Promoting indigenous languages on film

Do you still blow that trumpet of yours', Akinwumi Isola asks musician Orlando Julius. Photo: AKINTAYO ABODUNRIN
Do you still blow that trumpet of yours', Akinwumi Isola asks musician Orlando Julius. Photo: AKINTAYO ABODUNRIN

The relevance of indigenous languages, an issue that has generated lively debates among scholars, came to fore again at the third edition of 'Behind the Screen', a festival of indigenous African films, held from August 23 to 28, 2009, in Akure, Ondo State.

With 'The Impact and Survival of Indigenous Languages in Films' as its theme, the weeklong festival organised by Remdel Optimum Communications, a movie production and distribution company, provided a forum to examine how making films in native languages, like writing in local languages, could aid the propagation and preservation of African culture.

Films in Africa and Nigeria

Director General, Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC), Tunde Babawale, kick-started the debate in the opening lecture on the theme. The historian began with the arrival of cinema in Africa in the 1900s, the first African production, 'Afrique Sur Seine' (1955) produced in Paris by a group of African students, eventually touching on filmmaking in Nigeria.

Babawale disclosed that Nigeria's first feature film was produced in 1957 when Federal Films made 'Moral Disarmament'. 'Bound for Lagos' and 'Culture in Transition' followed in 1962 and 1963. The first independent film, an adaptation of Wole Soyinka's 'Kongi's Harvest' was made in 1970.

Indigenous feature films in Yoruba, including 'Aiye', 'Jayesimi', 'Orun Mooru', 'Aare Agbaye' and others, followed. Babawale also traced the transition from celluloid to home video, noting that, "Language confers on films an enduring visual character, for it is language that drives the action."

He highlighted the impact of indigenous languages in films to include preservation of language, propagation of culture, encouragement of language learning; they also help in role interpretation, and enhance film's aesthetic values.

For African languages to survive, the culture administrator suggested increasing the production of films in indigenous languages, raising the quality of the movies, engaging professional translators and evolving a competitive marketing strategy.

Babawale also mentioned the need to encourage and celebrate indigenous writers and proposed a translation policy that would make indigenous language films accessible to non-speakers. "African indigenous languages constitute the golden pot of our heritage. Positive attempts and strategies to ensure their survival should be encouraged and supported," he concluded.

Guarding against a disaster

Earlier, the festival director, Biodun Ibitola disclosed what informed the choice of the theme. "As we all know, the ultimate survival of any culture depends largely on the survival of the language through which it is transmitted from generation to generation, as well as to other cultures for assimilation," she said.

"Regretably, colonisation has not only intruded into African indigenous languages, but has eroded it to the point of extinction". Ibitola added that "To guard against this avoidable disaster, there is the need for a drastic change of attitude to the study and use of our indigenous languages in Africa, and Nigeria being the undisputable big brother of the black race, must take a lead in this direction.

"This is the reason we have chosen, through what we know how to do best, that is, film production, to take the lead in our efforts to contribute our quota to the on-going efforts at re-branding Nigeria, through the effective packaging of Nigerian indigenous languages in films to other parts of the world."

How government can help

The festival's opening event included a drama sketch by students of BSN Arts Institute established by Remdel. Producer Tunji Bamisigbin commended the organisers and urged the Ondo and Ekiti state governments to support the Art Institute.

He cited the example of California which thrives on entertainment and IT and said governments should collaborate with the Ibitolas on how the school could be used to create employment.

A retired broadcaster, Dipo Babalola prayed that the festival would grow to become the African equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival.

Art elders and promoters of Yoruba culture, Adebayo Faleti and Akinwumi Isola spoke in Yoruba. "Mo ki yin o, gbogbo eyin janmo. Se e binu si wa pe a pe? (I greet everybody; hope you are not angry we arrived late?), said Faleti, who also sang a traditional song.

Isola said that although initiatives like the festival are meant to uplift Yoruba culture, "We've not been succeeding too much.

Maybe we've not been addressing it well." The author of 'Efunsetan Aniwura', 'Ole Ku' and other plays nonetheless commended the organisers just as he charged Yoruba filmmakers to produce cartoons in Yoruba to attract children and teach them the language.

Isola added that filmmakers should explore adapting some of the late D. O. Fagunwa's works into cartoons.

A case of many fathers

The saying 'success has many fathers, failure is an orphan' played out during the opening of the festival, when officials of Ondo and Ekiti states fell over themselves to pledge support. Ondo State Commissioner for Information, Ranti Akerele, said, "We'll partner with the Ministry of Information. We 'll also partner with everybody that has something positive to give Ondo State."

The Director of Information, Ekiti State, Deji Ayelabowo ,toed the same path. He acknowledged Remdel's effort at providing employment for the youth and said the Ekiti State government planned to host the festival next year.

The Ondo State governor, Olusegun Mimiko who was represented by the artist Tola Wewe, the culture and tourism commissioner, stated that beyond entertaining, films should also edify. He also pledged to support the organisers and said that the state was planning to build a film village at Idanre.

Apart from the opening, there were other interesting sessions at the festival. Sanya Oyinsan, a broadcaster, spoke on 'Effectiveness of Indigenous languages in Modern Day Broadcasting'; Mabel Evwierhoma of the University of Abuja discussed 'Grassroot Mobilisation in the New Distribution Network' during the business forum called 'Karakata Forum'; and Ajibola Basiru Suraj's paper was titled 'Key Legal Aspects of the Entertainment Industry'.

Participants unwound on the third day of the festival with an excursion to Idanre Hill.'Ogiri Oko', a movie about Esu Elegbara, the prankster god in Yoruba mythology and 'Ofin Ga' exploring widowhood rites in a unique way, were some of the films that were screened during the festival.