Abi (Abiola) Matesun is a professional photographer, cinematographer and a creative director with Malekfoto Films, which is based in Dallas, Texas, United States. Recently, he won two Emmy Awards from the three nominations his works received, making him the first Nigerian and African ever to be so recognised and honoured with such a prestigious award. Aside from being the highest honour in television production in America, he also has two America’s Telly Awards to his name. He recently worked as the creative directive on a short documentary for Canon with the likes of TY Bello on cast. Matesun, who is in Nigeria to celebrate and share the honour with his fellow Nigerians, spoke with ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA of his sojourn, describing the awards as “awards for us because it is about the proudly Nigerian movement”.
Matesun, the third of four children to Mrs. and Mr. Matesun, was born in Lagos in 1974. He had his early education at Fountain School in Surulere and Nigerian Navy Primary School while his secondary education was at Nigerian Navy Secondary School.
He got admitted to Yaba College of Technology to study Quantity Survey but somehow the Nigerian society conspired to deny him that education with lecturers in higher institutions constantly on strikes at the time.
A situation which had a telling effect on the education system to such extent that almost four years after Matesun was yet to conclude his Ordinary Diploma course that ought to last for 18 months.
It was love that took me to the US
Although he could had decided to go to London like many young boys and girls of his age did way back then but instead he chose to remain in the country.
Somehow, it was fortuitous that he has to relocate to the U.S. when he did in 1997 to begin life all over again. His high school girlfriend, who today is his wife, with whom he has two children, Zion and Judea, had moved to the US after her secondary school education for the golden fleece and visits during the Christmas period.
It was during one of such visits that she informed Matesun of her graduation ceremony holding in the month of May the next year.
Speaking, he said: “She said I am graduating in May and I said wow! I haven’t finished OND and it is almost four years. Then I said, no, I can’t do this. I can’t stay here again. This needs to move forward.
“That was the first time that I considered travelling out. I have been to London for a few times but I said this place is too cold, it is not for me.
“So, I considered the US and we started talking about it.” The Emmy Awards winner puts a ring to that narration thus: ‘‘It was love that took me to the US.”
He knew he would need more than love to survive America, and so, he enrolled at the University of Texas in Dallas, where he obtained a degree in Management and Information Systems, while also working to keep his family that he has started.
Foray into the world of photography
Matesun has always described himself as an artist right from his growing up days, as he tells you that “I have always been an artist.” However, he has never taken a practical step towards the realisation of that innate artistic gift in him until 2000 when someone presented him with a Canon camera.
He became fascinated with the camera and started experimenting with it taking shots of different objects and sceneries. His work was always commended when he took them to be printed and it was that commendation that spurred him into becoming a professional photographer.
It was this search for self – discovery that gave birth to Malekfoto in 2004 as he reveals that: “I started pursuing avenues to do that and I became a fashion photographer.”
But years after, he became dissatisfied with that mode of creativity as he speaks of his frustration with photography.
He added: “But the issue that I had with photography was that it is a still image, something happened before the image and something happened after the image and I was unable to translate that in the work and that was frustrating for me.
“I said to myself, fine, I love this medium of communication but it is not communicating everything that I want to communicate.”
Stepping into the world of cinematography
This led him to discovering the power of video and he didn’t just stop there but toyed with the idea of doing it at a bigger level and not just as secondary to photograph.
“So, I pondered on it and in fact, I tried to get someone to do it with me in such a way that they are handling
video and I am handling photography for the business but it didn’t just work out.
“I was forced to now do it by myself and I got into it and realised that it takes a village. You have to have a team; a team that trust your vision, a team that listens to your direction.
“Because being a creative director you are the one that has the vision of where you are going. You are the car driver. So putting up the team together from the beginning I told them where I want us to be.
“That we are not going to be doing mediocre stuff because there a lot of people that do that and I wanted us to be separated from the crowd. For you to be able to do that you have to put in the work and that it is going to be a lot of work.”
It was that vision and commitment from his team that gave birth to Malekfoto Films in 2011. “We started grinding,” he says of the foray into the world of cinematography with focus on wedding films, which also led to the creation of Malekfoto Wedding two years later.
“What we do actually is that we create contents for growing companies for marketing and branding because content is king,” he says of the line of business engaged in by his various outfits, and of course, shooting of films and documentary are integer part of it.
Matesun and his Malekfoto Films were doing quite well and enjoying a level of patronage from the corporate world and individuals who required their services but in 2016, his works got the attention of many with the shooting of Jessica and Hilary’s wedding, which went viral, recording one million views.
“It went really crazy and that brought us a lot of attention. But the conversation that I had with my team was that you should realise that for most people now this would look like a fluke if we can’t replicate it.
“Then we shot another wedding of regular people and that video went mega viral because it got about 60 or 70 million views. There were other videos in between, one, two or three million views and then a lot of angle was on the kind of work that we do.
Sights on conquering the world
But the creative director with a restless spirit and passion to excel and conquer the world was not contented with just accolades and attention that his works were receiving, rather he dreamt of a lofty height.
“I told the team that we shoot weddings and that is great but that is not our final destination. We need to work on projects that will give us some kind of light because, you see, views don’t translate into money.”
The team buckled up to work and in one of their brainstorming sessions, his editor, according to him, related to them the story of one of his friends, a boxer, who was preparing for a fight but confronted with trying situations.
This led to the creation of a short film; a documentary of about 10 minutes, called ‘Inner Conflict’. According to Matesun, “it told the story of this boxer that at the point of the greatest fight of his life his mum had cancer and passed on and his girlfriend was pregnant with a baby. There is a conflict there because this is the greatest box fight of my life, this is my mum dying and this is another one being born.
“So, a lot of inner conflicts and we decided to do what we do best, which is to tell a compelling story. It got us three nominations at the National Academics of Television, Arts and Sciences (Emmy Awards).
“We got nominated for directing, cinematography and editing.” On Saturday November 10, Matesun was celebrated on the stage of Emmy, with two awards in the categories of editor and cinematography.
That was not the first time of his winning world acclaim for his works as in June this year, he also won two Telly Awards, with Fire and Ice, a love story ﬁlmed in Iceland.
What was the feeling like for you stepping on the world stage to receive the two awards?
It was serene and even right now it feels like a dream. For me, why this is so important is because as Nigerians we are dreamers. The whole economic situation forces us to close our eyes to dream of a better Nigeria.
So, for me, no matter your background, from Navy Secondary School to Kirikiri town to Dallas, Texas to the Emmy stage, that timeline doesn’t make sense. But it is the reality, which means that whatever dream that you have as a child or an adult it is possible.
That is the summary for me. That no matter the dream you can make it. It is a possibility. It is a dream come true because it all started in a dream form.
What is your view of Nollywood?
Nollywood is one of the fastest growing film industries in the world. We produce an unseen amount of movies on a monthly basis. I think we should now start focusing on the quality of the production versus the quantity.
We have amazing stories and we all know that. We grew up on those stories from even tales by moonlight. We have stories, it is just be able to tell them in a way that is most appealing to the world at large than just our market.
The reason why most Nigerians accept these low quality productions is because they have not be introduced to better quality and you are now seeing better quality.
A lot of companies have stepped it up but we can stepped it up some more. We’ve seen a lot of improvements but the next step now is to create contents that can win us major awards. We’ve done it and so we know that it can be done.
Any interest in working in Nollywood?
I am interested, majorly interested in Nollywood because you see, our Nigerian story, our African story, nobody can tell the story for us.
Whatever we want to project to the world has to been done by us. That is my focus, that is my goal and that is what I want. To be able to tell a unique Nigerian story in form of documentaries or films.
Yes, I would love to if I get an invitation to do that and I would absolutely embrace it.
Now that you are home on visit, anything in the offing for you?
I am thinking about stuffs and reviewing options out here. Like I said, it is an award for us because it is about the proudly Nigerian movement. So, the award is for us.
We would get together and we would do things. I am confident of it. Because to be honest with you I am not interested in Hollywood but I am interested in Nollywood.
I am interested in using my talent here in pushing our industry to the next level. Hollywood is established, they don’t need me there but in a growing economy like this, in a growing society like this where we have much work to do is where the skills are needed and not in Hollywood. That is what I am trying to say.
How would you describe your journey so far?
It has been amazing as God has been gracious and kind. I am living my dream. When I think about it, it brings me to tears. I lost my mum when I was 17 and I wished she was here to see this.
I wished my wife’s parents were here as well. It took a village to get me here because a lot of people have played different roles in my growth.
It is only the beginning, we would do great things, we would get African content on the world stage. I believe it because we have amazing stories that have not even been heard yet.
Are you fulfilled?
I am pretty fulfilled. I am happy that this is a win for us because a lot times when you hear about us it is negative news.
How have you been able to cope with the American system?
Before I even left this country I made up my mind that if I have to work twice as hard, three times as hard, I will have to do it. With this new age after some time your colour makes no difference, it is what you produce, the talent.
When we submitted our works, they didn’t know the colour, it was just the works that they were looking at. Yes, there are racial stuff here and there but when you make up your mind to give your best, you don’t have to be the best.
And the best is relative but your best is not relative and when you make up your mind to give your best on everything that you do it is only a matter of time, you will shine.
Who are your role models in Nigeria and America?
I love what Mo Abudu has done. I am looking forward to meeting her. I am looking forward to working with her. She is a very powerful role model to the industry here.
In America, I am looking at the kind of stuffs that Steve Spielberg has done because there are some creators that everything that they do look the same, which is not because it is like a signature.
That is what Spielberg has been able to do and I find it fascinating. It is needed for the kind of terrain that we have and the kind of stories that we have because you hear an Igbo story that is different from a Fulani story and that is different from a Hausa story. So, you have to be almost like a Camelon to adapt to that situation and tell that story without it overlapping.
No regrets. You see, if you look at the car, the windscreen is big but the rear view mirror is only to be glanced at every now and then. We are moving forward. No regrets at all.
How do you relax?
My major relaxation is sitting on the bed with plenty of food in the house and flipping through the television channels. Getting a good massage and just staying at home and eating. I am an excellent cook. I cook anything, from Nigerian to continent.
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