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Kenneth Gyang: Nigeria’s First Male Director Of A Netflix Original

Kenneth GyangAt the announcement of Òlòturé, the news was received with much enthusiasm, especially on social media. This is because, for the first time since Netflix’s entry to the Nigerian market, we are witnessing a Nigerian director produce a Netflix Original. But that is not all there is to the award-winning Kenneth Gyang. The Guardian Life sat with him to discuss shadow cinemas, trafficking, and shattered ceilings.

Tell us about your foray into film. What sparked your interest?
My interest started as a child when we used to compete in the neighbourhood with what I can now call Shadow Cinema. We used to create what we called “cinema” by telling stories with cut-out characters (from soap cartons) projected onto a white cloth. A lantern provided the backlight for the character’s shadows.

We made the sound effects with our mouths and also provided narration. It was our German Expressionism. A few years after my secondary school I went to the National Film Institute in Jos.
Graduating from film school in 2006, I went to work as one of the directors of “Wetin Dey,” a TV drama series addressing social issues (like HIV) facing young people in Nigeria and West Africa. The show set some standard in our media space and was produced by the BBC.

It’s a huge deal getting a Netflix original, how did this happen?
I’ve always been the sort of filmmaker that tells hard-hitting stories inspired by the manifesto of Third Cinema which started from South America. I never wanted to tell stories that are one-dimensional, showcasing the so-called one percent of Nigeria (in the mould of Hollywood’s First Cinema). I have respect for people who tell those stories but, for me, the story has to resonate and I think that’s the whole essence of being a filmmaker.

Landing the Netflix deal comes down to the storytelling, which started from a great idea by Ms Mo Abudu and Heidi Uys. Yinka Ogun eventually penned a great script out of it which went through several drafts and Craig Freimond came on board as well. Before Netflix, we the film premiered at the Carthage Film Festival. So we have had some success but Netflix is huge.

What exactly is Òlòturé’s core message?
First, we made an entertaining film that will appeal to a wide audience. Narrowing it down, I was shocked by a BBC radio documentary a couple of years ago about a Nigerian girl who left her home in Southern Nigeria to go to Europe because she was promised a job. The young girl ended up in Agadez (Niger Republic), sleeping with about 14 different men a day to make enough money to head to Libya.

Two years ago, while being a fellow at the EAVE Producers Workshop, I had a conversation with a friend from Malta about the wave of Nigerian women coming to his country. He wanted to understand the psychology behind the scores of Nigerian women leaving their country.

These stories and conversations informed the film. With Òlòturé, I got to make a film about the global problem of sex trafficking. With recent stories filtering from Libya about slavery, it is important that Nigerian filmmakers add their voices to the conversation.

Why do more Nigerian films not feature at International festivals? How can we change this going forward?
I’ve always been a film festival darling but I think a lot of filmmakers look inward for revenue instead of making films that will cross continents and rake in cash. A huge example is the Indian film Dangal which was a smash hit at the Chinese box office after first appearing at a film festival in that country. Dangal was not about the world’s one per cent but a father-daughter relationship at the family level and fighting societal perception of women at the universal level.

My point is, if Nigerians make films that have universal appeal, it will attract some of the biggest film festivals in the world and deals could be cut that will be financially beneficial to the filmmakers. We are getting there.

A lot of our actors are going into film production these days, is this good for the industry in your opinion?
Most actors are using their clout to access funding and this I think is good for the industry. My only advice is: they should channel those funds into great stories and work with the right crew.

With your wealth of experience in this industry, what would you like to see done differently that you believe would stir the right changes?
I think we should go back to the days of telling authentic the African stories that birthed our film industry. Too many people want to make Hollywood-style cinema without the funding to create fantastic set pieces. In the end, some of the features look laughable in their lack of depth.

Secondly, I think there has to be some sort of National Endowment Fund for Arts where real filmmakers with vision as seen from their past works (whether shorts or features) can access money to make films. The Bank of Industry module of bankrolling films is a disaster. The right policymakers should look at the BFI model in the UK and NFVF in South Africa.

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