Nollywood should self-reflect, its politics very distracting
Perhaps, establishing Mainframe Film and Media Institute in Abeokuta could be the crowning of the career of renowned cinematographer and filmmaker, Mr. Tunde Kelani. In this interview with FLORENCE UTOR, he speaks about his filmic craft and how to grow the industry
Tunde Kelani was introduced to Yoruba literature at an early age, a tradition he has also handed down to his children, who speak, read and write the language very well. He is known for promoting his Yoruba heritage by producing movies rich in the culture. This is evidenced in works such as, Thunderbolt, Oleku, White Handkerchief, Maami and Dazzling Mirage.
His love for photography began from primary school, which he carried on to secondary school, and he invested money and time to learn the art. He became an apprentice photographer after he finished secondary school and later trained at the then Western Nigeria Television (WNTV), before further studies at London Film School, U.K.
“I was born in Lagos, but at five, my parents sent me to live with my grandparents in Abeokuta. I attended Oke-Ona Primary School and had my secondary education at Abeokuta Grammar School. Though, I am a Lagosian, setting up an institute or making Abeokuta a film hub looks attractive, as it is just one hour from Lagos. Also, it offers me more, and gives the canvass I need to work on. It gives me the opportunity to do a study on the old and the modern parts of one’s city. Apart from that, we have trees, forests, rivers; you just have the ingredients that inspire you to tell a story in the city,” Kelani recalled.
However, the filmmaker is all about telling traditional stories through film, as “it is about cultural expression. I use culture in contemporary times. Culture, in 2016, is not traditional per se. if you see the presenters of Yoruba programmes these days, they are not like Yoruba people who only understand Yoruba. These are young people who know Yoruba and English and the way they express themselves show that we do not use our culture the way we should, really,” he said.
According to Kelani, Nollywood is a still a long way from its desired destination as a film industry. “I think the politics in the industry is very distracting, and people could do less politics and make more films. We have not really used what we have properly. We make too much noise and I think we are too arrogant; we could be more humble. We are dwarfed on all sides. I heard a Chinese report that China is going to take over America in terms of infrastructure for cinema. China is adding an average of 22 screens a day, and what do we have here we still have a long way to go. We need to grow the industry. We need to work at the institutions and infrastructure to make the industry truly sustainable.”
He also argued that the film sector could do with more work, rather than mere glamour for the expected rewards to come to practitioners. As he put it, “sometimes, I think I’m a victim of being a pioneer, because for a long time, we had to prove that we can do it. In fact, that was how I started out, that we could do it better and continue to learn while doing it. When I started, most of the professionals then such as, Hurbert Ogunde, Ola Balogun would import film technicians from Europe or America, but we had to continue to learn to find a foothold. So, I may have lost a lot in terms of money, but again, it’s not a total loss in the sense that if it was not for the goodwill, track record and those things that I have done, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to have started a film school.
The cinematography ace said, “I have not given anybody anything, but you can see the quality of people that came to the maiden convocation. A French proverb says ‘the world comes to whoever knows how to wait.’ If you have the passion, patience and consistence, you will gain everything at the end. That is my position right now. But about four years ago, I lost so much, when I had a massive piracy attack on all my works. They are like my retirement benefits and for a long time, I didn’t know if I was dead or still living. Again, sometimes, when I had given up hope, some people just pulled me up. So, I can make money now and I’m going to prove it very soon.”
Needless to say that the menace of piracy is the filmmaker’s nightmare, but Kelani does not think government has the right handle on it just yet, arguing that; “Right now, government has a lot on its plate and I think that is the least of its problems. In fact, with what is happening now, there are so many things crying out for attention from government. They are trying; they have plans and policies but I think it’s going to take time.”
But how many developmental films are practitioners making to assist government in driving policies to impact the populace? Kelani answered, “films for development usually attract funding, but I don’t think people have time for that. The industry itself is caught up in a rat race and everybody is doing some unbelievable things. I think we are deficient; we do not have enough to reach our potential audience. I don’t believe that there has to be a scrambling into a box office to be counted as successful.
“If you ever watched Ogunde perform and the crowd that turned out, you would know that this box office thing is a joke. So, what are we talking about? My position is, ‘forget all this hype.’ Sit down and do some homework and show that you can make money. We have not exhausted the opportunities that we have. We are only thinking like Americans and comparing ourselves with them, which I think is the highest level of arrogance. I think we should self-reflect and re-examine ourselves,” he retorted.
Casting is one of Kelani’s strong points. He has employed great actors who enhance his stories. And; “the thing is to respect the demands of the story, which is very important. I cannot compromise on casting even if the person is unknown. I do some kind of balancing based on experience, especially, people, who have trained in the university and traditional theatre. Look at the late Bukky Ajayi. I mean, who could forget her performance in Thunderbolt. She deserves to be documented. If you want to see the best of her performance, go and watch Thunderbolt. She was in hundreds of other films, but none of those performances equal the one in Thunderbolt. Nobody would have done it better. I mean, you throw this Lagos woman into that kind of environment, where she finds herself in a village, and she instantly makes it look as if she has lived in that place all her life. Simply incredible! So, it is beyond acting. Apart from the level of performance, you can’t forget her voice. People like that don’t die; they will be there forever.”
Kelani also compared the old film model with the new and said; “First of all, the level of education then was better. Even primary school level back then was higher. I don’t know what to compare that to. We were expected to excel at all things. It began with something as simple as your handwriting. I knew Mr. Ogunbiade when I attended Rev. Kuti Memorial evening classes. He would give you handwriting exercise and may score you 8/10. In three days, he would give another and maybe you scored 5/10; then you would have to take three strokes of the cane to balance for your short fall. So, that level of discipline and scholarship is no longer there.”
He continued, “I remember the trouble I went through when I wanted to get employed at the former Western Television as a trainee cameraman assistant. I had to pass aptitude test, and then, I had to go for the interview in Ibadan. Again, technology has come to the level where everything is easy. Everyone now is a photographer and everyone who owns an android phone is a filmmaker and they think that access to this technology means that they are smart, but it is not true; that is apart of the problem with the industry. People who know some plug-ins and are smart in some of these soft wares imagine that they know more than anybody else or they think that perhaps, they have caught up with people who started out earlier in the industry.”
He also spoke about his migration from still photography,where he began his career to motion picture. “Cinema is just great,” he stated. “Photography is, perhaps, a higher art than cinematography, in the sense that, one of the best ways to learn cinematography is to study paintings, which was part of my training at London Film School. The secret of the art of cinematography is in painting, because if you look at paintings, artists have mastered light quality and quantity, use of colours just painting with their hands. You would be amazed when you see what people have used their hands to paint. If you can replicate that with machines, you will know what that means. If you know how to tame light, then you are good. I have the greatest respect for advance art. You know, all those painting, writing, poetry, they are senior art to filmmaking.”
He did not fail to recount his challenges just as it is common in all businesses, noting, “I have never lived in luxury all my life. I don’t even own an air-conditioner and I would like to have one and all that. You know, I was really protective. I knew that if I had listened to advice I would not have got the capital to make those films, but I didn’t allow myself to be advised by anyone, otherwise, I would not have made those films. I would have chosen to be more comfortable and that is why I appreciate the people that are close to me. They suffered with me – my wife and children. I deprived them and sometimes I could say, I regret it, but if they say they didn’t mind, then they have forgiven me. I’m happy.”
The filmmaker added,“For instance, my two children were never taken to school in a car. They walked all through primary and secondary schools. In fact, one day, a lady who worked at Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO), who had a car, wanted to give them a lift, because it was raining, but I went and drove them out of the car. I said, ‘no, we have never done this,’ and the lady said, ‘but it is raining,’ and I said, ‘so what?’ Kelani confessed, They had to find their way to school.
“Sometimes, when they were younger, I would walk to meet them on their way back from school and they would be happy and we would all come back home together, and I think they learnt a lot of lessons from that. My daughter can do creative writing because I know she is that good. She has read all of D.O. Fagunwa’s books, in English and Yoruba. I also banned speaking of English language at home while they were growing. I told my wife we were paying for them to learn English at school. So, they only spoke Yoruba at home.”
Kelani hasn’t practised his craft without having some brushes with the authorities, especially, the regulators in the film sector. He recalled; “I had a running battle with National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) under a particular director. Almost all my works, according to her, contained some unacceptable level of ritual practice. For instance, she thought Ifa is a ritual practice, rather than knowledge system. I also had issues with Campus Queen; they thought that we sang about bad government. They said there was no bad government, that I should go and remove those things.”
He argued that the new generation of filmmakers needed to take advantage of modern methods of filmmaking, and use it wisely to achieve results. “I think they should try and do more than me, because they now have better access to the tools of the trade more than I had. And then looking at the media, generally, if at my age, I have an online and terrestrial channel and well over 100 followers on social network, what are they waiting for? They need to take advantage of technology and make it work for them.”