African Folktales Reimagined: NETFLIX and UNESCO-Sponsored Anthology is an Exploration of Decades-Old Folktales

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What’s an African story? Are they stories written in African dialects that carry generational knowledge and proverbs? Are they stories that revisit the fleeting but ever-present African past (Silverton Siege, African Queens: Njinga, Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu)? Perhaps they are stories shrouded with political intonations that Africans can relate to (King of Boys, Queen Sono, and Country Queen). What, truly, are the parameters for adjudging a story as being African? Must African stories spotlight the plight of Africans? What should be, if there is a need for one, the language or style of African cinema? The question of what, truly, is an African story is a debate that’s never going away. And as more and cross-continental partnerships and friendships are formed, exposing us to diverse possibilities of what the African story can be, the debate will get even wider. 

In 2020, Netflix launched a campaign with the tagline: “Made by Africans, Watched by the World.” The idea was to make African content available for the consumption of the streaming platform’s local and global audience. These original films and series, despite the intention of their creators, commonly rip off Western archetypes and tropes (Queen Sono, as a case study) in the telling of supposedly African stories. The feeling remains that these stories could be better, that African stories are capable of more. There are accusations that these stories are stale because Netflix seem to trust the established filmmakers more. The call is that chances have to be given to younger voices. Netflix has continually shared their desire to invest in unearthing new voices in African cinema. One of such investments is the Netflix and Unesco-sponsored project tagged “African Folktales Reimagined,” a competition for fresh sub-Saharan African voices. This time, the sponsors of the project decided to revisit the past by probing African folktales. Young filmmakers were tasked with reimagining folktales to suit modern times. The winners were promised mentorship and financial aid to help shoot these stories.

How successful these stories are in defining the African story remains up for debate, but what these stories readily show upon repeated viewing is that there are variances in our experiences as Africans. Africa is a vast landscape with each country having its distinct identity. There’s no need to have a singular language for what an African story is or should be. What should be done instead is to examine these stories independently and weigh them for their worth in originality and honesty. 

The project yielded an anthology of six short films written, directed, and produced by six filmmakers from Uganda, Nigeria, Mauritania, South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya. Rooted in different folktales, these stories find ways to interrogate culture and history. In Anyango and the Ogre, the titular ogre is a metaphor for a modern-day toxic man who inflicts violence on children and women; in Katera of the Punishment Island young girls are stigmatized for pregnancy outside wedlock; in MaMbalu, gender-based violence roils beneath the spotlight. These films are well shot, contemplatively paced and favour simple choices in plot development. 

Katera of the Punishment Island: Written and Directed by Loukman Ali

The opening film of the Pan-African anthology follows the life of the titular Katera (Kababito Tracy), one of the girls condemned to death for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. This fast-paced movie, within its 27-minute duration, recounts in minute detail how Katara, with Omar’s (Michael Wawuyo Jr) help, exerts revenge on a tyrant (Michael John Wawuyo) — the man responsible for changing the course of Katera’s life. 

Loukman Ali, the director of The Girl in the Yellow Jumper, is the quintessential Jack of all trades. And quite contrary to the concluding part of the cliché, Ali appears to be a master of all. In Katera of the Punishment Island, he’s credited as a writer, director, producer, and editor. While these multiple roles might be burdensome for other filmmakers; for Ali, it’s a filmmaking choice that adds artistic coherence to his film.

Zabin Halima: Written and directed by Korede Azeez

Zabin Halima, interpreted as Halima’s Choice, is the reinvention of the cryptic and graphically disturbing folktale titled The Disobedient Daughter Who Married a Skull. In the original version, the daughter refuses a marriage proposal from suitors only to elope with a handsome man who is just a Skull. In this reinvented version, Halima(Habiba Ummi Mohammed), is an adventurous Fulani girl who lives in Gidanpula, a remote village far from the AI-controlled Napata. An arranged marriage is in place for Halima but that’s not the life she wants.

Nollywood has occasionally been knocked on the head for its preference for shooting in Lagos. This film, shot in Jos, provides a much needed freshness and vitality. The dialogue is entirely in Hausa, grounding us in the Northern reality the story is rooted in. Halima later meets Umar (Adam Garba), a stranger from Napata, the virtual world the people of Gidanpula are wary of. Umar provides Halima with a chance to leave her unhappiness behind and migrate to Napata. What starts as a love story briefly meanders into something much darker, thanks to a twist I will not reveal. But with Zabin Halima, Korede Azeez shows she has firm creative control of all the elements of the film and is a voice to look out for.

Anyago and the Ogre: Written and Directed by Voline Ogutu 

Anyago (Sarah Hassan) is a widow with three kids with Otis (Trevor Jones Kamau) being the eldest. For single mothers, a life of comfort is an illusion. Marriage is important for women in this situation to find comfort of any kind. This is where the Ogre  (Lucarelli Onyango) comes in. The film is an adaptation of an age-long Kenyan folktale. In this adapted version, the modern-day ogre’s duty as the ancient ogre is to inflict pain. The film and the folktale it’s adapted from show that the abuse and oppression of women have always been and still remains a big problem in our society. Anyago and the Ogre from the Kenyan director, Voline Ogutu, is one of the more visually disturbing shorts in the anthology. It reveals how clothes hid scars. And how, makeup, aside from its cosmetic function, is a potent mask to conceal scars and pain. 

Enmity Djinn: Directed by Mohamed Echkouna and written by Connor Syrios and Mohamed Echkouna

Djinns are metaphysical beings, demons or spirits. There are many stories about them with different relationships to man. Their preference for inflicting pain on their host is a popular story. Enmity Djinn, one of the slow-paced shorts in the anthology, is an Islamic folktale that spotlights a Djinn in action. 

This short recounts how the best of our intentions as humans could be influenced by these unseen and mysterious beings. Though they are always hidden, their deeds are visible — they have an affinity for creating chaos when invoked. 

Katope: Directed by Walt Mzengi Corey and written by Rebecca Mzengi Corey and Walt Mzengi Corey

Katope is another eponymous short in the anthology. It charts the life of Ndudulla (Jane Mahenyela Mwalimu) and her magically-birthed daughter, Katope (Rahele Matete.) In the opening scene, we see Ndudulla singing a folktale song while she molds. The lyrics of her songs detail how loneliness has eaten deep into her life without a child. 

In this short, it’s believed that Katope’s birth brought the drought. Thus, her death will end the drought. Like most of the shorts in African Folktales Reimagined, women are made to bear the burden of societal ills. 

Mambalu: Written and directed by Gcobisa Yako 

“Gender-based violence,” “rape,” and “domestic violence” are dictions familiar to women. In Mambulu, Gcobisa Yako-directed short, Amandla (Simphiwe Dana) has a body riddled with scars. We are not privy to how the scars came to be; any history of violence is kept completely off-screen. 

The film is led by two brilliant female actors: Simphiwe Dana, and Zikhona Bali, who plays the role of Mkhulu. The two women act as custodians of women who have come to a secluded world to seek solace. Women who are seeking solace and ease are welcome into their world. 

The distinct shorts that make up the anthology share a focus on female characters. From Loukman Ali’s opening action-packed Katera to Gcobisa Yako’s Mambula, the plight of women takes the center stage and rightly so. For far too long, women have always been the unheralded centerpieces of African history and culture. African storytelling, in whatever form, must accord them that respect. 

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