This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Settler colonialism
As the title of this essay implies, I hope to shed light on Otieno’s elusive St. Isilian Postcolonial Era films. As my well-earned reputation implies, I don’t intend to write this in an orthodox way. Graduate students searching for a paper to fit their vaguest citations will find disappointment here, but research isn’t research until you’ve met the stumbling block of a tough essay wedged in the latest Unguarded Cinema issue. Despite some scholars finding fault in my unconventional methodologies [Ochoa 3] [Williams 13] [Aduare 5], my process is necessitated by the focus of my research. To understand Otieno’s early work means to understand her life as a conversation. It’s fair to write of her films as if we complement each other—as if the recovered snippets and my search for their remaining strips of celluloid are of equal importance. This paper is another chapter of a director’s history forever unwhole, bringing three fragments of her legacy far from St. Isila and into a discipline centered hundreds of kilometers east.
The first of these three films is Fallen Leopard (1232). It is a murky start to Otieno’s career that has only grown more obscure over time. Fallen Leopard’s story begins with my return to the homeland Otieno and I share, though please note that I use “return” in a purely physical sense. To truly return means to come back, with both body and mind, to a place kept warm in memories. The St. Isila I’d held in my thoughts wasn’t a place at all. It misted away whenever my attention brushed too near, refusing to be a place I could trust.
This failed to deter me from interpreting the present through my memories. Yes, this trip to search for Otieno’s films was a false return, but it provided some comfort to see where my past withstood the decades’ changes. I was pleased to find the streamliner train connecting the main island Iro with its smaller cousin Okuta preserved the orange-red plastic interiors of its ferry ancestors. From my window, sunrises hit the ocean like they used to. When I disembarked at Okuta’s only station, the conductor’s sigh from the engine room sounded how it should: tired and unbothered. Screwed to a corner of the main lobby’s stained plaster ceiling, a TV maintained its perpetual dance between static and public programming. In white marker, on the wooden frame, St. Isila’s favorite mantra: “May Good Signs Find You.”
The saying draped the town of New Coaston in endless crimson strips. Banners were tied to telephone poles, made bridges between streetlights, and wrapped the sides of pajeti buses. Each banner was painted in large white lifesigns. On my first day in New Coaston, I hailed an okeda motorcycle to drive me to my hotel. Seeing all of the lifesign characters speed past, I tried to think of when we’d surrendered our streets so completely to hieroglyphs. I predict that exposing this question to the permanence of writing, to invite the scrutiny of my peers on the mainland, will result in a chorus of “reverse scriptism” accusations—though I’m not writing from a place of prejudice. It was my fault to have assumed that since we had fought for centuries to keep our indigenous alphabet alive, we would also deign it suitable to use. Fighting for something just to leave it as an afterthought doesn’t sit well with me. This was why I was in New Coaston in the first place.
Fallen Leopard happened to be the easiest of Otieno’s films for me to get a lead on. While chatting with my colleague Ochoa over tea about my grant to recover Otieno’s work, he’d graced me with a generous tip on the whereabouts of a Fallen Leopard partial reel at a New Coaston homemade cinema. Thus I took my flight from the mainland with my notes and the name of a woman who was the facilitator of an untitled theater lurking on the outskirts of town.
A place that refuses a name must have a good reason to do so. In the case of Ekene’s theater, the reason was reputation. The okeda driver needed only hear the word “film” leave my lips, and he lurched off with me through the streets. The “[city] of everchanging saints” [Effton 231] must weigh down the minds of her citizens, keeping them engaged with a mutation of the ancestors’ myths. There is no time to make titles for new things. Language we would deem colloquial—dare I say vulgar?—has become St. Isila’s modern speech. This was how the driver talked with me along the way to Ekene’s, wielding a storm of references that I’d forgotten in the twenty years since my leaving the islands. I wish I could’ve found comfort in my “emphatic anti-colonialist tendencies” [Williams 13] and scoffed at how my people’s words have been dismissed as broken language, but speaking didn’t bring solace anymore. My language was jagged when it leapt from my tongue.
Ekene noticed. At midday, the okeda dumped me at the entrance to her theater, a standard colonial two-story home. The walls were made of marble, once quarried from the Okuta mountains on the backs of St. Isilians, strangled into unnatural towers of white-gray for the mainlanders to sleep in and play god in, and finally set free from the oppressors’ reign. The islands’ alphabet hedged the arched windows, not a lifesign to be found. Growing up on Iro, I’d never seen the plantations hewn from marble, and I couldn’t help but be entranced. I stumbled through a greeting to Ekene while keeping my eyes on the sweeping scripture painted on her walls.
Ekene made her distrust of me clear by skipping the offer of a pot of tea. She was no older than thirty, but her parents would have taught her better. There was a moment when I feared that I’d never see the Fallen Leopard tape reel for myself … that she would lure me into her theater-home-plantation, only to lead me out the other side.
And yet I wouldn’t be writing this if Ekene hadn’t shared her collection with me. Her films were nothing like what we keep in the archives. Ekene’s reels hid behind rough-spun drapes. They were crooked stacks of celluloid, separated by faded papers marked in a notation system incomprehensible to me.
I asked her how she’d accumulated such a wealth of media, and Ekene was elusive. After I saw the scratches on the sides of her reels, I understood. Something crude had scraped the black plastic, unable to remove all traces of the gold and crimson seal that had once been stuck to each film in Ekene’s collection. Each reel was haunted by a lifesign that no St. Isilian would’ve dared remove forty years ago. The one that had been emblazoned across theaters, restaurants, and libraries [Effton 212]. The most direct translation: barrier.
Through the mainlanders’ hieroglyphs, words become reality. Linguists have spun whole subdisciplines on nullifying the effect of lifesigns: to repaint the strokes of the symbols, to add another in sequence to alter a definition. And yet, St. Isilians prefer rage and the chisel.
To think that Otieno’s debut film had once been relegated to a mainlander’s cold shelf should’ve angered me—but Fallen Leopard was far from that place now. Its context had changed so utterly that I couldn’t imagine it as a colonizer’s trophy. I didn’t ask Ekene where she might have stolen the reels, nor did I ask how she’d gotten the courage to scrape off the lifesigns physically preventing St. Isilians from touching them. It was more than I could have asked for, the unshackled films filling an unshackled home. There was no fun in pushing the magician to reveal her tricks.
“Island women see,” and I refuse to cite the man who said it. You, reader, know whose words I put on the page here, and you know how his statements have been poured into holy texts and cast within so many panes of stained glass. As Ekene loaded Fallen Leopard into a projector, how could I not think of him? By his tongue, the mainlanders waged a battle over centuries, fueled by his ramblings about the dying sun. They’d encountered “virgin tracts of greenery, untouched by the native population” [Adekunle 42] and thought it fit to imprint their own personal truths on the rest of us. So “island women,” who could once write, sing, fight, herd, as any St. Isilian of the ancient times—now seeing is what they do. Seeing is what the dominant cultural apparatus of today would have us believe they always did.
So here was an island woman and her theater. It was a nameless place, and yet it was a place of fate. Centuries before the camera would divorce from the pinhole and the dark room and become a movable thing, before images were crammed together and forced into motion, St. Isilians captured fleeting visions of the grasslands in ways incomprehensible to the mainlanders. Now Ekene had cultivated visions in a theater made of the colonizers’ marble. She played to the stereotype and mastered it so well that it was no longer something imposed through inter-generational pressures.
“There’s not much left,” Ekene said, while the projector flickered to life. Not much left was more than I could have asked for.
Fallen Leopard Scene Analysis
NOTE: Though Ekene’s reel of Fallen Leopard was initially (at her request) unavailable to be archived on the mainland, she granted me permission to bring it back to the University of Wati after the reappropriation of her theater by St. Isilian government officials. According to the statement they sent her along with a two-week eviction notice, Ekene’s theater and home was an “illegal and unauthorized usage of an Okuta cultural heritage site.” Since moving to her grandmother’s apartment in southwest New Coaston, Ekene has been forced to relinquish her film collection. There was no space for it at her grandmother’s. For some reason, she decided it was appropriate to hand Fallen Leopard to me.
Despite now having Fallen Leopard in the campus archives, for this paper I decided to keep my initial scene analysis from my viewing of the partial reel in Ekene’s theater.
Shot 1 (starts approx. at 5:00) - From a damaged film’s speckled white comes a medium-long shot of a St. Isilian woman. The scene is colorless, filled with scratches and other visual artifacts from years of decay, but a high resolution is unnecessary to recognize that our subject wears a colonial peasant outfit. It’s a dress unfit for the dirt she kneels over, hemmed with brass buttons and clean lines of layered fabric that waterfall from her waist in ripples of red and gold.1 The shot is close enough to see the lifesign pendant swinging from her neck, though it gradually shrinks from view—along with the woman and the hens that she’s feeding. Slow outward dolly, shrinking the subject, allowing the background to take shape. Camera movement ceases at an extreme-long shot. The jungle background becomes a dark band of foliage and shadow across the middle of the scene. Only the diegetic screeches of birdsong can be heard.
Shot 2 - Cuts to extreme close-up of the hens scrambling for the food our peasant scatters to the ground. Sprays of feed descend from the top of the frame to disappear in a flurry of wings, though none of the birds depart from the ground for more than a few seconds. The woman’s laughter floats through, thin, warbling. Pedestal shot lifts from the hens to center on the hand that feeds them. There’s hesitation here—a pause of the fingers, stilling of the wrist—and the chicken feed stays in her palm.
Shot 3 - Cuts to medium close-up of the peasant, framing her from the shoulder up. Beautiful framing. Her curls comprise a halo around the crown of her head, intertwining with the black and gray of the shifting foliage in the background (slightly out-of-focus). The lifesign pendant bobs along the bottom of the frame. At first, I can appreciate how it balances the top and bottom halves of the shot, the distinct V of the necklace contrasting with the rainforest murk visible over the peasant’s shoulders.
But it’s too hard to look past the lifesign. I think I’ve seen it before, seen it on a pendant in Aunt Makeba’s attic or in a stray picture of Granddad left on a table or stashed in the picture album the women of my family have passed down for fifty years. All I know is that it gets too close.
A mischievous smile grows on the peasant’s face.
Shot 4 - Cuts back to her hand. The camera tracks its movement as the peasant raises it higher, higher. As it levels with her chest, reaching just below her pendant, the hens can’t flap high enough to reach the feed. The hand curls into a fist and dumps the feed into a satchel. Happens off-screen. Then the hand curls around the pendant, lifts from her skin.
Shot 5 - Cuts to extreme close-up of her hands cradling the thing, and it’s hard to watch again. I’m tempted to look somewhere else, at the cracked marble of Ekene’s walls, at the dark and smooth ceiling—but I realize that the fear of my past muddled my vision. Like the half-broken memories I’d brought with me to St. Isila, my family history as peasant and servant and slave stepped before my eyes. It made me judge the lifesign prematurely, for it was not similar to the one my bloodline had suffered under, after all. That was a different surname etched into the wood. A different mainlander family that laid claim to the subject of this film, most likely a fictional creation.
The peasant hides it again and begins to pull.
Shot 6 - Cuts to extreme close-up of the back of her neck. The impossible happens: as she pulls, the clasp at the back unlocks. Mainlander power is rendered meaningless. The shackle about the peasant’s neck, made only to be affected by the hands of her masters, is broken. There is no swelling musical score, no drama imbued by a frantic camera. Otieno paints the miraculous as mundane.
Shot 7 - Cuts to medium close-up of the peasant. She smiles at the broken necklace, turning it about in her fingers. With a nod, she waves her hand over the pendant resting in her palm.
Shot 8 - Cuts in the middle of her wave, focus on the lifesign here. As her hand passes over its surface, the lifesign changes—simple camera trick. Not a seamless transition either, but Otieno would get better at these little games over time. Now the lifesign is instantly recognizable. The one mainlanders flaunted on their palaces. Lift. We don’t know the meanings behind many of their hieroglyphs, and we knew even fewer at the time Fallen Leopard was filmed, but this would’ve been understood by any audience.
Shot 9 - Extreme close-up of the hens, hopping about the peasant’s feet. She reaches down and picks one, a dark thing that struggles to lift from the ground. It appears that the peasant reaches for the body, but her fingers brush upwards until they close around the neck. The beaded strings of the necklace wrap around the hen, right under her small head. Tying it is a deliberate process, a broken set of movements, jabs between the bird and the woman. There’s a final pull—too tight. The necklace cinches around the hen’s neck and warps her screeches. She doesn’t fly. She is dragged by the lifesign from the ground, by the band of wood digging into the flesh of her neck.
Shot 10 - Tracking pedestal shot of the rising hen. No matter how she flaps against the pull from above, she climbs further upwards. The peasant brings out feed as she laughs, trying to get the bird to eat, but of course she can’t—her throat is collapsing in the grip of the necklace. The hen rises past the peasant’s smiling face, past the jungle. All the while, we hear the peasant’s laughter. I can’t tell if I’m being invited to join her in the joke. This doesn’t feel humorous to me. There’s nothing to smile about in the screeches of the hen, or how relentlessly the lifesign drags her to the sky. I separate from the scene’s mirth, because I cannot smile at something so helpless.
And I’m forced to wonder if the glee the peasant radiates was shared by Otieno. In the past few years, the academy has worried over the distinction between art and artist [Reddis 10] [Yitono 4], and I’ve associated myself with the camp that favors an individual’s interpretation of a piece of media over the creator’s original intent. Otieno refuses me the luxury of this separation. Despite how pleasing it would be to approach the work as its own creature, Otieno’s auteur style is a cornerstone of Fallen Leopard—not a piece of scaffolding that is discarded after the fact. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t frustrate me.
The hen fades to white, succumbing to a wash of untethered light from the projector. End scene. Approx. four minutes total.
The second film, Broken Word (1237), starts with undulating seas of grass. Two weeks after my screening at Ekene’s theater, dozens of hours after scouring New Coaston’s library for the spirits of Otieno’s work, I was invited to a Raising ritual back on the main island of Iro. It had been at least twenty years since I’d participated in a traditional Raising, not a rendition staged in the apartment of a St. Isilian expatriate. Depending on how much of the food prep responsibilities were dumped into my lap, I viewed the mainland’s version of the ritual as either an important event in its own right or a pale imitation. I couldn’t deny that I missed the Raisings from my childhood—but taking the streamliner back to Iro for a single night seemed like too large of a distraction. At this point, I had a month left before I was expected at UWati for the upcoming semester, and I was trying my hardest to optimize my time on the islands.
The host of this particular Raising made it clear that, if I chose to come, this would be a valuable night. As expected, my return had made its way through St. Isila’s webbed veins of communication, a word-of-mouth system that somehow rivaled the instantaneity of the contemporary world’s newest technological darling—the Internet.2 While I might have still felt as if I hadn’t arrived to St. Isila yet, my countrypeople passed my name about so thoroughly I couldn’t deny it. Elize, the woman gracious enough to invite me to her community’s Raising, explained over the phone that she wanted to show me a video tape of Broken Word. She tried to tamper my excitement by warning that it was a copy of a copy of a copy, a washed out thing jostling for space on the tape with the re-recorded episodes of her children’s TV specials. In no way did this deter me. I took the first streamliner back to Iro.
And here, pulling up to the grasslands in the back of a truck, was where I would have my first homeland Raising in decades. I’d traveled with Elize’s friends and family in a trail of mini-vans and pickups from St. Isila’s capital. These were people hailing from a newly forged suburbia. Over the past two generations, postcolonial fate had smiled in their favor and “the descendants of slaves were eager to erase any part of them which revealed the mistreatment of their ancestors” [Iven 14]. By now, they’d almost made the role of middle class their own.
I was at the end of Elize’s caravan. The others had begun setup by the time we’d parked. Parents unfolded grills from the trunks of their cars, children threw costumes on the grass in haphazard pyramids of cloth, and elders were tasked with the most important role: erecting the Raising tents. A swarm of poles and tarp were lifted firm in their sunbrowned hands. In little less than an hour, the elders erected an elevated topography of taut, silver fabric. The outer surface mimicked the ripples of the grasslands along with keeping us shaded from the vulgar sun.
“Ignore all that,” a man told me, pointing to the green slopes instead. “You won’t see clear until you look away from all of us and our business.”
This was common advice for catching a glimpse of a shift. They might happen around the world, but shifts have a unique presence on the islands that decouple them from saint worship. I’d describe the distinction myself if not for the novelist Ai Amari, who wrote a vivid explanation in her recently published memoir:
Shifts and saints are braided from the same thread of mistakes. They both find life in spots of unreality, planting roots in earth that struggles to vanish. Shifts and saints are born to slip past any sieve of rationality you might use to purify the world of irregularities. To distinguish them from each other, remember that the saints have left us. They have been packed away in folklore, religion, and all the poisons we use to taint existence with the things we cannot touch. A shift, on the other hand, does not leave. It remains perched in that fakest corner of the real, and from there it will reach over our lands and bloom. 
As a child of the “islands of visions,” I assumed that a curse must hover about my head. I’d never had the luck to witness a shift for myself. For the past two centuries, St. Isila has had the highest concentrated number of shift occurrences in the world [Ynis 8]. My home island of Iro is especially renowned for shifts, one of the main reasons why we’re so fond of the grasslands. My childhood friends rambled about the tangle of shadows that had drifted in like a fog, a three-dimensional vision that phased through the world before leaving just the way it came.
I kept an eye out for shifts as I helped prepare for the Raising. If it were to happen anywhere, it would be here, at the edges of my vision, creeping about our festivities as the most intricate of mists. I elected myself to be on cooking duty. When the boiling pot of amula rice over the portable stove wasn’t calling for my undivided attention, I’d give the grasslands whatever I could spare.
There was nothing extraordinary to see that evening. I wouldn’t say that I was disappointed, either. We’d arrived at the grasslands during the perfect time for Raising preparations. The sun made its retreat towards the horizon, and by the time it sank, the ribs finished searing, the tents stood high over our heads, and we were all in costume. And yet, I tend to favor the times in-between. When the sun was stuck moving, never touching those slopes. I stirred my pot and I watched red dusk glitter on curved blades of grass.
The sun deserves my hate. I can’t find much to give it. That doesn’t mean I ignore how the mainlanders wield it as their catalyst for power. I acknowledge the strength found in my people’s insults against it, and I’m aware that St. Isilians have chosen the “other side” to place their metaphysical cards on. With that said, I don’t see Orogbo, the diseased soul smearing the sky with luminous fury. Instead, I think of how the sun sets the stage for our Raising. How it fades through the gamut of reds and oranges to usher in the night.
The sun’s crescent sunk away, and like clockwork, the first moon (which we call Eni) began its ascent. The children jumped in place. Their parents had to convince them to get a plate and eat. We had around half an hour to have dinner before Eni fully divorced from the horizon.
After the children came to my station for a helping of rice, the parents followed their lead. The adults didn’t pile their dishes high for themselves, though. It was only proper for the elders to receive their food after the youngest of the community had their share, and the generation sandwiched in-between was tasked with fixing the plates.
Imagine my surprise when one of the elders I’d watched erect a Raising tent walked from his folding chair and into my amula line. My face was new here, and with Raisings done in St. Isila, that is a rare occurrence. So he probably had to investigate for himself.
“Aht-aht,” he said, jerking his plate back before my ladle could deposit the amula. “I don’t take food from a man who hasn’t told me his name.”
This was fair enough. So I gave him my name, but he wouldn’t accept it. He chuckled and declared I had no clue how to pronounce it. We went around twice, bouncing the word between our mouths, trying to come to some kind of truce—yet he was relentless.
My name takes the face through four contortions, a distinct change for each syllable. A-fo-la-rin. Same for him as it was for me. A-fo-la-rin. I watched the elder say it as my mother once did, as I did. A-fo-la-rin.
He swore something was lost. At this point, I admitted to myself that whatever he expected wasn’t for me to find. There was the chance that in the process of moving across the ocean, living amongst our diaspora’s new accents and pidgins, I’d dropped a piece of my name. A piece so far lodged in a compromised mispronunciation with a mainlander colleague, or a blunt phonetic respelling in a foreign script, that it was permanently lost.
The elder took a spoonful of rice. When I sat amongst the picnic blankets with my own plate, he’d give me a look now and then. I managed to keep it a distraction instead of my focus. I stared where we were all expected to: the silver semi-circle that was Eni, rising from the flat horizon.
In hindsight, the Raising further shook my belief that I might still speak as I once did. What it did not do was make me question how I screamed. After Eni finished rising, we stood and belted our voices at the growing gap between sky and moon. For this one night in the year, both moons orbit at just the right velocity to give us two minutes of relief. Our screams were unjudged. On the mainland, we had to be mindful of neighbors who saw the joining of moons as a curious astronomical event. Here, we didn’t tell the children to keep it down. We didn’t temper our messages to the night.
Eni’s twin made us fall silent. The second orb rose from the horizon, as full and resplendent as the first. I won’t wax poetic about our newfound quiet. About the fall back to soil. It simply felt right.
Elize approached me soon after. Now that the main part of the Raising was over, she had time to show me what I’d come for. Her nephew stood by her side, carting around a television sitting atop a tape player. Elize suggested moving over the slope so I could watch Broken Word. I walked with her and the nephew away from the Raising tents as the rest settled down for drinks and idle chatter.
Unlike Ekene, Elize was eager to tell me her story of acquiring Otieno’s film. She indulged me with the tale over the squeaks of the TV cart’s wheels. Elize got her hands on Broken Word the way most forgotten art is rediscovered: an unintentional purchase. A gem hidden in a second-hand market. She’d wanted a tape to record a few episodes of her children’s favorite TV show.
“Stars’ Edge—you heard of it?” she asked as we settled over the hill’s crest. “That mainlander spaceship show. It’s all the kids have talked about for the past year.”
I’d seen a poster or two back home at UWati. The show used a visual language that I was completely unfamiliar with. Flashy rivets of chrome, spreads of electronic lights arranged like a plastic buffet. The ads I’d seen plastered around campus had an unexplainable fetish for artificial scenes. The only organic aspects of the show were the actors: dashing mainlanders, occasionally dolled up in sci-fi prosthetics to make them seem alien.
We chatted about the crew’s questionable uniform colors while Elize’s nephew set up the TV. It was a Lifesign Enhanced device, siphoning electricity from thin air through hieroglyphs on the inner casing. Elize’s television was an unmistakable display of wealth. Getting such recently marketed technology onto the islands must have cost a small fortune.
It might not have been the smartest move on Elize’s part to leave her shiny new television alone with me in the grasslands, what with my mediocre technological literacy. At least her nephew prepped everything before Elize and him made their leave. The tape whirred in the player as a white pinprick burst on the center of the screen, filling out into a field of static.
“Holler if you need us,” Elize said. “We’ll be over the ridge.”
With a final wave, I settled into the bare grass and squinted at the row of buttons studding the tape player. An educated guess later, and the static departed from the screen to be replaced by a corrupted snippet of Broken Word.
Broken Word Scene Analysis
Shot 1 (starts from the initial scene) - Before I explain what I saw on Elize's tape, I must admit that Broken Word is my least favorite Otieno film. In Otieno’s defense, I have never seen a film of Broken Word’s genre achieve the goals it reaches for. Reinterpreting the nation as a story is a futile endeavor, and this won’t prevent directors the world over from continuing to try. There’s no doubt an allure to bottling the nation-state within the constraints of visual narrative. Mind you, I’m no creative—this is an external observation, a stiff scholar peering across the fence and judging where he hasn’t stepped foot—but the national saga has to be a magnetic attraction for people who find their passion in storytelling. What grander story can you tell than the story of a people?
Unfortunately for storytellers, fiction will never meet their expectations. The shortcomings are excusable in smaller doses. But when the imperfection of narrative is applied to such a broad project as the nation-state, I can’t look past the moments where the storyteller falls short. In the name of internal consistency, a great many truths fall through the cracks of the national saga.
Though it might be a failure as the foundation of a modern St. Isilian origin story, Broken Word holds merit. I believe this is because “[national myths] always fail, and they always fail uniquely” [Bresson 2]. Broken Word’s particular brand of failure is a spectacle.
The first thing of note is Otieno’s usage of color. Broken Word marks her first departure from the restrictions of black-and-white cinematography, and she makes the leap with such command of the medium that you would think she’d been born seeing in Omnicolor. It isn’t the vibrancy or even the composition that makes Otieno’s color films so striking, as many of her mainlander contemporaries could edge her out in that regard. She excels through restraint.
In this opening scene, the capital city of Aguan emerges from black. Aguan takes time to establish itself in an extreme long shot from a neighboring mountain range. The eye lingers on the central cluster of sunwashed skyscrapers, and coasts away, down the slope of red-shingled roofs to end at the shore and a sea of turquoise. The stage is set for the title card and the opening credits.
Shot 2 - Hard cut to a place that any citizen of the mid-thirteenth century should be familiar with: a concrete expanse, hemmed in by factories long extinct. This is some unfortunate patch of urbanity, reeling from the whiplash of decades-old industrialization. Modernity will find a new use for the concrete ramps and rusted iron railings, but Aguan’s population hasn’t reclaimed them yet. This abandoned lot has yet to be reborn as a skate park, or a swimming pool complex. Otieno captures a shard of the city in between reincarnations, and she homes in with a slow inward dolly.
The camera inches toward a shallow depression in the ground. A concrete bowl pockmarked with oil stains. Fluttering above the rim are tendrils of magenta. Aside from the camera, they’re the only things that move. They possess all the scene’s vitality.
It becomes obvious this dash of color is a fluttering, sheer scarf. The scarf hovers in the center of the bowl, flapping in the wind, anchored by an invisible force. A thin wire? A lifesign? I lean in to get a better look, though I shouldn’t bother.
A wash of static wipes the scene away, only to be replaced by a starfield comprised of glitter. Synthesizers croon as a bronze teardrop streaks across space. It leaves a line of blue in its wake.
When I return to UWati, I ask some of my graduate students to confirm my suspicions—but I’d made the right guess while watching the tape the first time. Aguan is shoved aside by the vivid cosmos of Stars’ Edge.
Shot 3 - Cut to what I assume is the starship’s interior. Tracking shot of a boy in a bright yellow uniform, striding through a series of rooms filled with pneumatic hisses, frantic engineers, and endless rows of lights. Initially, I think I’ll be swallowed whole by the ship’s sensory overload. This is an environment filled with sounds and sights made to ensnare you. Through snarls of metal, gloss, light, and futuristic screeches, Stars’ Edge hopes to catch you in the middle of flipping channels on the TV—to keep you invested within seconds of laying eyes on the spectacle unfolding.
And the static returns, catapulting me back to stillness. I blink to make sure the scene won’t shift beneath me again, that I can settle and watch. It all seems stable enough. This is Broken Word’s camera, a sedentary creature. We watch the scarf from before in an overhead view. Three people approach the concrete bowl’s rim. They move in unison, step for step, orbiting the scarf.
Broken Word is no mystery to me. I wrote the book on it, wringing it through typical academic analysis. I’ve had access to the film for years, except for these opening shots. In a couple of minutes, the scarf will be pulled apart like the country’s identity under mainlander occupation, and so on. It brims with symbolism which grows so potent that it eliminates any platform of thought that isn’t founded in the abstract. For a film that was built in concrete, it’s impressively airy.
The Stars’ Edge clip likewise flaunts a tenuous grasp on reality. This might be because wands and ray guns share the same currency of wonder. From what I understand of science fiction and fantasy (and what I understand is admittedly scant), the gap between reality and the unknown is where the genres aim to be. Broken Word and Stars’ Edge build stories using metaphors that flit across the screen—the only difference is I am familiar with one, and ignorant of the other.
I find myself bouncing off the scenes of Aguan. Damn my curiosity, but I want to go back to the stars.
Shot 4 - The videotape grants my wish. There’s another staticky transition and Stars’ Edge returns. Medium close-up of a uniformed man, shot from a low angle. He sprawls in his swivel chair, a hand propped under his bearded chin and starlight gleaming in his pupils. This is a leader as the mainlanders would fashion one. His brash confidence is justified by a sweeping classical score, a stark contrast to the electronic soundtrack that I’d heard in the previous scenes. This man, and this man alone, is handed the tether of historicity. All so that whenever he starts pointing and declaring, the audience will have no qualms following along.
A voice off-screen exclaims that the ship has intercepted a radio signal from an unknown object. Thoughts roil across the captain’s3 face as he is forced to chart a course of action. How does he contact something beyond humanity’s knowledge? After a moment underscored by the return of cool synthesizers, he orders the second-in-command to open a channel of communication.
Shot 5 - Cut to a long shot encompassing the breadth of the room. We hover behind the captain and his chair as a giant screen flickers on with a cascade of beeps. An alien appears on video, looking straight into the camera as if at the captain.
I know this to be an alien because of the cinematic archetypes that couch the event. The swelling of electronic music, the slow zoom, and the shocked silence of the starship crew are all the established tropes of a new iteration of visual drama told through fabulist fiction [Aduare 13]. Yet I fail to see what makes this being so unknown.
They are humanoid, draped in swathes of red cloth. Silk covers all except their eyes—eyes which sport crimson irises. Through the magic of special effects, their body fades into itself: a wavering mist achieved through layering transparent animation cells. Possibly a computer’s 3D touch as well.
When I see the alien, I see St. Isila and our traditional garb. The body of this unknown creature is covered in the elusive nature of shifts. Not some far-off star but the cultural touchstones that surrounded me at the Raising celebration that very night.
This starship crew fears a being that wears my traditions, warped through a shiny screen. I pause the video here.
What do Elize’s children see when they watch the aliens of Stars’ Edge? How much of themselves do they recognize? For me, I see more to empathize with in the unknown than with the starship that encounters it. I imagine the world that developed to send our people into space like this, shrouded in the shifts that once haunted our islands. Our elders lift a Raising tent so high it scrapes the stratosphere, and from there we jump atop its surface and catapult into the night. We meet with Eni and its twin and make villages out of moondust.
But Stars’ Edge doesn’t bother itself with the miracles of St. Isilians. It is more concerned with the plight of “humanity”—a humanity that balks at aliens who wear my islands’ clothing.
I press play and watch the remainder of the tape. The rest of the details are not as important to include in this essay, as they become repetitive. An exchange between Stars’ Edge and Broken Word, stories broken in fundamentally different ways. The video flits between outer space and the webbed concrete of Aguan before ending in an abrupt tumble into static.
The third and final film I searched for is untitled. I call it ’46, the alleged year that Otieno began shooting it. This one came to me as I was about to return for New Coaston.
To call the Raising a cathartic experience would be a gross understatement, and I was exhausted—mentally and physically—by the time I arrived at Iro’s train station. I drifted to sleep in a plastic waiting chair when a ringing phone jolted me awake. The sound came from a pay phone on the opposite wall. Though I found this strange, I wasn’t in the mood to investigate, and another traveler picked up the call anyway.
Half a minute of conversation passed, and the traveler glanced in my direction. It could have been a coincidence—but then he cleared his throat and offered me the receiver.
“Sorry to bother you, Prof. He says he wants to speak with you.”
The man on the other end addressed me by name and requested I stay on Iro for a few hours more. He’d heard I was collecting lost snippets of Otieno’s filmography and had something I would appreciate: a single scene, only a minute long, and yet undoubtedly one of Otieno’s greatest technical achievements. Like Broken Word, the scene took place in a city. Ekiri: Otieno’s hometown up to her death, the closest metropolis to my childhood village, and “the first city to chase the sky” [Phearson 92]. I had no doubt this unknown caller described the closing scene to ’46.
He provided me with an Ekiri address. Judging from the Mirian street name—Reyas Avenue—I guessed this was an apartment in Old Central, the district known for a history that exchanged hands between immigrants, slaves, and colonizers. From the train station I was at in Aguan, it would take me an hour and a half to arrive at his location.
After I hung up, I stood by the pay phone and collected my thoughts. An unexpected trip to Ekiri would force me to reschedule my train back to New Coaston. It wasn’t the price of buying a new ticket that bothered me, but the man himself. He’d known where I was in the station, the pay phone’s number, and when to call. He might have had someone following me to pull off this cheap trick. There was an easier explanation though, one that would put my mind at ease if I chose to believe it. The man was a witch.
The islands have many names for these people, and I prefer to omit them in this paper. Some of our words require context that is nontransferable through writing. They won’t speak to an inexperienced audience in a way that matters. When I was a child, my old village witch had played similar games with me. She enjoyed small pranks, the kind that seduced the rational mind to believe in something more than quantitative forces. Mainlanders might call it magic.
Because of this, I decided to give my mystery caller a chance. I took the next bus to Ekiri.
Two hours later, I disembarked and strode under the shadows of glass buildings. Ekiri was the St. Isilian city which opened itself the fastest to modernization. Whenever I returned to this place, it added another sheath of reflection to the skyline. Mirror-clear storefronts, skyscrapers that captured sunlight in glittering points … I’d arrived as dusk collapsed into night, and neon cascaded from the upper floors of multinational conglomerates. The lights presented me with logos from companies across the ocean, as local businesses couldn’t afford to dress themselves in such a glow.
With a city of two million—nearly a sixth of St. Isila’s population—you’d assume the streets would be packed with Ekirites. Yet as I approached Old Central I found this untrue. Everywhere I went, bands of mainlander tourists clogged my path. Of course I couldn’t tell their nationality by looking at them. Unlike the script scientists from a century ago, I’m aware it’s idiotic to try and discern races through the curve of palms and fingers.
The mainlanders made themselves known through their actions. There was no shame in how loudly they speculated about the Ekirites inner lives, as if we were in a nature documentary. This behavior reached a fever pitch at Old Central. The district was packed with architectural marvels, city blocks consisting entirely of square brick towers, each one no more than three meters wide. These were the Mirian ghettos from eighty years ago, where the immigrants collaborated with indentured St. Isilians to circumvent the mainlanders’ strict building codes. Though there were intense rules on how much square footage a non-mainlander home could possess, the colonizers had never defined taxation rules for building upwards [Phearson 95]. Their oversight became our only avenue for expansion.
Mainlander tourists poked around the towers in a similar fashion to their ancestors, as if they looked for excuses for why such unique structures remained standing. Like the colonial masters, they found no smuggled lifesigns to reinforce the walls. They couldn’t parse all of St. Isila’s secrets.
I found the apartment easily enough. The address was for the thirteenth floor—not even the highest level in this tower. With an appropriate amount of grumbling, I took the stairs to the man’s doorstep.
The witch said his name was Bolaji for today. He welcomed me into his apartment with a toothy smile and got me seated in a wicker chair draped in handspun quilts. I knew Bolaji was a witch by his affinity for objects of ritual. His small living room was packed with the masks, costumes, and divination trays you’d find in temple. Incense burned on the windowsill, and idols squatted atop the television. Nobody but a witch would lay a seer’s staff in a corner to collect cobwebs.
I mistook a polished, wooden saucer on the table for another divination tray, though its wavering surface would impede the natural flow of scrying beads. Those subtle dips and rises could only have been achieved by a master sculptor, wood made into the roiling skin of a creek—or perhaps that was an improper metaphor. When I peered at this tray from a shallow angle against the sunlight, its lineage to the Raising tents leaped out. The undulations of our silver fabric were rendered in place by this object. Our twin moons were carved in the center, slim crescents locked in orbit. On the mainland, our diaspora replicates the same imagery across countless paper slips that dangle from windows. It could have been the freshness of the Raising that caused this tray to hold my attention so tight, and yet I refrained from asking Bolaji for clarification. I preferred the tenuous relation between these objects, my experiences, and the stories they unfurled.
Local news played on the television, muted. He told me I was free to change the channel as he made tea, but I was more interested in holding conversation. We started with small talk; Bolaji asked me how the journey from Aguan had been and I complained about the foot traffic outside his house. He laughed.
“The iyos can be frustrating, but they’re easy to please. I need the business.”
Apparently, he provided services to the tourists. Bolaji sat with them in this very room and predicted their destinies through the seams in their fingers. After handing me a steaming teacup, he showed me the sign he propped up on the street every morning. It was laminated, painted in bright red letters and hemmed with meaningless symbols—meant to look like lifesigns but with none of the reality-altering strength. He must have noticed that my eyes stuck on them, because he explained that it was best to speak of power in the language his audience understood, gibberish or not.
He settled into the seat beside mine with the videotape in hand. He placed it between us on the coffee table, neighboring coral beads and bundles of dried herbs. In the fading sunlight, Bolaji asked me why I cared so much about one scene.
I wanted Otieno’s archive to be close to whole. There was great pride to be found in what she’d done, how she’d made art in the wake of the country’s greatest upheaval, but I couldn’t cite her like I could the mainlanders. What did I have to show except stretches of dust where the celluloid should be? When I talked with my peers and the topic steered towards my passions, they couldn’t see what drove me to write of Otieno. While my peers’ lineage, their wonder, lay in organized stacks throughout libraries across the mainland, mine was inscrutable.
Bolaji’s smile was gone. I couldn’t tell what I might have said to upset him. He set his teacup down and said that on second thought, he didn’t have what I was looking for.
“You won’t like what you see on this,” he said while pointing at the tape. “It’s not the trophy you seek. Not something you can put up in a room and hope will remain the same.”
He could have slapped me and it would’ve had the same effect. I didn’t know what he was implying. Otieno’s work wasn't a trophy for me. There was a connection between her and me that went beyond materialism. In her steady long shots, I saw the hills of my childhood. In her characters, I heard my friends and family.
Despite my efforts to explain, Bolaji shook his head. He said my longing for ’46 would only bring me disappointment. It’d been changed, and it wouldn’t be the perfect archivable object I expected.
I told him he’d misunderstood me. History wasn’t for me to freeze and observe from afar. I might have been educated abroad, but I retained my urges to remold the past. The academy couldn’t force me to reduce Otieno to a name.
Bolaji didn’t understand the hatred I felt for an institution that made me question my every step. I had to write my native words at a slant, diminish their size. I had to force the school to hear me. I had to make sure my people weren’t written into a margin the mainlanders eagerly swept aside.
It’s a tradition of these islands to rewrite themselves. My grandparents would have barely recognized the amula rice we eat in the mainland, but even contemporary permutations of the island recipes would have been inscrutable to them. Through our history of change, I might make new connections out of the foundation Otieno provided.
“Then you can have the tape,” Bolaji responded. “Because if what you say is true, then you won’t be angry that I changed it.”
He wouldn’t tell me what he’d done to it. Instead, he walked to the windowsill. A wave of voices rose from the streets. Multiple exclamations of awe. Bolaji’s grin returned and he waved me to his side. My gaze drifted downward and I watched the city disappear under a cloud of black. The first shift I had ever seen. From this high up, in Bolaji’s apartment, I could make out nothing—it was as monotonous as fog. All that was left were the cheers and screams from the people below me, the ones who were blessed to see the shift’s details. I didn’t bother running downstairs to see it for myself, for I knew I wouldn’t make it in time.
’46 Scene Analysis
NOTE: My first viewing of Bolaji’s tape occurred once I returned to my hotel in New Coaston. It was the week before my flight to the mainland. After my experience in Ekiri, none of my other leads resulted in more of Otieno’s work.
Shot 1 (starts approx. at 54:00) - Medium-long shot of an Ekiri street. Otieno’s rare return to black-and-white. Midday traffic blocks the cobblestone, and a herder leads her ox in-between the lanes. This is consistent with the rest of the film that I have stored in UWati. After nearly an hour of claustrophobic domestic drama, an up-close and dim affair, we end with the world opening up to all the light and texture of St. Isila’s largest city.
Then comes a visual disturbance: something that wavers with the intensity of the alien from Stars’ Edge, something which licks at the edges of the lampposts. Stretching outward, filling in the greyscale with hued rivulets. A rainbow made liquid. It takes up the whole screen, this vibrant overlay, and shimmers with the city on a shared wavelength. This thing was a disturbance only seconds ago. Now it is integral to the scene, infecting—no, meshing—with the curves and juts of Ekiri. It is a shift unlike any I’ve heard of, and it is a shift I can never see in reality. My people, their cars, their stores, and all else under the gaze of Otieno’s camera are liberated in a torrent of color. End scene. Approx. one minute total.
1: As already stated, this film is in black-and-white, a result of Otieno only having access to outdated, repurposed cameras that had been abandoned by mainlanders after St. Isila’s independence. My assumption about the dress color is based off the restricted color palette assigned to indigenous St. Isilians during the colonial era Otieno depicts in Fallen Leopard. ↑
2: Wholly unrelated to this essay, but I have some concerns with this new medium. I’ve seen many Media Studies scholars herald it as yet another frontier on par with the birth of cinema. I expound upon my concerns with this in my paper, “The Limitations of Binary,” detailing why elevating the invention of this technology beyond anything more than a cultural fad will be a waste of time and resources. ↑
3: He is never given this title outright, though science fiction often likens the space age to old conquests of the sea. ↑
Aduare, Emily. The State of Contemporary Film. University of Wati Press, 1273.
⸻. “Kaleidoscope Galaxies: Stars’ Edge and the Emerging Symbols of Speculative Fiction.” Yorese New Wave Review, no. 12 (1272).
Adekunle, Dayo. A Journey South: Adekunle’s First Expedition to the Islands of Visions. Enderion Classics, 1232, Modern Edition.
Amari, Ai. The Ways You Speak. Arclight Books, 1274.
Bresson, Hitch. “In Kaseko’s Wake: Appraising an Empire in Obsolescence.” Stoneford University Political Journal, no. 65 (1270).
Effton, David. Kaseko’s Symbols: The Post-Shadow Era Legacy of Lifesigns. University of Wati Press, 1260.
Iven, Tom. “St. Isila’s Plural Civics.” Stoneford University Political Journal, no. 43 (1261).
Ochoa, Terry. “In Defense of St. Isilian Filmmakers.” Alt. Projector, no. 12 (1268).
Phearson, Meredith & Lokun, J. W. City of the Metropole: Post-Shadow Structures of Ekiri. JIA Press, 1273.
Reddis, Ebon. “Subtext’s Final Hymn.” Mirian Perspectives, no. 2 (1274).
Williams, Olu. “A Response to A. Vero’s Critique of Late-Stage Capitalist Cinema.” Yorese New Wave Review, no. 12 (1274).
Yitono, Giris. A History of Lost Ink. Enderion, 1272.
Ynis, Re Jos. “The Natural Miracles Series: A Meteorological Survey of Shift Formations.” Special Issue, GeoLogical, no. 21 (1274).