Journalism in the service of society

Akinmolayan: Telling African stories is a dream come true

*Latest Project, ‘Progressive Tailors Club’ hits Cinemas Oct 29 

Niyi Akinmolayan is a filmmaker, the owner and creative director of Anthill Studios, one of the biggest animation studios in Lagos. The firm handles some of the biggest Nollywood films in terms of post-production and even production. He is also the highest grossing Nollywood director. He has to his credit: The Wedding Party 2, Chief Daddy, The Setup, The Arbitration, and The Prophetess. He also directed My Village People. In this interview with GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR, he spoke on his new film project, which will hit the cinemas October 29. The film is called Progressive Tailors Club. It is a satire on Nigeria’s political system and all the madness that comes with it.

HOW did you find yourself in the industry?
It started out as a mixture of a lot of things back in school. I was into graphic designs, animation and everything that had to do with media back in school. I attended Yaba College of Technology, where I read electrical/electronics engineering. When I left school, I was not interested in anything about my course of study, as my core interest was media, or anything that required action or activities on screen. I started working very early, doing random church media stuff. Later, I began directing corporate videos, documentaries, and the likes, and then, in 2009, while trying to get some work done for a client, I registered a company Anthill Studios. What we wanted to do then was to be solely a dedicated post production outfit, taking care of Nollywood post production needs, which were really serious, because back then, most people were editing films in their houses and we thought it would be nice to have a studio that handled everything — graphics, visual effects, editing and all of that. So, that was how it started, but when the jobs were not coming as much as I wanted, I decided to start writing my own film and direct it. I wrote a film called Kajola, which was the first science – fiction (Sci-fi) type film in Nigeria. I produced and directed it. 

When we made the first one, Kajola, it got a lot of Nigerians excited back then. I was just imagining. This was a young boy, who grew up in Ipaja, and trying to do things. The film catapulted me into that person people were paying attention. But I also needed some learning because the film was not entirely a box office success. I decided to work in Nollywood and I began working with Desmond Elliot, he was really interested in directing in the early 2010. I worked with him as an assistant director, technical director and editor. I was doing a lot of work on most of his films and that was where a lot of the learning came. I started figuring out how to tell Nigerian stories. I think that learning had been critical to my success, so, it doesn’t matter what kind of film we are doing, we always know how to get that Nigerian excitement. We get that authenticity anytime we make our films.

Going forward in 2014
Practically, I worked with Elliot for two years and it was a brilliant experience because of the position I was in. I got access to a lot of big stars directly. So, if he weren’t on set for example, I would take over the directing and the coordinating. So, from a very young age from mid to late 20s, I was already directing big stars and I was putting together trailers and helping to edit trailers. He was very good at helping me see how a lot of the actors work and how they think. And because of the success that Desmond had, I also learned what it meant to be a star. It helped me to see the power of Nollywood and the power of story telling and I think that was really critical.

Do you prefer directing than doing editing and all those things?
Directing is practically story telling. It is how you can get your message across by putting everything together. But directing is also a skill that leans heavily on the ability to manage a lot of people and when you have a studio like ours with a staff strength of you know, roughly over 30 people, you constantly need to figure out how to manage everyone and your resource. You have this grand vision about what your film will be, but not everybody knows what you’re talking about. You’re the only one who knows what the film is going to be. 

Let’s talk about your new project?
Our most recent endeavour is the film every single Nigerian has to watch. It’s called Progressive Tailors’ Club. It is loosely plotted. My mum was a tailor, she’s late now. And she was really passionate about community, so, she would gather all the tailors in the community so that they ould share all their struggles. You know the typical idea of labour unions and associations, but of course, it did not come without drama. I was at home, all that period, I used to witness a lot of the drama, and I kept realising that all the drama happening is just a small subset of what the bigger picture is. So, once you have the Tailors’ Club in a community, like Lagos, you have Yoruba tailors, you have Igbo and Hausa tailors. Then, there are issues on how resources are to be divided, who is in charge of what, who deserves to be president, and all of that. These are the things that slow down a country, so, I wanted to show light on that, but in a very funny, satirical way, using humour and a subset of governance in the story. I came up with the idea of the story about three years ago, I wasn’t exactly sure how it should be about, maybe we should make it a theatre. 

So, we got our writing team together, and we decided to make it into a film. I also thought that it would be nice to disconnect myself from directing the film. I got a prolific director, Biodun Steven, who has worked on some of the really good films out there. She has a lot of work on Iroko TV. The film is coming out on October 29. This month, it is also going to be in cinemas nationwide. The film brings into conscious thoughts about what we really want every Nigerian to know, especially, as we head towards the next election. People should really start thinking about why they make some of the decisions that they make. But it also happens to be the funniest movie of the year. It is really funny. It has cast like Adedimeji Lateef, Femi Adebayo, Salami, Jaiye Kuti, and sadly, the late Rachel Oniga. That was the last film she actually completed before she passed on and we want people to also see some of the work that she put in into the film.

It also has a list of young and new cast Uzor Arukwe, Beverly Osu, Bolaji Ogunmola and the likes. So that’s a film that we’re hoping will get everyone excited this year but most importantly we know this film is going to make people talk and talk and talk.

What’s the language?
It’s cross language. That Is a beautiful thing about Anthill Productions. We don’t do full English from beginning to the end; we like to speak in the native language. Ther is Yoruba, Igbo and a bit of Hausa. There is also pidgin and there is English. It’s a very Nigerian film.

What are the challenges in the industry? It is like we’re not putting the details and the nitty gritty of the storytelling art. What is your reaction to that?
People can have different opinions about how we approach our films. Two things: Number one, every time we talk about how Nigerians tell stories, they are always comparing wrongly, right. If you look at a film that was made on the Nollywood budget of 10 million Naira, for example, let me be generous, or 20 million Naira and you expect it to deliver as a film that was made on a budget of $50 million. You know, the money is not just production; story development is a lot of work. There are people in Hollywood, that’s the only thing they spend their time doing. If all you do in Nigeria is just write, you are never going to buy a Mercedes Benz, it’s not going to happen, as in, you’re just a screen writer, you probably would have to be involved in a lot more things in the value chain of, you know, the Nollywood industry, for you to even breakeven. That’s one. Two, this is a good thing and it’s also a bad thing. Nollywood exists, because people loved making films, and they use their money to make films, okay, it’s very rare to see any country, any other country in Africa, where people are using their money in that regard. That has been the beauty, that’s why the industry exists. But what it also means is that because people use their money to make the films, they are always going to find the shortest possible route to making profit, and the shortest route to profit means you always should take the least amount of time with the least amount of money, as many times as possible. 

Hollywood started out making films so that they can gather people in a big hall to watch whatever it is they put them collect money, and then the action started coming to gradually. So, we are in that early phase, you know, right now, but I would say we are in transition period now. Well beyond people just throwing random things and looking for ways to sell them, people are now being deliberate about the stories that they’re puttingout at this time and money and resources to it.

So, it’s as much as it’s a function of money, it’s also a function of time, people will have to be patient with an industry that figured out how to survive by itself to an industry that cannot use a lot of financial resources and all these things are connected, you can throw millions of dollars at the industry, but if you don’t have the human resources to do it, what’s going to happen? So, the globe has to be connected, we can’t be growing production and we don’t have training schools. We don’t have human capacity. They don’t get up those people who want to make films but there are no good writers, there are no good crews to do it. So one cannot outgrow the other, they all need to grow together. And that’s why everything has to happen in face and in time.

I don’t think we are doing it exactly the right way and this is likely because we are leaving capacity developments to get in the hands of the producers, the people who make the film. That’s wrong, and that’s where the government needs to be a lot more responsible about how they approach stuffs like that. So take me, for example, every year, I train between 30 to 50 young women, and recently, men, on film editing for free, for three days. A lot of people I trained are now in the industry doing great stuff. And that’s just one person. So imagine if we have multiple people that can do that. But it’s very hard for filmmakers to invest in that because they are all busy making film, they don’t have time for capacity development. That’s where the government comes in, that’s where innovative ideas that can get the filmmakers the break. We need grants and aids that can get a lot of young people out there to do training, because learning film, and all the things that come with it, is not cheap. It’s quite expensive. But we’re not doing as much as we should. People are also using training as an opportunity to grab money and that’s largely because everything is left in the hands of private individuals. So, you see somebody say, oh, I am doing this random workshop, pay N200,000 and people will still come out of the workshop, and still not equipped.

Also, filmmaking is not something you can just learn in a set of training. It is an apprenticeship profession, anywhere in the world. Okay. But how are we going to take in more people into our sets to be apprenticed, if we don’t even have enough money to run the sets. And so, those are the little problems. So imagine the government does initiatives that train people, and government also is critical to helping support and fund some projects that allow filmmakers to take in a few of these talented people so that they can learn through the job, we’re going to have an astronomical growth when that happens. But those are the things that needs to be addressed when it comes to capacity training.

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