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The march of the penguins: a return to the movies – Tola Adenle

December 23, 2013

Old Magazine/Newspaper essays

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE COMET ON SUNDAY, AUGUST 2005.

This title may not be that correct because I’ve not made a decision to start going to the movies, again. Even if I did, I am not sure there are movie houses in Nigeria any more where one can go for an evening out. I say ‘not sure’ because there are mainstream cultural things, and tons of what I will describe as ‘subculture’ events in Nigeria that are strange to me each time they tangentially touch my life, or when I read about them. At least in Ibadan that I know very well, movie houses like the Scala, Odeon, etcetera, have gone the way of the trees that used to line many major streets in the city. What I see around these days are posters of the assembly-line products of the so-called ‘Nollywood’, the Nigerian movie production industry, a name culled from ‘Bollywood’ (India’s movie industry), itself a derivation from Hollywood, the American movie Mecca in suburban Los Angeles, California. However, even if I know where ‘Nollywood’ movies are shown, what I glance from the posters from Ibadan to Lagos to Abuja and even far in the interior of the country, my native Ondo State, do not show they are movies that I can enjoy, nor do I see structures around that appeal to me as potential movie houses.

Allow me to say right away that I appreciate the need for a home-grown movie industry not just to provide entrepreneurial outlet for young men and women but also as avenue for culture preservation. Unfortunately, what passes for artistry these days is farce, and what these movies seem to portray as Nigerian culture are mostly carcatures. Even though I have only endured vignettes of this film genre – thanks to Nigerian homes where the television-run-all-the-time-as-a-décor – I have happened upon enough of them to conclude they are not for me. They are not funny (to me); they reinforce superstitious beliefs; they help in the formations of new superstitions; they exaggerate cultural foibles and they tend to be inaccurate portrayals of us as a people.

May be if Nigerian film producers slow down a bit by researching story lines and producing less, they will be able to put out better movies. But then, again, why mess with a winning formula! They are apparently making tons of money not only from Nigeria but also from outside the country.

A hundred years from now, though, I wonder what Nigerians of the 22nd Century can learn about our culture simply by watching ‘Nollywood’ movies: that we stepped backwards towards the so-called ‘heart of darkness’ than Nigerians of the Early 20th Century?

After having acknowledged the local movie industry, one cannot but express sadness at the lack of this kind of entertainment for majority of Nigerians who would like to take in movies these days. Going to the movies create an atmosphere that is, perhaps, not replicated in any other form of entertainment. You sit for ninety minutes or more in near-absolute silence and get transported to a world of make-belief and/or education. Even back in 60s Nigerian movie houses where shouts of ‘operator’ or the like greeted breaks in movie reels, movie houses were quiet places amidst the usual cacophony of typical African cities, and young people got the chance to see far away places which would/could fire their imagination and make them dream. But not any more.

And that was not always the case. Either a young ‘Lagosian’ of the Agege variety saw “My name is Bond, James Bond” movies at Pen Cinema, Agege or his counterpart at Ibadan saw it at Odeon in the Sixties; they shared the same kind of impetus from the exploits of 007. Ditto their often more-educated and better-off compatriots who went to the Cinemas that charged more in other cities. In the universities and places of work, movies provided one more avenue of shared experiences that young people had. And it was not just the movies alone but the experiences that went with ‘going to the movies.’ While I did attend school briefly in Lagos and went back to work there at an oil company after leaving Ibadan Polytechnic, I had no movie experiences from the city.

Scala, though was the movie haunt of choice for most Ibadan students back in the Sixties; I had no acquaintances or friends who saw their movies at Ekotedo or Okebola, both generally considered rowdy. Were there taxis running in Ibadan after ten at night back in the Sixties? Well, any young person of that era would tell you that as recently (!) as 1968, you most likely had to walk back home, or to the Polytechnic area – no accommodation back then – or to UI, or – believe it or not – back to GCI (the Government College) at Apata or Ibadan Grammar School if you chose the 9.00 p.m. showing rather than the 6.00 p.m. And you often had to because when movies of great interest were released, the 6 o’clock offering was always so crowded that you had to wait for the latter show. Countless students who left the movie house at Sabo around eleven at night had to walk back to those various destinations, including those who “stole out” (left school without permission) from GCI and Ibadan Grammar. I am sure tales of students who scaled walls at Apata or arrived through established bush paths at Ibadan Grammar in the wee hours of the morning in the Sixties abound all over the Southwest.

Those were times long past and gone but this essay is about now, a return to the movies, or a movie, to be more specific because it is an entertainment form I seemed to have given up on a long time ago. In fact, before last month, I last went to see a movie at a movie house in Washington, D.C. in 1975 and it was Coppola’s The Godfather. I saw that movie that was later tagged ‘Part I’, twice. My movie attendance just stopped even though there was no deliberate attempt on my part or that of my spouse to stop. I have seen scores and scores of movies since but the acts have been restricted to watching them from the ease of home.

And with the world operating as one global village these days as the saying goes, younger Nigerians may fit in academically in other parts of the world but they will have problems really understanding the world around them when they do leave home. But then, sadly, the kids of those of us most likely to operate anywhere in the world will be the kids of the really rich – forget the way the wealth is acquired – AND the kids of those who live outside the country.

As a subscriber to a National Geographic (NG) publication, Adventure, I get ‘pictures of the month’ from NG through electronic mail and several weeks ago, I got notification of an upcoming movie, ‘The March of the Penguins’ in my mail box. While most people who watch the Discovery Channel cannot miss these lovable birds, I was determined to see the movie even though the very brief trailer sent to my mailbox did not do justice to perhaps the best movie I think I’ve ever watched.

It is really a documentary about these Antarctic dwellers whose life holds a lesson or two for humans. The NG documentary opens with the rich deep voice of academy award winner, Morgan Freeman, announcing that the documentary viewers were about to see was a love story and one that started, “like all love stories, with a little foolishness”! Freeman is one of those African-American actors who have reached the can-do-anything level in Hollywood.

In the dying days of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, viewers see a few penguins here and there migrating to a mating ground. Without a compass but with that inner navigational system that they are born with but which we humans only acquire, the walking of a few here and there soon becomes A Great Migration that stretches as long as the eyes could see, a purpose that Nature had designed for survival of that specie. After a long Trek, they all arrived at their One purpose of the journey.

As in human life, the males are fewer than the females and getting a partner requires more than plain jockeying. Unlike humans, though, a male has only one female and the male penguin can teach more than a thing or two about dedication, loyalty, care, cooperation with the female in nurturing the egg and the newly-hatched babe, and consideration, to the male human specie. Once a male has won the attention and affection of a female, he gets busy quickly to the purpose of the Great Gathering!

By the time the female lays the single egg that the union will produce, she is starving; the male, too, is more than hungry but the females will have to travel a long way to the edge of the thick ice to where there is water to fill her stomach and regain her health before it will be the turn of the male. Even though winter has not arrived, the ground is already frozen and if the egg touches the ice, it breaks because of the freezing temperate and there goes one whole year of existence without procreation!

Before leaving her family, the female and the male engage in what is like a slow-motion dance to place the egg in the father’s care. Gingerly but assuredly, the egg transfer takes place, a minute millimeter, it appears, at a time, the couple facing each other, until the male has taken possession of the precious egg. The male immediately envelopes it under his feathers to keep it warm for incubation and protection from the elements.

Meanwhile, the gales and cold of Fall has approached and those male penguins will protect those eggs although in rare and very few circumstances, an egg here or there will drop and the cracking and total loss will happen fast, within the twinkle of any eye, so to say. The melancholy of the male is almost palpable.

Cooperation? Viewers can witness how these creatures not only huddle together when the very cold winds become almost unbearable and perform what is incredible discipline and cooperation to survive. While moving – crawling is more like it except that it is not on their chest – very gingerly to protect their charges, the males take turns to stay at the center of the huge pack of penguins where it is warmer; nay, less cold is more like it. Those in the center do not need to be forced out to the edges as would happen if the situation concerns the human specie of the Nigerian variety but would move out so that others can take the middle positions for a short period of less feather-jarring cold. Now, the huddling in extreme cold and hunger continues and through the darkness of Winter, the males wait for the arrival of their females which will not be till early Spring, months that must seem like eternity.

As hungry as the males are, they will not swallow a little food intake they will have taken earlier, knowing it is meant for their babies. Once the babies leave the shells and start to wail, the fathers open their mouths and squirt the stored food into the babies’ throats.

Meanwhile, the females of the specie are not having things easier en route to food or even when they get there. In most species, females never do, anyway. The walk to the sea where nutrients abound and wait seems endless, the females having to switch between walking and crawling on their chests because of exhaustion and hunger. At the sea, they remain and eat while some are eaten in a never-ending food chain cycle; those eaten will never see their babies that will die as there will not be food arriving when the other females arrive and the males get ready to go to the sea.

When the females get back in what is a new season, the darkness that has covered the Antarctic for the months of Winter is lifting and the males have lost more than a third of their body weight. The females feed the babies that they are seeing for the first time and even though the males are almost starved to death, it is noteworthy that they do not take of the nourishment meant for their babies. As the eggs were exchanged earlier, the babies are given to the females and the males head to sea. The back and forth to get nourishment continues until they all disperse when the babies are strong enough.

A remarkable specie of God’s creations penguins must be, the forces of nature that take away some of their babies or deprive them of babies because of egg loss by cracking, bring out what is a trait known very much to us human: wanting what does not belong to us. When a female returns, discovers it has no baby, and starts to steal another female’s baby, it draws laughter from the movie-goers. I think we felt relieved, so to say, perhaps comforting ourselves that dead-beat dads may be alien to these creatures, but that they really have nothing over us, after all!

Apart from leaving that movie house awed at the work of God, I still marvel at how these birds are able to know their males from the thousands and thousands on their first return from the feeding trip to the sea which has taken months even though the first time of meeting was at that mating ground!

When this movie goes into DVD, purchase it or, if you travel, go see it. It is one of those rare movies, especially in these days of shoot-em-up-bang-bang and special effects disguised as art – that one will want to see more than once.

MONDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2013.

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