Filmmaking is an intimate and collaborative creative medium. Filmmakers’ personalized interpretation and understanding of what motion pictures are come to the fore when you watch their films or have a conversation with them. For Adesola Oni, his anarchist filmmaking style was influenced by Quentin Tarantino. Though Oni has a preference for entertaining his audience, his films are heavily induced with clear-cut messages.
“Even if I am making a political film, the point of the film isn’t overtly about politics. The story is always the driving force. In Gbese, everybody thinks it’s just another political film but at the core of the film is the story – roles are reversed and this serial killer(Tidbelu) goes on a rampage. I just want to entertain. I am more interested in entertaining my audience than informing them or giving them a moral breakthrough.”
Gbese, the writer-director’s latest production still in the festival circuit, pays subtle homage to the traumatic aftermath of the EndSars protest. Driving the story forward is Tidbelu, a psychopath. Within Gbese’s 18-minutes duration, the film, in no excessive or boring details, follows Tidbelu vendetta against a police officer.
To his credit as a writer and director the filmmaker has a list of films from You have not Seen Wedding Party?!, No Escape, An Interview Story, Test for Blood —A Murder Mystery, to Hysteria where he interrogates his filmmaking approach which pays homage to his filmmaker idol, Quentin Tarantino. “Great artists steal. I steal a lot from Quentin as an ode to him,” Oni muses about how Quentin has influenced his films.
In this exclusive interview with Adesola Oni, we cover his anarchist style of filmmaking, his obeisance to Quentin Tarantino, and his recently-produced short Gbese.
The interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
These words ” I DEDICATE THIS CHANNEL TO MY ANARCHIST STYLE OF FILMMAKING,” welcomed me to your YouTube Channel. Can you tell us more about these words as it relates to your filmmaking style?
Hah. That is a great question. It was in Sons of Anarchy that I first heard the definition of anarchism. It was voiced by Charlie Hunnam (originally from the Russian philosopher, Emma Goldman.) The definition: “anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the freedom of religion, the liberation of the human body from the dominion of properties, and the liberation from the shackles of the strength of the government.” When I heard those words, I knew I had to watch the series till it concludes. I don’t have any words to describe how I felt at that time. And this was a time I was still discovering my voice as a filmmaker.
I have always been rebellious; I don’t like conformity. I feel that convention was stupid. I have a very big disdain for society so I try to be very antisocial. In every group, there is always the laissez – I am always that person. The series played a key role in how I came to identify with anarchism. I feel it is such a wonderful philosophy for filmmakers and everyone dedicated to expanding their minds and discovering their voice. It was also around then (watching the Sons of Anarchy) that I created my YouTube Channel and felt like a proper anarchist. Since then I have dedicated my craft to anarchism. Even on my writer’s CV at the time, I wrote, “I adhere to the philosophy of anarchism and thinking beside the box.” Thinking “beside the box” because everyone says “outside the box” and I want to break away from that cliché and convention. I want to liberate myself from the “dominion of religion” because I think modern-day religion is just a business.
Interesting. The range of short films ( No Escape, An Interview Story, and Test for Blood —A Murder Mystery) to your credit always question the conventional model of storytelling and filmmaking. What influences your revolutionary approach to filmmaking?
Apart from just being a non-conformist, I enjoy the outrage being non-conforming brings. And seriously, part of the joy of being a nonconformist is that you get attention. In university, I had this big Afro which l occasionally shaved off to the horror of my coursemates who were curious to know my state of mind and “if I am well or not.” I enjoyed the outrage and reaction being non-conforming attracted to me. Growing up, when I started being in control of the films I watch, I got into the works of Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained), and he became my idol. Quentin stokes those flames (of anarchism) in me. Quentin wants to manipulate. Quentin’s scripts decide the emotions of the audience. He puts himself into his films. He isn’t following Aristotle’s three acts story pattern. Quentin knows the rules and he deliberately breaks them. He did this so wonderfully in Pulp Fiction, a film I have seen almost 30 times.
Quentin made me realize the possibility of filmmaking and every time I have made a film, I always aspire to be like him — breaking conventions.
You mentioned in an interview your preference for Quentin Tarantino. At first, glance, what attracted you and still attracts you to his works? And how has Tarantino influenced you as a filmmaker?
Everything Quentin has done, not only the ones he wrote and directed which we are familiar with (Django, Inglorious Bastards, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), but all his films changed the game at the time of release. The films were very outrageous, with extreme violence and blood, and with non-linear storylines. I always want my films to elicit mixed responses and that’s something Quentin accomplishes in his films. Quentin’s knack for experimentation is an aspect I find appealing as a filmmaker. These are the elements that drew me to Quentin. I believe I can build my church upon the rock of Quentin and learn everything from him.
Great artists steal. I steal a lot from Quentin as an ode to him. I put one element of his filmmaking style into my films. The opening words in Gbese (my recently-released short film) lifted verbatim from Quentin’s Pulp Fiction (Ezekiel 25: 17.) Having that mindset of being unapologetically you and being proud of your weirdest inclination are what I have carried all through my life from the way I dress, the way I relate with people, and watching and studying Quentin has made me retain all those aspects of myself.
You write and direct your shorts. How has being the writer and director of your project given you independence in your work both at the pre-production and production stage?
Being the writer and directors of my films gives me a lot of independence. But, importantly, what has given me the most independence is that I have funded all my projects by myself. And it’s part of why I have remained independent. I have always loved films growing up but I didn’t have the skill and knowledge to make them. I got into the industry (Nollywood) as an actor. All through my childhood, I saw Old Nollywood films, but as I grew older and started watching Hollywood films, I slowly realized that the level of acting in Nollywood was unnatural and over-flung. At this point, I knew I could do better. And – maybe blame it on narcissism- I believed that I could change the industry. Hence, my first jump into acting. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t get past the audition stage. The minimal roles that I got selected for were in scripts without clear storylines. Then, I decided that I will write the films I want to act in. In the process of learning how to write, I discovered directing. Then I also discovered that nobody is going to give me money to fund my project. To fund it, I started breaking the script down and learning how to shoot, edit, and all. It’s these processes that made me the jack of all trades (editor, producer, director, actor, and writer) that I am now.
However, I don’t think that is a healthy filmmaking practice. Collaborations make the dream work. So, being the writer and director gave me a lot of independence, but, what I noticed is that it didn’t help me to bring out the best possible work. The space of filmmaking is a collaborative space. The business of filmmaking works better when you have other creative people who help you get out of your way. When I started allowing others to have a say in my films my films got better reviews and wider acceptance.
Being independent and having no accountability to anyone doesn’t help. Gbese, my recent work, is my best work because I was forced to listen to creative inputs from fellow filmmakers: Olayemi Oshodi the Producer, and Adeniyi “Taj” Joseph the cinematographer and editor.
Your works always border around horror, mystery, and psychological thrillers. As a cinephile and a filmmaker, what do you find appealing about these genres?
To be honest, I don’t know how it happens. I don’t like horror films. I don’t (typically) watch Hollywood horror. My favorite genre is coming-of-age movies and biopics. Most of my films that have psychological thriller and horror genres are always not written by me alone. I wrote Gbese during a period when I was hanging out with Tolani Ajayi. It was her influence that made Gbese the horror film that is. She made me watch a lot of horrors and it helped me be in the right headspace. So, no, I am not a “horror” filmmaker. I love comedies too. When Play Network Studio acquired the intellectual property to do a remake of Karishika and there was a call for a director, a friend, Leye, tagged me in the post saying I am a horror director but I had to say no.
In your recently-produced “Gbese”, Tibdelu (Casey Edema) has a not-so-easy-to-detect psychological issues. Despite his flaws, he is the most appealing character to watch. How did you come about writing his character and other characters in your films?
When I was fleshing out Tibdelu’s character, I knew he was a psychopath and a serial killer. Those were the basis I was using in fleshing out his character. I knew he was a villain and insane. Whilst reflecting on his character, I was trying to find what could easily show how mentally unstable Tibdelu is to anybody watching. I wanted to create a backstory about why he is a serial killer which I did by introducing police brutality into the film. The problem was how to make it obvious to the audience without excess details that Tibdelu is a psychopath. When I was writing Tibdelu’s character bio, I included anything that caught my fancy. At some point, I added random bits like he had a shrine where ritualists worship dead people. I also considered putting some scars on his body to show that he suffered traumatic experiences. Fleshing out Tidbelu was fun and spontaneous and I think it helped birth an original character.
In Gbese, music plays an important role. I think it helped to engage the audience’s attention and also subtly helps in telling the story (of brutality against youth). Are there specific things you consider when scoring your films? And why did you opt for using a score similar to Obongjayar’s Message in a Hammer?
Music is the soul of any picture. Music sets the tone for a film you are watching. The music of a film sets the emotions for the audience. The importance of music was something I realized later in my filmmaking journey. When I wrote the script for Gbese, I knew the song I wanted to use. For a particular scene, I intended, in the original script, to use N.W.A’s Fuck the Police but we didn’t have the budget to get the copyright of the sound. But, I knew I was going to use a song just as hard as Fuck the Police.
A friend of mine who is a resident of Germany had sent me Obongjayar’s song (I can’t recall which one) with the caption that the song will be good for any political film I am making. When I was writing Gbese, Message in a Hammer had just come out and it resonated with the film’s script. Again, we couldn’t use the score because we didn’t have the budget. One of the executive producers, Miracle Chukwu, is a DJ and producer. It was Jungle, a record label which Miracle is affiliated with that created the beats, arranged, and mastered “Gbese in Disguise.” I am not going to deny that Obongjayar’s Message in a Hammer had an influence on Gbese in Disguise.
Short films for filmmakers and audiences present an opportunity to explore rarely-told stories. They also hold the potential for developing into a feature-length project. Which of your short films is the most personal and which of your short(s) could develop into a feature film in years to come?
First of all, short films are a great calling card for filmmakers to get investors by showcasing what they can do and are also the best places to experiment with creativity. Gbese is an excerpt from a larger story I am developing into a feature. The working title of the feature is Inspector Tayo. However, audiences shouldn’t expect the feature-length project to be an extension of Gbese. Gbese is just an offshoot project; an indication that a script exists. And unlike Gbese with its horror affiliation, Inspector Tayo is sci-fi.
Watching Nigerian indie filmmakers’ films, I have come to discover that aside from telling a deeply personal and distinct story that the mainstream Nollywood filmmakers won’t tell, the indie filmmakers have to rely on easily-accessible channels like Youtube and Vimeo. There are limited indie and artsy projects on streaming platforms. How does this make you feel as an indie filmmaker? Are you worried about it?
Worried, no. This fact that there are only a few indie filmmakers on streaming platforms just informs me that a void exists and my driving force is to fill it. I am really glad that indie filmmakers like Ema Edioso and S16 Collective are producing great films that keep me on my toes.
Nollywood is attracting International recognition in International film festivals, thanks to filmmakers like the Esiri brothers, the S16 Collective, and others. How does this occasional win validate your importance as an indie filmmaker?
Something I have discovered is that filmmakers are very needy creatures. We act like we don’t need the validation but we do need it. Filmmaking isn’t the most lucrative occupation. It’s a high-risk and high-effort occupation with few rewards. One of the few rewards you can get as an indie filmmaker is to get your films screened at film festivals, see the credit list roll on screen and see your name in it. So, as an indie filmmaker, you have to find your laurels where and when you can. Winning an award or being selected for a festival are little things that make the efforts (put into filmmaking) count. It can get sad when filmmaking isn’t giving you any financial reward. So, winning festivals, screening in festivals, and doing interviews like this, save a lot of lives. It validates the indie filmmakers and keeps us going.
What is your philosophy as a film director? Are there specific statements about life and mankind you are looking to share in your films?
There are a thousand roads that lead to Mecca. There is no one way anything should be done so. Don’t ever second guess yourself. Just do it. If you fail, great. There is no better success than failure. You have a dream, go for it. The goal is the journey, not the destination. If you get into this game to win awards and accolades and deliver an Oscar speech, there is a high possibility that you won’t last long. I genuinely believe that it is the trials, the night you are frightened that you have destroyed your life by being a filmmaker that matter. Those fearful nights are beautiful because that’s where your next great work could come from if you bother to look.
What books are you currently reading and which films are you watching?
I am currently reading Harry Porter’s book six: Half-Blood Prince. At the same time, I am reading A Dance with Dragons from the Game of Thrones series. For films, I am watching Seven Psychopaths, Killing Them Softly, The Last King of Scotland, The Heat, Las Vegas, The Family, etc. I am constantly watching films.
Gbese is currently in film festival circuits, when should we expect its release?
The last festival I am submitting Gbese to is AFRIFF. Once AFRIFF is over, Gbese will be out for public viewing for a fee.