As the Africa Film Trinidad & Tobago opens tomorrow, my first fictional Igbo Language feature film, Agwaetiti Obiuto, will screen on the 24th in Port of Spain. I was there last year as well where my documentary film, The House of Nwapa, which was nominated in the Best Documentary Category of the 2017 Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) was screened and during the Q&A, I promised them I would return to the island with a new film. That is what I am doing now. A promise kept.
But, there is one person who remains my biggest inspiration in filmmaking, even as this new film has been compared to the works of Spike Lee (Toyin Akinosho), Luc Godard (Chigozie Obioma) and Ousmane Sembene (Sikhumbuzo Mngadi). I am humbled by these comparisons, but the Nigerian film director, Kunle Afolayan remains my greatest inspiration when it comes to filmmaking and I will tell you why.
As a young man struggling with the dream of telling stories, I saw Irapada, but the film that stole my heart was The Figurine. I became slightly obsessed with Kunle Afolayan. If he knew how obsessed I was with him and his work, he didn’t show it. He was very accommodating and charismatic with me because I began to find excuses to be around him. I reached out to him and he was what I thought he was; a great guy.
I attended the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in Yenagoa where The Figurine won largely and the intensity of the obsession, admiration and respect grew. I began to see myself as Kunle Afolayan. This made me stay on the set of Phone Swap for hours after being diagnosed of Ectopic Kidney – with swollen face and swollen legs, coupled with all the weaknesses, I kept following Kunle and his success. I wanted to be successful.
When Kunle’s success became infectious, I wanted to achieve a dream: make a film. I had the script for The Distant Light. I was able to convince a benefactor who bought flight tickets for a film crew from The Netherlands who came to Nigeria to film with me. I took them to pay a visit to Afolayan. He encouraged me and told me that nothing was impossible, but he was also realistic that there were better cinematographers in Nigeria I could have contracted. “That money used in flying them could have been used to get things going”, he said. I was young, it didn’t make sense to me. I thought the More White or More European, the Better. I was a fool. I took my crew from Lagos to Oguta and the project failed. It didn’t happen. The folks went back to Europe and we severed our relationship. They needed to do storyboards and they drank a lot of beer and one of them ate kola nuts and ended up in the hospital. We spent two weeks doing nothing. Money burnt and a dream waned. I slumped into depression for months.
That year, I was persistent enough and I got admission to study Film Directing at Prague Film School in Czech Republic. Someone was behind it. I travelled to Prague. I made my first short film, The Beginning of Everything Colourful. It was shot in Paris and stared British actor and model, Dudley O’Shaughnessy, who is famous for appearing in Rihanna’s We Found Love video. I later invited him to Nigeria. I began to think of myself as a filmmaker.
Kunle Afolayan’s energy is infectious. For many people, he is not easy to love and I understand why. We are easily threatened by people with lots of guts and people who do things differently. Personally, there is nothing I want from Afolayan with this article. I would have written this to praise Tunde Kelani, the man I consider the Father of Modern Nigerian Cinema, but there are qualities that Afolayan possesses that no filmmaker in Nigeria does. He is creative and then, he is also business-savvy. He understands the aesthetics of film making and in a country like Nigeria where creativity does not bring in money, he has been able to build a legion of business networks, making film making look glamorous and alluring. Strangely, when I didn’t win at the AMAAs and I had rushed to greet him, he said something: “Make a better film.”
Last time I saw Kunle Afolayan, was in Paris, while I was on transit to Boston. I was confined in a wheelchair at the airport and he was flying to Los Angeles with other Nollywood greats like Dakore Egbuson and he came over to me, tapped me on the head and said: “You’re always sick.” And we laughed.
If Afolayan understands that my admiration for him stems from the fact that he is hardworking, he must know that he has inspired generations. People have complained about the quality of storytelling in his recent films, but has he promoted them well? Yes. Did we watch them? Yes. So, he has achieved two things: 1) Got us to watch the films and 2) Discuss them. Let’s even talk about October 1, which he had humbly asked me to read the screenplay before it was shot and when the film was made, I reviewed it after seeing it and people have said how I was ass-kissing. You don’t kiss the ass of Kunle Afolayan. It does not pay. He does not pander to people’s sensibility. I wouldn’t want to talk about the effect the marketing of his film, The CEO had on me. Let me skip it.
I haven’t dedicated my film, Agwaetiti Obiuto to Kunle Afolayan, but I am writing this to say how much he has inspired me. I am also happy to mention how Ishaya Bako has been a back bone and a huge inspiration to my budding career as a filmmaker. Ishaya saw an Igbo film without subtitles! Who takes such pain? And made delicate notes that shaped my narrative. The film I see now, gladdens my heart. It can never be perfect, but what I went out to achieve, was achieved.
At the end, I will continue to admire and respect Kunle Afolayan for being a huge inspiration to me. I am unable to write this when he dies because I may not be alive. So here is my tribute to him, to read when he is still alive, to know how much I love and respect him.
Chineke gozie gi!
Watch the trailer of Agwaetiti Obiuto below
Onyeka Nwelue is an award-winning writer, filmmaker and educator. He is a Research Fellow at Center for International Studies at Ohio University.