Hunting for an Identity: Owen Olowu talks Traffick Me and his Filmmaking Career.

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It has been years — five or seven, I can’t recall, since I read TJ Benson’s Tea — a short story about two migrants whose only medium of communication, for a while, was their eyes, hands and other body parts. Details of my debut reading of the story are blurry now. But, as the lead female character in Owen Olowu’s Traffick Me moves from her pedophilic employee to her gruffy father, the plot details of Benson’s story gradually resurface in fragments in my mind: The girl is Tiv and the boy is German. Rereading the short story, it became easier to connect why my mind kept latching Traffick Me onto Tea. The reason is in the last scene of Olowu’s Traffick Me. Without uttering a word, the two lead characters in Traffick Me, like the two characters in Benson’s Tea, create a bond. 

The human mind is a repository of information. As fragments of long-forgotten thoughts occasionally take dominance of our attention, it serves as a subtle reminder of how enduring the human mind is. No memories are lost. They are hoarded in secured premises of the mind. The catalogue of remarkable scenes we dote on and the bouncy lyrics we keep to heart make up our internal storage. We think we forget them or they are gone forever when we move past them, but there are somewhere in the guarded warehouse called our minds, stuck, waiting to emerge when compatible stimuli come to the fore . While I watched Olowu’s Traffick Me and during our virtual but intimate conversation, it was these thoughts that kept leaping to my mind’s eye. 

The words “Human trafficking” has a familiar ring to it. When we aren’t wincing at crammed boats on the verge of offering unnumbered people to the ever-greedy ocean, we hear friends or neighbors recounting woeful tales of people trafficked. Olowu’s film is less concerned about those people. The title of Olowu’s short is meant to trick you. The short film isn’t made for the millions who get lost daily on the sea en-route fertile soils, it’s dedicated to the undocumented and overlooked house help. As a society, we have learned to accept this infuriating social design. “They are just house helps — handy boys and handy girls who bring ease to the life of their employees,” we think. Olowu rejects this premise. By compelling us to experience the daily routine of these unsupervised and unprotected kids, Olowu is encouraging us to rethink. The intention of Olowu is simple and noble. Olowu wants us to cast our glance on a familiar societal occurrence and pick out patterns we aren’t mindful enough to notice. And, that he has achieved.

In this exclusive interview with Owen Olowu, we spoke about his filmmaking style, the hurdles encountered while shooting Traffick Me, and the importance of having a unique style. 

At the inaugural edition of The Annual Film Mischief, your film Songs of Ubong won The Grand Cheese Prize and here we are again this year. How does it feel to return to the festival this year with another film? 

Awesome feeling. Like I kept saying, winning the Grand Cheese Prize sprung to life the confidence to do more, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. Discovering that there is a space where creative minds exist just gives that encouragement. Challenging myself, again and again, just felt like the right thing to do and I’m glad my film was selected again.

In your director’s statement for Traffick Me, you said: “The Visual Art Representation (V.A.R) of filmmaking is the key to proper storytelling.” What does this statement mean as it relates to your filmmaking approach? 

After writing or going through any script, the first question that comes to my mind, as a director, is this: “How do I visually interact with my audience without dialogue?” “How do I bring them into the story and make sure they become the characters in the story?” Once I decide on the approach, I stick to it till the end. 

Do you mind talking more about this “visually interacting with my audience without dialogue”?

Okay. After I wrote the script for Traffick Me, I heard people say things like ‘I can only imagine if this happened to me.” So it encouraged me to make the needed changes to the script as I wanted my audience to feel it. I wanted them to see through the characters’ eyes. Maybe that way the message would hit stronger.

The two major characters of Traffick Me are strangers to each other. Yet, through their facial expressions, they bonded. How were you able to get the actors to use their faces as a storytelling device? 

I used silence as a narrative technique to tell their stories. Throughout the movie, the characters did not say a word to each other. This was to prove that these children suffer in silence and, sometimes, are not listened to or heard.

I love that there was no means of communication between the two characters except through their eyes. The two actors did a great job of using their faces to bear the burden of the story. I am inclined to think that there are other projects you abandoned to work on Traffick Me. Why did you choose to work on Traffick Me

I didn’t have many projects I was working on. I just wanted to do a film and my wife and I were just talking about house help and things that happen in our society. I thought about it and I decided that it is still a form of human trafficking bringing children from far and wide to work for people. I have a neighbor who beats her house help. I guess that’s why, at that moment, Traffick Me became a story to tell. Human trafficking is something my father frowns against. And I decided that I need to tell this story. My wife and I decided, overnight —we woke up,  to make the film. I decided that I am going to write the script. 

From the title, we wanted people to feel what these people(the trafficked children) pass through rather than tell it from a distance as we mostly see on-screen. We wanted to make sure people see it through the eyes of these people. I am glad that so far it has achieved the impact we imagined. So, I didn’t have much I was doing then. I  am glad I paid full attention to working on the film.

I love that there is this sense of shared dream between you and your wife. Can you speak to how she has aided your filmmaking journey?

It started in 2020. She, Mrs. Rhoda Oluwaseun Olowu, was playing a role in a film I was directing. She is an actress. A fantastic one. As a director, it could be hard to communicate your intentions to actors. But, with her, it was easier. After that first project, we did other projects together during the EndSars protest. I realized over time that she is someone who I have been looking for. She organizes things a lot. Prior to our marriage, she became more like my production manager. When I write a script, I send it to her and we engage in a fruitful back-and-forth conversation. Her being involved in my work has improved it. 

She believed in my filmmaking style. Even when producers tell me my filmmaking style isn’t the norm in Nigeria, she constantly tells me to work with my style.

Back to our conversation. A lot of times when we think about human trafficking, attention is always on the thousand forced into prostitution overseas. Less attention is paid to the one within our immediate environment. About your motive for working on this project, listening to the response of audiences, do you think it has been achieved? And what major thing did you learn about human society? 

I think it has been achieved. By presenting what they are familiar with, in a different approach, has given them a more personal insight into what it feels like to be one of these children. These things happen right next to us, I mentioned my neighbor earlier, and yet we’ve gotten to that point where it seems right to mind your business. It shouldn’t be. We need to put ourselves in their shoes.

Oyejide Glory Ayooluwa/Victoria Emodi/Traffick Me

It’s common knowledge that each project has its unique challenges. What kind of challenges did you face bringing this project to life? 

The major challenge we faced was getting the actors to understand body and head movements. The actors had to wear the camera on their heads with the mics attached to it. They somewhat became the Director of photography and sound person on set.

Most of the scenes were one-takes. All the lights were set and hidden to avoid being seen. So the actors had to remember all the blockings. They got used to this. The helmet with a camera attached to it was the trickiest part. But aside from that, the rest was smooth.

This must have been draining for the actors. Why was using this shooting style important for Traffick Me? Why didn’t you opt for something different?

It was extremely important. It was like putting on a virtual reality glass, if I can call it that. We needed to see the character just like how we as human beings only see the things in front of us. That made it feel like it was me, you, or any other person going through the experience. That way we were running, falling, or being slapped like the character.

I love it. It allowed the audience to have this sort of intimacy with the characters. You are staring into their life. 

Exactly. Seeing it through their eyes. That’s why there was only eye contact in the truck scene and they were able to pass their stories. We can pretend to smile and laugh on the outside but the eyes don’t lie.

What made Life and Traffick Me, two of your films that I have seen, captivating is the way you captured the internal monologue of your characters. Why do you always rely on using internal monologue to tell your characters’ stories? 

I believe the character’s personality should be reflected in what surrounds them. A lot of information can be captured without much being said about my characters which is what I always aim for.

You shoot, direct, and edit most of your films. How has occupying these three positions helped in bringing your vision to life during the pre-production and production stages? 

It has allowed me to express my art to its fullest. Opinions do matter and trust me I do like to listen and work with others. But, I find it better to direct and edit my films for now. Eventually, working with like-minded people would be something I wouldn’t be able to avoid but I believe by then I would have established a technique and a style. Then, understanding what I am trying to visualize wouldn’t be hard.

It seems like a lot of work but it’s something I enjoy doing as it helps me move faster. Also, sometimes it gives me the chance to take a break and complete the project when the right ideas and approach return without delaying anyone. It might sound a bit selfish but for now, it helps manage funds and get the right execution I need.

It seems to me aside from the reasons you listed, you are more concerned about establishing a style and technique solely yours.

I believe it’s important that every director would have a style that they are known for. When you see a Steven Spielberg film you know. When you see a Wes Anderson film you know. I’d rather be known for my good storytelling style and visual representation than known for the celebrity face I have in my film.

The style drives the story. When you edit a film and you can boldly turn off your sound and still enjoy it then you have a great movie. Dialogue should do 30 percent of the job for you.

A careful observation of most of the films that screened at TAFM had a similar theme to yours: violence against women. What do you think is responsible for this subtle similarity among the films? 

Usually, I run away from stories like this because I believe they have been told over and over again. But can we ever tell it enough? Of course, the answer is no. These days I believe the message is passed across in a much deeper well-thought manner, especially from filmmakers who understand what they are doing. 

Sure. There is that fright of being cliché. But what each of the filmmakers brings to these films is different. And it made the issues being addressed, though common, different.

Well said. There’s nothing new under the sun so we always need to find newer ways to get the message across.

Are you working on any projects currently?

Right now I am working on a very strange feature film with my wife and newborn baby girl. I started recording my wife and baby at home secretly. I am putting the cuts together in edit and right now I’m writing and shooting a story around it. It’s almost a docu-fiction. My target is to end the shoot when she turns a year old this year. It follows their story from birth till the age of one. It’s experimental for now, but it’s coming together.

Also, I am editing a documentary for a client. It pays the bills. Jack of all trades, I guess.

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