Kenneth Gyang isn’t your regular filmmaker. The award-winning director of the 2013 flick, Confusion Na Wa also directed the EbonyLife-produced Netflix film, Oloture. He shared his odyssey behind the camera with YUSUFF ADEBAYO in this interview. Excerpts…
Oloture is gritty to watch. How did you manage to not tone down the momentousness of the film with a couple of comic injections considering that that has become the Nollywood trope in recent times?
I think it’s not every film that you have to add comic relief to. I just wanted to make a film that is really intense. That is the problem that I see in a lot of our films where in whatever you do, you just inject comedy into it because people in the industry, majorly distributors have actually ingrained it in the mind of filmmakers that for people to go out there and watch their films, it has to have some elements of comedy. For me, I take my subject as they come and I’m very picky about the sort of subject that I’m working on. I don’t bother myself about what the industry says or wants. I just go with my guts. There’s no comic relief and that’s it. I think it’s going to be a disservice to the material and the people who have experience some of the issues highlighted in the film to start injecting comedy here and there so as to make it watchable.
Tell me the development process of the film. Since when has the story been prepared?
At what point did you get on board as the director? I think at the beginning when they reached out to me about the film, I was already working on another project about trafficking. I was at a workshop. It was happening in Luxembourg, Poland and Denmark. So, I was really convinced that we need to make a film like that, coming from a country where we deal with trafficking. Some people asked me that there was a film made about trafficking recently, so what else was I bringing on board? I told them, it’s okay for people to make a film about trafficking in other countries but we haven’t had one at that level in Nigeria. So, I had been doing a lot of research and when we were talking about Oloture was sometimes in 2018. That was how I got involved. We had a lot of conversation and a lot of adjustment to the screenplay.
So, when did the Netflix conversation come into the picture?
Well, we finished post production last year and the film was screened at the Carthage Film Festival which is one of the biggest film festivals in Africa and the Arab world. That was really prestigious. I think the Netflix conversation started this year but that was with the Executive Producer.
So, it was supposed to be straight to the cinema if the pandemic hadn’t obstructed its release?
Well, the thing is when you make a film as a filmmaker; first of all, you want to make sure that a lot of people get to see it and it also depends on the kind of deal that you get. Whether there was COVID or not, if Netflix came with a big budget, you would have thought about it. It wasn’t going to matter whether it was supposed to open in the cinema or not. As far as we are concerned, we were going to get on a platform where a lot of people across the world were going to have a chance to see the film. I don’t want to actually reduce it to the point of, oh, there was COVID and that’s why it went on streaming. I’m sure if it went straight to cinema and Netflix saw it and they liked it, they would want to get it on their platform.
There was a 2014 investigative report by Tobore Ovuorie published on Premium Times on sex trafficking. That report seems quite close to what we see in the film. So, I’m curious as to the extent of inferences you drew from such report in order to understand the grisly world that the movie is set in?
So, when I actually got on board, what we have at the end of the day is largely different from what I got when I started working on the story. Now, there are lots of other story angles that were there and we kept on shedding off until we arrived at what you finally saw. What we have now might be similar to the report you are talking about and I think at the end of the day, to actually cover any loophole, the producers went to meet Premium Times and had some clearing done. But then, see that report, I haven’t read it till date. Ishaya Bako told me some weeks ago that the film looks like a Premium Times report and I told him I haven’t read the report. So, he sent me the link and I still haven’t opened it till today. For me, I say it’s a good thing that I didn’t read that report because now I would have been guilty and answering questions about that. But I think it’s inspired by a lot of investigative journalists around the world who risk their lives to uncover the truth about this sort of world.
I want to talk about casting choices here, particularly for the leads in the film. I mean, Omoni Oboli is understandable. She’s always feisty but Sharon?
Oloture is a radical departure from what we used to see her play on screen. From a director’s perspective, did you have implicit trust in her ability to pull off that role? Well, the truth is every Nigerian actor that I know can always deliver. The problem that Nigerian actors have is that the scripts are always terrible and maybe actors don’t have good directors. Those are the two main things that are the problems here. So, when we discussed characterisation with them, they felt it. We were like six or seven working on the casting but then we had to make sure that we all agree and ensure that we get a read. Well, Omoni didn’t give us a read but everyone else did. We just wanted to be sure that they could deliver. And after that, I discussed with them individually about what I was expecting.
I for one think one of the highlights of the film is the fact that you truly filmed at real locations. As an audience, you could see yourself being thrust into that world and the grittiness that underscores it. I mean, you filmed at Allen Avenue. How was the reception like there?
Basically, we did a lot of planning. So, part of it was speaking with people there. We didn’t just show up and start taking people by surprise. And of course, I come from a documentary background as well, so I understand that when you show up in areas like this, you are not supposed to show any form of disgust to the people there regardless of how you don’t agree with their choices. So, there was nothing like shock.
The oath-swearing and coffin scene is intriguing. Everyone was naked or so you made us believe. What was happening in there?
Well, you saw that they are naked now. Wait, you thought it was some visual effect?
No. it wasn’t. See, the truth is when you enter the underworld, the language that they speak and how they interact, you need to reflect all of that. And when you are making a film, it has to be that much reflective of these actualities. You know the problem I have with a lot of people, it’s almost like caricature. When you see something, you want to just make something close. When I’m putting out something, I just want to make it as real and reflective as possible. So, the ladies were naked and that’s all.
The background score is amazing. It underlines the tonality of the film. You did a couple of Falz from ‘Moral Instruction’. What informed the choices of the songs that you infused into the movie?
Growing up, when I walk around those brothels, I use to hear them play Congo music and Highlife. That was on one hand. Secondly, that kind of music is what I consider real music. I’m not a huge fan of what they call Afrobeats.
The one with the‘s’?
Yes. I wanted Afrobeat not Afrobeats. I’m a traditional person when it comes to music. So, if I’m going to represent Nigeria, that’s something I was going to represent Nigeria with because it’s something that’s not sounding western. It sounds really authentic. Apart from that, I used to hear these things around those brothels. So, when I looked at what’s the closest thing to that authentic highlife music, I settled for Falz. And if you look at it, he samples a lot of Fela’s songs. So, it was close and it was easy for me to choose that sort of music.
Considering how far it has travelled, do you fear that this film can create a bandwagon where everyone who wants to make a film that will scale movie markets beyond borders will model it after Oloture?
Oh no. I don’t think so. It’s about telling impactful stories. When you tell impactful stories, people will connect with it. And I cite the example of the Bollywood film which made more than $300 million. The film is about father-daughter relationship and the way women are treated in our society. That’s Dangal. It’s relatable. But people don’t expect that every Indian movie should be like that. What we should do is tell stories that truly matter. I just know that we should start thinking of making movies that’ll go beyond the Nigerian shores. The stories that we make are more relatable to Nigerians. And that’s what I’ve been about. Look at ‘Confusion Na Wa’, it’s one of the first films to make it to Netflix in 2016. What we did with that film was tell a story that everyone beyond Nigeria could relate with. And that happened, the same thing with Oloture. Meanwhile, Confusion Na Wa and Oloture are two different films but they both travelled.
At the end of the day, what would you like the film to be remembered for?
The thing is we don’t write history, it writes itself. And it will be remembered that this is the first time we are having a Nigerian film on the biggest streaming platform in the world and getting these numbers. With Oloture, the universality of storytelling is being highlighted and it’s gladdening to see the film starting conversations about human trafficking in Nigeria.