Semiotics Analysis of Nigerian and American Films



1.0 Background to the Study

Semiotics is a form of communication that uses signs, codes, symbols, and significations to articulate ideas and information. It is a method of communication that investigates the creation of meanings. Adedina and Taiwo (2015:6) define it as the study of signs within the framework of social life as expressed in a work of art. Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist and semiotician who laid the foundation for the study of semiotics, posits that semiology (his preferred term) is the science that has to do with the study of signs in the society (1974:661). Pierce, the renowned American philosopher and semiotician representes semiotics as

“the quasi-necessary, or formal doctrine of signs. By describing the doctrine as “quasi – necessary,” or formal, I mean that we observe the characters of such signs as we know, and from such observation, by a process which I will not object to naming abstraction, we are led to statements, eminently fallible, and therefore in one sense by no means necessary, as to what must be the characters of all signs used by a “scientific” intelligence, that is to say by an intelligence capable of learning by experience” (cited in Desai and Nair 2005: 561).

The two definitions are associated with the patterns of communication; that is, socio-cultural relationships and interactions in human society.

While Saussure emphasises the social function of the sign, Pierce emphasises its logical function. Nevertheless, both perspectives are closely related; and more, the two terms “semiology” and “semiotics”, Adesanya (2014:50) submits, the same concept. Therefore, semiotics can be defined as the study of how signs, codes and symbols function within recognised sign systems for significations. To clarify Adesanya’s (2014) position, Adedina and Taiwo (2015:7) state that there exists the formal and social aspects of semiotics. They note that while formal semiology deals with conceptualising signs from the contexts of their usage, social semiotics examine semiotic practices that are specific to cultures. Semiotics therefore, finds expression in every phenomenon that is intended for communication, either contextually or culture specific.

In film, semiotics helps in deepening intended meaning. The visual basis of film gives it a universal power of communication. Film, Bankole (2014:2) notes, is a repository of semiological symbols. The meanings are inferred from societal practices; norms, cultural values, individual experiences and environmental contexts, to showcase the way the society functions as projected in films through aesthetics. As a result, every sign or sign system operates within a given context. Many filmmakers extensively deploy semiotics in expressing the myth, history legendary stories and archetypes within the respective cultures where their films are set. Kunle Afolayan and Mel Gibson are renowned for adopting semiotics in the treatment of the narratives that portray respective cultures.

In a broad sense, myth and archetypes refer to any traditional belief conveyed by cultural codes within socio-religious sign systems. According to Alagoa (1978:9), myths are sacred narratives of sacred things/beings and of semi divine heroes. Similarly, Jaja (2012:9) perceives myths “as stories that play explanatory functions in understanding reality, concepts and beliefs and further serve as explanations of nature and events such as creations, origin of things, history of a race or a people, and heroic deeds and achievements”. This clearly shows that myths true expressions of societal beliefs that are communicated through a collection of signifying elements. Okpewho, Finnegan,
Afolayan and Gibson’s films embody mythic representations that reinvent archetypes. Ihidero (2015:57) says:

Modern filmmakers across divergent continents have largely exploited their indigenous myths and archetypes in explaining major phenomenon and events in history. In Africa, and especially Nigeria, filmmakers have deployed archetypes in the re/presentation of African reality and they have continued to draw from primordial myths and divergent archetypes to depict the changing societies in Africa.

As profound as Ihidero’s (2015) assertion is, many film critics in Nigeria have not given much critical attention to the use of myth in explaining the social reality of the country. Also, only a fraction of filmmakers in Nigeria have employed myth in their films in a manner that will engender development. Tunde Kelani is one of the filmmakers who creatively use Yoruba myth to explain the action and, or, inaction of his film characters. Popular among his works are Saworoide (1999); Agogo-eewo (2002); Thunderbolt: Magun (2001); Arugba (2008); Maami (2012) – an adaptation of Femi Osofisan’s Maami (1987); The Narrow Path (2006) – an adaptation of Biyi Bandele’s novel of the same title; and Sidi Ilujinle (2017) – an adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel (1959). Furthermore, Andy Amenechi adapted Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine (2007) to film, and so did Biyi Bandele adapted Ngozi Chimamanda’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2012) to film, among many others. The above listed films deal with the past, present and changing conditions of the Nigerian society in all spheres, using myth-archetypes as elements of meaning making for resolutions. Kunle Afolayan and Mel Gibson fall under some of the modern filmmakers that have used myths in their films to interrogate their immediate environment and the modern society at large. This is evident in the films of Kunle Afolayan that are chosen for this study. Fundamental to the filmic representations of Afolayan and Gibson is the deployment of semiotic properties in creating profound meanings. To this end, this study analyses and interprets archetypes in the selected films of Kunle Afolayan and Mel Gibson within the purview of Semiotics. This study employs semiotics as an intricate term that encapsulates the various levels of narratives, the filmic signs and codes, and other signifying elements that are capable of being semiotically analysed in the selected films.

This study also investigates the intermingling of the signifying elements in the signification and the interpretations of the films, and further juxtaposes the codes and signs employed in the films by these filmmakers. The films selected for this study are Irapada (2006), Figurine (2009), and October 1 (2014) by Kunle Afolayan, and Passion of the Christ (2004), Apocalypto (2006) and The Braveheart (1996) by Mel Gibson. The criteria for the selection of these films is recurring theme of myth, which covers sacrifice, horror and heroic feats that are communicated through the various filmic and cultural codes and signs. The predominant elements of semiotics in these films are verbal language, text, images, and other non-verbal signs of communication that are semiotically internalised and analysed for signification and interpretation. The codes and signs used in these films are culture-based, as it is with other communication systems that require signification and interpretation. This situates the semiotic elements within the milieu of cultural semiotics.

For a semiotic reading of a work of art, an in-depth understanding of such a work will guide the interpretation of all the elements of production employed in the work. The semiosis of film has been broadly categorised into various ideological milieu: syntagmatic ideology, paradigmatic ideology, rhetorical tropes (Chandler 2005:52, 63, 88) and other cultural and social codes and signs. The concept of ideology is generic. Ideology, in this context, is defined as ideas or beliefs underlyimg actions of a class or group of class or group of people. The paradigmatic (synchronic) and the syntagmatic (diachronic) analyses, rhetorical tropes, and other cultural and social codes and signs (which are aspects of semiotics), often intermingle for an accurate analysis and interpretation to be arrived at. The synchronic analysis involves a search for the hidden pattern of oppositions that are buried in the films that generate meaning. The diachronic analysis is a syntagm. In this type of analysis, a text is examined as a sequence of events that form the narratives of the film. Filmmakers combine these levels of codes with other linguistic, non-linguistic and rhetorical tropes to achieve their motif in the narration. In narratological terms, the synchronic structure of film is otherwise referred to as the fabula and the diachronic structure is known as the sjuzhet. The films chosen for this study will be analysed using the above listed variables, which are incorporated in a semiotic analysis.

However, existing critiques on these films have not been read from the purview of archetypal conventions and how they define the contemporary society. The few accessible critiques on The Figurine is Afolayan’s (2015) Auteuring Nollywood: Critical Perspectives on The Figurine. Most of the essays in this book adopt extraneous standards to appraise the themes inherent in the film. The implication of analysing The Figurine using a foreign model is that it may reduce the export of the Yoruba narratological systems and codes which Afolayan deploys in telling his stories but because he has carved a niche for himself on the international film scene. For example, Afolayan’s October 1 and The Figurine deploy nuanced forms of barding and, or diachronic communication systems which absolutely differs from colloquial usage. Thus, the export of Yoruba representational art in films cannot be said to have been given credible treatment the same way the English narrative style and myth-archetypes have found expressions in Gibson’s films.

Several orientations exist on the application of semiotics in film or literary studies. Due to the similarities in the codes and signs employed by the filmmakers in their representations of myth-archetypal elements, this study appraises the myth-archetypes in the selected films. The conception of semiotics from this dimension conveys the cultural modes that drive the diegesis of the films. The application of this dimension to the films will change the interpretations and constructions of meanings in the film. It will inevitably change some established understandings and meanings of such myths. To this end, the several schools of thought that have theorised on film analysis have a point of convergence; the construction of meanings which can be taken as semiotics. This is because the semiotic theory specifically constructs and analyses man’s communicative behaviour. In this case, our task mainly is the interrogation, identification and description of signs and sign-systems for the purpose of signification. This is supported by Lemke’s (2004:177) argument that

Semiotics suggests that each intelligence is mediated by an analytically distinct semiotic resource system, such as language, visual depiction, or mathematical symbolics, and that when we combine these resources their meaning-making potentials quite literally multiply one another, making possible distinct kinds of meaning that cannot be made in each one separately.

Lemke’s assertion is imperative in a semiotic analysis of film of this kind in the sense that it combines all the employed semiotic resources for signification. This study uses the parameters that guide a semiotic analysis of film such as synchronic and diachronic examination, denotation and connotation, metonymy, metaphor, and irony to interrogate how meanings are produced in the selected films. By so doing, the latent meanings that enhance the significance of the films from a socio-cultural context and sub-contexts will be uncovered. Filmmakers employ these resources in creating ethno-religious and socio-culturally situated activities where the audience also observe the presence of the social world, either because it is mentioned, or because various resources have been symbolically used in the process of making sense of the events represented. Applying these elements of narrative accelerates the psychological reorientation of the audience specifically with regard to the construction of their social reality.

1.1 The Concept of Semiotics

The term semiotics has been in use since the seventeenth century. Accounts that it was spelled semeiotics, and was first used in English by Henry Stubbes (1670:75) to precisely denote the branch of medical science relating to the interpretation of signs. Semiotics has its roots in the field of linguistics; it was notwithstanding conceived as a theory that would provide readers with the tools with which to analyse extra-linguistic components of discourses and narratives. It is on this premise that Saussure (1966:16) defines Semiotics as “the theory of signs”. Also, Pierce (1931-58, 2.302) affirms that “we think only in signs.” This is a point of reference that all human actions are conducted in signs. However, these actions require some level of human interactions in all endeavours to achieve the required result. Communication then, is pertinent to humans since the society thrives on it. Chandler (2013) explicates this in the following phraseology:

We learn from semiotics that we live in a world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organized. Through the study of semiotics, we become aware that these signs and codes are normally transparent and disguise our task in ‘reading’ them…. Deconstructing and contesting the realities of signs can reveal whose realities are privileged and whose are suppressed. The study of signs is the study of the construction and maintenance of reality. To decline such a study is to leave to others the control of the world of meanings which we inhabit.

Semiotics, then, serves as a concept that permeates and governs all spheres of human existence. Human interactions and experiences with codes and signs are transferred to the narratives of films to create the illusion of reality. In relation to film, Guiraud’s distinct perception of Semiotics as a language whose signifiers can function independently of verbal language seems appropriate. He makes clear that Semiotics is:

The science which studies sign-systems, languages, codes, sets of signals, etc. According to this definition, language is part of semiology. However, it is generally accepted that language has a privilege and autonomous status, and this allows semiology to be defined as the study of non-linguistic systems (Guiraud 1975:1).

Semiotics also focuses on non-verbal systems of communication. In this regard, semiotics has been used to address some central issues in cinema such as the role and mode of expression, invention, interpretation and the nature of narration, character identification and audiences’ emotional responses. These aspects of the cinema perform an indispensable role in the understanding and assimilation of the medium, which a semiotic examination incorporates. This is the justification for the adoption and treatment of archetypal representations in this study as a set of codes and signs that shape the socio-cultural beliefs that are fundamental to human existence – especially in determining individuals’ perception about life and consequently, the manifestation of this self-ascribed and describing perception. Caroll (1999:3) corroborates this opinion succinctly in the following words:

Concepts organize our practices. The concept of a person, for example, is central to myriad practices, including politics, morality, the law, and…the concept of knowledge is indispensable throughout the widest gamut of human activities. Without such concepts, the activities in question would not exist.

From Chandler (2013) and Caroll’s (1999) arguments, it is observed that an understanding of signs and codes will guide individual’s interpretations, depending on the contextual usage and the interpreter’s orientation and reasoning capability.

Therefore, a semiotic analysis of the selected films within the sign-system of the medium, and the dictates of the societies within which they are produced facilitates the recognition and interpretation of latent signifying patterns in them. Furthermore, an examination of the myth-archetypal codes in the selected films (in connection with their respective cultures) will help strengthen the body of existing materials in film criticism that will be beneficial for media specialists in and outside Nigeria. It will also be effective in the re-orientation of the Nigerian populace on the role of myth-architypes in the construction of their society. The significations and interpretations of these myth-archetypal codes can stimulate film scholars and workers alike to engage more in film discourses and film productions that will benefit the nation in some capacities.

1.2 Signs

The conception of sign is credited to two leading linguists: Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss Linguist and Charles Sanders Pierce, an American philosopher. While Saussure perceives the study of signs as Semiology, Pierce refers to it as Semiotics. Basically, the two terms are interpreted to mean the same thing and are often employed interchangeably. Signs therefore, in Preucel’s expression, “are such things as ideas, words, images, sounds and objects that are multiply implicated in the communicative process” (2006: 1). This means that signs are the channels through which messages are conveyed, interpretations done and significations are arrived at. Cobley (2005: 28) states that Pierce regarded these signs as “‘representamen’” and Chandler (1999: 16) affirms that Saussure conceived that “a sign must have both a signifier and a signified. There cannot be a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified”. A signifier is a mental apprehension of an object and the signified is the concept, idea or meaning evoked from that mental apprehension. The signifier and the signified are in a relationship that produces significations. Signification is “the process of sign formation, the act which binds the signifier and signified, and an act whose product is the sign” (Barthes 1967: 48). Signification therefore, is the (un)conscious understanding of an object and the import given to it.

Chandler’s (2005: 1) description of humans as “Homo significans” (meaning makers) can be considered as true because human beings persistently attempt to unearth hidden meanings, understand and interpret the recognised human communicative signs in different ways. Fiske (1990: 39-41) argues that characteristically, this meaning-making process is done through the creation of signs and sign systems, specifically, in all labour undertakings. Signification is done with regard to human’s level of intelligence as well as their socio-cultural, economic, educational and political backgrounds, which lead to an understanding of how they comprehend and interpret their world. Significantly, the study of signs addresses itself to signification and communication as the mental apprehension of all human actions.

These signs, however, are unconsciously understood in relation to familiar structural dictates. According to Thwaites and Davis (2002: 9), this knowledge of signs and the “banality of meaning”, take prominence in the study of Semiotics from the linguistics viewpoint. This is evident in Eco’s (1981: 37) brilliant submission that “a theory of communication is dialectically linked to a theory of signification, and a theory of signification should be first of all a theory of signs”. This understanding serves as a progression for the key concepts in this study – film and semiosis.

Two principal models of signs have been identified by Chandler (2005: 2): those of Saussure and Peirce. This establishes that any enquiry about the nature of signs can be linguistic, philosophical or both. A philosophical inquiry submitss that the sign consists of a physical form and an associated mental concept. This concept may in turn be an apprehension of external reality. The sign relates and translates to reality only through the concepts of individuals who perceive it as such.

1.3 Statement of Research Problem

Archetypal representations exist in abundance in all human societies. In film studies generally, a lot of researches have been carried out using the semiotic perspective to analyse these representations. In Nigeria, such existing works have focused largely on the general identification and analysis of films using the theory of semiotics. A number of other works have only focused on general archetypal representations in films. Much has not been done on the semiotic analysis of archetypal representations in films. Paying attention to archetypal representations will enable us to compare motifs in the selected films of the filmmakers. This study intends to fill this gap.

1.4 Objectives of the study

The specific objectives of the study are to

(a) identify the archetypal representations in the selected films of Kunle Afolayan and Mel Gibson;

(b) analyse the varieties of codes and signs used to project the archetypal motifs in the narratives;

(c) examine the relevance of the codes and signs in locating the films within archetypal and semiotics criticism; and

(d) juxtapose the codes and signs used by the filmmakers in communicating their messages.

1.5 Research Methodology

This study will employ both primary and secondary sources of data. The primary source will consist of three purposively selected films of each of the filmmakers. They are: Irapada (2006), Figurine (2009) and October 1 (2014) by Kunle Afolayan; and Brave Heart (1996), Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) by Mel Gibson. The films have been selected based on the way they employ archetypal motifs in expressing their different concerns in the narratives. The secondary data will comprise archival materials, books, journal articles, and the Internet. The films will be analysed using the theoretical model of structural semiotics by Ferdinand de Saussure.

Contribution to Knowledge

The study will shed light on the mode of archetypal representations in films generally. It will also undertake a comparative analysis of the archetypal motifs in the selected films of Kunle Afolayan and Mel Gibson, using semiotic analysis.

1.6 Scope of the Study

As mentioned earlier in this study, significant efforts have been made in the field of film studies in Nigeria. However, the scope of this study covers the semiosis of cinema especially as means of communication between the filmmaker and the audience, and as a method of analysing myth-archetypes in the selected films. The study analyses archetypal representations in Afolayan’s Irapada (2006), The Figurine (2009), October 1 (2014), and Gibson’s Brave Heart (1996), Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) using the tools of semiotics.

1.7 Significance of the Study

This study is significant because it takes into account the complexity of the mechanisms of the filmic expression for a better comprehension of film with the goal to developing the audience’s imagination and knowledge of their world through archetypal representations. This study is imperative because it examines the possibilities of semiotics in universalising signs, codes and archetypal representations in the works of the Afolayan and Gibson, and particularly in exporting Nigerian myth-archetypes to the international stage.

Theoretical Framework

This study is anchored on Archetypal and Semiotic theories. The rationale for choosing these theories is that Semiotics helps in answering questions that archetypal theory raises whilst archetypes offer semiotics syntagmatic objects or subjects for signification. Archetypal theory denotes recurrent narrative designs, patterns of action, character-types, themes, and images which are identifiable in a wide variety of works of literature, as well as in myths, dreams, and even social rituals (Abrams 1999:22). Such recurrent items are held to be the result of elemental and universal forms or patterns in the human psyche, whose effective embodiment in a literary work evokes a profound response from the attentive reader, because he or she is familiar with the archetypes expressed by the author (Yamma 2016:31). The essence of archetypal criticism, Gillespie (2010: 58) notes, is to identify those elements that give a work of art a deeper resonance. Semiotics, on the other hand, is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign in identifying archetypes. Although, semiotics has its roots in the field of linguistics, it is notwithstanding conceived as a science that would provide readers with the ability to interpret all constructed human signs other than those found within the linguistic systems. As such, it is a study of language, concerned with the nature and functions of signs as well as the techniques of signification, expression, representation and communication. It has to be understood, in this usage that language is not limited to speech alone; rather, it encompasses expressions of thoughts that have the capacity of being understood within the reserve of its usage. This forms the premise of Elam’s (2002:1) argument that

Objects are thus at once the different sign-systems and codes at work in society and the actual messages and texts produced thereby. The breadth of the enterprise is such that it cannot be considered simply as a ‘discipline’, while it is too multifaceted and heterogeneous to be reduced to a ‘method’. It is—ideally, at least—a multidisciplinary science whose precise methodological characteristics will necessarily vary from field to field but which is united by a common global concern, the better understanding of our own meaning-bearing behaviour.

Semiotic theory, therefore, focuses on signs; how signs are used, the laws that govern their usage and the social, cultural and ideological meanings of signs and codes (Saussure 1915/1959: 16; Scholes 1982: 39; Danesi 2004: 4; Cobley 2005: 3).

There are several tools of analysis inherent in archetypal theory and semiotics, depending on the discipline or orientation of a researcher. For a study of this nature, Northrop Frye’s theorisation on myth-archetypes and Saussure’s theorisation on semiotics will suit well the analysis of the films of Afolayan and Gibson. For Frye (quoted in Gillespie 2010:4), the most basic questions of in archetypal criticism are: “What archetypal elements can a critic find in literary work? Are there any mythic plots, characters, themes, symbols, or recurring images? How do these archetypal elements contribute to the work as a whole? Semiotics comes in as an appropriate tool of analysis in the process of answering these questions. The tools of analysis which semiotics use in providing answers to these questions are the: signs and codes inherent in the selected films of Afolayan and Gibson. The myth-archetypal elements that take the form of codes and signs in the selected films, will basically be analysed using using Saussaure’s model of structural semiotics.