“I am Nigerian, I am African” – Dialogue with ‘Sunkanmi Adebayo

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“In the next 10 years there will be more producers and filmmakers jostling for a space to express themselves through films and it will be a new vibrant and exposed generation of filmmakers with a more global worldview. There will be a Diasporan incursion into the Nollywood space and room for growth and healthy competition.” – Olasunkanmi Adebayo

Q: Sukky Lala is your nickname, what’s the story?

Sunkanmi: (chuckles) I used to do stand-up comedy as a student back in University of Ibadan. It is a stage name.

Q: Interesting. What is your journey into film?

Sunkanmi: I was born and grew up in Lagos. Growing up for me was fun and interesting. I grew up in the center of Lagos and experienced the hustle, bustle and the so called madness of Lagos. I was born into a family of 5 attended primary and secondary school in Lagos. I had the opportunity of watching a lot of TV and cinema growing up which influenced my decision later to foray into theatre and eventually film. I was always in some drama group or film club.

Q: What were the first movies you remember seeing as a child and which ones exactly influenced you?

Sunkanmi: I first enjoyed productions on our local TV, NTA. Shows like New Masquerade, The Village Headmaster and Behind the Clouds and a host of others were points of reference especially for performance and story. I remember watching a lot of Nollywood (Yoruba and English) but my most favorite ones were the works of Hubert Ogunde, Ade Love, Moses Olaiya and later Tunde Kelani. For Hollywood, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump generously excited me a child then. I can also vividly remember movies like Indiana Jones and the temple of Doom, Clash of the Titans and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It was a blend for me as Indian films were not left out.

Q: Adventure films often excited us as children. So at what point did you decide you wanted to make films and what was the edifying journey?

Sunkanmi: The world around me growing up was colorful. The splash of resplendence at parties, the yellow signature of commercial buses and playground blues of exciting games with other kids for me was a fantasy and I always fantasized about capturing those moments as a kid. The moment I decided I wanted to make films was during my studies as a Theatre arts student in the University of Ibadan. It was some of the best times of my life, directing and acting in plays, and meeting the theatre greats like Adelugba, Fatoba, Bayo Oduneye, Femi Osofisan was magic because they were story-tellers per excellence. During one of my class projects which was a Jamaican production Queenie, Pearlie and Hopie. I explored a Multi-Media approach and that for me was the moment I started considering film as a medium to express myself also as a director. My main motivation was questioning myself on how all the great African dramatic works will find their way into film to a broader audience. Plays like Arthur Miller’s Death of Sales Man and Inspector Calls by JB Priestly were points of reference for me as I started imagining their film versions. My education started from theatre, my desire for film was grounded in my theatre experience and the experimental and gritty approach to staging plays. I became an ardent consumer of films by filmmakers like Sidney Lumet, Stanley Kubrick, Ousmane Sembene, Innaritu, Cuaron, Martin Scorsese, Traffaut, Tarkovsky, Billy Wider, Godard, Wong Kar Wai, Spielberg, Steve Mcqueen, Edgar Wright and Spike Lee. My desire to learn more about film led me London Film academy and Bournemouth University in the UK to take courses related to cinematography and directing to broaden my horizon. My education however is from watching films and observing the approach and styles of these great auteurs. My course at London film academy was a short stint in cinematography but my real education experience was at Bournemouth University where I studied film directing. There I was exposed more to the evolution of cinema and narrative constructions that changed the face of film over the years. There I learnt more about the art of collaboration and what I call production paranoia which is just the passion to create with freedom and have something to say with your film. Access to equipment and resources made learning such a mind-blowing experience. Also you are grounded in film history, theory and practice which help you develop a voice and persona as a film maker. Networking with Industry professionals was also a big deal.

Q: You’ve had the opportunity to experience both worlds. What are the gaps?

Sunkanmi: The only comparison I can make is the academic situation here vs. a developed country where I studied. The answer to this is very apparent and it is not about the film industry, it is the country as a whole. The same way all essential sectors like health, Agriculture, education, technology are suffering, the same it is for Nollywood or even worse. No serious government agency supervising the affairs of the industry. Lackluster guilds, lack of distribution for film and TV content, inadequate exhibition structures, lack of training and capacity development for filmmakers. Almost zero grants, and student loans to support budding filmmakers. Corruption and greed looms, distributors and exhibitors are becoming major producers putting their work as priority for cinema slots. The issues are beyond Nollywood to be honest, these are policy problems and we already know where to look. Again I can’t make comparisons, think of the opposite of the things I have mentioned above. The problem here majorly is that there is no system, no real way to measure value and guarantee progress for the film industry. There are individual strides but not enough to push things forward.

Q: Would you prefer to be a Hollywood Filmmaker or a Nigerian Filmmaker?

Sunkanmi: I am Nigerian, I am African. My worldview and experiences stem from this. Only film itself, its forms and elements should be the universal language I adopt from other parts. I will always be an African filmmaker. By the way my strongest influences don’t come from Hollywood – think of the French new wave, British films, and beautiful works of art from Russia, Poland, Asia and the Arab world.

Q: Looking through your journey from your innocent ambition as a student to this moment, what has been the principal challenge being a filmmaker?

Sunkanmi: My biggest challenge so far is the lack of structure and efficient collaboration. As a filmmaker you have a strong vision for a film, you have ideas and an approach to make a film that resonates and stands the test of time but you will find it difficult to find a complete crew that believes in a concrete film vision. Everyone is a god of film – writers, producers, cinematographers and actors who haven’t honed their various skills will jump on the director’s chair. We all want to call the shots. You literally have to carry your film on your head to make a decent film, you will have to strongly believe in the dream and build skills and proficiency to get any good work done. So my biggest challenge is finding these set of people, a journey that every serious filmmaker has to make but I guess it’s more difficult here because we don’t yet have a culture of building talents in various fields of film.

Q: This is very clear. We see individual efforts but collaboration is crucial to the future of Nollywood as you’ve stated. What would you say is important to consider for effective collaborations?

Sunkanmi: Collaboration is a very selfless venture. It is people coming together to cross-fertilize ideas, unlearn and share ground breaking creative ideas and experiences. For you to have an effective collaboration there should be trust, honest and respect for everyone’s craft. For some I have observed in Nollywood a lot of filmmakers take a Know-all posture to run the entire gamut of production. A cinematographer turned director autocratically controls the work of a writer – The producer becomes chief distributor and exhibitor – how does any meaningful quality work come from this? The culture of individualism, arrogance of knowledge should stop and give room for effective collaboration. People should invest time in finding efficient and passionate collaborators for a higher aim. This is a huge challenge! As a student, I made Lost – in -London which I then developed into a feature collaborating with Uduak Oguamanam- a Nollywood Director. I have directed about 5 features, 3 TV series and about 4 short films since then.

Watch the short film here


Q: Why do you make films? And do you think there are certain kinds of films that need to be made to address certain issues geared towards national development?

Sunkanmi: I make films to share something profound about myself, my experiences and worldview. I believe like Nina Simone and Fela that it is the Artist’s duty to reflect the times and especially in a place like Nigeria, there is a lot to say and be vocal about. Every filmmaker in Nigeria has a powerful voice to say something about who and where we are a people – it doesn’t matter if its comedy, thriller or epic – let your films reflect truth and a relatable narrative that influences and impacts the audience. A single film can lead to policy implementations and new ways of thinking. People are ignorant and film can give people a voice and a reason to act and make a change.

Q: That’s the future. About “New waves” which is often the liberties these filmmakers take to express their art. If you were to start a movement, what would it be and what would you be “breaking away” from?

Sunkanmi: For me it is not about breaking away because Nollywood itself has not reached its potential and we all should be a part of that process. We are at the tip of something great and every voice, effort and film from conception to distribution counts. What is important for me however is the value and total respect for the audience. There are Nollywood filmmakers who out of their obsession for rebel (Auteur) filmmakers in history have lost touch and disconnected from their audience all the name of art or film techniques. What is also important for me is my personal style, the voice of the film, its message and how that can transcend time and trends. We should all start making films that can be accessible to audiences in Europe, Asia and America but first we start from home. It all starts with our painstaking approach to story.

Q: Do you have a select genre template to your approach or every road leads home?

Sunkanmi: I am only making a reference to Art – house movement because it is a difficult movement and has to be properly domesticated for our audience. Not every road leads home for me but I would always love to borrow ideas from other genres like action, film noir, fantasy and magical realism. My favorite genres are comedy, drama, thriller, action comedy and adventure.

Q: About collaboration and finding solutions to these challenges. What are you doing about it? And what do you project in 5 years?

Sunkanmi: I have been in the film Industry for 7 years now and in my journey I have met some of the best minds in film. Talents with a universal approach to film-making. This happens anytime I am engaged in a production as a director. What I have done is to keep these guys close and I have created forums to keep in touch. So from time to time we engage in discussions and debates about film where we also criticize and review each other’s work. I believe this was how the French new wave begun and challenged conventions. We are all ready to jump on one another’s projects.

Q: Based on “truth, relatable narrative that influences and impacts” What are your Top 5 Nigerian films?

Sunkanmi: These are not top films but some of films that I truly liked 1. Tunde kelani’s Ti Oluwa Nile 2. Abba Makama’s Green White Green 3. Tunde Kelani’s Saworoide 4. Ifeoma Chukwuogo’s Bariga Sugar 5. Andrew Dosumu’s Mother of George

Q: Bariga Sugar is on our list too. So, Tv or Film and why?

Sunkanmi: I’ll choose film. Film is a powerful medium. It allows you to transcend time and its form allows you to use various elements to tell your story. There is a power that the cinema conveys, its scale, the elegance and dynamic range offers limitless possibilities.

Q: Some time ago, Nollywood called for a halt in productions to help review the films being produced. We know how that ended. Our cinema is corrupt with mostly pedestrian films. So, in creating a structure that works, what do you suggest must be done?

Sunkanmi: The big question we should ask ourselves is – what makes a good film? Cinematography, design, direction or story? Somehow we need to set parameters for what makes cinema? Is it scale, star power, budget or marketing? What makes good cinema is a combination of many things – Excellent story, universal themes, professional crew, artistic and technical specifications compliance, partnerships, adequate pre-production, efficient marketing and publicity. This list is longer than this. It is now a question of enforcing these principles, but that in itself in another challenge – whose role is it? The film agencies, guilds, association of independent producers, distributors or the exhibitors? What is however important is for serious filmmakers to arm themselves with empirical knowledge about the different areas of film and collaborate with a solid and professional crew. Nollywood needs education, we need to unlearn and embrace a new approach to attaining production values. There has to be more partnerships and Government need to direct funds towards building enabling structures like studios, equipment facilities and cinemas. There is also a need for institutions with proper and relevant trainings to tackle the challenge of the present times.

Q: What do you foresee for the film industry in 10 years?

Sunkanmi: In the next 10 years there will be more producers and filmmakers jostling for a space to express themselves through films and it will be a new vibrant and exposed generation of filmmakers with a more global worldview. There will a Diasporan incursion into the Nollywood space and room for growth and healthy competition. There will be more cinemaplexes and more options for exhibition in communities but OTT will have revolutionized the film experience as VOD platforms will be on the rise. Film content will also be consumed more through mobile devices giving access to a wide range of independent filmmakers with strong voices. Nollywood will rise on global scale but this time for quality and cultural impact.
Olasunkanmi Adebayo is a TV, film and theatre director. He studied Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan where he majored in directing. He also holds a certificate in cinematography at the London Film Academy and a Masters in Directing for Film and Television at the Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. Olasunkanmi Adebayo has produced and directed films, talk shows and musical concerts and also served as writer for TV shows, sitcoms and documentaries. His directorial work includes feature length films; Lost in London (Netflix), Complications, American Boy, Another Time, Spotlight, House Husband and TV comedy series such as; my Siblings and I, It’s a Crazy World and Desperate Housegirls.
He is presently the head producer at Underdog productions, one of Nigeria’s leading film and TV productions firms and affiliate of Noahs Ark Communications.

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