"L'homme aux fétiches"
un film de Cyrill Noyalet et Alidou Mama Seko
Babalaw Awê is a traditional healer living on the border between Nigeria and Benin. Every Sunday many people arrive at his little consultation room looking for remedies to their illnesses, answers to urgent questions, or simple advice to their everyday problems.
Although he asks for payment only in accordance with the level of their satisfaction, potential patients must first win his confidence and that of his fetishes before they can obtain a consultation.
Through the portrait of this man a universe is revealed to us where the social problems of the Yoruba people are intermingled with what he calls the “invisible world”.
In the Benin/ Togo/Nigeria subregion, the ancestral religion is vodoun. The Fâ, or oracle, passes through priests called bokonon. They are the only ones permitted to carry the messages of the deities to those seeking answers.
Despite the spread of monotheistic religions among the Yoruba (and other ethnic groups), the Fâ is still always consulted before any decision is taken. Each bokonon has his own divinatory method, but the most commonly used is the reading of cowrie shells. These small shells are thrown on the ground and the Fâ, composed of 256 signs, is interpreted according to the position of the scattered shells.
Rare are those who practice the Fâ and like Babalaw Awê, communicate directly with the fetish idols. More rare still, are those who ask payment from their patients only if results manifest according to predictions. Because of this, Babalaw Awê has become well known in the subregion and has forged an excellent reputation without forgetting how it came to him. He has chosen to maintain a simple rural life surrounded by his family and only practices his divinatory art on Sundays. Awê is also a healer with a great knowledge of medicinal plants.
Due to his vitality, his cunning and the mystery surrounding his magic, Babalaw Awê is an extraordinary character.
Genesis of the film
Our project commenced four years ago with the shooting of an earlier film The Secret of the Iyas, about the Gèlèdè voudoun cult of Benin. We had to ask permission from the spiritual authorities and make a Fâ consultation before shooting could begin, so we would be authorised by the gods to make the film. One of the initiates then asked us to go to Nigeria with his former master who happened to be Babalaw Awê.
Although we had been familiar with the bokonons for more than ten years, entering this consulting room was quite a shock. We found ourselves in front of a large number of fetish statues and the method used by the bokonon went beyond anything we had seen before.
Later we learned that the practice of receiving the Fâ oracle through a communication with the fetish statue was the actual ancestral method, but it was becoming rare and giving way to the more simple casting of cowrie shells.
For more than 15 years our team has made films about traditional practices that are on the verge of disappearing or becoming more rare due to the arrival of modernity (electricity), the rural exodus, inescapable tourism, or just a lack of interest in the traditions on the part of young people. Besides the need to remember (le devoir de memoire) which seems essential to us, Africa gives us the opportunity to fight in a fight that would appear to have been already lost everywhere else. This fight is against what Lévi Strauss called “the homogenisation of culture”. In this respect, film would seem to be the medium that best enables us to preserve for the next generations traces of a world that is evaporating.
Another of our motivations for making this film is the idea of payment for a consultation being determined by the results gained by the patient. This approach says a great deal about the sincerity of the Babalaw Awê and is also what made him notorious across the Nigerian border. “Bokonon: Keeper of the Idols”(???) Witchdoctor(???) does not set out merely to reveal the secrets of a certain magic, nor to uncover some trickery. We want rather, to highlight the beliefs and sincerity of a man by bearing witness to his path and his way of taking in life and everything that surrounds him. Babalaw Awê’s consultations provide a fairly accurate social picture of the Yoruba people living in the Nigerian bush: a mother worries about the future of her child, a man feels unpopular and wonders if the gods are reproaching him for something, a family asks whether or not to have more children. The future of each one is at stake here in the dialogues taking place between Babalaw Awê and his fetishes.
Genesis of the global project
In 2005 I made a film for Unesco on the prevention of child trafficking and met Alidou Mama Seko, a Beninese musician, who helped me make this short film. Over the next ten years we made two other films together about the Gèlèdè cult. Alidou was the main character in The Secret of the Iyas and assistant director on Words of the Gèlèdè.
We will continue working together and for this next film we will co-direct. So far, we have found two locations and shot a few images, but now it's time to do the principal photography with the Beninese team that we have been working with all these years.
We are looking for a co-producer to assist with the finances, but time is running out to make this film as we cannot keep Babalaw Awê waiting indefinitely.