems too much like Disney's Pocahontas and as for Odejimi, I'll say: unremarkable.
"But whatever. It's no big deal," I think to myself as I wait for the credits to roll. Instead of the credits, my mind is clobbered by the sentence that goes something like this "Odejimi and Awero were reunited and lived happily ever after." That was when I became slightly horrified.
First of all, Odejimi finds out that Awero is not a virgin only because he rapes her on their wedding night. Knowing she is not a virgin, she refuses to sleep with him, but he still has his way with her against her will.
I know many people in Nigeria who do not think that a husband forcing the wife to have sex with him is rape, but still, it is hard to see how that paves the way for a happy-ever-after reunion. As if raping his wife is not reprehensible enough, Odejimi tells on her despite her earnest plea.
I don't know what Kelani was thinking, but Odejimi does not quite cut the figure of a prince charming. But, why did Kelani's attempt at telling a love story go awry? Was he even attempting to tell a love story?
My guess is that Kelani let his eagerness to send a cultural message cloud his aspirations to tell a love story. Old-school storytellers like Kelani are only too anxious to educate the public, so they tell stories with moral lessons.
This impulse is an old one with deep roots in an oral tradition and a modern literary ethos embodied in the concept of the storyteller (writer, filmmaker, etc) as teacher.
Even in this impulse to teach, Narrow Path is not altogether successful. The moral lesson in the movie is that the tradition of policing female sexuality by requiring that women pass a virginity test is bad.
But why is it bad? How did the villagers come to the realisation that the value placed on virginity and the act of testing for it is unfair to women?
Like stories too eager to teach, The Narrow Path provides an answer that is rather square and simplistic: if the value placed on virginity can get a bunch of men angry and snowball into war and carnage, it is not worth it and should be abolished.
That answer is unsatisfying for the simple reason that virginity testing and other such practices like female circumcision are dangerous, not because they lead to war among men but because they give society power over women's bodies.
Kelani might have put this idea across more successfully if he had made the villagers more reflective on their values about female sexuality and the deeper cultural assumptions that underlie them.
It's rather ironic that Kelani aspires to tell a story that criticises society's control over women's bodies while letting Odejimi's sexual violence against Awero's body go unaddressed. Perhaps Kelani did not readily see that the kink in the cultural system that allows virginity testing also informs Odejimi's willingness to rape his wife with impunity and without compunction.
Kelani's attempt at inviting us to rethink our assumptions about female sexuality is undoubtedly laudable. However, you go away from watching the moving thinking that Kelani grounds such a grand initiative on too tenuous a plot.
Ainehi Edoro teaches Writing at the Columbia College, Chicago.