By Tayo Salami Tunde Kelani popularly known as TK is the Director of Mainframe Films and Television Productions and one of the most veteran film producers in Nigeria. He is a filmmaker, storyteller, director, photographer, cinematographer and a producer as well. At an early age, he was sent to Abeokuta to live with his grandfather. The rich Yoruba culture and tradition he experienced in his early years, coupled with the experience he garnered at the London Film School where he studied the art of film making, prepared him for what he is doing today. The successful filmmaker spoke with TAYO SALAMI on how he rose from grass to grace and the challenges facing the film industry. How was growing up like? I was born in Lagos but at age five, I was sent to live with my grandparents at Abeokuta. I attended the Oke-Ona Primary School in Ikija, Abeokuta. I had my secondary school education at Abeokuta grammar school. I was separated from my mother to go and live in Abeokuta. During this time, I was lucky because my grandfather was the Balogun of Ijaiye Kukudi and I witnessed most aspects of Yoruba ways of life, the Yoruba religion, Yoruba literature, Yoruba philosophy, their environments, Yoruba world view in arts at close quarters. Of course, I got introduced to Yoruba literature from an early stage in my life and theatre also played an important part because we had a very strong travelling theatre tradition at that time. When I was in secondary school, I had the privilege to have seen most of the great Yoruba theatre classics, the Palmwine Drinkard, Oba Koso, Kurunmi, Ogunde plays and all that. I got interested in photography from primary school. Throughout my secondary school education, I was actively investing money and taking my time to learn photography. So, inevitably, I became an apprentice photographer after I finished secondary school. Later, I trained at the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) and later I attended the London Film School. Since you were introduced to the travelling theatre at a young age, what are the elderly people in the film industry doing to bring the travelling theatre back into existence? I don’t think it is their responsibility to bring it back because it has been affected by several factors. The world of communication, technologies and television has affected all that and I don’t think the travelling theatre can ever be brought back. It has been replaced primarily by television and then film. The theatre tradition can be revived, there is no doubt about it but the travelling aspect of it, I don’t think it can ever be the same. Yesteryears, a lot of cinema houses were in existence. Later, everything faded.Now, it has started springing up again and we have few cinemas nowadays compared to then. Has it not affected the film-making business? Of course it has affected the film industry. Because of economic factors, all the cinemas closed down in the 80s and that gave birth to the popular Nollywood because films are distributed generally on CDs, DVDs for home entertainment but things are changing because cinemas are springing up in Lagos, five of them. More are being built. With that, the cinema culture will be revived. Ambitious films are now first screened in cinemas and the number is growing, it is a silent revolution and it is going to happen. What inspired you to establish Mainframe Films and Television Productions? Mainframe is established to document rich cultural heritage and we started with number of notable films and even some television series and documentaries. Any film that we do in Mainframe has a root in our culture and in documentation, archiving, entertaining and promoting the real cultural heritage. Can you compare the fortunes of Mainframe when it was first established with now? Of course now the environment has been very unfriendly and hostile. When we first started, there was bit of electricity. Now, there is no electricity, the roads are bad, the economy has not improved. Against all that, we continue to struggle to do business and continue to work. On the other hand, there has been rapid advancement in technology, we are now in the digital media era and this is giving us more tools to work with. So, we have what it takes now to make great films. But businesses are closing down because of Nigeria’s economic downturn, it is not improving. How would you describe the nation’s film industry? It is the largest in Africa and it has been rated number two in the world. This has given us a task for development in Nigeria and there has been interest from researchers and recently, President Goodluck Jonathan released $200 million to the industry which is meant to boost the industry. These are all signs that are encouraging us that Nigeria will play a prominent role in African cinema. What would you say you have contributed to the industry so far? I continue to be a bridge between then and now. Despite the fact that I started many years ago, before Nollywood, I am playing my own role and I am still relevant in the industry, at least within the last 14 years in Mainframe, we have managed to create brands that Mainframe Productions has a reputation for quality and standards. Everybody expects the best of Mainframe and in my own private capacity as Tunde Kelani, TK in the industry, these shows, that I am contributing my little quota to the development of that sector Who are, or were, your mentors in the film industry? Well, I have creative uncles in front of me like Professor Wole Soyinka, Uncle Francis Ladele, Tunde Adeniji. People who moulded me, tutored me, and so many of them because I am a beneficiary of 50 years of successful television broadcasting in Africa. I had the privilege to have worked under great broadcast managers like Engineer Teju Oyeleye, Vincent Maduka and other great people. I practically apprenticed myself to Hubert Ogunde, and Dr. Ola Balogun, some of the prominent pioneers of film making. I have worked in many capacities while I was learning in my way up. Is it the relationship you had with all these people you mentioned that inspired you to go into film making? No, I started photography from my early age. I had a real culture, we had a great literature, I am a friend of the theatre, a great fan of the cinema and all these factors worked with my favour. Maybe at first, I was not thinking of becoming a film maker, maybe a photographer and then I was attracted by motion pictures because I saw all the great American films in Lagos. When I was growing up, we had neighbourhood cinemas, we had five cinemas around us in Ebute-Metta and I saw all these great films. So, it was just a matter of time before my interest in still photography shifted to motion pictures and for me, I am a story teller, and I was a looking for a medium to tell story. Film is a great medium for telling stories. How do you combine storytelling, cinematography, photography? For me, in cinema, you need all those great things to tell stories; visually as opposed to written. That’s the difference. When you cross from literature to cinema, one of those artistic components you need is the element of design, photography, sound editing and all other things to bring it together, to tell the story cinematically. You produce and direct and you do a host of other things. Doesn’t it affect you? These are the things that I need. I produce because I source for the money and I manage the money. That is producing. And my training in London Film School has prepared me for that because you are not encouraged to be a specialist. If you learn in London Film School, you are discouraged from specialisation. You have to learn every aspect of film production, at least you have to be an expert in three aspects of it. Basically, that is my approach to it. Most of my roles just overlap naturally and you can couple it with my interest in computer and computing many years ago and it is to my advantage that film making today has shifted towards ICT because it is a sizable component of media technology and this is nothing but ICT. How do you source for your stories? I am surrounded by stories and even from my environment, from the community, from my people, from books, newspapers, books, stories abound. So, we have vast resources, more than oil in our history and in books. How do you manage fame? I am not famous, I am just an ordinary person. You came here for the first time, did anybody stop you from entering? And now, you are in my office you saw me sitting on the ground, what fame is that? You have to see two or three people to see famous people but you can walk up to me anytime. I walk on the street, I am not that kind of famous person. How has piracy affected your business? It has more or less destroyed our business because we have more than 60,000 Arugbas that we cannot sell today because we have at least three pirated versions of it. Two pirated versions in Nigeria and one pirated copy in London, we lost our money on it. What are the challenges you have been facing? The challenge is for us to be able to continue to make films and we have been supported by the Lagos State government to do our latest film Ma’ami, otherwise we won’t be able to make another film for now. Is the film Ma’ami, a true life story? It is the adaptation of Femi Osofisan’s novel of the same title. But the picture at your website shows your picture and your mother, it’s as if the story depicts the real life story of TK? There are similarities because I come from a poor background and I can identify with that story. As a matter of fact, I went back to my family compound to shoot the film there. It is something about me and my early life. The compound in the film was where I grew up and the house we used is my grandfather’s house. I put myself as that boy when I was age 10, I was doing the exact thing he did in the film, in that same place and where the boy first played football in a primary school, that was the primary school I attended. So I had played ball in that same place, same spot but unfortunately, the Oke-Ona United Primary School is in a sorry state now. It has been neglected over time at least about 50 years ago when I attended the school, it has been left like that. I hope I am blessed so that I can contribute something to that school. What does the film Ma’ami teach us? I heard people complaining about their backgrounds, that they come from certain backgrounds and they would have achieved something if not for their poor backgrounds. But that is not what should stop people from aspiring and becoming what they wish to become. You can rise through education and all that. So, coming from a poor background doesn’t mean it’s an end of life. This boy was raised by a single mother. Forget about the father, we had a terrible past but beyond that he still rose to become a star to play football in England for Arsenal. So, anybody can become somebody in life irrespective of how poor you are, growing up. Have you ever thought of leaving the film industry to do something else? Sometimes, it’s been very close to review your life and you think that you are frustrated and all that but I don’t think I can leave film making because this is what I chose to become when I was very young in my life and some of the work I have done have been appreciated and I just thank God for it. I don’t think I could be anything else. I think it is too late and I am too old to change it now. All your films are rich in Yoruba culture and tradition … It depends on the storyline. If the story demands deep Yoruba, you get it. Sometimes, in Ma’ami for instance, it’s a bit more liberal than the other ones I have been doing. The story is the driving force not the language in this respect. Every film has its own point, direction or life. How have people appreciated the Yoruba language films you have done compared to the English language films? Well, people prefer me to work in Yoruba language and not in English language. But in adapting a work, sometimes I retain the original language of the material. In spite of your schedule, how do you relax? Work is play for me. Right now, I am working. I could throw two pillows on the ground and sleep, it’s work for me. My work is playing, it’s a lot of work and it is very demanding so it’s fun. You know if people see us, they will think we are enjoying ourselves. It could be stressful but in other sense, it could be rewarding. You don’t feel the stress, you enjoy it. Has any of your children shown interest in your job? No, they are too young and I think they should have the freedom to choose what they want to be in life. Of course, it is all visible to them but it depends on what they want to do, not what I want them to do. Were your parents supportive when you said ‘this is what I want to do’? Of course. My father was a wonderful man when he was alive and when I said I wanted to turn an apprentice without a salary, my father agreed and we went to see Chief Dotun Okubanjo who I had approach. They had a chat and my father confirmed to him I was mad about photography so it was an open family secret that I was just a photographer. But I am told your father wanted you to study Pharmacy? Yes, my father wanted me to be a pharmacist but my own plans were far away from pharmacy. I just wanted to be a photographer and really, it was as simple as that. I just don’t want to be anything else, it was just a madness and I was so proud of it and even at that time my friends went to the university but I just wanted to be a photographer. In my journey, there was a girlfriend who dumped me because she told me she wanted to study Medicine and she could not introduce me to her friends as a photographer and we parted. I was just happy to see a camera around me and if you look at the table there, you will see a camera there. Camera has always been around me because it is just a wonderful tool to document some aspects of life that will disappear in 20 years time. I want to do more and more and more. I wish I had the capacity and the financial backing to continue to work everyday because there is so much to document, there is so much to do before we lose our culture. To me, it’s a lost battle that if care is not taken, our culture and language will disappear. It is disappearing from challenges of other cultures in what we call globalisation. What advice do you have for upcoming people willing to join the film making industry? Whatever they want to do in life, they should just take advantage of the new technology, computer age, digital age, and they have the tools to achieve in life. In other words, they should be ready to invest their time and money to develop themselves because they have the tools to do it and they should do less yahoo yahoo (Internet fraud) and use all these things positively to advance and develop themselves. Help, Our culture, language dying!