|Article by Bamuturaki Musinguzi and Ogova Ondego
Published October 29, 2007
Nigerian filmmaker, Babatunde Kelani, trained in cinematography and worked as a cinematographer on productions like Aniruka, Ogun, Ajaya, Lya Ni Wura, Taxi Driver, Iwa and Fopomoyo. Besides the M-Net short 35mm films”Twins of the Rain Forest, A Place Called Home, Barber’s Wisdom”Tunde was also DOP, producer and director of The White Handkerchief, 16mm short film by M-Net. Following the emergence of new digital technologies, Kelani has gone into directing and producing of digital features like Saworoide, Thunderbolt, Agogo-Eewo, The Campus Queen and Abeni.
Where do you derive the passion to make films with special emphasis on African culture, customs and values?
How would you describe the Nigerian film industry?
The Nigerian film industry can be described as some kind of empowerment of the people. It’s sustainable because Nigeria seems to have struck the right chord with its audiences and has managed to start a revolution at home by producing films for its audience telling its own stories.
What has made Nollywood popular in many African cities? And what can the rest of the continent learn from this experience?
Previously African cinema was defined by outsiders that is African filmmakers have been encouraged to make films that are only popular at international festivals and useless for the people at home. I think things are changing because modern technology has democratised the means of production. Nigerians discovered that they have a voice and that they can tell the story by themselves. What is so unique with the Nigerian industry is that it’s supported by its audience. So it’s a call to the rest of Africa that we need as artists and filmmakers to recognise the needs of our people and to put their interests as a priority in the process of development. Development is about people and we cannot be artists for art’s sake or film’s sake; we must make films that our people identify with.
But film critics argue a number of Nigerian films are sub-standard. What could be the cause of this and what do you propose as solutions?
Nigeria is very diverse; it is a big country that produces so many films. You can even classify ‘Nigerian’ films in all sorts of categories and genres. You can have people who prefer horror, city, gospel or love stories. So whether good or bad the important thing is that there is demand for everything and that is why the filmmakers in Nigeria are responding to the needs of that particular audience.
What is your advice to Nollywood to produce films that have an international appeal but that also tell the African story in a much better way?
By all means the Nigerian industry is not perfect, but its part of development, so in future I suppose that naturally the audience itself should have some kind of consumer association to be in position to demand for better quality productions.
How can Africa build a vibrant cinema?
We are already on the way. We can do so through co-productions and collaborations in order to build a huge mass market.
Why are you against government supporting the film industry in Africa?
I am not against government support in Africa; our Nigerian experience started as a private enterprise before the government started showing interest in it. But with or without government there is nothing that can stop the Nigerian industry. Government would be more useful in providing a conducive environment for film: electricity, water and regulations.
In your view, what are the major challenges of African cinema and how can they be overcome?
I think the most serious challenge concerns funding. Once we get funding, we shall begin to look at the content of the films we make. We have to solve the problem of language because we do not speak the same language. We also have to look at issues that concern us as artists all over Africa and how collectively we can move forward.
You have a number of films to your credit, like Saworoide, Thunderbolt and Abeni. Which of these films is your favourite?
All my movies have been experimental and at a particular time they will mean something in my journey and career. The films I have made are all important in my career. In 2005 I celebrated the end of an era and seemingly I have started all over again to plunge into the next era of my career. And that means using available digital resources and technologies to improve on the quality and standard of my productions.
Why is it that you have taken on the role of overseeing the distribution of your own films in Nigeria?
Just as the Nigerian cinema is diverse, so is its distribution. I operate a mobile cinema project. Before I release any film on video circuits I make sure the film is screened as far and wide as possible for the benefit of the audiences who might not have access to video equipment or even electricity. It is certainly easy to concentrate on the city dwellers and forget that the rural dwellers also have a need to information and entrainment and that is primarily part of my own function. It is true that I rarely take money from funding producers locally known as marketers who also distribute films; I prefer to raise my own production funds mainly because I Iike to be independent and keep all the rights to my work. I think this adds a bit of professional value to whatever I do.
What would you wish to be remembered for in African cinema?
This is a very difficult question for me because it sort of puts finality to what I am doing and it’s wrong because I am still active in the field. It’s true I may belong to what younger people may classify as old school but again by virtue of my being conversant with modern technologies I am still very much relevant. The father of African cinema, Senegalese Ousmane Sembene, is still out there and very many other senior colleagues so it will be premature of me to want to say, “Oh, this is what I want to be remembered for, while I have elders in front of me [This interview was conducted before the demise of Sembene in 2007]. This is not the right question for me. The right question would be, What would you be most likely to be doing in the next five years?”
When should we expect your next film?
I have just finished shooting a film called Akoni which is a follow up to Abeni and I have a new film, The Narrow Path, which premiered at Amakula Kampala International Film Festival in May 2006. I am in pre-production of the next film which will be called Dragon Lions Trail.Â I am sure before the end of 2006 I should have one or two more films.
What is it like being part of the entourage of the president of your country who is overthrown by the military while on official visit abroad as General Yakubu Gowon was while in Kampala for the Organisation of African Unity Summit in 1975?
I was part of the television crew for the OAU meeting in Kampala when President Gowon was overthrown in a military coup.Â My greatest task was how to face and greet a president who had just been deposed. I remember he was on the 8th floor of a Kampala hotel I cannot recall. A professional colleague and I entered the lift of the hotel and it’s the longest lift ride that I have ever taken in my life. When we got in Gen Gowon’s room he was gracious, smiling and almost cheerful and that completely put us at rest; he even suggested that we hold a press conference in the hotel’s lobby. I remember recording his address saying the world is a stage and we have all come to play our part. As far as he was concerned he had played his part. And he appealed to everyone to go back home and support the new government.