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Kunle Afolayan, Sefi Atta, Ijeoma Grace Agu: Presenting History Through ‘Swallow’

By Modupeoluwa Adekanye
26 September 2021   |   6:00 am
The print version of this story was wrongly credited to Dennis Da-Ala Mirilla. Modupeoluwa Adekanye remains the writer. Passion, talent, determination, and perseverance are attributes that make successful people. Sefi Atta, Kunle Afolayan, and Ijeoma Grace Agu have combined these four attributes to tell a story that keeps history alive. Walking into the Kunle Afolayan…

The print version of this story was wrongly credited to Dennis Da-Ala Mirilla. Modupeoluwa Adekanye remains the writer.

Passion, talent, determination, and perseverance are attributes that make successful people. Sefi Atta, Kunle Afolayan, and Ijeoma Grace Agu have combined these four attributes to tell a story that keeps history alive.

Walking into the Kunle Afolayan Production Hub brings alive the beauty of Africa, the cultural heritage preserved with images pinned on the walls.

Ijeoma Grace Agu, quietly seated in a corner, depicts a different person from the character Rose in ‘Swallow’, the film that took the Guardian Life team to this history preserving building. However, with a further conversation, her liveliness, interactions, and brilliant mind made it easier to understand how she made Rose come alive.

Some minutes after the Guardian Life team settles in, Sefi Atta walks in, her smile radiates through and her calmness is very noticeable. She has written many books, won multiple awards and now, her work ‘Swallow’ is being adapted into a film by Kunle Afolayan.

Kunle Afolayan: Preserving History Through Storytelling
Creative people are individuals who dedicate a lot of time to reading and widening their horizons, it is, therefore, no surprise that Kunle Afolayan, while explaining how he chose Sefi Atta’s book ‘Swallow’ mentioned how widely he had to read.

Time conscious, jovial, and welcoming, Afolayan gives an insight into the journey of making ‘Swallow’, a film that encapsulates Lagos and some vices that made up the 80s.

He did not just come across the book ‘Swallow’ by Sefi Atta, he had to research by studying till he got a story he could relate with. Speaking about Sefi Atta’s ‘Swallow’, he said:

“I read quite a number of books, like twenty. However, Swallow caught my attention for many reasons because it is a period film set in the 80s. I could relate with a lot of things she captured in the book, and it is a complex book to adapt, and I love its complexity. Sefi Atta is one of the best we have in this country, and I thought this is a good avenue to have a good collaboration with a good writer.”

Many know Kunle Afolayan as a skilled storyteller who has successfully captured the historical and cultural essence of Nigeria. ‘Swallow’ is no different. His penchant for telling stories that explore the historical and cultural context in Nigeria stems from his love for the culture, a representation of who we are as a country.

“Because that is who we are, that is who I am. I believe so much in this country to start with and I love my identity. I love the fact I am African, the fact that I am Yoruba, and I believe no one can tell our stories better than me because of my in-depth understanding of our culture. We have nice stories that I feel if we make into film, they would resonate with people and make great impacts.”

It is notable that with every splendid story told, there are outstanding actors who beautifully interpret their roles. The actors in ‘Swallow’ beautifully interpreted their roles and, with their outstanding talents, viewers are able to understand the feelings and outbursts of the characters – an indication of the thoroughness of Kunle Afolayan.

When asked how he arrived at the actors, especially the singer Niyola who played the lead role with no prior acting experience, he explained:

“I’m always looking for talents and not actors…. I took my time to ensure the actors are not far-fetched and to ensure they can act the period. I look for people who are disciplined, patient, and talented.”

However, just like other films produced by Afolayan, a major challenge faced is getting props that properly represent the 80s.

In a country like Nigeria where there is no solid preservation of the past, it was difficult getting the required items needed for the film. For the talented film producer, he is many things, and being a collector is one, so while he has some of the items, he had to reach out to get others.

“It was not too challenging, but the fact that those were things that took a bit of time to gather because you don’t have a store place to get everything made it difficult. Besides being a collector, I also belong to two clubs of classic car owners, so I reached out to some of them to get support.”

One of the silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic is that filmmakers can easily have their work accessible to people in the corner of their homes.

Kunle Afolayan’s partnership with Netflix for this Netflix Original is therefore remarkable, as it ensures accessibility and ease of viewing. While so many struggles to get this opportunity, Kunle Afolayan’s talent and success worked it out for him. He explained that the Netflix team reached out and together they could make a story that depicts history, talent, and passion.

Everybody needs someone to tell their stories, and with Kunle Afolayan, Nigerian experiences are being told and preserved for generations to come.

Sefi Atta: Making History Come Alive With The Pen
Sefi Atta – A woman with multiple awards to her name, she is very soft-spoken, and has a smile that never leaves her face.

The film ‘Swallow’ is an adaptation of her book of the same title written in 2010. Together with Kunle Afolayan, they made it into a film to be shown on Netflix by the 1st of October.

Writers, through their minds, have helped write and rewrite history in such a way that generations to come could access stories they were not privileged to experience. This is what Sefi Atta has done with Swallow. Some happenings in the story are not strange to her. Apart from sharing some experiences, she researched and saw what women were going through in the 80s.

However, the inspiration to write ‘Swallow’ came from a determination to get out of the experience of the characters of her first book, ‘Everything Good Will Come’.

She wanted to write about the experiences of people outside Lagos Island, about women in the Mainland axis of Lagos and outside of Lagos. It was the zeal to document other experiences outside that portrayed in her first book.

However, Sefi herself had a little of these experiences, though not as aggravated as that of Rose and Tolani in the film ‘Swallow’. Explaining further on the motivation behind ‘Swallow’, she said:
“I had worked in Lagos City Centre before, around Tinubu Square, and I had met with people like Tolani and Rose in the course of my work, and I wanted to write about these experiences. I was in Lagos in 1985 and 86. I just graduated and started working in the banking sector. I experienced a bit of what happened to Rose and Tolani, but differently. It has to do with the way men speak about women’s bodies and the way the male colleagues treated the female colleagues. I also had to research, I research about any of my books.”

Most of the talented writer’s stories focus on cogent issues. While speaking on the expectations from stories with themes such as the ones portrayed in her books, Sefi Atta opens up that she “hopes that the stories she tells prevent madness.”

“I write about men and women, but I don’t know if any of my stories have made a difference, to be honest. I don’t even know that stories change the world. I remember Ben Okri once saying that ‘without stories there would be madness’ and I held on to that thought because I was becoming pessimistic about what I do and if it had any value. I can only say that hopefully my story prevents madness.”

Her collaboration with Kunle Afolayan is remarkable, and this stems from a mutual level of trust and respect. She explained she is pleased with the dimensions Kunle brings to the novel.

“Kunle is driven by images, and I am driven by conversations and dialogues. I am happy with the dimensions he brings.”

Sefi Atta has helped to write history and keep stories alive in such a way that generations to come would understand the beauty, struggles, and vices of events and people they are not a part of.

Ijeoma Grace Agu: The Many Faces Of Rose
Rose, played by Ijeoma Grace Agu, is one of the main characters in the film ‘Swallow’. Rose embodies a character who is determined to make it in a society that does not give her that much option. Through crook or hook, she plans to make it out of poverty. Ijeoma, just as her character in ‘Swallow’, is full of life, beautiful, energetic, and fierce.

Speaking about how she got a role in ‘Swallow,’ she opened up that a call sealed it all.

“Kunle calls and says, “there is this book I want you to buy, ‘Swallow’ by Sefi Atta”. Halfway through the book, I called and asked, ‘You want me to play Rose, don’t you?’ and that was it. When I got this role, there was an initial feeling of excitement. Also, I knew I was playing Rose because her character spoke to me. I could relate to her and for any role I play, this is really important.”

However, just like every new job or work, there are always challenges. For Ijeoma, it was getting to understand the lingua franca and the time they set the film in. She had to understand the mannerism of the women, how they spoke and acted. Just as mentioned by Kunle Afolayan, she could not get enough material to help through that, because there are not enough historical materials.

“The only source material I had was ‘Taxi Driver’, which Kunle showed us, and a couple of videos which are political, and footage from journalists.”

Though she resonates with everything about Rose, on the set of ‘Swallow’, she felt her sorrows and pain from a sentence Rose made in the film. This sentence, ‘Nobody looks out for Rose’, Ijeoma explains the sentence gives a better insight into all her arcs in the story.

Ijeoma further explained that she loves every part of Rose; her feistiness, anger, and happiness. She explained,

“I like that she was authentic. I like her weaknesses, these made her who she is. I like every aspect of her.”
With her perfecting her role as Rose, one issue she might be faced with is stereotype, which some actors complain about. Ijeoma has a different mindset to this issue. For her, it is not much of a problem.

“Maybe in the early phase of my career, it could have been an issue. It gets to a time where you say you are grateful for work and I am grateful for work. When it reaches a point where it gets too much, then I might have to take some steps back.”

Just like most actors and creatives, Ijeoma also has people she admires and Meryl Streep and Genevieve are these people for her. These two motivate her, especially with their determination to succeed and reach great heights.

Ijeoma shows what it means to be dedicated, talented, and thorough with whatever you do. She brings Rose to life in such a way that the audience would feel her pains, laughter and go through her journey with her with such an open mind.