To find out more about the importance of retelling Yoruba mythology on a global stage, and about the strong female character of Oya, we sat down with director Nosa Igbenidion.
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What is Oya: Rise of the Orisha about?
Oya: Rise of the Orisha focuses on a young woman named Adesuwa who has the unique ability to transform into the fearsome warrior goddess, Oya, the Orisha of change. When she changes, she gains amazing abilities. We follow Adesuwa as she goes on a head-stomping mission to keep the doorway between the Orisha and humanity closed. It’s an action packed, mystical adventure as we explore the world of the Orisha.
What kind of world is the film set in?
The basic premise of the story is to take a pantheon of gods, originating from Nigeria and to re-present them as modern day superheroes. The movie is set in the near future. It is a superhero movie, hence it is a hyper-realization of our contemporary world. The idea is to take reality and turn it up a little more.
The themes dealt with in the film relate to concepts that are inherent within the Ifa tradition as well as many other practices, themes such as the nature of reality, fate, evolution and identity. Orisha worship is quite a philosophical system, so it’s a great opportunity to explore those ideas.
What are the major influences behind the film?
The influences are varied, and from a wide range. I have been making films for the past 6 years and have been creative for my whole life, so all these personal experiences are coalescing into one film. As young boy born to Nigerian parents, I grew up on stories of ancient Oba’s (Kings) of Benin city, and had always wanted to see those stories realized in all their glory. Speaking of the past, there is already so much to draw upon, from pre-colonial oral tradition to post-colonial literature. From masks to books, stories to painting, the influences are wide and varied.
At this point in time, I feel there is almost an African renaissance when it comes to the arts. The music, fashion etc…. are redefining Africans in the 21st century. Although there are various movements, theories and fashion centred on Africa, i.e. Afro-punk, Afro-futurism, etc., I don’t think there is a film or work of art that fully captures that zeitgeist. That is what I aim to do. In some ways it’s a celebration of (West) African culture in the 21st century.
Do you feel any pressure or sense of responsibility for this being possibly the first feature film with Yoruba mythology as a major theme, as Shadow and Act suggests?
To make a clear distinction, Yoruba mythology has occasionally been dealt with in Nollywood films. This film is planning to take Yoruba mythology/spirituality worldwide. The thought of this being the first superhero film based upon Yoruba mythology to be brought to audiences worldwide fills me with great excitement. The world is so rich and varied that, for me, it’s a no-brainer. The beings such as Shango (God of Fire), Ogun (God of Iron), Oshun (Goddess of Love) are such amazing characters that the world needs to see them in all their glory.
It could have been overwhelming, considering this is the first movie of its kind, but I have received so much positive energy and support that I am free of all apprehension. Whereas I have heard that some black filmmakers are concerned about “only making black/African films”, I have a mass of stories to tell about African history and mythology.
It is such an untapped well of creativity that I think it has to be done. I think we filmmakers all want creative freedom, but at the same time we are always trying to appease somebody so our films can be shown/funded/distributed. I said to myself, “screw that!” I want to make the films I want to make about the people I want to make them about. I chose what was close to my heart.
Is there any reason why you chose to portray the Orisha in general, or Oya in particular?
I am from Benin City in Nigeria, and Benin shares its origin with the Yoruba, lots of cultural practices and many of our gods as well. So, first of all, I had a personal connection to the roots of the spirituality itself. Then just looking at the Orisha themselves made me realize that they are the basis for many common archetypes (i.e. warrior goddesses, chief of the gods, etc.) of mythology worldwide. The continuation of those archetypes is superheroes, so it worked perfectly to join this ancient archetypal structure to its modern component.
There are 401 Orisha, so there were many to choose from. There are several reason why I initially focused on Oya. First, she is the symbol of the warrior woman. As I have so many of this type of woman in my life, I thought it was essential to represent them on screen. Also many actress friends have long complained about the lack of roles for them outside the narrow parameters of passive mother/girlfriend/sex object. I wanted to do my own small part to address that.
I have a young niece and I would love for her to identify with such an empowered figure as Oya. Also Oya is the Orisha of Change (destructive change). In these times of social, technological and spiritual upheaval, I felt it apt to choose her as the Orisha to focus on.
How true will Oya: Rise of the Orisha be to the Yoruba spiritual system?
I believe filmmaking has to be authentic; I live by the mantra that art is truth. Thus the film will draw heavily upon the Yoruba traditional spiritual system. Visually I want to submerge people in this world, taking cues from the culture itself. There will be things that people who know about the culture will understand, but those who don’t will learn something new.
It is important that people understand the complexity and nuances of this belief system. To be a babalowo (diviner) of the system, for instance, takes immense dedication and decades of study. Having said that, I am not looking at the spiritual system as a static thing. I am interested in seeing how it resonates with or diverges from modern day cultural values such as capitalism and pop culture, and seeing how it reconciles with sciences like quantum physics.
This is a spiritual system that spread to various parts of the world via slavery, and when it did, its practitioners, while maintaining the core concepts, found a way to morph the practice and merge it with the dominant society’s belief system. They did this for it to survive. This resilience has allowed the Orisha belief system to grow, through telling and retelling. I aim to be part of this tapestry, and in the process add to the preservation, but I aim to do it in a way that is stylish, entertaining and exciting.
Follow Nosa Igbenidion on Twitter, Facebook and keep checking his website for the latest on “Oya: Rise of the Orisha”.