Aesthetics and Semiotics in Nigerian Films: An Analysis of Saworoide (Brass Bell), A Tunde Kilani’s Film
Femi ADEDINA, PhD
Adjunct Associate Professor
Department of Performing Arts
Lead City University, Ibadan, Nigeria
Department of Theatre Arts
Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, Ijanikin
PMB 007, FESTAC Town, Lagos
Victor Tunji TAIWO
Department of Mass Communication
South Western University
Sagamu-Benin Expressway, Okun-Owa
PMB 2088, Ijebu-Ode
Ogun State, Nigeria
Semiotics is an aspect of communication that uses signs, symbols, and signification to share ideas and information. It is a non-verbal communication cue that indicates how meanings are created. Film is one of many modes of expression that is based on representations and there will be the use of images and symbols within individual film. This paper intends to examine semiotics and symbols and other nonverbal cues as used in a Nigerian film, Saworoide, film produced by Tunde Kelani’s Mainframe Productions. It will also explore meanings and embedded meanings as created and reflected in the film. In addition, it will extrapolate the symbols, semiotics and nonverbal cues in relationship to Yoruba cultural values from the cultural milieu that serves as the film’s setting and location. This paper finally examines aesthetical values inherent within the film vis-a vis the use of indigenous semiotics within the context of a Nigerian film.
Keywords: Semiotics, Nonverbal Cues, Symbols, Nigerian film, Indigenous Communication and Aesthetics
Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands for it. Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used “to tell” at all. I think that the definition of a “theory of the lie” should be taken as a pretty comprehensive program for a general semiotics (Eco 7 in Adesanya 48).
The above quotation is not accidental; rather, it is to give an insight to what semiotics stands for. Semiotics is an aspect of communication that uses signs, symbols, and signification to share ideas and information. It is a non-verbal communication cue that indicates how meanings are created. Film is one of many modes of expression based on representations and there will be the use of images and symbols within individual film. Film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still images which, when shown on a screen, creates the illusion of moving images due to the phenomenon. This optical illusion causes the audience to perceive continuous motion between separate objects viewed rapidly in succession. A film is created by photographing actual scenes with a motion picture camera; by photographing drawings or miniature models using traditional animation techniques; by means of Computer-Generated Image (CGI) and computer animation; or by a combination of some or all of these techniques and other visual effects (Wiki 1). Films are cultural artefacts created by specific cultures. They reflect those cultures, and, in turn, affect them. Film is considered to be an important art form, a source of popular entertainment, and a powerful medium for educating or indoctrinating citizens (viewers).
The visual basis of film gives it a universal power of communication (Wiki 1). The uses of indigenous forms of communication in Nigeria film, especially in Yoruba society can be better understood within the framework of semiotics theoretical tradition. “Semiology” refers to the study of signs within the framework of social life. Saussure who used the term, “semiology,” explains that semiology is the science that has to do with the study of signs in the society; and Charles Sanders Pierce, an American pragmatist philosopher, who coined the word, “semiotics,” defines it as, ‘the scientific study of sign systems’ (Olatunji 251). The two definitions can be associated with modern day semiotics (Chandler 5).
While Saussure emphasizes the social function of the sign, Pierce emphasizes its logical function. Both aspects are closely correlated and today, the two words ‘semiology’ and ‘semiotics’ refer to the same discipline with the Europeans using the former and the Americans using the latter (Adesanya 50). Therefore, semiotics can be referred to as the study of sign processes, signification, or the study of signs and symbols. However there exist the formalistic and social aspects of semiotics, the former (Semiology) abstracting signs from the contexts of their usage while the latter (Semiotics) examines semiotic practices that are specific to our culture. The meanings are inferred from the societal expectations, norms, cultural values, individual experiences, and environmental contexts, to showcase the aesthetics of our society as projected in films. Sign is therefore something that is used to represent or stand for another thing. As New World Encyclopaedia puts it, It may be understood as a discrete unit of meaning, and includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds – essentially all of the ways in which information can be communicated as a message by any sentient, reasoning mind to another (in Adesanya 53).
Meanwhile, the sign is composed of signifier or an index which is the form the sign takes and signified as symbols which is the concept the sign stands for. The relationships between the signified and signifier is the signification. Signification is the mental representation of the ‘thing’ which is the concept (Adesanya 53). Therefore, the three basic components of signs in line with signification are icons, symbols, and index. Symbolic signification as Chandler puts it is the mode in which the signifier does not have any resemblance with the signified which is fundamentally arbitrary or purely conventional, rather, that the relationship must be studied (32). For instance, in language: alphabetical letters, punctuation marks, words, phrases and sentences; numbers, Morse code, traffic lights, national flags, etc. The symbolic signification does not have a natural link between the form and the thing represented, but only has a conventional link. Handler describes icons as objects that have ‘qualities which resemble those of the objects they represent’ (10). This is exemplified in a portrait, a cartoon or a scaled model, onomatopoeia, metaphors, ‘realistic’ sounds in ‘music programme,’ sound effects in radio drama, a dubbed film soundtrack, and imitative gestures, among others.
Iconic sign is divided into three namely, images, diagrams and metaphors. Indexical signification according to Chandler is a mode of sign in which the signifier is not arbitrary but directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified (49). This link can be observed or inferred: e.g. ‘natural signs’ (smoke, thunder, footprints, echoes, non-synthetic odours and flavours), medical symptoms (pain, a rash, pulse rate), measuring instruments (weather clock, thermometer, clock, spirit-level), ‘signals’ (a knock on a door, a phone ringing), pointers (a pointing ‘index’ finger, a directional signpost), recordings (a photograph, a film, video or television shot, an audio-recorded voice), personal ‘trademarks’ (handwriting, catchphrase) and indexical words (‘that,’ ‘this’, ‘here’, ‘there’) (Adesanya 61). The factor that emanated from the foregoing assertions is semiotics which can be ascribed as a social oriented process whereby every sign generates meaning either collectively or individually, within the contexts of cultural milieu. It thus seems that signs and symbols appropriate to every situation are available for use among the Yoruba, but can only be correctly interpreted based on the cultural competence of the decoder. Therefore, this paper addresses three important questions: To what extent were indigenous signs and symbols employed in portraying the aesthetics of cultural value among the Yoruba in Nigerian films? What are the potentials of indigenous signs and symbols as reflected in Nigerian films, especially the film under review? To what extent do the viewers understand the semiological perspective in Nigerian films?
Synopsis of the Film: Saworoide (Brass Bell)
The film, Saworoide, was produced in 1999 by Tunde Kelani of Mainframe Productions to reflect the level of social-political antics within Nigeria political context as the nation transcended from junta period to democratic dispensation. However, the film replicates the political scenes as seen overtime in the country till present. It has its setting in the town of Jogbo, which connotes, “bitterness,” andYoruba language as the medium of expression to reflect the use of indigenous semiotics. Saworoide has the blend of the Yoruba mythological philosophy of the traditional and modern imperative to extremely ex-ray the issue of governance vis-a-vis how the responsibilities of the political and public holders are expected to be. The film also examines the sudden invasion of the military (Lagata and the military boys) into politics signifying that they would not have had to make foray into politics if politics properly handled by the politicians. Equally, Saworoide points at the struggle of the oppressed and their level of ability and strength to strive harder to muster the repressive reigns that trampled upon their human rights and threatened their means of existence. Aside these, Saworoide also scrutinised the negative roles played by lickspittle elements in present day polity, and how they help to ensconce the military dictatorship (Balogun and Seriki) due to the gains they intend getting from the regimes. The film begins with the request by the entourage who surrounded the dying king thereby demanding for guidance before his departure to the world beyond. Quite alright the king died, but before he died, he instructed them on the prerequisite pact between the ancient community and the kings that ruled over it. The demise of the king brought the installation of the new king, Lapite in Jogbo town. However, the precondition of the ascendancy to the throne of Onijogbo is a ritual practice that involves oath taking and of course incision that binds the king elect which symbolises sincerity, loyalty and integrity. Contrary to the traditional pact between every Onijogbo and Jogbo itself, the newly installed king, “Lapite” refused oath-taking and incision because of his selfish interest and plans to enrich himself on the throne by looting the treasury and controlling the economy of the land, thereby evading the consequences of not abiding by the traditional rights of king making. Unfortunately, Lapite and his allied did not know that there is a great danger to uninitiated king. If saworoide drum is beaten to his hearing, it is the splitting headache that would kill such king. And also, such king would be deposed and replaced by another person who has the right to the exalted throne of the land.
Crisis and Conflict
The crisis and conflict in the film was ignited by Lapite having realised how the consequences of his not been initiated at the incipient stage of the king making process. Lapite was desperate to ensconce himself in the position of power and authority that he employed several means to reverse and avert the danger looming on his head. He assassinated Adebomi because he was the next in line for the kingship, and tried severally to snatch the Saworoide drum. In all his missions, Lapite could not succeed as Adebola survived and succeeded his father Adebomi, while Ayangalu was with Saworoide drum, operating from exile.
To Lapite, danger was off the way, so he concentrated on the viable economy of Jogbo kingdom to enrich himself, which symbolises (the corrupt government or administration). He created avenue for foreign investors (timber contractors) which symbolises the present day Nigeria’s oil economy and multi-national oil companies thereby demanding for his own share of the dividend which is hidden in a foreign account. While Lapite and his Chiefs embark on jailing and killing those in opposition to him, several groups sprang up, those that wanted him to continue with his reign (pro Lapite) and (anti Lapite) the farmers’ group joined by the aggrieved youths who exhausted every means in the struggle to unseat Lapite, which represent Nigeria’s pressure groups and human right groups in reality.
In the course of celebrating his fifteenth years in the office, he was miffed by the youths’ actions as he clamped down on the oppositions. Then began Lapite’s tyrannical reign as several arrests of those who could challenge his manner of administration were made, such as the journalist and the leaders of the opposition groups. But the investors (timber merchants) were feeling the heat as their businesses were affected by the chaos in the land. So, they suggested to Lapite to invite an umpire, Lagata, (military personnel) to install peace and order in the kingdom and bring back the stolen crown which is the symbol of headship and authority. Successfully, Lagata retrieved and recovered the crown back.
In appreciating the good deed of Lagata in helping in the recovery the crown Lapite decided to honour him at the grand finale celebration of his fifteen years anniversary in the office. As he asked him to name his price, surprisingly, Lagata demanded for the crown, asking to be installed as the king through an open coup. Lapite’s resistance led to his death by Lagata, and eventually, the military took over the government. It should be noted that there still exist some sycophants from the previous administration in the corridor of power to run government with the present regime. Meanwhile, Ayangalu was also arrested with the support of Kangidi (a mole in the youth’s leadership rank) who betrayed others. The presence of the military government in power triggered off violence as the youth vehemently opposed and resisted the military reign by regrouping again. At the state function to officially install Lagata (uninitiated) king, the Saworoide magical drum was beaten by Ayanniyi the second son of Ayangalu who ran away when the trouble erupted, but called back by Ayangalu before his arrest through the magical feather inserted at the edge of the Saworoide drum which Ayangalu put in his ear while sending messages to him via a channel, drum. Ayanniyi received the message by returning home. He was contracted by the youths and Amawomaro to beat Saworoide when Lagata was crowned the new king, and eventually Lagata died of split headache.
Use of Semiotics: Signs in the Film – Saworoide
Semiotics signs, symbols, iconic, colours have been judiciously used as observed in the film, Saworoide (Brass Bell) to project the aesthetics of the Yoruba culture. The use of signs in the film cannot be overemphasized. Sign being something that is used to represent or stand for another thing has its significance in film projection. It may be understood as a discrete unit of meaning, and includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds… (New World Encyclopaedia 1). A sign may have denotative and connotative meanings in its context (Olatunji 254). The Yoruba traditional ‘ilu gangan’ (talking drum) in it was used for entertainment and for “transmitting serious non-entertainment communication between the communicator and the communicatee” (Olatunji 254). Adélékè maintains that the drum performs telegraphic communication in the Yorùbá court (130-131). It is used to inform the ọba (king) who, most of the time stays inside of the happenings around the palace as observed in the film. The magical drum, saworoide, is the central object character that the story revolves round to signify the efficacy of drum which goes beyond entertainment among the Yoruba. It is also known as ilu dundun (dundun drum) (Ojúadé 235-243). Saworoide has rounded edges ‘brass bells,’ cloth or leather made belt for hanging, tiny string leather from one edge to another for adjustment and wide animal skin covering both surfaces with aspecially made curved drum stick or beater named ‘gongo ilu’ which makes it unique. As seen in the film, the drum is carved with ‘igi omo’ (omo tree) to make the dundun drum as instructed by the old dying king. The drum stands as the people’s voice and send messages through proverbs:
‘aso funfun ni sokun aro,
ipile oro ni i sokun ekeji
‘White cloth longs for indigo dye,
first part of a statement cries
for the second’
The frontage, dilapidated walls of the palace, costumes, props, property, dressing styles and the interior décor of the old king signifies the level of poverty and the state not been rich in the olden days. Also, pact of treaty handing over by the old king is a sign of handling over the government from the traditional or primitive style of administration to the modern or civilised style of administration. The presence of the babalawo/baba ifa soothsayer, are signs that the religious leaders partake in running the affairs of the nation. While divining of ifa oracle to tell the fortunes of the land connotes the prophecies given by the religious leaders on ways of running the affairs of the state. Also the old king consulted the oracle for guidance before his departure to the world beyond in order to leave a legacy behind and to look forward to joining the ancestors.
The departure of the old king signifies the end of a generation. Therefore, there was a transition into the beginning of another era, modern Jogbo. King Lapite in the film represents the modern, civilised and sophisticated ruler who strives to bring development into the kingdom. Baba Opalaba signifies ‘wisdom’ while the chiefs represent sycophants in government.
Symbolic Signification in Saworoide
The film employs the uses of symbolism to reflect what goes on in the political arena of Nigeria as nation before the inferred democracy of 1999 and taking over of power by civilians from the military dictatorship of Gen. Abacha. The land of Jogbo symbolises Nigeria and the timber symbolises natural resources including the rich mainstay economy of the nation – crude oil. The ecological damage of the timber merchants connotes the suffering and damages inflicted on the people of Niger Delta in present day South-South Nigeria through oil exploration. The restless and agitated youths who acted appropriately and in a suitable way symbolises the militants’ youths in the areas of the oil producing parts of the nation. Culturally, it is forbidden to say the king ‘died’ or carrying his remnant about, rather, a representation of his body. This was exhibited in the film as a symbol to indicate that the body of the old king been displayed around the kingdom, because, the state is expected to cater for his burial rights. The horse rode by King Lapite symbolises royalty and strength. The splash of the blood of Adebola and his (Adebomi’s parents) symbolises the sacrifice of the parents for the survival of their son and preparing him for the future.
Iconic Signification in Saworoide
Iconic signs are qualities which resemble those of the objects they represent such as portrait, a cartoon or a scaled model, onomatopoeia, metaphors, ‘realistic’ sounds in ‘music programme’, sound effects in radio drama, a dubbed film soundtrack, and imitative gestures among others (Handler 10). In Saworoide, the use of iconic objects were observed such as ‘ade ide’ (brass crown)which signifies headship, ‘saworo eti ilu’ (drum jingle bell), and ‘ado ide’ (a small brass gourd). These signified the tie between every king that ascends the throne and Ayangalu, the drummer, being initiated with ‘gbere’ (incision) and rubbed with the burnt ewe ifa (prescribed leave) to ebu (powder) as part of the traditional right process of kingship. Also, ‘igi omo’ (carving drum frame) is an example of iconic signs in semiotics. The use of opele (divination beads) is put to play in the film. In addition, ewe ifa (prescribed leave), burnt to powder for incisions, ikoko oru (pot) used in burning the prescribed leave, agbaarin (seed of a fruit) a hard fruit not edible, used by children in playing. All these connote a nexus between the king, Jogbo kingdom and the drummer, Ayangalu. However, breaking ikoko oru (pot) into fragment as shown in the film signifies conclusion of the traditional process.
Indexical signification ‘natural signs’ (Chandler 49), cannot be looked away from in the film, Saworoide, like fire used in burning ewe ifa which produces smoke from semiological perspectives. The use of efun (white chalk), omi (water), igba (calabash) are objects that are associated with the tradition of Jogbo kingdom. The use of gun by Lapite when refusing not to be compelled in taking oath and incisions signify the modern overriding the traditional culture and customs through force. It also signify the militarisation of over our civilian rulers.
Use of Indigenous Semiotics ‘Aroko’ in the Film – Saworoide
Many scholars (Ajetunmobi 1-9; Ogundeji 147-148; Opadotun 3; & Abdullahi-Idiagbon 124) have examined the non-verbal semiotic system among the Yoruba, commonly called, ‘Aroko,’ which refers to the process of “sending an item or a combinable number of items to a person from which the decoder is expected to infer a piece of information.” Opadokun (3) establishes in Olatunji (253) and Àlàó (1) (cited in Adesanya 27) both posit that ‘Aroko’ among the Yoruba helps to maintain the secrecy of a message; avoid verbal message and its concomitant shortcomings features like omission, misconception, manipulation or distortion; express comradeship, confidence and solidarity among various secret cult members and reinforce the genuine nature of the message. An aroko is often accompanied by a widely known personal belonging of the sender to mark his identity. Opadokun opines that it is the message sender that may be aware of the content of the message, in some cases the message bearer might be the carrier of his own death sentence. The indigenous semiotics ‘Aroko’ is imperative as non-verbal communication cue. For instance, a letter as a modern aroko as seen in the film sent by Lapite to Tinuola to become his favourite queen after coronation ceremony is a non-verbal cue.
The body adornment is another aspect of indigenous semiotics. Such elements include facial marks, hair styles, beads, cloths. In Saworoide, facial marks of various types were observed as Adéwo̩yin enlisted like àbàjà, pélé, kẹ́kẹ́e, gọ̀m̀bọ́, kànnìké, ikoko, tọwọ́bọjú, tondó, ẹ̀ya, èjì-̀ọm̀ọamong others (23-25). On body scarification, he mentions è̩ya, èjì-̀ọm̀ọ, ilàọmọỌwá, apá fínfín, apá sísọ, inú fínfín among others. Chiefs Balogun and Bada are seen with àbàjà, on his cheeks.
Another aspect of body adornment in indigenous semiotics is clothing. Aside the fact that man covers his nakedness with cloth; clothing can also be used to express and project the culture. Turner (13) in Adesanya avers that, in many African cultures, clothing is seen as a significant factor in cultural expression (31). Also, there are cloths used to celebrate various events include dàńdóógó, gbárìyẹ̀, agbádá, ṣapará, ọyàlà e̩lé̩rì, dàńs̩íkí, bùbá, kafutáànì, jáláàbù among others. Adéoyè also opines that caps also communicate about the wearers (215), e.g. àdìro belongs to the Olúọdẹ (chief hunter), ìkòrì is the ancient traditional cap, abetí-ajáis a cap for the celebration of one form of event or other while fìlà onídẹis exclusively meant for the kings, chiefs and the wealthy men in the society (Adesanya 31). In the film, Saworoide, the use of clothing varies depending on the functions and status of the users. For instance clothing of the old king signified his not being so wealthy, in comparison to Lapite who has variety of cloth.
Hair style is another aspect of body adornment in indigenous semiotics. Among the styles of hair of Yorùbá women, according to Adéoyè are kòlẹ́sẹ̀, ìpàkọ́ -ẹlẹ́dẹ̀, ṣùkú, mọ́remí, ogún parí, láyípo, kẹ̀yìnsọ́kọ, onílégogoro among others (170-74). In Saworoide, hairstyle on Tinuola’s head as a maiden was òjò-ò-pa-etímeaning the rain does not beat the ear. It also signify the fact that she is not bothered by what people may say about her since her is protected from such gossip.
Use of Colour as Semiotics in the Film – Sawooide
Colour is highly essential in depiction of meaning in semiotics, non-verbal communication. Colour has different interpretations which range from one society to another locally or universally. Adéjúmọ̀ highlights the functions of colour as a means of identification, beautification and a conveyor of feelings which translates to communication as used in signals, graphs and uniforms (quoted in Adesanya 40). In the film Saworoide, colour was applied to communicate the transition from one period to another i.e from the old time and days to the modern time. Stressing the importance of colours in communication, Caivano and Lopez aver that colour has a high influence on institutional communication because it is perceived more quickly than other institutional symbols such as iconography or verbal texts (4). White colour signifies purity as seeing Lapite, Amawomaro, and Ayangalu appearing in white robes during kingship sacrifice.
The body adornments like beads, cloths, hair do, and facial marks are of various colours have different interpretations. Some neck or wrist beads are reddish in colour, some white, while some are wine colours. The white are for the priests, while the coloured ones are for the prominent personnel in the society.
This paper examined the use of symbols and signs in the film, Saworoide as means of communicating ideas. The paper explained this topic from three perspectives namely- symbolic, iconic representation and indigenous semiotics – Aroko. The paper in analysing the above highlighted the individual signs and symbols and what they signify from Yoruba culture and traditions. It then discussed the contribution of their symbols to the film.
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