We’ll redefine African Cinema - Tunde Kelani From NOLLYWOOD MAGAZINE Europe, America and the Carribean have recently turned attention on Nigeria’s video revolution. Moviemaker, Tunde Kelani, is a major influence in that trend. As he awaited celebration at the New York African Film Festival, Muritala Sule sounded him out. What’s the significance of the New York African Film Festival for you and the Nigerian film industry? This is very significant for the Nigerian film and video industries. For a long time Nigeria had very little to contribute to the concept of African cinema because, despite our size, we were just written off. Why? Because, to belong, you’d have to be seen as a productive country. You’d have to make films regularly and possibly on 35mm celluloid. But, for some reasons, we could not contribute. We could not force our way and all that has changed in the last ten years. Can we really talk about an African cinema, American cinema and British cinema, isn’t cinema a universal language? What’s African cinema? Sooner or later we’ll have to redefine the concept of African cinema because previously what was thought to be African cinema by the intellectuals was essentially Francophone where they made artistic, high quality, standard films. To me, that panders towards foreign tastes and it is really ambiguous because this is a cinema that very few people on the continent get to see. They are made on 35mm, the directors are celebrated, the films are popular outside of their own environment. But that was the end of it, and I couldn’t come to terms with that kind of cinema. Is that kind of a thing really sustainable? It would appear rather funded or supported by foreign interests and so on. The filmmakers themselves have very little control over their subject matter. Would you say they aren’t expressing themselves genuinely? I don’t know. It depends on the way you have to look at it – But they have to pander I am not an intellectual filmmaker. I’m a popular filmmaker. The kind of subject matter I address and the way that I do it is for a mass audience. But, somehow, I’ve managed to cut across, which is really a bonus. There are actually very few storytellers anywhere in any genre who have been able to achieve that kind of blend where they straddle across taste barriers. How have you been able to manage that? It was a conscious effort on my part. There’s only one way I like to express myself and that is through my cultural experience. And that has taken many years of assimilation into a particular culture. I was born in Lagos but I was sent to my home town (Abeokuta) when I was five to live with my grandfather, the late Chief Kelani Idowu who was the Balogun if Ijaye Kukudi, even before I started schooling. It’s not like today because everybody lived together and the houses were built together in a compound structure of the Yoruba people. Coming from Iberekodo you descended into the compound. There was a storey building which belonged to my great uncle, the Odofin Egba, Chief Adeyinka. He is a Christian. And the small house on the right is Kasaali Onilu’s. The man is a drummer and his mother is a Sango worshipper. Then, the next house to that belongs to an Egungun worshipper who refused to be converted into Christianity or Islam in spite of the enormous influences of those religions. He was a devotee, very colourful. I still remember vividly the masquerades. And the next house to his is our own house. We are muslims. And the next house to that belongs to a Christian. In the middle (of the compound) we had this circle where we did everything together. During the Ramadan (fasting) period, everybody woke up with the muslims (during the night) and ate with them and during the Egungun festival, it was the same place that the Egungun performed and my grandfather, being the Balogun, was like the chairman and he had to make sure that everything went well. What’s the significance of all this to your art? The community lived with absolute tolerance. Nobody was conscious of Christianity or Islam or Sango worship. Everybody just worked together. How does that relate to your work today? Of course, that’s what it is. I don’t let religion get in the way. The cultural aspect of it is so important to me that nothing gets in the way. I just tell the story. I have no bias. Please, relate that kind of living (of your childhood) to today’s lifestyle. Today, everybody is alienated. Everybody now drifts away from that kind of communal existence. It’s unfortunate; everybody sort of drifted away because of the pressure of civilisation and the kind of education we received, which encourages you to turn your back on your own. You look down on the rest of the community and just behave as if the rest of them are idiots. And, suddenly, you go and live separately, maybe in a housing estate, like a foreigner. From secondary school you were taught never to eat with your fingers, never to speak your language, to throw away your dress and dress like someone else. Don’t eat your own food, look toward another person’s country as the ideal and turn your back totally on your own. You thought that you had arrived, you were successful and had become a wise person. Whereas, you’ve just started to wallow in ignorance. How were you able to resist that kind of deliberate programming? When I was at Abeokuta Grammar School, we were punished for speaking what they called vernacular and that was your own mother tongue. You had to dress in a particular way. More importantly, you had to put on a tie. And, for people who were probably going to break free of that, you began to question this by the time you were in form four. Did you start querying it as far back as that time? Quietly. For instance, it you were not supervised, you threw away the cutlery and ate with your hand. If there was supervision, you brought it out. You treated the spoon and the fork with contempt. You bent it and put it in your pocket and when there was supervision you brought it out and straightened it. Of course, you spoke Yoruba and they punished you all the time and by the time you had your first interview and got a job, you threw away the tie. You perhaps kept a tie to attend interviews with because that was the only way you could get a job. What kind of consciousness equips a young man to react like that? Does it have to do with Abeokuta? I was fortunate to have grown up around the time I did. When was this time we’re talking about? The (19) 60’s. I had my primary school in the 50’s. What’s the definition of ‘mid-career’? Does it have to do with age or volume of work? It is because my work can now be grouped. If I had not used alternative technology (video) to continue, there would have been no mid career focus. There is, for ezample, the talk of writing a book by some people, called From Ti Oluwa Nile to Agogo Eewo. My mid career retrospective can now fit into a pattern. From Ti Oluwa Nile to Agogo Eewo represents an era that a lot of people, the audience, can relate with. You can classify my career into periods. You could say, these are my television years. The first wave of the made-in-Nigeria films, more by the theatre practitioners, I photographed most of those films. You can say that is my early career. Then, from Ti Oluwa Nile to Agogo Eewo is my mid career. What I do from Campus Queen onwards will represent another era. What I like about this focus (NYAFF’s) is that it is coming at a time when one can say, ‘This is the end of an era’. What is the core of that era, apart from the technology you were able to exploit? African cinema, for me, was a cinema of exploitation if it meant that for it to be seen it had to be in 35mm celluloid. That excluded us completely. But within, say, ten years, Nigeria has managed to look inwards, adopt an alternative technology, ignored at first, but, somehow, has managed to capture its own market, contributed to the economy, produced employment and, despite the criticism, it has managed to trickle out to other African countries and everybody is getting to recognize this phenomenon in Nigeria. It is becoming something tangible. That is what is unique about it. I think the New York African Film Festival spotted the movement first, recognized it and saw that it had a promise. Now, the question is it’s no longer in doubt whether Nigeria has set an example to the rest of African countries. I’m sure the developed countries are now looking at this form of filmmaking whether it is exportable to the rest of the world because, somehow there are a lot of filmmakers out there who are incapacitated because of lack of means of production. And one thing about film is, if you’re thinking about it or dreaming about it you could do that for years. But, if your story is very important to you, you could look around for anything and tell the story. I think Nigeria has demonstrated that. I believe that Nigeria, despite its handicaps, despite lack of everything, might teach the whole world one or two lessons. From Ti Oluwa Nile to this time, what’s the vision you’ve been trying to get across? For me, filmmaking is not an artistic pass time. I think it is a tool for development. More importantly, everybody seems to forget about the archival nature of it. Sometimes, I just think we’re not doing enough because this is a race against time. Everyday, we’re confronted by the influences of other cultures. And, if we don’t start the process of re-orientation, we really won’t have a future because we were very vague about whom we were. We lost focus and didn’t want to have anything go do with our history. We’re drifting. And, in future, we might just wake up and say, ‘Oh, my God, how did we arrive here?’ What caused our decline? Misrule, military dictatorship, the economic collapse. It’s even worse now because we don’t produce anything. We just sell things. You could even see it coming because, in the face of dwindling resources, people are going to get madder and meaner. You’ll just realize people are no human beings anymore. They’ll just keep wanting more and more. What can a filmmaker do in these circumstances? Does he have any responsibility towards society? Of course, I’m convinced that whatever little I can do is being appreciated. The kind of compliments that I get from places like the US is, ‘Thank you; we’ve seen your films and we’re using your films to learn Yoruba culture and language all over again. If you don’t mind, maybe you can consider writing Key to Oleku; Key to Saworoide.’ To explain the cultural motifs there? Exactly, because they can now learn. They can now use the films to learn as a process of re-orientation. A few of the works are from existing literary material. Saworoide is not. But, Professor Akinwumi Isola is now putting finishing touches to the book of Saworoide. The film has generated the book? Yes. Similarly, Agogo Eewo will do it. These are possible developments. When we did the 17-minute film, White Handkerchief, we didn’t know we were going to do a French dub of it. And when we did Saworoide, we never knew we’d do a French subtitling, neither did we consider that we’d do a Portuguese subtitling. How will your invitation to the New York African Film Festival and such other festivals affect other filmmakers coming behind you? What is now happening is that, all over the world, everybody has heard about this Nigerian video industry. Initially, it was dismissed as one of those primitive filmmaking, just as throw away as architecture and say it’s primitive architecture. But, suddenly, you can use it. You can put a lot of production value into it and from the sheer dynamism of this medium, a new cinema can emerge all over the world. What about content? Of course, from Ti Oluwa Nile to Agogo Eewo, you can say they were partly experimental in a new technology. By the time w got to Agogo Eewo, now we could be really confident and tackle the real films. All along, we haven’t really touched anything. And I can assure you that we have vast literary resources. I’m interested in your transition form a DOP to a director. When and where did you I don’t think that’s a transition. Photography, for me, is just a skill. That’s just a skill. But my course at the London Film School didn’t say, London School of Cinematography. I attended a course entitled, The Art and Techniques of Filmmaking. That meant that the photography aspect of it was just a part. When you come into the London Film school, they discourage specialisation. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker, to learn to use the medium to tell a story. So, it’s important for me to be grounded in all the complex aspects of filmmaking.