“Kasala”: Ema Edosio’s Masterclass in Nigerian Comic Realism
Jokes often follow a set up-premise-punchline structure. This applies to one sentence jokes, two-hour comedy specials and feature films alike. When told with skill, jokes are considered the simplest form of perfect storytelling. And this is what Ema Edosio achieves in “Kasala”: a story so simple and tightly constructed it’s almost a joke, and I mean that literally.
“Kasala” (Nigerian pidgin for trouble) is the tale of a day in the life of four Lagos boys — TJ, Abraham, Chikodi, and Effiong — who rise from their separate yet similar living conditions with the sole purpose of having fun at a party. TJ, the charmer of the group who considers himself a superstar destined for a future above the meat-selling job his uncle Taju employs him to do, grabs said uncle’s car to make a grand entrance at the party. The group arrive in style and they start having fun, sometimes at the expense of Abraham, who is labelled the idiot of the group. It is Abraham who messes with the fun by crashing the ‘borrowed’ car in a moment that sets up the rest of the movie.
That boys’ attempt to repair the car before Taju discovers the damaage becomes a showcase of their friendship. Hustle is their bonding activity, alcohol is the solvent for their hardships, and yabis — that great Nigerian form of playful ridicule — their language of affection. While the boys try to fix the car, its owner Taju is on his own quest to pay back debts that have put his car at risk of confiscation. This becomes an opportunity for comedic cameos by characters who are funny without being caricatures and delight without sagging the suspence created by the dovetailing tales of TJ and Taju.
A comedian’s audience, especially when the comedian is a new comer, is already primed to not find her funny, therefore there’s no time for rambling. “Kasala” gets to the point very quickly, grabbing the viewer’s attention and never letting go. Every scene is essential to the the story, and if there’s any complaint, it’s that Edosio didn’t put in more exposition. There’s an unexplored beat of sexual harassment that could have been stretched to add more pathos to the story. This Edosio simply sets up and then hints at later in a moment of alcohol-induced emotional honesty that elevates the movie to near-transcendence.
Comedy is quite the Nigerian language. Filmmakers recognise this, so you’ll be hard pressed to find a Nigerian film that doesn’t make a deliberate attempt to amuse the audience. But Nigerian films often treat comedy as a spice to the story’s theme — romance in “The Wedding Party”, thriller in “Banana Island Ghost” — not its essential ingredient. Elements of the narrative are stretched to ridiculous proportions to draw laughter, and then plugged into the script like a laugh track to induce audience reaction.
That a day of living in Lagos is mad and funny enough to be a good joke — and by extension a good story — is a premise that Nigeria storytellers know but do not believe enough to showcase on the big screen. In comic realism, Nigerian musicians have always succeeded where their other artistic counterparts have fallen short, and no one did this better than Fela Kuti, whose signature hum—via a simulacrum of the opening to Three Wise Men’s “Bastard”—punctuates “Kasala”. Fela knew social realism doesn’t preclude laughter, and decades after his death, Nigerian artists are still playing catch up.
Dare Olaitan’s “Ojukokoro” was the last Nigerian film to display the madness of daily life in Nigeria and “Kasala” is reminiscent of Olaitan’s work in many ways. Both are written in that conversational style that filmmakers owe to Quentin Tarantino, using everyday Nigerian diction that has no time to pander to a foreign audience. Both films are funny, and argualy the best Nigerian productions in their respective years of release. Both filmmakers nail their casting decisions. And Edosio in particular seems to have cast actors for their eyes and faces, which she employs to such good effect throughout the movie. Where these films differ is their ending. What Olaitan manages to mess up Edosio turns into a masterclass in “staying in the bit”, a comedic principle that derives from an anecdote shared by Louis C. K., who said Jerry Seinfeld told him when your audience is laughing, you simply stay in the bit that made them laugh.
It is impossible to be hyperbolic about what Edosio—director and editor—has achieved as an independent filmaker on a shoestring budget. “Kasala” isn’t a perfect movie. Its continuity issues are too easy to point out. Yet what the film lacks in visual coherence, it makes up for in story. And watching an audience response to the final act is like seeing a dog in pavlovian rapture. There are many things to be said of “Kasala”, but the most exhilarating is that Edosio treats everyday life in Lagos as capable of humor and pathos without contorting the story into extreme absurdities.
Correction: A previous version of this essay stated that Ema Edosio was writer of “Kasala”. It was written by Temi Sodipo.
“Kasala” was the opening movie of the Lights Camera Africa 2018 and it opens in Nigerian cinemas on 12 October.