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Kunle Afolayan on Aníkúlápó: ‘I said this movie would be bigger than ‘Game of Thrones’

Wale Oloworekende

The Nigerian director explains how his film has become a huge Netflix hit and why he doesn’t care it’s been overlooked for an Oscar

ON a recent rainy Thursday afternoon, Kunle Afolayan is reminiscing about the carnivalesque nature of the Nigerian film industry in the 1980s and the travelling cinemas that brought their productions to audiences across west Africa. “It was a labour of love because the reward then wasn’t what it is now,” he says, sitting in his office at the KAP Film Academy, a creative enclave in Ikeja, Lagos. “I witnessed the days when Nigerian film-makers used to film on celluloid. I also saw how detailed they were about the production process; there used to be about 200-500 people on set for a period of two months or more.”

Already a part of the film industry by the age of 14, Afolayan is the seventh child of actor and director Adeyemi “Adelove” Afolayan, and witnessed the golden age of Nigerian cinema at firsthand – before the collapse of the country’s economy in the 1990s forced an industry-wide shift to hastily shot movies distributed on cheap video CDs. Over the last decade-and-a-half, Afolayan has been part of the effort to revolutionise Nigerian film-making after decades of creative ennui, by emphasising high production standards, stories with airtight plotlines, and performances from Nollywood actors. His second movie, 2009’s supernatural thriller The Figurine: Araromire, is widely seen as the dividing line between Old Nollywood and New Nollywood, while more recent movies such as October 1 and Citation have bolstered his reputation.

Afolayan’s latest effort, Aníkúlápó, is perhaps his most daring yet. Set in the 17th-century Oyo empire, it follows a traditional textile weaver who begins an illicit affair with one of the king’s wives, before gaining power over death thanks to a gourd stolen from a mystical bird. It’s the sort of story that Afolayan has spent most of his career working his way towards.

“I’ve been working on Aníkúlápó for six years,” he says. “Originally, I wanted to make a series but I shopped it and kept telling people that this movie would be bigger than Game of Thrones. Eventually, Netflix told me to make a movie first since I believed in the project that much and if it became a success, we’d develop a series.”

Aníkúlápó has been a runaway success, setting new records for a Nigerian production and for a week in early October it was the most-watched non-English-language film on Netflix, clocking up a cumulative 8.7m hours. That level of success caught both Afolayan and Netflix by surprise. “Right now, Netflix is the one urging me to start making the series,” he says, laughing. “I knew we made a great film and that it’d start conversations, but I didn’t know it’d do as well as it has done.”

One of the more interesting machinations around Aníkúlápó was the decision of Nigeria’s official selection committee to not submit the movie for Oscar consideration in the international feature film category. In fact, the committee decided not to present any movie for consideration this year, despite three movies, including Aníkúlápó, meeting the selection requirements. “I don’t even care about it any more,” Afolayan says about the decision. “I don’t understand the decision and quite a number of the guys in there are people I’d call friends. For the second year running, they’re saying no film from Nigeria deserves to be presented – it makes no sense. Honestly, I’m over it because if Aníkúlápó wasn’t successful, they’d have said it wasn’t picked because of that reason. Now, it’s almost like, ‘How couldn’t you have presented this?’”

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He’s less sparing on the state of Nigerian cinema, pointing out that financial interests are threatening artistic standards. “Many people are just doing business, and the thing about doing business is that people don’t care about artistic integrity, they just want to make money. A lot of the people who invest in building cinemas don’t care if your content has value or morals as long as it brings people,” he says.

That pursuit of a higher ideal is why he’s hard at work to create films that he says will outlive him. “Everything I do is for myself because it engages my creative mind,” he says. “I want to be remembered as someone who has added value morally, aesthetically, and culturally after I’m gone.”

 Aníkúlápó is available on Netflix now. A weekend of Nigerian films, Beyond Nollywood, is on 29 and 30 October at BFI Southbank, London, as part of Film Africa 2022, which runs 28 October to 6 November.Top of Form

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