Tunde Kelani of Mainframe Production fame is a star in the Nigerian and even African movie industry. The veteran producer-cum-movie director has come a long way over the years and he has been setting the pace in the highly competitive film and movie industry and he stands out amongst the lot as a prolific producer.director, who has broken many grounds.
He is not following the crowd to churn out movies on a regular basis, but nobody can deny that TK, as he is usually called, is in a class of his own in the industry and he is in a position to discuss most issues affecting the glamorous film industry in Nigeria. Anytime Mainframe releases a movie, it must be a chartbuster, no wonder we still talk about ‘Ti Oluwa Nile,’ ‘Saworoide,’ ‘Ole Ku,’ ‘Arugba,’ amongst others till today.
But one surprise package from the talented movie director is that he has never been to the university, at least to study one course or the other. Despite that, TK has been able to prove that one’s talent can stand him out and he did not mince words in revealing some hidden truth about himself and his job in this interview.
Tell us about your current project, Dazzling Mirage, what informed it?
Dazzling Mirage is a project that I have been planning for almost two years now. I was looking for a people set and I was doing a short film that was made in London which was targeted at the minority in England but not until I came across Yinka Egbokare’s book that I said this is a good story. Dazzling Mirage is a love story, but it has the theme of sickle cell disease but it’s equally entertaining so I decided well it’s time we discuss it. It is time because almost everyday I know how people suffered from that disease and I had some personal experience and thought that there is no enough perception or awareness about it because it can be preventable and it only requires a test and once somebody is diagnosed that is suffering for life, and there is no cure, so I thought yes, number one it’s about time we entertain people with love story but the theme is also important.
From Oleku to Abeni and Arugba, how did you come about the cast?
I do not consciously decided who will be a cast in the film, it’s important for me to find a well developed story and then we will respond to the demand of that particular story, so It could happen, but I can’t give a guaranty, usually I don’t have an idea of who will lead until the cast is ready.
What are the criteria?
The criteria sometimes, you may have a good story and if you use a known face, then people are not going to see the film, they will only be looking at the person, so sometimes we deliberately don’t cast like that, and sometimes when you target and put a face, it drags the story down and that I don’t think is good for story telling. We compromise but what we do is we try to have a mixture of everybody, new people, people who are established, people who are experienced in traditional drama and those who are formally trained in the university, so we do a lot of combination and the essence is that the character is so natural, we try to make it natural and I thank that has worked.
So the story determines what happens to the casting and if it is a repeated actor or actress that you have once used?
Of course it’s the story that will determine whether it will happen or not, I can’t tell, I can’t remember if it has happened but definitely people who dwell with us sometimes join the cast, it depends, even I can’t tell myself, I can’t say for sure that this is what is going to happen until we cast them.
For Maami, there were several talks about it because it is believed to be a story written about the late MKO Abiola. How true is this?
Maami is just a story of a single parent, a mother bringing up a son, it’s just a bond between mother and son. If it looks like Abiola story, it looks like my story too because we all had more or less the same background, the same no shoes, ‘kaaki’ uniforms, and we went to school, you know all those mothers that tried everything possible, sell everything, fighting everything to make sure we went to school, so that’s everybody story, not specifically Abiola’s story.
What are the experiences of being a part of the Asia Film Festival?
I have been a judge in one or two festivals, but particularly I was excited to be part of the edition of the festival and being a young person, I was really impressed about the standard of the festival itself which at ground looks like it was older than that, that it has been going on for a long time, you know in terms of the quality of the participation of the film, the facilities and everything was unbelievable. Being a judge, for me, it’s like a preparation for and against my next project because when I am among great film makers, we watch about 23 to 28 films in one week, so its morning, afternoon, every time, it’s just about films and you probably get back at midnight, but at least you have seen pure films in a day for free but suddenly here you are with the best of films in the world and it is the best condition that you can watch a film not available in Nigeria. You see, you learn from all this films, it’s like refueling your own creative background, in decoration and at a plan, you can get what world global cinema looks like and it can determine what your film will be. So there are what I take away from there and then the fact that in Nigeria we still have a long way to go because we don’t have the cinemas, we don’t have the infrastructures, the electricity blink just one seconds throughout, you know things like that but more importantly it is a joy once in a while to be among global creative community and to be accepted, you know as having contributed something and having been deemed qualified to judge other peoples work.
From all this you have said it sounds like there was no participation of Nollywood?
I think there is a short film from Nollywood from one of the Nigerian young filmmakers, but in other categories I don’t think Nigeria film participated, especially in the Afro Asia category, but I remember we had Burkina Faso and Senegal.
Would it be correct to say Nigerian filmmakers are beginning to shoot high budget films, especially for cinemas and thereby pushing DVD into extinction?
There is nobody shooting high budget film because we are all shooting low project films. We had a visitor here from America and when he asked for the budget of the film, I said it’s just to spend something like a $150,000 and in truth most of all films we rarely spend over million naira or N25million. And he said how was that possible, you know he stays in America and a low budget flick in the U.S. is about $5million. So, I think we have relatively low budget because you cannot say we want $150,000 movie and put it in the Dubai International Film Festival, you will be almost out of place. So it is true that in Nigeria we are making movies for the cinema because it’s the best most of us have seen, and in distinction, video will be video and the people doing it will continue to be the same and a lot of all those marketers are just trading so they are probably not interested in making movie for the cinema but they want something to sell, it will be a commodity on that level but people who aspire that their films are shown on big screens will also have people who will come, sit down and pay to watch the film. So, I don’t think there will come a time where the video will disappear, it will never disappear because even in America, people are making films straight to DVD release, so in some way, the main thrust of the industry will be making films straight way to DVD or CD release and a few films are released for the cinema.
You don’t seem to want to quit anytime soon, how has the journey been?
How can I quit? You know this is something that… whether we like it or not it’s an interesting and exciting part. Film making is best for me, I have worked with almost all the known technology for making motion picture, even when we changed to video, there are so many variance of video, we started with analog, VHS, Digital cam, until we get to the main digital era and even then that changing in technology made it more exciting, every time we are doing something new, we are learning new things, so we are going to learn forever, so when my time comes, I will drop down and die and go away, but right now, I feel excited because I still have the experience, I have the maturity, I have technology to make an image. We can make it everyday because we have the tools, we can control the means of production and we have within our power to control the means of production, so it is a blessing to Africa that we have found our voice and I can’t just stop singing, that’s the same with what have been saying.
So, how has the journey been?
The journey has from day one been challenging, though it has got to do with anything made in Nigeria, it is very difficult and sometimes you start out and your success is not guaranteed, I think we have all failed some of the time, but I think God and supporters have kept us going.
Looking at the tough and difficult approach in sourcing for funds for movies, how have you been able to sustain your productions going by how you put your all into every single work?
It is certified that I put everything I have in my movie, sometimes I have been supported by friends, family and everybody. Let me give you an example, Maami has been seen almost all over the country, but later I returned to location shooting more scenes for Maami because I felt it’s not there yet, but with those scenes, I was able to offload the complete visuals and that is how I respond to every of my film. But if I didn’t put everything that I wanted to visualize, I will be worried throughout my whole life, so I have to make sure that within the available resources, within the opportunity that Nigeria itself gave me, I must achieve to a very reasonable standard before I leave the industry.
Piracy is a big bug affecting the Nigerian entertainment industry as a whole, how do you make your finances back?
It’s very difficult because when I work, for instance since we started Mainframe Production from T’oluwa Nile, they still sell in triples, I took the risk, they are all a risk because this should have been my retirement plan, package and so on, but no, we have forgotten about all that, just to make the film, so the thing is supposed to be sort of a plan, but since piracy has reached this level in Nigeria we are all threatened, we have not recovered from Arugba, certainly we didn’t release Maami then and that means we didn’t have any work for the last two years, and the pirates are more daring than ever before because we tried to find out in December and the report is bad and it’s not possible to forfeit the pirates because there is piracy all over the world, but the Nigerian pirates are so disruptive and so wicked that there is no way you can compete with them because they have sold the part of the pirated film so low that nobody can survive on it. I think it is intentional, and I think the government isn’t sensitive enough, the government doesn’t know the damage that they have done to people in the industry, we are just making noise at the moment because the truth is production companies are closing down, and some of those marketers divert to other things.
So, if all this is happening, where does your hope lie and why shoot more?
I have great poles, I think it is about Africa and Nigeria, it’s about an emerging economic growth and I think that it’s our turn in Africa to do it right and I believe that Nigeria has a major role to play in the growth of the market and the premium. I am waiting for that opportunity, so I’m not going to give up, beside it is not going to go on like this forever, I don’t think Nigeria can afford seeing the country sliding into anarchy, I think we are so important to be ignored by the whole world and I think we are having some economic value, Nigeria is a special country and everybody knows and the whole world knows, so if our government will not do it, there will be intervention from outside, may be if they realize how hopeless some of the obstacles to growth and development are, they will come and do it for us, electricity power, yes they step in, I read that even the World Bank is interested in working with the government to make sure that there is stable electricity. Once there is electricity, then the small and medium enterprises will boom, once they boom, then that’s the time for entertainment, even now, new cinemas are going to be developed for the people and I’m part of the movement to make sure that it happens, so when it happens I already have the content, that’s why I believe that this is not the time to give up, this is the time to really put on my trousers and get on with it.
It is generally believed that Kunle Afolayan is fast taking after your footstep, how true is this?
Yes because he acknowledges me, he is a young man, he acknowledged that I mentored him, first of all, he learnt a lot about film making from his father and then when he decided that this is what he was going to be doing, he came to me and I decided to mentor him, and I’m very proud of him. When our film was presented in the last Africa 2012 in London, Maami was screened at 2 o’clock and Phone Swap followed up at 5 o’clock. During the question and answer time, Kunle called me up, telling everyone that there is somebody here who mentored him and I said; ‘am proud of you,’ because he is not the first person that is going to pass through me, but he is a success story and he is rising fast, he is committed, he is focused, he is passionate about the quality of his work, so what else can we ask for.
Cinematography, film making, how did it become your passion?
No oh! When I was very young, I didn’t know I was going to go into film and cinematography, but I started from my primary school days, you know, I have always wanted to be a photographer and through my secondary school I have had more than five cameras, with a friend, we learnt to process our film, we knew how to mix the chemical, we knew the chemistry of photography and we finally crashed in on a photographer who had left during the civil war to go back home, we went into his jack pile and took over, and we started to process our film, so that was in secondary school. So, when I was leaving secondary school, it became clear that I couldn’t do any other thing, but photography and look how photography has involved in the present Nigeria today, there are now specializations, fashion photography, but I took to motion picture because I was fascinated by the cinema when I was young and I saw all the films that came into Lagos and not only that, I also read lots of literature, I read for pleasure, so the combination of this helped me.
How many adaptation have you made?
In fact, I think have done more adaptation than mixture, if you can count from Ko se Gbe, Oleku, Thunder Bolt, The Narrow Path, White handkerchief, Maami, then the new one Dazzling Mirage those are the adaptation.
Why that love for adaptation of books into movies?
That is simply because I read everything, I have said that nobody can make a good thing without reading, therefore I read all reading materials around, I read a lot, for me it is very important because I have recognized the combination of literature and drama and I have a million story to tell. Not only that, I love the books, I love the authors too, I found the writers, I dogged them out, Kola Akinlade, Pa Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi, Akinwunmi Ishola, Adebayo Faleti, Wale and Ogunyemi, I love to read books from Wole Soyinka, I have always been around writers.
So, you went straight to the university to study film making or what?
I have never attended a university, I thought I didn’t need that because I became an apprentice photographer when I left secondary school, but later, when I joined television, I saw that the things we are seeing on television is not the same as the American film I see in the Cinema, that’s when I had to apply to the London Film School, so I have a professional diploma in Art and Techniques of film making from London Film School, that and my factual experience is the university.
What you have and what you can be able to give is far more than that of people who have gone to the university.
I think in a different way, I think we have all gone to the university irrespective of what our passion may be, because if you look at our local drummers, who have spent about eight years learning the technology and techniques of drumming and the language of the drum, so is a language. And that means they have been through someone like master, if they were graded by that particular system, I think that is what they need because occasionally there is the aspect of the fetish and the theory of dignity, which I did from the elementary part in the London School and socialization was discouraged and people who read English, journalism coming together in the class and we were expected to go through the same, so inevitably, we learn film history, so occasionally I found myself invited to a forum and ‘am the only one who is not speaking and ‘am the only one who is not a PhD, sometimes I tell them not as view that I’m one of them, I’m not one of you, really I’m a film maker in the practical area and you are theorists, so deal with your area, it’s not my area.
How did you find time to say I need a rest, I need to have fun?
What is the rest? What can you do when you are resting? When you are resting that means perhaps you are lying on your bed or so, but the film making is so natural and an extension of my body that necessarily you have to read, so when I’m resting that means I’m reading, so I’m already resting and most of the time, you study film. So, I’m already watching movie and then some of the time when you go out to make a film, you get critical in a sense, so I’m already exercising and then organizing and taking part and arranging the performance and just sitting down and asking people to do it for you, what more reward can you get? If someone who was not used to making film is being asked, he would think we are spending the money for fun, you know it could be a dance, music, DJ and all that, he will say this people are just throwing my money away, but for me, the work is there, existing and they have a lot of varieties in it. Of course occasionally you could go out and say let’s go to location rekee or let’s go to Ghana and then they head up to Ghana, but me, that’s again my vacation, because not only are you enjoying yourself, but you are actually documenting some of the process that will give birth to something that you valued and to the larger society.
Do you see yourself leaving these for your children to continue?
You see that is interesting because my kids are not interested and I like that. They know all about this, they grew up in the studio, at least they spent 10 years of their life in the studio here and just that they took part in one or two things and so on, but by the time they got ready to leave for university, they didn’t want to start their life thinking they want to be apprentice, they want to do greater things, when I was young, I freed my mind for it too, it was an adventure as a young boy to tell his father that I don’t want to go to university, actually I wanted to be an apprentice as a photographer and that my father realized that yes this a passion for something he has done and agreed, so that’s why I couldn’t directly interfere and the children didn’t think this is what they want to do.
So, not even one has shown interest?
No, not necessarily, you know because I think it’s a passion and the talent, if they don’t have the same passion or passion that is greater than myself, it will be a mistake to push them into it. I think children should identify what they love and their passion and then be ready as a parent to sacrifice, to invest their time and money to attain whatever they decided. So, I think the way mine evolved is more of an example; it is not that I’m a businessman with an empire, it’s a creative thing, a creative industry and if they found it, yes I would support it.
What informs your dress sense, it has never changed from African?
It’s changing because I have experimented it when I was young, I’ve experimented looking inward, for me, what our fabrics colour commonly known like rainbow, so this again is expression for me and at a time, I will experiment a particular fabrics and combination of colours and how I’m going to use them, you know there are traditional style which from time to time I’ve always experimented, that’s why I can’t own Agbada because I thought, for me, it is too much, I don’t need it, it’s a waste of materials, then I look at traditional Buba which is at the best, it’s just putting a hole for your head and put in something for your hand. I am more interested in that, and that is the problem because if all of us apply the education, it will work, and we didn’t allow the colonial mentality to get to us, we could have done a lot more to what we are doing and that would have boosted the local economy, that’s why when people earn a living, things like that, so if they don’t apply that in all areas of life, of course the society, the economy will be more buoyant.
So, how would you describe the man Tunde Kelani?
Very ordinary person! I’m just me, there’s nothing more to it. I can’t be a king, a chief or anything, but I can only be what I am, just a filmmaker.
And you are so content with it?
What do you want me to do? I don’t think I have a problem with who or what I am or myself because there’s nothing to it and my needs are minimum, material possession, food and anything, they are just simply minimum.
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