Friday, August 20, 2010

ADFF Summer Series ’10: Arugba

A Nigerian clinic has just lost its fiftieth patient to AIDS. A world heath NGO has earmarked millions to shore up such provincial health centers, but do not expect it to trickle too far down. Indeed, graft is an every day fact of life in Tunde Kelani’s Yoruban drama Arugba (trailer here), which screens during the African Diaspora Film Festival’s 2010 Summer Series.

The royal Kabiyesi is a model of corruption in both his public and private lives. However, the people are growing increasingly impatient with his ineffectual economic reforms. Yet he spends more time worrying about his adoptive niece Adetutu’s fitness to serve as the Arugba or votary virgin during the town’s Osun Osogbo festival, than creating new jobs. He has his reasons, which will be revealed as the film unfolds.

Adetutu knows her pseudo-uncle is bad news, but she has yet to make up her mind about Makinwa, musician-choreographer who wants to perform with her, on-stage for starters. A case of Nollywood cribbing a page from Bollywood, Arugba includes several fully produced musical interludes featuring the not-yet couple.

Though Arugba had a particularly long gestation period by Nollywood standards, it is still fairly representative of the Nigerian film industry, albeit on the high end. Shot at warp speed on a shoe string budget, Nollywood films are often distinguished by their refreshingly odd plot turns. Evidently filmmakers who know they will crank out a dozen or so films in a year do not have much incentive to play it safe.

Arugba follows in that tradition, mixing satire and mysticism to tell an offbeat morality tale recognizably inspired by the former Preident Olusegun Obasanjo. In truth, the film’s attitudes are perfectly crystallized in an early scene featuring a deranged Christian street preacher railing against official corruption. Two matronly vendors basically admit he might be crazy, but he is not far wrong.

Neophyte Bukola Awoyemi has an appealing earthiness as Adetutu, making her a model of African female empowerment (despite the cheesy fight choreography she was stuck with). A veteran actor in international demand, Peter Badejo projects the right sinister gravitas as the corrupt sovereign. However, Segun Adefila is bit dull as a leading man, but his hip-hop influenced choreography is pretty cool.

Arugba is one of a number of strange-in-a-good-way films to have come out of Nigeria in recent years. The ADFF seems to have a knack for skimming the cream of Nollywood’s bounteous crop, like the curious evangelical fantasy Changing Faces. While it requires certain aesthetic allowances, Arugba is an intriguing film on several levels (despite several Obama references that already feel dated). It screens next Sunday (8/29) as part of the ADFF Summer Series now underway at the Riverside Theater.