Journalism in the service of society

The Toyin Falola Interview: A conversation with Tunde Kelani


THE Nigerian entertainment industry is dominated by a group of passionate African storytellers with a flair for intellectualism, and Tunde Kelani is not just one of them, but has established himself and his crafts as household names in names in Nigeria. Born in Lagos State, Nigerian, to Yoruba parents, he was exposed to a multicultural environment where traditions and African epistemic systems are weaved into the people, albeit unconsciously. Growing up, he was sent to Abeokuta to his patrilineal ancestral home, where he was groomed in the African and simultaneously exposed to indigenous knowledge systems through well-informed elders.

Navigating his way. He acquired a reasonable level of cultural traditions, and his foundation in these systems inspired his creativity, and interestingly, he expanded his knowledge to give expressions to African (Yoruba) cultural traditions in which he has well-established himself today and made a global impact. Through experience gathered across four decades in movie productions, he has manufactured a number of movies that express the sociocultural heritage of the Yoruba people.

On this account, Tunde Kelani has produced White Handkerchief, Ko se Gbe, Oleku, Maami and Dazzling Mirage, Thunder Bolt, The Narrow Path, and himself featured in a number of others himself. He has often been declared as a significant nexus between the old Nigerian film makers and the new generation of Nollywood directors. While the Nigerian movie industry was just blossoming, Kelani had harnessed necessary technological skills combines with his creativity and flair for indigenous knowledge to advance the Nigerian (Yoruba) socio-cultural narratives.

As many as these movies are, they all have a unifying ideological temper, which is the promotion of the Yoruba philosophical standpoint about life. They are depictions of the African system in every aspect of human endeavor. When Tunde Kelani directs his works towards a given subject matter, he employs an Afrocentric methodology to carry his messages across. For example, on many occasions, his works center on the postcolonial tempers where the issue is seen from European systems’ operations as they affect the current life system of the people. Therefore, his works fit into the description of the decolonization project because they masterfully highlight the country’s sociopolitical conditions. The thrusts of his narratives thus connect the African world with their pre-colonial identity and expose those areas where sanity is needed. When his works are not engrossed with the purpose of clarifying and elevating indigenous epistemes, they are embroidered in socio-political criticism or the edification of the public on nascent societal issues. It is not unusual for Kelani’s narratives to be loaded with a mix of the aforementioned.

 TK, as popularly called, was influenced by a number of Yoruba film and literary icons who shaped and continue to influence his knowledge and intellect during his formative years. The works of these renowned Yoruba literary creatives are The Palmwine Drinkard, Oba Koso, Kurunmi, Ogunde plays, all shaped his knowledge and interest in proportional measures. In a similar form, he was influenced by D. O. Fagunwa, who recorded a significant impact in African literary engagement and produced such work as Aditu Olodumare, Igbo Olodumare, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale, Irinkerindo Ninu Igbo Elegbeje, and Ireke Onibudo. Apparently, all of these contributed to his interest in African cultural praxis. TK started his film production industry in 1991, and ever since his debut, he has made considerable progress and recorded profound success. Mainframe Films and Television Productions, his company, has produced great movies, including but not limited to Thunderbolt (Magun), Saworoide, The Narrow Path, Arugba, Maami and others.


Question & Answer

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TOYIN Falola: What is your approach in delegation of responsibilities in multifaceted jobs?

Tunde Kelani: Filmmaking can be such a huge task.  It starts usually by one person, from an original idea or from a source material and grows through a complex process. It is also a collaborative art which involves working with a team throughout the creative project.  I start first with adding a script writer who works on the screenplay, the blueprint, the strong foundation which will support the creative structure involving other experts.  In low budget production, key roles sometimes overlap – the producer may as well be the director, but usually, I add a production designer, actors, the cinematographer, production manager, the technicians, a process that grows from one or a few people to a crowd of creatives, service and administration as needed throughout the production.

TF: Do you have a difficult production problem you had to solve?

TK: Filmmaking by its nature is about solving problems.  The level of preparation and approach help solve or reduce the seriousness of the problems.  The main problem is usually apart from the production is managing the logistics of providing services, for example accommodation, catering, transportation, power, water for a team of a hundred people on a daily basis.  The greatest problem may as basic as providing constant electricity and drinking water for cast and crew throughout the project. 

TF: Describe an instance where you had to resolve issues between staffs.

TK: I am always on the lookout early in the production for flashpoint areas between members of the team who find it difficult to work in a group atmosphere.  In my early days, working with the greats, Hubert Ogunde taught me how to handle issues from key staffs.  He explained to me the meaning of “Sùurù tó lọ́jọ́’ – filmmaking has a schedule, a start and a finishing date.  I always explain to staff who find it difficult to get on with each other that the job usually is a temporary engagement with an end fixed on a production calendar.  Surprisingly, through patience, perseverance and understanding, the staff get used to each other and parting becomes painful at the end of production. 

TF: Do you have any changes you have that you would like to reflect in movies that you have already produced?

TK: I admit that there are compromises along the way depending on the resources available at the particular moment of making the film.  I enter into about three phases of production; firstly a period of apprehension – perhaps it is happening after all but may be abandoned if problems are unsurmountable, if not I progress to the second phase of a point of no return  and towards the end, I enter the last phase of desperation. The film must be completed by all means.  In such a situation, there are changes I would have loved but not serious enough to affect the story but a determination to become a better filmmaker and storyteller as I continue on the journey. However, I feel like remaking Saworoide after Prof. Akinwumi Isola published the book revealing so much background information predating the story of Saworoide, the film as we know it today.

TF: What checks and balances do you have when managing budgets?

TK: In low-budget independent filmmaking, a detailed breakdown of the screenplay provides the basis for a detailed budget.  The process also involves negotiations and goodwill on all financial obligations, the choice of equipment and services.  The actual disbursement of funds is monitored by the producer, production manager and the production accountant on a daily basis.  The requests for funds are passed through the production manager, approved by the producer and authorized for payment by the accountant who keeps records and alert the producer about the financial position as the production progresses.

Tunde Kelani, Toyin Falola, and Wole Soyinka, 2019

TF: What was the process to interpret the script and develop its execution with the other key staffs and the cast?

TK: The process of interpreting the script depends sometimes on the writer I am working with.  I have benefited more and evolved a style from working with Prof Akinwumi Isola.  We developed a unique style which is both painstaking and rewarding.  We start by discussing the story extensively and arriving at the plot. It is actually the process of writing the screenplay that I find very interesting.  Prof. Akinwumi Isola writes in long hand, on a foolscap official paper, beautiful handwriting straight on the ruled paper and only at night.  I have to wait for a few months when he passes perhaps the first fifty pages to me which I begin to type and format on my scriptwriting software.  The story is revealed to me this way until the screenplay is finally ready for production.  The gain personally is that by this time, the whole story page by page is in my head.  If during editing, I decide on adding a scene or two, I write it my own way but request the writer to supply the added scenes.  I confess here and now that Prof Akinwumi Isola’s rewrite of the scenes is always far superior than anything I could have written.  This painstaking style has prepared me to work with other writers by the ability to study and get into the minds of the writers, visualizing the story in my mind before I make any film.

TF: How do you think your upbringing has influenced your oeuvre as a whole?

TK: The films I make always reflect my identity and provides a personal and emotional connection. For instance, Abeokuta, the town I was brought up remains the canvas on which I sketch my vision.  Femi Osofisan’s Maami reveals my growing up in my family compound at Abeokuta.  Visual codes are embedded in my films because they share my cultural and social experience.  I took Maami home – shot at our family compound, in my grandfather’s house where I started primary education in 1955 and shot the film at my former primary school, Oke Ona United School.  All the extras were the people who still live in the compound including some of my uncles.  They appeared in their clothes and engage in whatever they do and talk naturally to each other.  It was not therefore difficult for me to make Arugba entirely at Abeokuta.  People are surprised when I explain that the film was made outside the grove at Oshogbo but reconstructed at the bank of Ogun river and blended to the setting Abeokuta provided.  My upbringing has no doubt burnt an indelible bank of imagery and sound into my consciousness.

TF: How different were what you originally envisioned your project being like and how it eventually turned out?

TK: I start out making a film with a target of achieving 110% (one hundred and ten percent) but award myself a rating of 50% or sometimes lower at the end of the process. Usually, the final film will depend on the resources available at the particular time of production and the compromises that have to made without affecting the overall story or quality.  I am notorious for my continued work for sometimes up to a year after the release of a film until I am satisfied that given the circumstances, the story has been told.  I no longer watch the film and never in my house after I have signed off the film.

TF: Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking was not just a hobby, but that it would be your life and your living?

TK: At first, I didn’t know anything about filmmaking beside my passion for photography. I had invested so much money and time in photography during my secondary throughout my secondary school days at Abeokuta Grammar School between 1962 and 1966.  I worked as a raw material controller at the factory of A. J. Seward, a subsidiary of United African Company, where my father worked as accounts officer, because I competed with other students and won the scholarship for my secondary education. Shortly I disclosed to my father that university education was not for me and that I just wanted to be apprenticed as a photographer.  At this time, I was deeply interested in cinema and frequented the neighborhood cinemas, Central, Regal, Casino and Odeon at Ebute Metta where we lived.  It was in my second year of my three-year apprenticeship and Dotun Okubanjo Studios at Broad Street Lagos where it occurred to me that I was more fascinated by motion pictures.  I applied to WNTV/WNBS as a trainee cine-cameraman when it was advertised in Daily Times.  I competed with fifteen others and got the job.  My training and filmmaking career started officially when I resumed at the studios of the first television station in Africa, WNTV/WNBS Ibadan on September 20, 1970.

TF:  Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

TK: Photography and filmmaking equipment and practice is expensive because it is based on technology which has to be sourced abroad with foreign exchange.  It was only possible for me coming from a poor background to sacrifice everything else to fuel my passion.  I trekked, worked, saved to attend London Film School from 1976 to 1978.  I worked as a cleaner throughout my first year and took sorting job at Mount Pleasant Post Office in London during Christmas to complete my diploma course.  I didn’t have enough money to rent a house during this time but lived in the sitting room of my friend who not only took me in but fed me.  Since I have been practicing, I gave up luxury and surrounded myself with close friends and my immediate family who suffered along to tolerate my unusual lifestyle. I am most grateful and indebted those people who stood by me, pull me up when I fall and who refuse to give up on me even when I make stupid mistakes.

TF:  You are a collaborator and you espouse the spirit of communalism. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

TK:  It is important to develop a strong relationship with key members of the team.  There are specifically, a producer director relationship, a writer director relationship and so on.  My role is to formulate the vision and provide a channel of communication for others to contribute their expertise to achieve the goal. Here, in my opinion, age does not count.  I am addressed by everyone on the production as TK in an informal atmosphere, on first name basis, which guarantees access to me as a leader and a member of the team.  I am trusted because we eat together, we are accommodated in the same place while the project lasts.

TF:  What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

TK:  Film festivals gave me the opportunity to showcase my modest work and to learn regularly from others.  It provided the opportunity to network and build relationship as a member of a vast creative community.  Recognition was slow at first but gradually, festivals began to notice a consistency and a pattern which is unique and original.  I have had career retrospectives in Rotterdam, New York, Los Angeles, Norway and other places. Unknowingly, to the present Nollywood, we took the Nigerian film to festivals which perhaps helped to pave the way for a worldwide emergence of Nollywood.  Film festivals are also soft diplomacy because the product and the maker represent the country of origin, assuming the role of an ambassador of a country and her people.

TF: Interesting anecdotes from the filming are usually entertaining. Do you often try to remember them and what significance do they have?

TK: Interesting anecdotes when filming on the production floor keep spirits up without doubt.  I have worked with the greats of Adebayo Faleti, Akinwumi Isola, Larinde Akinleye and Wale Ogunyemi, all are my uncles of course but looking at them, they are decent people but when they are on the floor together, their anecdotes are totally unprintable.  When we were working on the set of Jaiyesinmi, one of Chief Ogunde’s popular movie, they imported three well-fed cats from England.  We did everything, blocking the spaces leaving the cat no choice but the route we wanted it, with sardine waiting by the camera.  This worked well until one fateful afternoon when the cat, midway to the sardine and camera suddenly changed course, leapt straight over or plywood barricade, climbed the wall and jumped to freedom.  Baba declared that if we caught the cat, we should no longer use it since it was obviously charmed or inducted to witchcraft.  We had two cats left, brown in colour and not black like the escapee cat to match the continuity.  Imagine how we felt when we took the cat to the nearest hairdressing salon and asked them to dye our cat from brown to black! 

TF: What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of your project, at any stage in production?

TK: About two years ago, a casual discussion with Prof Wole Soyinka goaded me into embarking on the adaptation of The Lion And The Jewel, a play by WS himself in Yoruba language, retrieving it from the tricky mix of prose, drama and poetry which I didn’t realise until the production was well under way.  I threw caution to the wind and assured Prof Wole Soyinka that I could shoot the film with the translation in eight days!  A combination of guerilla theatre and spontaneity of the classical Yoruba travelling theatre and functional cinematography will suffice. It actually took about twelve days to shoot and two weeks of editing to deliver the film.  It was met with mixed reactions, but I have chosen not to release the film but to use it as a demo, learning from my mistakes and lessons from the experiment for a proper production of SIDI, an adaptation of The Lion and The Jewel, a drama by Prof Wole Soyinka, in Yoruba, where the original story came from.

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Toyin Falola and Tunde Kelani


Interview analysis and reflections

By Toyin Falola

OVERALL, Tunde Kelani’s idea of delegating responsibilities in a multidimensional way and producing an output shows that he is a rational thinker. He is also an efficient collaborator. As such, it is impressive how Kelani opens up his mind to other people’s perspectives and makes everyone lead in their field because this produces a satisfying end product. Everyone knows it takes an army of talented creative people to make a film, but defining a visionary goal and maintaining a sense of teamwork and collaboration makes the production process successful. Tunde Kelani has done exactly this in his artistic journey. In the same vein, he proves to be an effective leader who makes the work align together despite the many creative people involved in it and irrespective of the budget. Thus, it can be deduced that collaboration could backfire if it is not with the right team, and trust and dialogues with others are important in filmmaking. In furtherance of this, Tunde Kelani’s comments on problems he has encountered show the significant hurdles that Nollywood creative producers face. In other words, Kelani highlighting the challenges of needing constant electricity and consistent water supply shows that the government can subdue visions. The government should make amends for this.

Also, solving issues amongst people of different backgrounds in a working environment is significant and relevant to human nature. Tunde Kelani’s reply to solving disputes shows that he is a man shaped by the Yoruba worldview in living an ideal life. It is not surprising that he worked with Hubert Ogunde, a legendary filmmaker, from whom he learned the virtue of patience. Hence, it is evident that there are traditional ways of developing in individuals the capacity for sound judgment and a sense of responsibility toward others. These virtues are still integral aspects of the socialization process in society.

His comments prove that to become a flourishing society in the contemporary world, there is an urgent need to create appropriate socio-ethnical frameworks for harmonious and cooperative living. To Kelani, solving issues and disputes amongst a different set of people is part of embodying the compassion, truthfulness, and humility necessary to create a harmonious and cooperative working society.

Furthermore, Tunde Kelani noting his desire to make changes in movies he has already produced shows society’s cinematic influence. It is pertinent to state that the power of film has helped to achieve his desired goals. Cinema can easily change people’s opinions and their outlooks on life. Good films almost always impact the viewers—just how much varies by movie and person. Individually, people are bound to get affected by movies, given that the main goal of the cinematic art is to send a message.

There are also numerous ways movies affect society and the modern world we live in – some of them negative, some of them positive. Since the cinematic industry is so big and because films have become such an important part of our lives, the overall impact and influence that cinema has on our society is immense. Some movies are like political lessons to the viewers since they portray real political events. For instance, it is not surprising that Kelani wants to make changes to the already produced movie, Saworoide, which is a very well-made production and as close to perfect as a movie predicting the recent political and social situations of the country can be.

Also, the influence from Prof. Akinwunmi Isola on Tunde Kelani in the way both icons write and edit the screenwriting together shows the essence of literary collaboration and emphasizes the idea that two heads are better than one. Ultimately, if two writers productively collaborate, they can produce one unique voice, which Kelani and Isola demonstrate. To back this up, it is evident that most artistic and creative writers and screenwriters over the years claim that they were inspired by discerning authors whom they met at retreats. It has become a criterion that is important to them as creatives.

Many filmmakers based their recommendations on the adventures they had as attendees, while others drew on their experiences as workshop leaders or guest faculty. As a result, Tunde Kelani praises the film festivals he has attended at home and abroad and how they have shaped him as a well-known name in the movie industry. That is why he states that: “Film festivals gave me the opportunity to showcase my modest work and to learn regularly from others.  It provided the opportunity to network and build relationship as a member of a vast creative community.”

Tunde Kelani offers more insights on how his upbringing affects his complete body of artistic work. This further intensifies the idea of examining the question of socio-political commitment and the very nature of an artist’s responsibility to his environment and society. Commitment refers to the writer’s dedication to his duty as the voice of his people. In other words, commitment is the interest an artist takes in the happenings around him in the creation of a literary work and how he chooses to respond to these issues. He could merely portray these issues in his career or proffer solutions in his portrayal as well.

Kelani’s comments assert that every filmmaker automatically has social obligations to fulfill in his society. However, the artist has his work cut out for him. This is because, while other individuals in positions of power, such as kings and rulers, can instantly create change, the producer can only bring about change through a process of appeal and persuasion and imitation of real-life. This means that the artist’s ability to influence the members of his society is determined by how well he crafts his works in such a way that he can persuade others to see things from his point of view. Therefore, in any given society, the writer is automatically tasked with the duty of speaking out against every form of oppression and subjugation. It is not far from the social, cultural, and political truth that Kelani exhibits the commitment to the African society, setting, and culture.

In the fight against misrule and for the propagation of the beautiful African culture, his movies show promise by producing works that glorify the African culture and fight against cultural imperialism and bad governance. Likewise, the African system’s socio-cultural identifiers are the festivals and how they help shape the cultural world of artists. Kelani himself was influenced as a young adult by the Osun-Osogbo festival, as the features of the festival are reflected in some of his movies.

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