In this interview, Tunde Kelani talks about his Thunderbolt experience, Professor Adebayo Faleti’s influence on his work, the From Print to Screen project, UNESCO’s recognition of Ifa as a knowledge system of the Yorubas, the evolution of the Nigerian cinema, and the prospects of Oscars for Nigerian movie productions. I spoke to him at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada after the screening of Abeni, the first Nigerian movie at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Your 2001 production, Thunderbolt treats the issue of unity in Nigeria. Five years after, Nigerians are still divided along ethnic lines. Do you see any end to this challenge and how do you think national unity can be achieved?
I think the issue of unity in Nigeria is part of our diverse nature. We are created in a way that we have the best land mass. Nigeria is a blessed country. We have a country that has everything anybody can wish for – from the Sahara Desert through the forest area; oil producing areas, the creeks, and then straight into the Atlantic Ocean. This is really wonderful.
We are to use our diversity as a strength, as a means of development but it appears as if we are using it negatively. I think our challenge has to do with leadership and governance. The system we are using is obviously not leading us anywhere; we seem to be heading in the wrong direction. After about 50 years of an experience, we realize that we are actually not going anywhere, so it is up to us to find a process of reorientation and try other systems. I think we should be bold enough to do that.
Thunderbolt for me was a great opportunity to look at two great Nigerian cultures, i.e. the Ibo and the Yoruba cultures. The project came about when Professor Adebayo Faleti, being a Yoruba scholar, occasionally comes across the same question. Some people ask him or doubt if he could ever write anything in English language, and since he wrote the book about Thunderbolt, which I came across and it falls within my project called From Print to Screen, I decided to explore this. Most of the body of work that I have done can be categorized into fiction or adaptations. Thunderbolt is an adaptation. Sometimes people ask me if I am going to graduate into making films in English language. They sometimes wonder if I can do anything in English language. For me it is not a question of the language, but also the culture.
If you are making a film, you have to set it at a place, about a people, and so these are the important issues. The book written by Adebayo Faleti gave me the opportunity to use English in a legitimate way. In a setting where the wife is from Ibo culture and the husband is Yoruba, the language of communication in such a home is often English. That gave me a genuine opportunity for the characters to speak in English. Also the husband’s mother who is not educated in western sense had to speak Yoruba anytime she’s in that home. And conversely the wife’s father being Ibo speaks in English whenever he is in that home. It’s a mixture of almost everything.
The second aspect was the opportunity to look at the myth of the reality of magun, and it is interesting that even in 2006, more than 80% of Nigerians, especially Yorubas, believe that magun is still alive and potent. So I thought to use that to flag off some kind of debate and possibly provide a thesis for academic research. The overriding message in Thunderbolt is to look at orthodox medical practices and suggest that they should not look down on traditional herbalists as inferior but should rather take them along and see what they can learn from each other.
At the end of the film, there is a conclusion from Ngozi that says: « it really doesn’t matter about tribe. There are only two tribes – either you are a good or you are a bad person. »
Mainframe Film & Television Productions set out to document Nigeria’s rich culture. How have you achieved this and what plans do you have to continue this in future?
Documenting Nigeria’s rich culture should be a challenge to all of us, not just Mainframe. In a globalizing world, we are losing our identity. We should do everything possible to document most of our heritage. It is sad that there is almost an imposition of mono-culture. In Nigeria today, it is almost like American culture because we are being bombarded by electronic information through cable and internet about dominant cultures.
It is strange how our music seems to have lost out and all our young musicians are into hip-hop; they look to America and are dressing like Americans. We are gradually losing our identity and behaving more and more like beasts of no nation. It is a clarion call to everyone to start that process of documentation and reorientation otherwise our children will suffer an identity crisis. Time is running out and we don’t have any excuses; the tools are there for our use.
Previously our people relied on anthropology to find out about previous existence but today we have so much at our disposal and we have to use them in such a way that we can retain our rich cultural heritage because that is our future.
A lot of Nigerian movie themes are obsessed with magic, witchcraft, and mammy water. Industry observers worry that these themes are giving Nigeria a bad image abroad. As someone who has treated these themes in some of your work, what’s your take on that?
Our cinema is very diverse; there is something for every type of audience. If some people prefer that kind of material, then you oblige them. There is an audience for those themes and as long as people are buying them, then the producers are not likely to stop. People who are highlighting the negative aspects of our culture for profit are doing so primarily because of their own bias. In such situations, some of our cultural practices are demonized. For instance in the case of religion, some may need to be delivered by a foreign religion and it suits their purpose so then traditional Nigerian practices are viewed with a bias.
This shouldn’t really be our concern. We should continue to use aspects of our culture in a positive way so that we can promote it and educate other audiences abroad about the richness and validity of our cultural identity.
As a cinematographer, you are considered more knowledgeable than the average movie producer in Nigeria. This coupled with your vast experience in the industry puts you in a leadership role. How are you fairing in that role?
First I try to do my work as best as I can. My training as a cinematographer prepared me for my work in the medium that I engage. I can see. I’m trained to see. I consider this an advantage. My priority is to pass on as much as I know to as many people as are willing to learn. It has taken me a life-time to get to where I am and I have put everything that I have into my work.
It is definitely a calling; what some may call a ministry. People who are coming into the field must recognize this and not just be attracted by the glamour of it. They must be prepared to make sacrifices. I see prosperity and development of skills, especially for the young people, in this field.
There are a few media institutes in Nigeria that I usually recommend for people coming into this field. After they’ve been through those institutes, they are free to join us for more practical experiences. The challenge though is that most young people don’t want to be apprenticed. As soon as they come out of school, they feel like they already know it all and are good to go. I hope there will be a lot of awareness and they will take the industry seriously enough to consider being apprenticed.
In one of your productions, you focused on Nigerian youths and tried to highlight the need to prepare them as leaders of tomorrow. Do you find that a lot of youths are interested in learning under you, and if so, do you have any plans to set up a film school in Nigeria?
I tried to start a Mainframe Institute but realized that it is important for me to continue to work as a professional, so I’m willing to work with other people as affiliates. I have identified a few media institutes that I would like to associate with. Setting up an institute would mean that I have to be there all the time but I still have so much to do. It will be instructive and useful if I went into certain established institutes once in a while. This way I can take on students in my productions for practical. I need to fan this arrangement.
Also Mainframe Productions has not done well as a business entity. Most of our work falls under social service and we are pursuing registering the outfit as a non-profit. Mainframe doesn’t fit into the business frame yet. I need to work more as someone providing some kind of social service.
Most of your productions have socio-political elements in them and they highlight the richness of Yoruba culture, which is the culture you were raised in. You have been quoted as saying that Yoruba culture is scientific. Can you expatiate on that?
I respond to my cultural environment. I don’t make films just for the sake of it. I believe that one’s work should be functional to the society one operates in. I’m inspired by my cultural experience. I was born and raised in a culture dating back over 3,000 years. Naturally I feel at home using aspects of that culture in addressing contemporary issues. That culture is my window to the world. I experience other cultures and I believe I should also pool mine in this globalizing world.
Yoruba culture is even more than scientific. I was privileged to be a member of a team consisting Professor Wale Abimbola, Professor Akinwunmi Ishola, and Professor Ajunwon. They wrote the Nigerian candidature to Ifa knowledge system and suggested it for inclusion in UNESCO. This is a reality today. Professor Akinwunmi Ishola addressed a world media conference in Ibadan on September 22 to announce this phenomenon to the world.
This for me is a milestone – Ifa will be recognized as a legitimate knowledge system of the Yorubas. I can see lots of positive outcomes from this. I see the Yorubas developing our alpha- numeric from this Ifa signature. We will be able to apply science to most of these things. We can use this Ifa signature in a limitless number of ways to express ourselves. This is knowledge. This is science. This is a people’s philosophy. We are not even talking now about the spiritual aspect of it. If the spiritual practitioners of Ifa have to give their blessings, they can be approached for that. But there is a lot more scientifically and artistically.
You recently started subtitling your productions in French and Portuguese in response to market demands and also to give them a competitive edge in the international film scene. How has this enhanced your productions and what are the resultant effects of these additions?
The subtitling is not primarily about market reach. The drive for me is to find the Yoruba audience wherever they may be. Our closest neighbour, Benin Republic has about 35% of its population with Yoruba origins. These are our people. I think it was the colonial policy that divided these people along border lines and they find themselves in another land speaking another language because of Francophone and Anglophone divide.
Since I started going into Benin Republic, I found out that these are people with common cultural heritage. Also in 1975, a number of African countries came together, including Nigeria, to establish the economic block, Economic Community of West African States, now known as ECOWAS. The dream of the founding fathers was to encourage economic, social, and cultural integration within the region, so we are just responding to this. Where else can we start except at home?
We are having collaborations and integrations. In a project like Abeni for instance, we have Nigerian artists and Beninoise artists, Nigerian technicians and Beninoise technicians working side-by-side. This is a wonderful direction in the development of African cinema. Hopefully this will be ongoing for African cinema so we can move the industry forward.
You had commented in the past that Nigerian producers have not really made any money from the international recognition being accorded Nigerian productions. Do you see a possibility of that changing soon, especially with Abeni’s entrance in the Toronto International Film Festival, which signals an open door for Nigerian productions into the North American market?
I am apprehensive on Abeni’s chances in the North American scene. Abeni’s screening at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival is a foot in the door; it is a gradual ascendancy of Nigerian cinema in the global arena. We are not quite there yet but we are on our way. My experience in Toronto has further given me so many opportunities which will serve us in future. At the first screening, I gave a prediction that with this recognition, we have been challenged in Nigeria to be confident enough to come forward, make better films, and reach for the stars. This is a challenge to every Nigerian film producer to step up the quality of our work.
The Nigerian film industry being independent and a private enterprise, with the support of the government agencies (National Film Regulation & Censorship Board and the Copyright Commission) that we have been witnessing within the last few years, they seem to be supporting the industry by playing very important and prominent roles. The Nigerian government was well represented at the screening in Toronto. The ministry had an information booth set up for those who came to the screening.
With all these happening and also tapping into the new technology that is available, as well as our cultural resources, I believe Nigeria is on the threshold of a major breakthrough. I have a dream that Nigerian film makers will soon hold the Oscars; not one but several within the next five years.
You have a distinctive approach to your productions that sets your work apart from the conventional movie producer in Nigeria. You have talked about the possibility of building a uniquely African independent cinema. How soon do you think this cinema can become a reality in Nigeria?
I believe it is evolving. One can not put a date to such a thing. We just need to stay truthful and steadfast and continue to move along. In the journey, a lot of things will change. The technology is foreign and there is rapid advancement in technology so one must be ready to update one’s knowledge from time to time. My work is different because as a trained filmmaker, I have to respect all the other artistic tradition. Film is essentially very collaborative and cooperative. The ability to pull together various experts from different fields for their input in any project is crucial.
What I like about filmmaking is the social factor which gives the opportunity to work with various talents and artists, and channel all these to achieve a particular goal to reach an audience. I think government should be run this way. A film puts you within a budget and you are focused on that project and making sure that you don’t go over budget. You bring a lot of people together to achieve a common goal.
We have the greatest hope and chances in Nigeria because we can still redeem our cinema. After the inevitable collapse of the cinema structure, people had to be entertained behind closed doors but today, we have the greatest chances of rebuilding our cinema and reviving the culture. One or two new cinemas and multiplexes are springing up but these are for the elites. These are American wonders where you have five cinemas in one gigantic structure.
This does not suit the masses, the grassroots. Certainly may be in the urban areas but remember that most Nigerians are in the rural areas and they need the entertainment as well. I see a number of neighbourhood cinemas springing up in the near future. Not multiplexes that people will get lost in but small ones sitting about 200 people, equipped with the latest digital projections and sound equipments, and in good surroundings where people can go and enjoy themselves and unwind from the daily grind.
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