It takes a very talented filmmaker to portray a day in the life of a mechanic yard. This movie is faithful to all its grittiness, but the wonderful actors make us forget about this. With a talented cast, the movie transforms me back to Lagos than many of the glitzy Nollywood movies, whose themes, settings, and characters are so alien and superficial I could hardly identify with them. Mokalik is a layered movie exploring culture, hierarchy, youthful dilemmas, class, sexuality, skilled labour, and the gains of very hard work.
I found Mokalik one evening while surfing through Netflix. It took a minute for my Yoruba literacy to kick in, and for me to realise I was looking at the Yoruba word for ‘mechanic.’ Mokalik is set in a gritty mechanic yard in Lagos. The movie opens with the sights and sounds of Lagos and Mr Ogidan, a well-to-do man, dropping off his son, Ponmile or Ponle, to be an apprentice for the day. Ponle attends a prestigious high school and this apprenticeship is a novel experience for him. The whole story is seen through the eyes of Ponle as he rotates through the different sectors in the yard. The entire ecosystem of this yard, with its expertise, hierarchy, management, and the longings of the people who populate it, is cinematically revealed. This tough environment, with mechanics covered in engine oil and vehicles in different states of repair, is as unglamorous as can be for a film subject. Yet, through master story-telling and excellent acting, the movie is gripping to the end. Culture, romance, conflicts and humour are all embedded, making it a very enjoyable movie.
A hint that it would be a culture movie could be seen at the beginning, when Ponle exits the car as his father hands him over to Chairman, the manager of the yard. Ponle’s backpack has the image of a Yoruba mask, instead of Batman, Pokemon, or some foreign symbols that are popular with most bourgeois Nigerians. He is given a warm welcome by Chairman, who is surprised to see the boy just standing there and not responding in a culturally-appropriate manner. He gently reprimands Ponle, who then returns the older man’s greetings and prostrates to show respect. His father joins in the reprimand, but like the wise elder that Chairman is, he immediately praises Ponle for being a good boy, taking the sting of disapproval off and making him feel welcome.
After his father leaves, Chairman takes him around the yard and introduces him to the heads and apprentices in the different areas of specialisation, like brake and clutch, panel Beating, rewiring, painting, and so on. The plan is to have him rotate through all these sections throughout the day, tutored by the apprentices there.
Kamoru, who works in the engine section, is the first apprentice to supervise and tutor Ponle. He and Tiri are the apprentices in this area. Kamoru reverently describes his master, Argentina, as the best mechanic in the world, because he could repair the engine of any car. He answers Ponle’s inquiry about whether Master Argentina supported Argentina in the World Cup. Kamaru says his master does not like soccer but was given that name because he is an ‘Aje’, a wizard, in repairing engines. According to Kamoru, Master Argentina possesses such great expertise he even repaired a condemned car brought from America by a Nigerian-American, who himself is a Mechanical Engineer!
The actors act as if not doing so, which is the best kind of acting. They give such an authenticity to the story, which makes it enjoyable all the way through. There are no fake unrecognisable accents, superstitions and, thank goodness, we are spared those hideous wigs planted on the heads of Nollywood actresses. The setting, actors and themes are so familiar, it looks as if one is watching a documentary.
Master Argentina, during a training session with Ponle and his two apprentices, compares the anatomy of the engine to that of the human body, and didactically gives a reminder that it is important to do regular check-ups with our doctors in the absence of illness, just as it is important to maintain our cars before they break down. There is a deep hierarchy between the apprentices, and Ponle is at the lowest end of it. He is supposed to listen and not talk, but Ponle breaks the norms throughout the whole day. He corrects Tiri when he sees him not taking off a tire the proper way, which makes Tiri, a seasoned apprentice, pour vituperations on him. Ponle is not fazed. He also tells Tiri, who is boasting that he has driven a Mercedez Benz – ‘Mesi Oloye’ and that it is the fastest car in the world, that this is not so. He says Bugatti is faster. This does not endear him to Tiri.
Mama Sinmi’s canteen is the site of camaraderie and debates among these characters. Sports and cars dominate their discussions. Tiri, still smarting from being corrected by Ponle, brings up the Bugatti matter, and Obama, a fellow mechanic, confirms that indeed it is faster than the Mercedes Benz. Obama got his nickname from sneaking into America during the Obama era, but he was eventually deported by the Trump administration. He is seen as a buffoon by his peers, for his American mannerisms and affectations. Obama, in a hilarious and raucous argument, says that Africa won the World Cup, not France, because most of the players are from Africa. Another mechanic disagrees, saying the footballers were all raised in France, so they are French.
Emeka, like Obama, displays his Americanisms, while complaining about his Mercedez Benz, whose electrical circuit is all faulty after being repaired by NEPA, the head of the electrical section. The subtlety with which these characters are turned into comical figures lends some hilarity to the movie. Emeka’s girls are overweight, and in dresses that are not exactly flattering, and they wear long hideous synthetic wigs on their heads. This is in contrast with Sinmi’s hair, which is braided nicely without any fake extensions. She has just completed her National Diploma from the Polytechnic and is helping her mother out, while trying to decide what career to pursue. Sinmi is a secret love object for many of the apprentices, a cause of many conflicts in this all-male workplace, and prepubescent Ponle is not immune from this. He is smitten once he lays his eyes on her, and so smitten that he tells her he wants to marry someone like her when he grows up. He and Sinmi strike up a friendship and discover they have some things in common.
Chairman is the overall manager, managing conflicts, and laying down the rules. We could see the adversarial relationship that most customers have with mechanics through Ponle’s mother’s friend, who brings her car for repairs and accidentally finds Ponle there. She is so scandalised and alarmed that she calls Ponle’s mother to complain bitterly about putting him in such a place, when they could send him abroad for the summer, like their rich peers. She delivers superb acting by switching from conciliation, after listening to Ponle’s mother’s explanation and expressing concern for Ponle, to instinctive aggression towards Kamoru, immediately he appears on the scene. The film gives life and humanity to those everyone depends on, but who are rarely seen. Everyone who rides any kind of vehicle eventually needs the expertise of mechanics, but the attitude towards them generally ranges from distrust and condescension to suspicion and aggression.
This diaspora dweller gives gratitude and kudos to Kunle Afolayan and his crew for making this masterpiece. It resonates deeply with those of us looking for thoughtful and well-made culture films, which challenge our cultural understandings, but also affirm those aspects of our culture we should hold dear and honour.
The actors act as if not doing so, which is the best kind of acting. They give such an authenticity to the story, which makes it enjoyable all the way through. There are no fake unrecognisable accents, superstitions and, thank goodness, we are spared those hideous wigs planted on the heads of Nollywood actresses. The setting, actors and themes are so familiar, it looks as if one is watching a documentary. The young actor portraying Ponle did a masterful job, with his quiet, attentive and self-confident intelligence, which compels busy and sometimes disdainful adults to pay attention to him and eventually respect him.
The movie highlights the importance of hierarchy, respect for elders and superiors but, and also, the importance of listening to the young because as the Yoruba adage goes, “owo omode o to pepe, tagbalagba o wo keregbe.” Everyone has something to offer. The young handsome actor and older veterans embody this philosophy so well it makes the movie a cultural gem. Ponle continuously violates the hierarchical norms, questioning his superiors, offering insights and suggestions, but in the most polite omoluabi manner. It is not to show off his privileged status among the less privileged hardworking older males he is assigned to study under. At the end of the day, Chairman gives Mr Ogidan great feedback about his intelligent son, who not only quickly masters the skills taught him, but also behaves very well. The twist in the plot is Mr Ogidan’s reaction to this news.
The film concludes with a ‘Freedom’ celebration party, a graduation party organised for an apprentice who completes his long training. We see the rituals of a Freedom ceremony in Yorubaland, where ritual items like aadun, oyin, iyo, obi, orogbo, atare, sugar, and herbal portion are assembled and used to pray for the graduand by the Master Mechanic. These represent sweetness, success, prosperity, abundance, and longevity. The Master Mechanic forbids the new graduate from poaching his former master’s apprentices. It is a taboo. He drinks from the herbal portion and sprays the graduand’s head with it from his mouth. The graduand also drinks some of it and this makes it a covenant that must not be broken.
It takes a very talented filmmaker to portray a day in the life of a mechanic yard. This movie is faithful to all its grittiness, but the wonderful actors make us forget about this. With a talented cast, the movie transforms me back to Lagos than many of the glitzy Nollywood movies, whose themes, settings, and characters are so alien and superficial I could hardly identify with them. Mokalik is a layered movie exploring culture, hierarchy, youthful dilemmas, class, sexuality, skilled labour, and the gains of very hard work. This diaspora dweller gives gratitude and kudos to Kunle Afolayan and his crew for making this masterpiece. It resonates deeply with those of us looking for thoughtful and well-made culture films, which challenge our cultural understandings, but also affirm those aspects of our culture we should hold dear and honour.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory makes her home in Durham, North Carolina. She could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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