Verisimilitude and Aesthetics in selected Nigerian Home Movies
Gowon Ama DOKI, PhD
Department of Theatre Arts
Benue State University, Makurdi
Jerry Idah ODEH
Department of Theatre Arts
Benue State University, Makurdi
This paper examines the applicability of the concepts of verisimilitude and aesthetics as critical tools in film production, with a view to assessing how well or not these concepts are applied in the making of Nigerian movies. Methodologically however, the paper employs qualitative video analysis in critically examining Shima Yam and In Jesus Name as typical Nigerian movies. In lieu of its findings, the paper recommends that professionalism in film production should be upheld, quality should be considered first before quantity. Producers must ensure a synergy between creativity and technology so as to be able to produce films of acceptable standards. The study concludes that for the quality of Nigerian films to be assured the industry needs to urgently focus its attention on the appropriate handling of these critical tools in their film production.
Keywords: Verisimilitude and Aesthetics
The film maker consciously or unconsciously applies the concepts of verisimilitude and aesthetics in the film making process. In fact these concepts are inevitable and indispensible tools in film production because they determine the quality of any film. Arising from the poor quality of Nigerian films which is occasioned by poor handling of these concepts, the Nigerian filmmaker has the onerous task to produce masterpieces that would be adjudged to be of good and of high quality. This task can only be accomplished if the film maker is able to accurately apply and actualize these concepts.Kracauer argued that of all the arts, film is uniquely qualified to record physical reality. Although he maintained that many films combine realist and formalist tendencies, he however concluded that the films that make us “experience aspects of physical reality that is most valid aesthetically (www.filmreference.com). This does not however, imply a mere attempt or trivialization of these concepts, it entails presenting them in a detailed and accurate manner via the fulfilment of their quintessence or operational tools.
In examining the application of these concepts in any film production two perspectives are pertinent; the film maker’s perspective and the viewer’s perspective. While the former in conjunction with his team of experts deals with the application of these concepts, the later deals with the verification and or authentication of these concepts in the finished product (film). That is the viewers determine whether the film is of low or high quality.
On this premise, questions must be asked of what constitute verisimilitude and aesthetic in film production? How can these be achieved? How Credible is the realism represented and how delightful is the attempt at aesthetic presentation? What are the implications of actualizing these concepts and the failure of actualizing them? These questions are cogent and act as leads in our analysis and a pointer to the full understanding of this paper. This paper examines the applicability of the concepts of verisimilitude and aesthetics in Shima Yam and In Jesus Name with a view to assessing how well or not these concepts are applied in the films.
For coherent and lucid comprehension of this paper a conceptual clarification of the key variables of verisimilitude, and aesthetics is imperative.
Verisimilitude is a philosophical concept that distinguishes between the truth and falsity of assertion and hypothesis. Truth here implies “the semblance of reality in dramatic or non-dramatic fiction” (http://global.britannica.com). This source further maintains that,
The concept implies that either the action represented must be acceptable or convincing according to the audience’s own experience or knowledge or, as in the presentation of science fiction or tales of the supernatural, the audience must be enticed into willingly suspending disbelief and accepting improbable actions as true within the frame of the narrative.
In extrapolating, two key points are deducible; first, the viewer must be convinced according to his own experience or knowledge, secondly, he must be persuaded into willingly suspending disbelief. These qualities also apply to film production as these are responsible for holding the viewers attention and interest in watching a film.
As a critical tool in dramatic and film production therefore, Peter Brooks maintains that realism “makes sight paramount.” This is because it constitutes the visual text or style of film and dramatic performance. These include; costume, set/props, lighting, actors and architecture-everything that is sensible to the eyes of the viewers and audiences. Also, believability is achieved if the audience or viewers are able to relate these designs to the actual world without an iota of doubt or are lured into accepting them, contrary to this, however the viewers feel betrayed. Therefore, for a piece of art to hold significance or persuasion for an audience, according to Plato and Aristotle, “it must have grounding in reality.” Also, certain fits in film production extend beyond the frontiers of artistic creation and actualization today, in this light the syncretization of artistic creativity and technology become imperative in order to sustain the truth in the world of film.
Notwithstanding this, arguments have been raised as to the impossibility of audiences and viewers to ascertain verisimilitude in dramatic and film productions. This argument is predicated on the assumption that the audiences cum viewers do not have the same experience of the world. However, verisimilitude as noted in the quotation above goes beyond mere copy representation of reality, it involves persuading the viewers into willingly suspending their disbelief, into accepting what they watch to be real within the framework and or context of the film.
In order to achieve verisimilitude in film production, the mise-en-scene must be properly handled. Mise-en-scene is a conglomeration of set, props, actors, costume, makeup, and lighting; combined with other extraneous components like historical accuracy, editing of a film as well as the plot. The various tools help illuminate the overall vision of a film by creating a sense of time and space, set the mood and atmosphere, and perhaps suggest a character’s state of mind.
Coined by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in his Reflection on Poetry, aesthetics refers to the “science of sense perception and intellectual intuition about the beautiful; and the ugly and the whole range of natural and human artistic objects” (Ozumba 5). Aesthetics connotes the value of an art work; this value, implicit or explicit, is ascertained through the perceptual systems; these systems are, “the visual, auditory, taste-smell, basic-orienting, and the haptic system;” as against the preceding sense perceptions, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. It fundamentally operates, according to Ozumba, on four levels: “the level of the appreciator, the level of the object of appreciation and the level of the enjoyment of this appreciated object and the satisfying of the purpose of the appreciated object”(5). Accordingly, writing on the subject matter of aesthetics, Feagin Susan maintained that,
Philosophy of art has also dealt with the nature of taste, beauty, imagination, creativity, representation, expression, and expressiveness, style, work in the field has always been influenced by philosophical theories of language on meaning and theories of knowledge and perception and continues to be heavily influenced by psychological and cultural theory including version of semiotics, psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology, feminism and Marxism (qtd. in Ozumba 4).
As a branch of philosophy, aesthetics concerns itself with areas like art appreciation, criticism, judgment, the beautiful, the ugly, art creation, intention, imitation and representation, aesthetic qualities, theories and methods, artefacts, theatres, literary, culture, etc.(2).
While classical aesthetics hinged on objectivity in value judgment, and modern aesthetics judgment based on subjectivity, objectivity and absolutism, Ozumba maintains that,
In post modernism, it is a farce to talk of objective or absolute studies; it is logo- centric, and deceptive. Postmodernist conception of aesthetics will be something like allowing each individual to express what is beautiful or ugly only the way the aesthetic object affects him or her. This would mean that it will be wrong to talk of something being objectively or absolutely beautiful. The same object can be beautiful and ugly at the same time to different people and to the same person at different times and situation. There is no fixed standard way of qualifying anything as beautiful or ugly (270).
This current trend in aesthetics criticism is predicated on postmodern philosophy which is against any imposition of truth or rationality or any set of absolutes. It rejects epistemological assumptions, reflects methodological conventions, resists knowledge claims, and obscures all versions of truth (Pauline in Ozumba 153-4). In postmodernism, Ozumba notes, that confidence is reposed more on emotion than on impartial observation; while relativism is preferred to objectivity, and fragmentation to totalization. This means that, “postmodernism is against any form of totalitarianism, the possibility of truth or moral universals, any form of objectivity, logo-centric world views, they question authority, and the arbitrary imposition of any singular, systematic point of view” (Ozumba 154). One of the advantages of the sceptical posture of postmodernism as noted by Ozuma is that, “agreement is no longer forced but left at the mercy of persuasion, conviction and practical relevance” (158). It is in the process of arriving at an objective truth or general agreement that aesthetics connect with verisimilitude.
If verisimilitude speaks of truth- it does not necessarily speak of objective truth; this is because it attaches certain conditions to justify truth and these are: “the action represented must be acceptable or convincing according to the audience’s own experience or knowledge;” or “the audience must be enticed into willingly suspending disbelief and accepting improbable actions as true within the frame of the narrative.” Ipso facto of the representation of truth it is left for the audience or viewers to validate or invalidate the truth – thus making this truth to be subjective. This also implies that the imposition of truth is not on the viewers but on film producers. It demands that what they present in film form must be truthful; however, they are not in a position to judge the truthfulness or not of their product but the viewers. This leverage given to the viewers discountenances the objectiveness of the truth and therefore engenders subjectivity since it is dependent on the viewer’s verdict. Another point of contact between verisimilitude and aesthetics is that they both use a number of the same operational tools. For objective truth (verisimilitude and aesthetic) to be reached therefore, viewers must be convinced or lured into accepting the object of representation as true and beautiful, this can only happen when the features of these concepts are accurately achieved. Similarly, Parvis notes that “to say analysis is subjective is not only banal; it also presupposes the existence of an objectivity on which everyone might finally agree” (27). This is why many scholars have argued that postmodern critics tend to adapt those modern features which they seem to estrange or alienate themselves from.
Film aesthetics is the study of film and its elements which are brought to bear in the production of a motion picture and from which viewers derives satisfaction and appeal. Film aesthetics study involves examining the physical and psychological principles of film elements and their effects on the viewers. These elements are story, dialogue, acting, mise-en-scene (costume and makeup, set/props, special effects), editing, and sound. These aesthetics features help for clarity of intended message; push forward the story and help sustain the interest of the viewers. Achieving aesthetic design in film production therefore entails the proper handling of the aforementioned elements. The advantage of this is that the viewers have a delightful filmic experience. On the other hand if these elements are not properly handled the films become inaesthetic and such films are said to be of low quality.
Verisimilitude and Aesthetics in Shima Yam and In Jesus Name
This subsection handles the examination of Shima Yam and In Jesus Name in view of their application of verisimilitude and aesthetic. This examination is done using the operational tools of these concepts.
Optimally, a carefully and properly written and structured story avails the aesthetics of a film production. The structure may follow the principle of beginning, middle and end or a disjuncture of this chronology-episodic. The screenwriter has the following devices to employ they are flashback, suspense, foreshadowing and dramatic irony and a host of others. These aesthetic qualities inform a good screenplay and sustain the viewer’s attention, task their brain and as well deprive them of the predictability of the unfolding action in the films. Shima Yam and in Jesus Name adapts the former form of plot ordering. However, their plots are so simplistic, familiar, none engaging and lack the application of the above mentioned devices. These devices help to present a film narrative in a defamiliarized manner that will make the viewers wanting to know what happens next. Bertolt Brecht referred to this as estrangement of estrangement. Borrowed from Victor Shlovsky, Brecht clarifies that estrangement,
Is to make the object ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged… inserting defamiliar elements into the narrative lessened the certainty of reality and the predictable causality; defamiliarization intends to break the logic coherence and encourage gaps in the audience’s perception (170).
However, as these films begin the end is easily predictable. The story line of Shima Yam is a transposition of the familiar undistorted happenings between the oppressive forces of a royal family whose son loves the daughter of another royal family who is in love with a peasant boy, and of such royal son going extra miles to form a gang group in order to deal with the peasant lover. It is a straight jacked story that lacks creative inputs. In Jesus Name on the other hand is a transposition of western vampire and zombie films with predictable end.
In terms of the veridicality of their plots, the storyline of In Jesus Name is improbable this is because zombies and vampires do not exist within African and Nigerian cosmology. The film’s exposition captures thus in a narrative form:
Voice Over: He was dead but to live again. He was to spend a century in the grave punished in limbo for a grave offence committed against the gods. Today, this hour, this minute, this second is the appointed time to live again to accomplish his mission.
It has never been recorded in the history of Africa where erring members of the society are sentenced to death only for a stipulated time. If an offence is punishable by death then so it is. Such offenders do not resurface or resurrect to complete their crime or mission. Story lines such as these are copied from foreign movies. The plot of Shima Yam is common knowledge. It is a common place and familiar story-that makes it realistic.
The ability to effectively project and portray a character informs verisimilitude and aesthetic in film. For this to be enhanced the actor must be able to separate his personal self from that of the character. The actor’s commitment in this regard includes immersing his body, mind and soul into the role such that viewer’s sees the character and not the actor. This requires some level of skills and training. In Shima Yam we see actors rather than the characters. For example we see the gang group forcing themselves to act as bad boys, they are unable to live the roles, and we therefore see them demonstrating the roles via intense body posturing and facial expressions- which make for over acting. There is poor acting in In Jesus Name for example we see actors pretending to be possessed through the posturing and movement of their bodies without any transformation of their looks. At the event when they are freed from the possession they return appropriately to their former character which looks exactly the same in appearance with the possessed character.
Film is unquestionably a visual text-based medium. However, dialogue plays complimentary role by elucidating and explicating what the viewers see. In Shima Yam the dialogue is overly simplistic, pedestrian and does not correlate with the statues of the characters. Dialogue in this film is a mixture of Tiv and English with Tiv dominating, however. The dialogue is not dramatic and there is little or no use of Tiv proverbs. Also, a lot of grammatical errors abound in the dialogue. For example:
Chief: Look at the time of the hour your daughter is coming back.
This typify poor scripting and of course poor editing. There is no room for mistakes in film making because the filmmaker has as long as possible to get what he wants before he pushes his product to the market. Such errors points to the fact that the script is not read and edited before shooting. The Chief still addressing his daughter says again:
Chief: Common… common get out of this place men!
Although this sentence appropriately expresses anger it does not suit the statues of the speaker who is a noble person. This sentence falls within juvenile and or gangster expressions. So, while the chief presents himself as a father, and elderly man, a royal personality, his words betrays his character. In this manner, the true nature of such characters as known by the viewers is not attained, thus the beauty is lust. The chiefs ought to speak in an elevated, poetic and or proverbial manner. On the contrary, it is the police detectives who interpolate minimally proverbs with their code of communicating with suspects. The gang group lacks code of communication; one may say that it is this lack of code that informs the use of their bodies to portray their character.
In In Jesus Name dialogue match with the statues of the characters, however, they are not dramatic; they are rather fraught with repetitions. For example:
Child: Where is mummy and daddy?
Aunty: Oh! Your parents! They will soon be back. They are not back yet. But they will soon be back, any moment from now.
Repetition is relevant if it plays an emphatic role in a dialogue. The example above does not stress any point or message; hence it shows lack of logical scripting. The dialogue even though short is not precise. Dialogue should be structured in a way that the viewers can learn from and apply them in their daily lives. Also, in regards to the dramatic nature of the dialogue, in both films actors remained static either standing or sitting down when rendering lines, no form of movements or involvement in some form of business-no action is infused into the dialogue, this makes the dialogue un dramatic. No voice modulation, dialogue revolves around high pitch and murmuring.
Film environment constitute the mise-en-scene. That is every visual text readable by the viewers informs the mise-en-scene of a film. It acts as a metaphor amplifying a theme or specific idea the story wants to convey. It can either be simulated or realistic. Whichever the case may be, it must appear convincing. Its components are costume and makeup, lighting, sets/props, and special effects.
Costume, for instance, refers to what the actor wears from nakedness to clothes, footwear’s, headgears and so on. Costume is referred to as moving scenery. Costume passes across a lot of information on the character; statues, class, place and time of the film. In Shima Yam the police detectives dress appropriately in mufti, the chiefs also appeared appropriately dressed in caftan and local beads with staffs. The gang group appeared in their rascally dresses. These costumes communicate a sense of time which is contemporary times and of place which is Tiv land, and of statues and profession of the characters. In In Jesus Name the costumes are properly handled too, the costume as used in the film are; night gown used during bed times, clothes for official purposes and casual clothes for social hours which also tell of a contemporary time, time of the day as well as the statues of the characters.
Lighting in both films aptly depicts the time of the day; day and night, morning, afternoon and evening. However, the variations in moods and emotions as well as other special effects are not achieved with their lighting. Also, both films are fraught with unnecessary shadows, thus indicating mere illumination as the main aim of the films lighting.
Makeup in Shima Yam is properly handled. Makeup is the application of materials to enhance or conceal the character being played by an actor. It could either be straight or character makeup. Shima Yam predominantly made use of straight makeup which properly highlights and enhance the characters features. In In Jesus Name while all the characters that wear straight makeup appeared appropriate, the lead character who applies character makeup look unrealistic and lacks appeal. Character makeup requires transforming an actor into a character that is totally different in physical appearance from his; in doing this care must be taken in order to convince viewers into believing that the character is actually what he/she is. In the film, In Jesus Name the antagonist is a risen dead who is banished to death by the gods for several years. On the event of his reunion with the living it is expected that most parts of his body must be rotten, it is the rotten flesh that the makeup artist attempts. The makeup has the following deficiencies. First, because the film begins with the antagonist in the cemetery it is assumed that he just came out of his grave, therefore, his rotten flesh needs to be quit watery and not dry as the makeup suggest. The dryness of the makeup further creates problems for the character, for example, it become impossible for the character to open his mouth. Vampires and zombies bit and make horrible noises, but this character is mute and do not bit, he rather possesses. This contradiction creates problem as the viewers will find themselves grappling with the entire story.
Still moving on, special effects in film production take care of all the sequences and actions that cannot be created or captured naturally. These include, lightening, gunshots, explosions, collapse of building, blood and many more. Both films are unable to achieve this. For instances in Shima Yam in the scenes where the Prince’s gang killed the boy who has the incriminatory video of them as they take the Princess corpse through the bush, red spots akin to sniper aiming rays emits from the guns of the gang group in a close range shot out, this makes the scene look like video game, besides, the guns do not have aiming lens and rays. In the opening scene of In Jesus Name the thunder and lighting effects at the cemetery is unrealistic and appealing this is because it did not strike from the sky. A special effect department comprising of experts that will hand all the addictives and or embellishments in a film is require to this effect. But as an industry that is still developing coupled with incompetency and independent, unequipped film making individuals and bodies, this aspect is not accomplished.
Unfortunately, in Shima Yam the chiefs’ house made use of foreign set/props. There is no form of Tiv designs on any of the props and sets. Ideally, something has to be in the chiefs’ house to make for the culture that the film presents; this will help explain the story and aid the understanding of the viewers because it will establish a link or relationship between the dialogue, storyline and the film environment. In addition, some of the props in this film are improvised this is exemplified in the use of wooden guns and drinking from empty bottle of whisky. In In Jesus Name, the sets and props are accurate. They befit furniture’s and interior decorations found in contemporary households in Nigeria.
According to Mamer, editing is a process of moving towards an answer print – the first attempt at creating a final print of a film. The answer print is checked to make sure everything is correct – colour, exposure, and a host of other considerations. Once an acceptable answer print is achieved, it is used as a guide to make all subsequent prints, called release prints (Mamer 356). Shima Yam and In Jesus Name are not well edited. The cutting of sounds for example is not properly handled in both films. Often times music’s used for transitions suddenly stops without motivation and purpose. “Cutting sound includes a number of approaches, such as cutting sync tracks in conjunction with the picture, determining the relationship between music and picture, and building complicated, layered sound effects after the picture.” Sound cutting for transitions is best achieved if they fade gradually giving way for another sound to dominate. At other points there are apt disparity between music and the picture this create problem of understanding for the viewers particularly scenes where foreign pop music’s are used. However, other forms of sound effects used to enhance moods and emotions are achieved even though there are unnecessarily loud. For the picture, editing entails going through the shots and determining their specific order, then deciding on the precise transition point from one shot to the next (347). The ordering of the pictures and their transitions are well handled it clearly tells the story.
Sound is used here in a broad sense to mean all forms of sounds including music, songs and conversation, footsteps, door sounds, sounds of guns, of cars and many more. Our aim here is to ascertain the clarity, purposefulness and functionality of the sound as used in the study films which underlies their aesthetic and verisimilitude features.
Shima Yam revolves around the modern Tiv culture. Being a Tiv cultural construct it is expected that the music’s and songs used for transitions, those used to enhance mood and the atmosphere, and the theme song should be indigenous and not alien to the culture. This film made use of foreign songs and music’s; this contradicts the major language of communication which is Tiv in this film. The same approach is applied in In Jesus Name. This film though a contemporary film make use of ingenious gospel music’s and western pop music’s. This conflating approach does not help in pushing forward the plot, especially that the western music’s does not have any bearing with the theme of the film. Another problem is poor sound filtering. The audio outputs of both films are noisy with a lot of hall back effects and background voices resulting from the absence of the use of acoustics during production.
From the above examination it is evident that both films failed in a number of ways to
critically handle verisimilitude and aesthetic. The failure of achieving these concepts holistically impedes the overall quality output of these films.
Conclusion and Recommendations
This paper attempts the examination of verisimilitude and aesthetics in Shima Yam and In Jesus Name. The paper posits that making assumptions and allusions infilm production creates problems to the viewers, points to the producer’s ineptitude; render the films in compactable with reality thus depriving viewers of the desired and accruable satisfaction and above all drops the quality of the films. The filmmaker has enough time to plan for production, therefore trivializing these critical tools of films production rather makes Nigerian films pedestrian compared to films from other part of the world. Following from this, therefore, Nigerian film producers should bear in mind that they owe their viewers the duty of a worthy filmic experience, either in cinema halls, or in the comfort of their homes; hence, the urgent need to yield to the desires and needs of their patrons via the appropriate handling of these critical tools which will in turn beef up the quality of Nigerian films.
- For the Nigerian film industry to be able to improve on the quality of its films the following recommendations must be put into consideration and worked with.
- Professionalism in the business of film making must be ensured by continually training and retraining film producers to improve on its consultancy and research services in Nigeria. On this premise, film making in Nigeria will be based on research and experience as requisite precondition for making standard and quality films.
- Quality should be considered first before quantity. It is the task of film producers to make films of high and acceptable standards, for if a film is of high standard and or quality it gains more patronage and returns monetarily and vise-versa.
- Theory should be backed with practice in our universities. University authorities via government intervention and private partnership initiative should provide the necessary equipment and facilities to facilitate this form of learning. This will enable students upon graduation to meaningfully invest their skills and knowledge on the job thereby improving the industry in Nigeria.
- Finally, the synergy of creativity and technology by film producers will enable them produce films of acceptable standards. This cannot be successful however, without making available the necessary equipment and facilities-a task to be borne substantially by government in her attempt at boasting private sector initiative.
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Shima Yam: Directed by Don Moppy J and Produced by Malex Akkadian. VCD.