Watch: Jade O’Belle’s film Birthright unearths the power of ritual

The artist’s mesmerising short film explores heritage, ancestry, womanhood and ritual

Jade O’Belle’s short film Birthright (2022) opens with the image of swirling, foaming waters. From there, we are initiated into a dazzlingly and decadent world; a metaphysical space where time and memory collapse and become embodied through ritual.

O’Belle, who directed and stars in the film, tells Dazed how Birthright (Girls In Film Productionsstarted from a desire to reconnect with her body. “I was doing these intuitive rituals to try and connect with myself,” she says. Following her intuition, she found herself drawn to certain colours, textures and images. “I was choosing blues and silvers and burning candles, and I was really into the number seven,” she says. The image of a woman, unknown to O’Belle, lingered in her mind. On a last-minute trip to Portugal, she stumbled upon a Catholic ceremony in which images of saints were carried on boats and brought out to sea. Recognising the woman in the image as the Virgin Mary, she didn’t think anything more of it until she encountered the figure a third time and something clicked… she realised this woman was the Yoruba orisha Yemoja.

Yemoja is derived from the Yoruba words “Yeye - Omo - Eja”, which translates to “mother whose children are the fish.” Governing over rivers and bodies of water, Yemoja is a water spirit celebrated in the Yoruba pantheon as the giver of life. “It was interesting for me to go with a feeling and then find references afterwards that belonged,” says O’Belle. In the film, she plays Yemoja, a homage to her ancestry as the daughter of a Yoruba-Nigerian father.

While she researched Yoruba religion and Yemoja in particular, her process was driven by her intuition. “I didn’t want to heavily research because intuition was the main point of the practice of this work,” O’Belle explains. She asked her family questions and worked from memory, starting with hand-dyed textiles she sewed by hand around a mould of her body. “My grandma had just passed away and she was a huge matriarchal figure in my family,” she tells Dazed. “It made me feel closer to her and have more of a real understanding about her and my family.” The resulting designs – intricately woven bras inspired by Yoruba hairstyles and patterned bodysuits – adorn the film’s characters.

And then there’s hair, O’Belle source material. Her practice as an artist originates in the years she worked as a hairdresser. “That’s how I started creatively,” she explains, recalling entering hair competitions and art-directed photo shoots. “I put all my creativity into trying to create different worlds within hair, to understand people and to bring out their characters.” It was all a way for the artist to allow people to “see and connect with themselves”.

O’Belle’s love of glamour pervades the film. Gems and glitter abound. Watching, you feel as though you’re inside a diamond. One reference, Belle tells me, is “the feeling of being at my family’s house on Sunday and the TV shows I would watch…. Hollywood films, how they have this hazy glamour to the shots.” Two films in particular served as sources of inspiration – Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mystical The Holy Mountain and Sergei Parajanov’s poetic masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates.

“I was doing these intuitive rituals to try and connect with myself. I was choosing blues and silvers and burning candles, and I was really into the number seven” – Jade O’Belle

Birthright is layered with references. “Having multiple perspectives when trying to access something is very important,” the artist and filmmaker explains. This is partly informed by her multicultural upbringing; her mother is Tamil-Indian and O’Belle also identifies as South Asian. “I wanted to have a diasporic point of view when looking at this work,” she says. “That’s where it started from. [I] want[ed] to see all these different references put together – all the things that feel alive in my mind – and like they have meaning.” 

The casting of the film unfolded naturally, with an uncanny synchronicity. The artist’s cousin Yinka Adeyoka plays the High Priestess in the film, a role O’Belle found fitting. “I really wanted to start the film with her because I can see my grandmother in her, even though they are different in many ways.” The casting of Edun Sodipo as the Reflection came about after a chance encounter during a night out. “Everything that she is embodies that character. In her own work she uses a lot of reflection and sound,” O’Belle says. “It all unfolded in a really beautiful way.” 

O’Belle has yet to visit Nigeria, India or Tibet, where her mother’s side of the family are from, but her physical self  – the knowledge that arises within her body and that she channels – keeps her connected to her various homelands. For those in the diaspora, turning towards the body can be transformative. “It’s important to tune into ourselves and try and channel the information – that alignment – we do have, otherwise you can get swayed and lost in something that doesn’t belong to you. Even though we are living in that and we do contribute to it, it’s not completely ours,” she tells Dazed. Birthright unearths the power of ritual, how it drops us into a threshold space where wisdom and connection are found. 

Take a look through stills from the film and watch the online premier of Birthright above. 

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