An Interview With Debola Santa Ogunshina, The Director Of Mofe ni Mofe

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by Osamudiamen Joseph

Debola Santa is a movie director and producer whose feature debut, Mofe ni Mofe, came out in September 2021, to much critical acclaim. The movie is a romantic comedy-drama which follows the travails of Mofe, played by Lateef Adedimeji and Mojisola, played by Jumoke Odetola. The couple experiences various ups-and-downs in their relationship and Debola mines a lot of comedy from their situation while making some poignant social commentary.

A graduate of Theatre Arts from the University of Ibadan, Debola’s directing credits also include the popular Yoruba sitcom, Awon Aladun de. He was also the former TV director at R2TV and used to teach Directing at PEFTI Film Institute.

Film Rats Club sits down with the experienced director to discuss everything from his process and directing style to him cinematic influences and advice for greenhorn filmmakers out there.

Tell us how you got your start as a filmmaker. How did you craft your taste and style?

I studied Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan. So, it was natural that I become a filmmaker since it’s hard to get a good paying theatre gig.

After school, I was directing plays for about a year then I got into PEFTI to teach directing. I soon left PEFTI after a few months because I wanted to do more, to get more practical experience. I knew if I was going to teach with confidence and a clear conscience, it was pertinent that I have a rock-solid background to back everything up.

So, I left teaching and started doing more short films, learning the art again.

After a few years, in 2014, I got a job as a TV director at R2TV where I directed live shows, cooking shows, magazine shows and so on. It was such an enjoyable time being under pressure of the TV madness. It was crazy. There is no holiday on TV. You are constantly racing against time. If the show must go up at 10 0’clock, then it must go on, regardless of any hindrances. I loved every bit of it.

Soon, I realized that I still wanted stories so while I was working as a TV director, I kept at my shorts, learning and experimenting with different themes. Shorts generally prepare a filmmaker with valuable tools every time. I soon left that particular TV station but I kept doing different television shows and a couple of films.

What is directing to you?

Directing to me is storytelling. A director is concerned with storytelling. What story are you telling? How are you telling it? The director is like a conductor. The duty of the conductor is to create a synergy between all the different parts of the choir. In a choir, there are tenor singers, altos, sopranos, as well as instruments such as violins, trumpets, French horns and so on.

The conductor co-ordinates everyone, and makes sure they’re all on the same page as far as executing the vision is concerned. Directing is as simple as storytelling. One of my Ogas (Chris Ihidero) always said, “Fine, you are a director, but are you a storyteller?”

Ultimately, if you don’t understand storytelling, you won’t be a good director. If you don’t understand music, can you conduct music?

Which movies or filmmakers would you say are your greatest influences?

My influences are quite eclectic and I love films and filmmakers for many reasons. I love humour, hence I love Jackie Chan. My first short film THE LAST SLEEPBENDER has some Jackie Chan’s references. It’s an action-comedy. Then, I love Scorsese. His films are well rooted in his Catholic and Italian-American influences.

I love how memorable and compelling his characters are. For instance, it’s hard to forget Harvey Keitel’s character burning his fingers as penance in Mean Streets. You’d definitely remember Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. I mean, you also can’t take away some of the influences from Yoruba films especially from the works of Tunde Kelani as well as other films we saw growing up.

I also love the domestic drama of Asghar Farhadi. I admire the subtleties in them, the ambivalent take on every story.

How would you describe your directing style?

It’s hard to start dropping many -isms but the story determines the style. I get a script, read, research, see some references and get on it. I am more concerned about getting the meanings beyond the words.

These days, I have come to accept that humour has become an integral part of almost every project I do. Humour is important to me and most of the time, it comes through in my work, effortlessly. I feel like that’s a part of life. Someone once shared a story of how his friend died and he was weeping uncontrollably until he saw the dead man’s teeth and immediately started laughing. It’s weird to imagine but it’s true. It happens. I used to fight it but now I have embraced it.

Mofe ni Mofe

How do you work with actors? What’s your process?

Working with actors is amazing. It’s perhaps hard to teach. I try to discuss the characters. I believe if the actor gets proper understanding of the script and character, half the job is done. I like when the actor is free from the burden of the lines. I often ask that they improvise. I like to see what the natural instincts of the actor is.

The character is going through a process of growth just like the actor so I ask the actor to react and we make adjustments if need be.

What exercises do you engage in to keep honing your craft?

I catch up on books and I try to see films recommended by my mentors. If I love a film, I’m definitely reading articles or reviews on it.

Often times, I continuously search my soul, asking, “Why is this film so great?” And the answers keep coming for weeks.

What is your advice for young directors out there?

It’s simple. just get on it. Do the work. Learn. These days, I like to learn in groups. Filmmaking has become a fellowship for me. I have a group where we have to see at least three films a week. I have another one where we read at least a chapter of the same book in a week. Whatever works. Just make sure you’re always moving forward.

The originality you seek may just be in your house. I am learning this now. This reminds me of Lulu Wang who directed The Farewell (2019) which is a story she mined from her own grandma’s impending death.

There are so many stories around us that are waiting for us to tell them, truthfully, because we are in the best position to do so.

What’s your favorite stage of making a film?

Preproduction. You have time to really understand the movie.

What is your prediction for the Nigerian cinema landscape a decade from now?

Every story will be heard.

This has been very interesting and insightful. Thank you for your time.

You’re welcome.

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