Yahoo+ (2021): The Beauty and Power of Mis-en-scene.

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At different points in time throughout cinema’s history, producers, critics and enthusiasts have disagreed over a number of film theories and practices. The film vs. digital debate quickly comes to mind. Each side claims the superiority of one form over the other.

Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan continue to argue on the side of celluloid film, seeking to preserve the medium so that, in Nolan’s words, “future generations…should be able to use it.”

Many of their counterparts opt for digital instead, championing the advantages it has over film such as the lighter weight of digital cameras, less turnaround time, and the way these have helped democratize the filmmaking process.

With the prevalence of streaming services in the past decade, and the pandemic sentencing people to the confines of their homes for months on end, the streaming vs. theatrical release debate has also gotten pretty heated.

Back in October, 2021, CivicScience published a report which showed that a large majority of Americans preferred watching a movie at home over going to the cinema, even when both options were available simultaneously.

However, in this essay, we’ll be looking at a different film debate, one that has spanned decades: mis-en-scene vs. montage, and how the feature directorial debut from indie filmmaker, Ebuka Njoku, makes a compelling case for the former.

Mis-en-scene is a French expression which was originally used in theatre to mean “setting the stage”. In relation to cinema, it refers to the arrangement of the actors and other elements (props, lighting, overall production design) in a frame.

When Scorsese said, “cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out,” he was referring to mis-en-scene. Montage, also a French word, translates to “assembly,” or “editing.”

Soviet Montage Theory, developed in the 1920’s, focused less on making shots invisible and more on creating meaning from the juxtaposition of independent shots. The truth is that most movies exist on a spectrum as directors employ both mis-en-scene and montage to tell their stories; however, they tend to favor one approach over the other.

Consider the Mexican coming-of-age film, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), directed by Alfonso Cuaron and lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki. That film employs a realist style, favoring real locations, seamless editing, and long shots, choosing to create meaning from the interaction of elements in the frame, rather than, as seen in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin, the collision of different shots. Cuaron can be said to have applied, primarily, a mis-en-scene approach to his filmmaking while Eisenstein, father of formalism, used montage.

It should be noted too that Soviet Montage Theory gave rise to formalism, an approach to creating and theorizing about film which focused on its technical aspects and how those elements are used to manipulate the audience. Apart from being adopted by Hollywood, the formalist, montage-oriented style of the Soviet film theorists was criticized because of its focus on manipulating the audience by presenting them with a single point-of-view, a form of visual persuasion turning films to mere tools for social change as opposed to a medium for exploring the beauty and disaster of the human condition.

The intellectual montage in films such as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin, would go to be applied in propaganda films of the era such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

Today, montage-oriented filmmaking is still applied everywhere from Hollywood mainstream productions to music videos and commercials. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. Montage can be an extremely effective tool to immerse a viewer in a film. Also, in the decades since, audiences have attained more visual literacy compared to the masses from the early 20th century.

Still, it is a breath of fresh air whenever a filmmaker favors long shots, long takes, and composition over the juxtaposition of individual shots; when scenes are allowed to play out with masterful blocking of the actors and staging of the camera, revealing the psychological states of the characters and their relationships to one another; where every frame of the film looks like a painting you immediately want to put on display.

In Yahoo+ (2021), Ebuka Njoku uses the above techniques to roaring success.

Yahoo plus differs from yahoo in that while the latter refers to internet fraud, cybercrime, deception scam emails and the like, the former involves ritual sacrifices, and the use of human parts to obtain wealth from metaphysical sources. This is itself a scam.

Zainab Suleiman Okino, in her article on Yahoo Plus, published in the Premium Times, asks, “Why would anyone think that a burnt human head would turn into money?” Because of course, the organs being “sacrificed” to metaphysical powers are really being harvested and sold across the globe. It’s organ trafficking, dressed up in new clothes.

Yahoo+ (2021) addresses this issue head-on. It takes a sledgehammer to the notion that wealth can be gotten through these sinister, supernatural means but does it in the most humane way possible, presenting its main characters not as complete villains or saints but as misguided young people, attempting to escape the throes of mediocrity by following in the footsteps of the wealthy and influential people they look up to.

BTS photos from Yahoo + set

However, the movie frames their greed as not only corrupt but gangrenous, a one-way ticket to disaster and self-destruction.

The film begins at the end. A character lumbers through a house, wounded, bleeding on the floor. He is on the phone with someone, telling her to listen carefully to “…everything I am about to tell you now.” The director, like a village elder telling the children to pull their ears, and listen, with rapt attention, to tales by moonlight, starts the movie here, among other reasons, to inform the audience of the gravity of the situation and his stance on the whole thing.

Unlike other movies which prefer to not comment on the morality of their characters, Yahoo+ is a cautionary tale, taking a firm stance on a rampant social tragedy. The first chapter, “As E Dey Hot,” opens on a poster with “Love gbak waa oku, I’m all about the naira,” written boldly across it, a clever bit of foreshadowing of character and theme.

With a simple pan, we are introduced to Pino Pino (Ifeoma Obinwa), in a towel and hairnet. When one of her fellow runs girls backs out at the last second due to a bad dream, she asks Kamso (Echelon Mbadiwe), a bookworm who regularly helps her out with school projects and term papers. Kamso rejects the offer but eventually agrees after giving a few conditions, one of which is that Pino never ask her to do it again. She is in dire straits; her boyfriend needs the money.

The movement of the camera is subtle and motivated, choosing to remain at eye level during the dialogue scenes.

The second scene introduces Ose (Keezyto) and Abacha (Somadina Adinma), the protagonists. Their conversation reveals that they are frustrated with meeting dead ends and disappointment in all their moneymaking endeavours. In a bid to turn their luck around, they have decided to engage in Yahoo plus by providing a shady mentor known as Mansa with two young ladies for sacrifice.

Abacha is reluctant and doesn’t want to carry on but Ose tells him, “Life is all about sacrifice…let’s do what we can and leave the rest for the gods.” Later that night, Abacha finds out that his girlfriend, Kamso, is one of the girls. In a well-acted, heart-wrenching scene, Abacha and Kamso have an argument and even though the whole truth hasn’t been revealed to Kamso, it hits the audience, who are in on it, like a gut-punch. The performances in this scene are spectacular. Adinma and Mbadiwe play off each other really well, pulling the audience into their headspace which at that moment is filled with confusion, regret, love, anger and disappointment.

The camera doesn’t move here either. Instead, the audience is left to interpret the mis-en-scene on their own. There is no close-up, no change of angle. Like the camera, the actors plant their feet and hurl emotional words at each other. There is an object in the scene which seems to physically separate them, driving home the point that they are not currently on the same page. It’s basic visual storytelling, elevated by the movie’s restrained style and performances that crackle with energy.

Yahoo+ takes place on one of those nights that seem to stretch on forever, where the darkness is staggering and for a while, you doubt if the sun would ever rise again. Njoku’s script is brilliant, able to walk the narrative tightrope between allowing us to sympathize with the characters and their plight while also condemning their greed and corruption.

Where another filmmaker, probably one who was interested in hammering their point as much as possible, might have opted for a montage-oriented approach, in order to leave no stone unturned, Njoku’s bare style and restrained hand does wonders for the story by opening up the world and letting the audience take in it at their own pace. He strives for realism, presenting the characters as everyday people who have gone down a wrong path.

By the time all hell breaks loose, the audience is so invested that the themes reveal themselves easily. Like Dr. Seuss who was challenged to write a book in less than fifty words, this movie almost feels made on a dare. As if someone saw a Bergman film and proclaimed death on the close-up shot. After about twenty minutes in, when I saw what the filmmaker was going for, I had to adjust my sitting position. I was captivated, even though the number of cuts in this film are far less than the ones in the average music video. Shots do not so much as linger as the camera is an unmoving character in the scene, grounding the audience’s point of view. Scenes go on long enough for them to inspect every corner of the frame, and not lose track of the action. 

Renowned film critic and theorist, and co-founder of the film publication, Cahiers du Cinema, Andre Bazin, was of the opinion that the interpretation of a scene or a film should be left to the spectator. He was a fan of documentaries, films part of the Italian Neorealism movement, as well as deep focus and wide shots.  In one of his essays, he analyzes at length a scene in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to shed light on the role of deep-focus composition:

“The action in the foreground is secondary, although interesting and peculiar enough to require our keen attention since it occupies a privileged place and surface on the screen. Paradoxically, the true action, the one that constitutes at this precise moment a turning point in the story, develops almost clandestinely in a tiny rectangle at the back of the room—in the left corner of the screen…. Thus the viewer is induced actively to participate in the drama planned by the director.”

Like Bazin, Njoku focuses on objective reality, rejecting montage, and in doing so, allows the audience to actively participate in the drama.

Once again, one approach isn’t necessarily better than the other; however, mis-en-scene-oriented filmmaking is necessary and appreciated in an industry where filmmakers believe that holding on a shot for more than five seconds will bore the audience. Yahoo+ (2021) disagrees vehemently, comprehending the beauty in shot composition, wide shots, long takes, a general eschewing of formalist techniques, and the immense narrative power they wield.

Joseph Osamudiamen

Comments (2)
  1. Godas says:

    This film gives me so much joy

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