Seun Afolabi’s “Atoka” is a Contemplative Homage to Iseyin

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There is something visually and mentally appealing about Atoka’s opening scene. The scene is set and shot on a mountaintop, far from the bedlam of modernity. This scene later evolves into a poetic sequence that introduces the film’s major cast and their distinct identities: Adufe (Seyitan Adeyemi) is the mild-mannered Nigerian youth passionate about education, Dapo (Damilare Aguda) is the Mathematics teacher with a noticeable apathy for teaching while  the film’s lead character, Goke (Oluwatobi Fakos), is a struggling student with a preference for Yoruba language. One of the other striking aspects of the opening scene is the deeply metaphorical Yoruba poetry rendition. The poetry anchors the opening scene and, subsequently, the entire film. 

Atoka boasts of images that are fresh and alive for reasons that are not far-fetched. Lagos State is where most Nollywood films are shot. However, a repeated refusal to render the state in more imaginative ways has made her locations visually stale. Here comes Atoka, energetically pointing our gaze outside Lagos into the untapped beauties of Iseyin. This is not the first time Nollywood filmmakers have gone out in search of novelty. Taiwo Egunjobi has filmed all his projects in Ibadan. His most recent outing, All Na Vibes, a crime drama, was shot in Ibadan. In fact, before then, he’d released In Ibadan, a contemplative romantic drama that brought the rustic city of Ibadan to life. There is also Tope Oshin’s Up North, a drama that doubled as a travelogue spanning Bauchi state. The Critics Company is also a filmmaking group that shoots and creates their experimental films in Kaduna. What these films have in common are fresh visual possibilities that naturally translate into narrative risks. And this is where Atoke shines.

Atoka, as the director reveals, is a quasi-autobiographical account of his life. The film accounts for the life of Goke, a supposedly timid but smart student. His immediate society, classmates, and his father have no interest in Goke’s unique poetry ability. Thus, for a long time, his proficiency in spinning Yoruba words together into poetry is kept a secret. The inability of Goke to speak English without “corrupting” it with Yoruba words marks him out as a dullard amongst his peers. 

Dir. Seun Afolabi & Cinematographer Okwong Fadamana

The characters in Atoka wear their foibles on their sleeves, especially when the camera stays on them like a interrogator seeking prompt responses. Goke relies on fondling his hands together— a physical expression of his shyness and insecurity, Wale (Soledayo Adegbite) wears the tepid countenance of one bearing the burden of the world while Goke’s father (Razak Olayiwola) is a roving ball of energy, spitting bile and violence as punishment for Goke’s sins. Screenwriter David Osarieme takes advantage of the polarities of character traits to create drama that helps drive a low-stakes tale to a satisfactory conclusion.  

The language of the film, which also doubles as Goke’s preferred language of creative expression, is Yoruba. Europeans have “officially” left the shores of Africa, but figments of their culture continue to thrive in the continent. In Atoka, the students taunt Goke for his inability to speak English. Accusative glances are fired at Goke the moment he commits a blunder. The ironic statement isn’t lost on us. Even in remote settings like Iseyin, English language remains the preference. It remains the signal of your  intellect. Atoka, through Goke, shows how society enforces the culture of shame and silence around supposedly “slow learners.” It’s the societal dogma that forces Goke to keep his love for Yoruba poetry a secret. This is the barrier that Adufe- a brilliant female classmate-, and Wale must force their way through to connect with Goke.

Seun Afolabi’s feature-length film has a runtime kissing 2 hours. The film takes its time to familiarize us with the characters, their relationships and Iseyin town. It’s this contemplative pace that helps build the eventual connection between Goke and Wale. Where other films would have slapped together montages and contrived scenes to force a bond, Atoke shows us two central characters that journey with their flaws past obstacles and across landmines till they finally arrive at a destination that mutually benefits the two of them. Beyond the film’s pacing, other personal expressions of the director are easily obvious. The framing, the oneness with nature and the massive headrooms all point to a filmmaker looking to create a new expression outside Nollywood convention. 

The film’s title means “pointing towards a direction”. It’s a title that shows how important teachers can be in the lives of students. The role of teachers goes beyond giving instruction in the classroom compartment. It involves, above everything else, the discovery and nurturing of hidden talents. Though society, in this case, Goke’s father, frowns against the intimate bond that exists between his son and the passionate teacher, they fight for their relationship. It’s a different kind of love story. A non-sexual but utterly devastating bond that rewards the lovers. Goke’s confidence is restored and his talent is finally given the respect it deserves while Wale’s thinly rendered family-related issue is resolved. 

Atoka is an indication that Nigerian audiences can enjoy an unhurried and contemplative film without losing focus. The critical acclaim of the Esiri’s brothers’ Eyimofe and Damilola Orimogunje’s For Maria: Ebun Pataki points towards this. And winning the Grand Mischief Prize, at the recently concluded The Annual Film Mischief— which is an audience voting category, hints at the admiration audiences have for the film and an indication that Nigerian audiences have one demand: a good film. It suffices to say that films like Atoka are directing Nigerians to actively watch both mainstream blockbusters (Shanty Town, Brotherhood, Gangs of Lagos) with hurried movement and also slow-paced movies like Atoka. The sound design and camera movement capture the tone and mood of the Iseyin community: bliss and silence. It doesn’t matter if the film’s movement is slow-paced; Nigerian audiences will enjoy it. 


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