when an artist’s work is greatly influenced by his world experiences, it becomes a personal outlook on life, evokes emotion and adds authenticity for many who can connect to it. For Kunle Afolayan, he describes the art of filmmaking being used as a “medium” to preach what he believes in.
Known for his outstanding work in the film industry, Afolayan stands out as one of the most important film directors of our time. His resume includes directing as well as acting in the films October 1st, Phone Swap, CEO and The Figurine, which won five major Africa Movie Academy Awards.
Kunle talks passionately about his love for culture, which is evident in most of his work, particularly October 1st. The periodic film is a unique genre depicting Nigeria in 1960 era of independence. The film sheds light on the country’s previous and current tribal conflicts and questions Nigeria’s future as a united nation.
Guardian Life had a few words with Afolayan on his journey to fame
How would you describe yourself? Where were you born and where did you study?
Well I am Kunle, I am real. I am very focused. If I believe in something, I just go for it. I am a dreamer. Once I dream, I work towards actualising it, I put in all my energy and that has always worked for me. I was born in Lagos, I spent three years of my life in Kwara state, that’s where I am from. I did the latter part of my college in Kwara and after then I came back to Lagos. After that I did my higher institution in Lagos State Polytechnic. I only spent about six months in the UK studying digital filmmaking and since then I have been back in Lagos. I studied business administration and worked at the bank for about seven years. Then I started making films. I started as an actor in 1998 and I set up my production company in 2005, I made my first film in 2006 and that is what it has been. I do TV production, we do documentaries, commercials, film, a lot of people know me for feature films but my Golden Effect company runs on its own. I run as a brand.
How did you initially get into directing? What inspired you to go towards this path?
When I was going to start, I was actually going to start as a filmaker, then I reached out to some people who worked with my father in the past and some of them just thought I was a joke. Filmmaking is something you have to learn. Yes it is an acquired skill but you can’t say, “Oh I have talent of being a film maker.” You have to learn, and with the camera you have to learn how to operate all these gears. It is a lot of processes. Going to them I was barely 20. I went to Tunde Kelani, I went to a few people. They told me, for you to be a filmmaker you have to learn it. You go to school but you look like you have a good face for camera, why don’t you start as an actor just like your father? Then he said we are working on Sunday, you can come for audition and I was picked. We did the film Saworoide in ’98. The production values were really good, it made a hit, I played a prince. It was a very good film and it gave me a lot of mileage. I was already working in a bank when we shot that film. After that it was difficult for me to do a lot because of my bank work.
You mentioned your father was in the film business, can you tell me a bit about your father and how he influenced you towards this path.
My father was an actor, he was one of the film pioneers in Nigeria. He crossed from travelling theatre to travelling cinema. They move around with their cameras and troop. I spent most of my days as a child travelling with the family and troop. Did I learn to make films from that? No it was impossible. Sometimes we would go on their set just to kid around, myself and some of my brothers, and they would send us home. I learnt the business of film through the family, because from age 13, I used to travel for my dad’s films to neighbouring towns and countries in West Africa. Through that I learnt how the ticketing and cinema business runs, publicity etc, it has really helped me.
Tell us about your creative process, how did the idea for a period movie like October 1st come about?
I love culture. A lot of times, my heart skips when I remember that some of these things are going. I remember we don’t archive things in this country. I remember that in the nearest future my children won’t be speaking our language. So I said I want to do a small film set in a small location about a particular tribe. They don’t speak Yoruba, they don’t speak Igbo or Hausa, they speak a minority language. It was pretty difficult. Tunde Babalola who wrote the film gave me the synopsis for October 1st, that was not what I was looking to do, I was looking to do a small budget film, anything period of course will increase your budget. In re-enacting the period you need to spend a lot of money especially in a country where you don’t have archives. It was a bit difficult to shoot, because we had to travel to Ondo to all these places that depict what we were looking for but in the end we pulled it off.
October 1st opens up room for a lot of discussion about cultural and societal matters in Nigeria; the tribal conflict was a big part of it. What message were you trying to bring across from the conflict?
Once we sort out our internal issue, we can tackle our external forces because in the end we realise that we were played like chess. The western world still influences what we do in our politics, lifestyle and in everything pretty much. I just wanted people to see that if we settle our differences as one nation and one people then we can have a barrier.
Were you looking to play a role in the movie? How was that for you?
I am an actor. I only feature in my films where I see myself. I will be filming, producing directing. I do pretty much everything so if I see myself pulling that off, then why not.
Does Nigeria need to start again? Wole Soyinka has talked about the unfairness of our constitution. What are you personal views towards this in relation to the film?
Prof is old school, he is very experienced, he was one of those who started the entire journey. Right now if he is saying we should start again, it means our entire generation failed us, and most of them agreed to that. In starting again how do we do that? I think everybody should use their medium to influence in the best way that they can. I am a filmmaker and I can only preach what I believe in and same way a lot of people preach what they believe on social media and use every available medium and people will pick that up. There is no control in this country, no quality control to a large extent and moral control is going. I will always use film as a medium to preach what I believe in. Somewhere in my subconscious I am still very old school, I value culture, it reflects in everything I do, my way of life, the way I try to raise my children. I think that will go a great deal, even if you are placed with the rest of the world, you can still spot the difference. You know who you are, where you’re from. Even if you are going to borrow any culture it will be at your discretion. If I want to do a film and it’s a language film, no matter how fantastic or talented you are I might not have the resources to learn the language. I would rather choose someone that can speak a language that is why it is important to be connected to who you are.
Your films are serious. When you look at the films in Nigeria that become wildly popular such as A Trip to Jamaica and The Wedding Party… do you see yourself venturing into a different genre?
A lot of people are doing the wedding parties and trips to Jamaica and they are very commercial. I don’t make films for commercial reasons; I don’t want people to see my films and just laugh, I want them to see my film and discuss it. It doesn’t make those other films anything bad, it is just their style, my style is different.
Photography: Jerrie Rotimi
Styling: Henry Uduku
Makeup: Jumoke Tychus