James Amuta has a track record of venturing into filmmaking spaces less travelled. Prior to producing Oloture, Nigeria’s second Netflix Original with a gripping take on sex trafficking, he had produced and directed Nightfall in Lagos, a documentary on the same topic that went on to win numerous awards including the TINFF award in Toronto. He discusses the making and the significance of Oloture with YUSUFF ADEBAYO in this interview. Excerpts…
You were credited as one of the producers for the film, Oloture. What would you consider the significance of that movie? How important was it for you to tell that story?
Human trafficking is a scourge on the human society basically. And if you look at the trajectory of Nollywood, you’ll see that there seems to be a proliferation of feel good movies. At some point, the hard stories had to be told. And I think the most credit goes to Mo Abudu, the executive producer of the film who saw the need for her studio, Ebony Life Films, to pull their weight behind a project like this. It’s very difficult to do, you know, taking on a multi-billion dollars industry like human trafficking. When I got the call from Mo Abudu and she told me, James, I have a project that is right up your alley. I was like great. I read the script in my car and I immediately knew how important it was to pull it off. I had already done a documentary on sex trafficking- Nightfall in Lagos. It was nominated at the AMVCA and won another award in Toronto. So, I understood that world and I was so happy that a studio as big as Ebony Life Films wanted to take on a story like this. So, I knew it was very important to tell this story. Not just tell it; but telling it properly. And I was very excited when I heard Kenneth Gyang was coming on board to direct the project.
From prostitution to trafficking, we’ve always known in our subconscious that these things exist in our society. Why did it take Nollywood so long to showcase that intriguing narrative in a gripping way like Oloture did?
Well, in my opinion, I think it’s a function of commerce. You have to understand how distributors and producers think audiences feel about a project. I can’t speak for other producers but then you can’t blame them. It’s not everybody that has the guts to take on a subject like this.
The film is gritty to watch. How did the director manage to not tone down the momentousness of the film with a few comic injections considering that that has become the Nollywood trope in recent times?
See, Kenneth (Gyang) is one very detailed director. He keeps his eyes on the ball. First of all, when you are dealing with a story like this, you have to understand the tone and the texture of that world. Kenneth wasn’t just working on inference of what he has seen in other films. Kenneth went into that world. I remember the night he landed in Lagos. He met with me and said, hey let’s do this. In fact, the other producers and the team didn’t even know how much we went into getting the feel of the film. We didn’t sleep. We were moving from one brothel to the other trying to get a feel of the location; of how this industry works; of the mood of these young ladies; the tone of the world they operate in. So, everything we made was out of Kenneth’s desire to make a film that is as realistic as possible. So, he actually went into that world to research. We went into their rooms. So, we understand that it’s no joke for these girls to stand on the road and wait for strangers to pick them up. There’s no comedy in that and it’s going to be disheartening to try and make comic injections into that story.
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?
Like it was stated in the film, it was inspired by that story and the tales of other journalists who have been in that space, telling stories about human trafficking. See, human trafficking is huge. A lot of things happen in there.
I learnt that filming took just about three weeks. How rigorous was it to pull that off within such short span?
The production itself happened for about a couple of weeks but pre-production and research took a longer time. There was a lot of preparation. Kenneth was on ground two months before we started filming. We went to every location that you saw in that film. And we had like three different options for each location. So, pre-production took a lot of time and Kenneth is very detailed. He knew what he wanted and there was no redundancy. On our first day of shooting, we were able to shoot six additional scenes asides what we planned.
And how was the reception at those locations particularly the red-light zones where you filmed?
We blended very well especially when we shot at the major red-light zones like Allen where you have all the commercial sex workers. At first, they were a little bit confused, wondering are ‘these girls coming to take our market’ because the actors were so real. When they now saw the camera, they felt relaxed. So, we did something quite spectacular. We got security at these areas and then we left the actors there and went out to shoot something else. So, while we were away, the actors were able to get the feel of the area and see how these night hustlers behave and interact. They became friends with them but then we had massive security. We had to do a lot of integration, with area boys, police, the prostitutes; we basically took care of everyone. It was f u n . Y o u would expect that it w a s going to be d a n – gerous. T h e a c t o r s l e a r n t from them and started having empathy for these people. The prostitutes also took time to teach the actors about how to get certain things right. It was funny. I can tell you, the making of Oloture was a spiritual movement.
For the scenes that involved the prostitutes, did you eventually get some of these real prostitutes in your frame?
We wanted everything to look real and we had to have everything under our control and be professional at it. We understood that we weren’t making a documentary. So, all those you were seeing at the background were all extras. We had scenes where we had 200 to 300 extras at a given time. We had to ensure that the background action was in sync with the prominent scenes. Kenneth is just very detailed. T h o s e b a c k – ground a c -reception been so far with respect to critical acclaim and on the commerce end of things as well? Let’s look at it this way; this is the first time a Nigerian film is hitting such numbers on the biggest streaming platform in the world. This is the first time a Nigerian film is truly being exported to the world. So, we’ve transcended the barrier of language. We’ve crossed borders because we have an important story. This is one of the very few times that Nollywood has taken the Nigerian story to the world; that we make good films and establishing that film is a universal language. If someone in Russia, Sri Lanka, the Netherland is watching, it’s amazing. And the critical acclaim is impressive and coming steady as well. The only down comments we’ve received was, ‘oh, where is Oloture?’ ‘We want part two’. We want a fantasy ending. People are just sympathetic to the character. A lot of people connected with the character. Even my own close friends are calling me to ask, so where is Oloture? Why did you guys allow that to happen to her now? It’s been amazing. It has started the conversation that we want it to start about human trafficking on the global scale. That’s what a good film should do.
To a lot of people, this is their first introduction to Nigerian films and this is a film about trafficking. Do you fear that they might take this as what the Nigerian story is about or what the African continent is about?
I think I’m going to take serious offence with this question because I’m trying to understand how that is going to happen. Okay. Let’s look at Hollywood in the US. They have Avengers with a character like Thanos that has some superpowers and goes around to destroy things.
Do we now say, oh, that’s the American story- someone flying around and destroying things?
Well, I’ll argue that there is a difference here. That’s fantasy and we all know but this is reality… Okay. See, it’s a film based on reality. Human trafficking is a problem that affects the entire world. Are Nigerian girls being trafficked? Yes! That’s the truth. And there are so many stories in Nigeria. If we decide to make a story on Queen Amina, we’ll make it excellently and people will see that there’s more to her. So, it’s about filmmaking not the story you’re pushing out and people will start associating it with the whole country. No. It’s more about will this make the Nigerian government wake up and see what’s happening across the border and start taking practical steps to arrest the exploitation of these women? Films have the responsibility of espousing social ills and that’s what this is about. And for anyone who wants to know more about the country, we still have white people thronging in. I mean, there are so many stories being told about Nigeria but it’s always about Boko Haram on CNN. The intention is not about trying to link Nigeria with human trafficking. It’s about highlighting the problem, so attention could be paid to it.