“Yoruba Culture Is Scientific” - The Tunde Kelani Interview

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Staff member
By Sola Osofisan

Sola Osofisan: Why do you use the Yoruba culture as the basis of most of your stories?

Tunde Kelani: Because that’s the root, that’s the source of my own inspiration. You know that I was born into the Yoruba culture, so that’s my worldview, that’s my experience. I happen to have been lucky to have been born in the best of times, because by the time I was five years old getting ready to go to school, the former Western Region government had even established free primary education. So, although I was born in Lagos, my father sent me right back to my grandparents to start my early life there. And living there – he was the Balogun of Ijaiye Kukudi – that meant that I lived in the community and took part in almost everything. Basically, the greatest chance that I had living in that kind of cultural environment was that… It’s tolerance. In our compound, the first upstairs you meet great uncles, the late Odofin of Abeokuta – he’s a Christian. When you come into the compound, you get to the Kasali’s house, the mother is a Sango worshipper. And then you move into Brother Alabi’s house which is next, he refused to be converted to any of the foreign religions, so he’s an Egungun person. If you can call it that, that’s what he worshipped.

And then you come into our own house – and these are walled together – my grandparents, they were Moslems. The next house adjacent to that is Baba Agege’s house, and they’re Christians. But we all had a common ground where we held everything together, so it was inevitable that we would share in everything.

So, basically, I learnt to live in the community grouped together by the culture and not by whatever they were. During the Egungun festival, we naturally took part and all the protein that we needed to survive was probably taken during the Egungun festival. Akara (bean cake) was free; moi-moi (bean porridge) was free. Things were so abundant then that even dancing women would just spike one moi-moi and dance with it. We had our fill.

Occasionally, the Abiku child will try some fits and would have to be appeased, so our regular vegetable – efo riro – was assured almost every week. The adjacent streams provided other kinds of food: fish, crabs and all that. It was a wonderful way to live. And then we took part in everything; Egungun, Oro… Because they had a role in the society.

Apart from that, by the time I could read and write, I found Yoruba literature. It was on the ground, the great classics. D.O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irumole, Igbo Olodumare… I was actually the official reader to my grandfather using the lantern at night and so on. I found out that the Yoruba theatre was on course because around that time also, Kola Ogunmola was on stage, Duro Ladipo was on stage, Hubert Ogunde was on stage and then Olumegbon was on stage. So many like that.

And don’t forget the music. We had Yusuf Olatunji, Haruna Ishola, Ayinla Omowura, Adeolu Akinsanya, Fela Anikulapo Kuti… Coming from such a strong cultural background, it was inevitable that I would use it because that is the only culture I know. I couldn’t work in any other language and cultural experience because it would be alien to me. So that is my inspiration. Whether I like it or not, I have to express my worldview from that perspective.

Sola Osofisan: Now, how do you manage to marry this worldview of yours that’s so sunk in traditions, how do you manage to marry it with the modern times and all the modern technology you use to tell your stories? How do you combine the elements?

Tunde Kelani: That’s so easy. One is heart, the other one is blood. Even if it is foreign technology, it’s just the hardware. My cultural experience is just the software. I’m just using another technology and medium to communicate. I think its just communication. It’s very simple. Even if you compare some of our own cultural experiences, you’ll find out that it’s more or less the same. The Yoruba culture is advanced enough to stand toe-to-toe with any other culture. Most aspects of it is scientific, some science and art and all that, so its very easy.

Sola Osofisan: Looking back again at this culture that you’re talking about, have you had reasons to have conflicts with people who – maybe they do not understand why you’re telling your stories the way you do? Like the Nigerian Film Censors Board issue for instance…

Tunde Kelani: Part of it is ignorance. People don’t know enough or anything about that particular culture, so they sort of generalize. If you see the picture of a Babalawo, or you see somebody who has horns sticking out of his head, or has animal blood splattered all around and usually his house is dressed in red, you’ll be shocked if you knew – an Ifa Priest for instance certainly could not have been a riff-raff, because it is scholarly. It’s a lot of hard work. There’s no way you can become an Ifa Priest in less than eight years. And the eight years you have to learn so many things. You have to learn the literature, the history and everything to become an Ifa Priest. In fact, the medicinal aspects of it – Ifa is practiced right in the open and most of the roots and foundation of it is even binary and scientific. Today, if you met a modern Ifa Priest, it’s uncommon to find a computer on his table. In other cultures, they have a medicine man who is the most daring person in the community that can confront the elements, go into a bush and come back and claim that one oracle has said that he should bring a cow. That’s not possible with Ifa because it has to be open. You do it in the open and then you diagnose and go through the different aspects of it before you can determine the cause and roots of certain things. Which is scientific, but done in a different way, and people just think that a babalawo is somebody who is negative in approach to things. I think it’s a lot of misconception.

I think in the case of the video and the Nigerian film censorship board, they need to compose such a body with people who are familiar with the culture of the people. It’s only a matter of time. We’re all learning every day and I’m sure they will sooner or later get along with it.

Sola Osofisan: When you pick a typical script, before it becomes what we see on screen, what are the first thoughts that go through your mind? What are the things that you look for immediately?

Tunde Kelani: I think the most important thing is the story. I just come across anything…maybe a novel, maybe an idea or something, a viewpoint, and I just recognize the story that’s in it. Once I know there’s a story in it, I know there’s an audience for it, as long as I can feel I can use this particular story and I can get people to share this story or this experience with me – so I pay a lot of attention to the story first.

In our own situation now in Nigeria where we don’t have access to a lot of funds and we probably lack the necessary infrastructure in terms of hardware and so on, I hardly do special effects. But people have responded very well to whatever I do, which means that they enjoy the storytelling experience. I think that – for now – is the strong point in anything that I do.

Sola Osofisan: What are your thoughts about the potential audience when you are creating a product? Do you plan specifically for a particular viewership, a Nigerian viewership, an international viewership – what exactly goes through your mind when you look at your audience?

Tunde Kelani: I think the audience is appreciative because primarily, they are what they are. They are Africans first. And then they are Nigerians or Yoruba. Even if they pretend to be anything else but Nigerians, at least in their blood, they know that they are Nigerians or Africans. The stories that interest them have great impacts in their lives, either socially or politically or culturally. I think that they’re missing a lot and so the process of re-orientation has to start from somewhere.

They’re beginning to use them for other purposes. I’ve had strange requests like “why don’t you do a book and say this is the key to O Le Ku, key to Saworoide”. I now realize that they probably want to approach both the culture and the language from the film, so every body is getting more than just entertainment. There are developmental aspects of this also and that’s why I think people are responding very.

Sola Osofisan: Still on the issue of reaching the audience, I’ve noticed how extensively you have used subtitling in your movies, probably more than any other Nigerian. Tell us what you have done with subtitling and how far you still plan to go?

Tunde Kelani: Well, even if you make the film in Yoruba, the modern day civilized Yoruba man still cannot understand, so we rely on the subtitling as well. And then of course there are other sections of the audience who are really not yorubas but who enjoy the storytelling aspect of it. So, I think the subtitling is very very important.

And then the English aspect of it – of course in Nigeria, we rely on English – but across the border, say from Benin to Togo and so on, we are the same people. There are artificial boundaries between us, but more or less, we’re brothers and sisters, and that’s why we had to start the French arm of Mainframe Productions. Another dimension altogether was the request to do the Portuguese subtitling of our films and we have started that with Saworoide. With this we think that we will connect other Yoruba elements in other countries like Cuba, Brazil, Haiti and all that. I understand of course that if there is a Yoruba congress, this is usually attended by over thirty countries. So you can imagine the reach we can have with subtitles in English, French and then in Portuguese. That should sort of geographically cover the whole world.

Sola Osofisan: Probably more than any Nigerian moviemaker that I know of today, you have reached into the international market. You have traveled all over with your movies. You have attended festivals, talked to people, had all kinds of conferences. What have you gained as a person and Nigerian movies gained from these interactions?

Tunde Kelani: The Nigerian film and video industry is sort of a success story in Africa because thirty years ago, Nigeria had very little to offer. And then suddenly, within the last ten years, due to our own experiences, we seem to have found some kind of dynamism. Nigeria suddenly became a country making or releasing about a thousand video films a year, which is a rival to Hollywood and any other kind of “woods”. You know Americans don’t like competition. It has been a joke that even the Nigerian Film and Video Censorship Board that’s giving the filmmakers a hard time might just be some CIA who are here to infiltrate our industry and make sure that the filmmakers are discouraged from competing with America. I mean that’s just some kind of joke. Our industry is now sort of a case study in Africa and while there’s been a lot of interest in it that people think this model, is it exportable to other African countries, and that is an industry that primarily has managed to capture its own market.

Beyond that, I think I am much more interested in the next level. What do we make of this industry? So far, just not to get caught in the euphoria and think that – because some of my own colleagues are already very arrogant, behaving as if they’re truly comparing themselves to Hollywood – forgetting that the reputation attached to Nigerian videos is really really bad. They complain of poor plots and poor technical standard and quality, but I think we can move beyond that. I’m much more interested in moving to the next level.

First of all, we haven’t made any money from the foreign contacts, but I think we have managed to get some kind of recognition. It now depends on what we do with all these attention. I mean that’s what we can use to really break through into the international arena. All we need to do is just put some respectability and acceptance into our films, that is the films can be extremely popular in their own market and they can find some kind of acceptance outside of Nigeria.

Sola Osofisan: Your films are extremely popular outside Nigeria. They are everywhere. Are you saying this is not translating into income for you from the foreign market?

Tunde Kelani: In fact, I’m surprised there is any foreign market. As far as I know, we have no contact with that foreign market. I think the pirates are having a field day. I think it’s alright for now, even if we’re not making anything from it. It’s just like I was fortunate to be shooting an interview with the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and when they said he should advice a musician how she can break through into the international scene, Fela said “look, I can’t ask her to do what I did, because I just allowed my music to be pirated, and when the pirates were having a field day in Europe and America, I turned a blind eye”. So, I think we’re in that phase. I think that at the proper time, we can address that. But meanwhile, everybody is getting to see the film and that’s what matters right now.

Sola Osofisan: Is there any concrete plan Mainframe is walking towards to market your movies in the western world?

Tunde Kelani: Well, Mainframe cannot do it alone. We have been willing to work with other people who are of like minds, who recognize the importance of standard and quality, which is very important. Once we can do that, I’m sure we can put some framework together, because the greatest support to the industry could just be if Nigerians themselves buy at least one copy. By doing that, they would be helping the industry at home. That would empower the producers to improve on the standard and quality and so on… I think it’s the responsibility of everyone, both the audience and producer. I think we need to educate ourselves. Once we support the industry outside by not pirating it, by buying a genuine copy, within time we will begin to notice that certainly there is progress in the industry.

Sola Osofisan: Looking at all the movies you have done to date, which one would you consider most challenging and most fulfilling?

Tunde Kelani: Well, every one of them is challenging in some ways. I think they’ve been experimental largely –

Sola Osofisan: In what way?

Tunde Kelani: Well, first of all, as a trained filmmaker, I miss making films in 35mm celluloid. But that’s a pipe dream in an economy like Nigeria’s and I don’t think it’s going to get any better. So, the thing is to start to look for appropriate technology and see how you can use it creatively. I think that’s why I said we have been experimental. Saworoide was part of the experiment. Thunderbolt was further experimentation and Agogo Eewo was in a different direction. But I am just excited by the new tools that are available, because I think that we can really make quality films on the kind of budgets we manage to put together because funding will always be a problem. I don’t think we’re going to have access to $1m. I think that to raise N5m will be a problem always, so we need to look at which of the best technologies that we can adopt.

Therefore, every one of the films has been at a particular time some kind of experiment. Again, making films in Nigeria is not easy, so none of them would be that easy in an atmosphere where there is not electricity, where before you go into post-production you have to make sure you have two (power) generators, then you have to have drums of diesel and then you have to make sure that telephones are working… So, it’s not that easy.

Sola Osofisan: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?

Tunde Kelani: Yeah, of course. Within the last fifteen months, I’ve not made any film at all and that is partly deliberate. Well, it wasn’t partly deliberate, it was part of the circumstances because the first half of the year was consumed by Nigeria’s – you know it was an election year. There were a lot of distractions and then just when I was ready to go back to work, I got the notice from the African Film Festival in New York that they would do a mid-career focus on my works in April 2004. I’d like to make three new films just to showcase the range of possibilities. For instance, I’m doing The Campus Queen, which is working with young people, a lot of hip-hop music in it and so on… This is about governance, but more important, we’re looking at the socio-political structure of the so-called leaders of tomorrow in that kind of campus setting. It’s exciting because I just want to get into the minds of the young ones. More or less, I want them to be involved in production as much as possible. That is preparing them to eventually take over the industry in future.

And then, I’m trying to do a detective story that is written across the border into Cotonou/Benin Republic, just to look at the kind of diversities between us and our Francophone brothers. Hopefully, I’d like to do an Ogunde story, a story written by Hubert Ogunde himself. This is going to be a deep cultural Yoruba film. Within these three, I should be able to say as much as I want to say for now.

Sola Osofisan: No matter what your movie themes are, there’s always this attention to socio-political concerns. You always want to say something, make a particular statement: this is not right, we can do better here – why does it matter so much? Why don’t you just produce entertainment for entertainment’s sake as some are doing?

Tunde Kelani: No, I think that we can ill-afford such pastime. As developing nation, with all our political and social problems, it would be irresponsible of me to just do entertainment. I mean that’s given. Any story, there will be enough entertainment in it, but what does it matter? It’s not like a rat race of trying to make as much money as possible, rather than trying in a way to do something about issues of development. I don’t start out by saying that I have a particular viewpoint I want to enforce or put across by all means, but it is all there. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be confronted by all these problems because they’re there. These days, unfortunately, there have been quite a lot of things lacking in people’s lives. Anywhere you turn, you’re going to find the problems there; living in a cultural vacuum, moral decadence… There’s no way you can avoid it, even if I wanted to. That’s just being true from my heart as I go along, so it will just appear as if this is an emphasis, but it is not. It is the natural progress of the story and its valid. If people learn one or two things from it, well, that’s a bonus.

Sola Osofisan: And in conclusion sir, on the wild side, can you tell us the craziest thing that has ever happened to you in the movie industry in Nigeria or anywhere?

Tunde Kelani: I can’t remember. It happens all the time. In fact, I think that what’s so exciting about the movie world is the unpredictability of it. You can never predict anything. No matter how well you have planned. I can’t remember anything right away, but it is commonplace. But since it is a part of the process, since the process is solving problems, we just take it in our strides. But I think that Nigeria may still, surprisingly, be the hope of African cinema. I think that the country is full of surprises. I think after our New York experience, you will be surprised. We may as well redefine the concept of African cinema.

Sola Osofisan: There’s a lot of academic interest in Nigerian movies right now, especially yours. Any comment on that?

Tunde Kelani: I’m not an academic. I’m just a filmmaker. I’m just a storyteller telling it the African way. Maybe all along, we had left other people to tell our stories. Maybe doing it ourselves is bound to generate some kind of interest. I think that’s what is happening. I think more importantly, I’m just being true to myself. And since I don’t want to be a poor copy of another culture, everybody is welcome.
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Well-Known Member
Men!When is somebody going to give TK the script of EFUNSETAN ANIWURA.I would like to see that story on the screen because it is my fav yoruba folklore.


Staff member
Dat story rocks o! I agree. But it is on celluloid, shot in the 70s or early 80s and TK i think was the cinematographer fot it.


Well-Known Member
On celluloid?!Damn i missed it then.I guess that means no way of seeing it as what was shot on celluloid will never come on video in naija anyway.Pity!
TK or somebody else can still do the remake sha.
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