Interview with Tunde Kelani (TK), Nigerian filmmaker, director of The Narrow Path

TK was interested in photography while very young and knew by the time he left school that any work he did would be photography related. He was employed as a trainee cameraman by the Western Nigeria Television and attended the London Film School from Aug 1976 to learn technical aspects of filmmaking. His work included newsreel work for the BBC World Service. He started directing his own projects around 12 years ago. “I have been in the industry from all that time witnessing all the technologies from black-and-white then transition to colour; from optical sound to magnetic sound; and now lately I’ve been an advocate of digital filmmaking which I believe is the future of Afrikan cinema.”

TK makes his films for the cinema first before considering the home market, making him distinct from the ‘Nollywood’ filmmakers who have few cinema aspirations. “For me growing up, many years ago, in Nigeria before military dictatorship, we had neighbourhood cinemas. Around me I had about six cinemas and I had preferences. American films made an impression on me and we had Indian films and Chinese films so it was question of your preference. Until we lost all that cinema infrastructure and Nigerians as a result of military dictatorship and insecurity preferred to be entertained in their own homes and advancement in video consumer electronics gave a boost to the video industry.”

TK’s biggest film was ‘Thunderbolt’ (2000) which was the first of his films that we had knowingly seen and could attribute to him. This film cemented Nubiart’s interest in Nigerian film. “’Thunderbolt’ is coming from my experience as a filmmaker. Most of the people who practice in Nigeria are amateurs – they are not professionals who have been trained in any way. You can say ‘well, that’s alright!’ But if you see the impact of the pen everybody in the world today has access to a pen and pencils and word processors but they’re not going to be writing professionally.” ‘Thunderbolt’ was distributed worldwide and has been on the catalogue of California Newsreel in the US for the last five years. This means that many people studying Afrikan or ‘Third World’ cinema have to watch it and virtually every university in the US that does related courses has bought a copy of ‘Thunderbolt’ during that time. The film has now been acquired by M-Net film library in South Afrika so there is likely to be a wide DVD release in the future.

TK’s new film is ‘The Narrow Path’, to be released in the autumn. It is part of an ongoing project he has embarked on to adapt literary material for the cinema hoping to benefit from interest in both the film watching and book buying public. “Literature is very important to me. I read everything when I was growing up and I since I have found connections between filmmaking and literature. Just like ‘Thunderbolt’ is an adaptation of literary material. ‘The Narrow Path’ follows the same pattern in my project called ‘From Print to Screen’. This way I thought that I would be able to direct attention to literature in another way and hopefully get the film to be seen and perhaps people would look for the novel. So that’s part of my project to celebrate literature and writers.”

The cast and crew is a mix of film and acting students, those with a traditional theatre background and then non-actors of the villages used in filming – the chief in the film is the actual village chief! “All the villagers, all the music, all the songs are from real life.” The film has been in many festivals and is being screened by the National Geographic channel in the US.

On the storylines, TK encouraged people to look beyond the ‘Nollywood’ fixation with demon possession saying, "Nigeria is not new to filmmaking. I attended the London Film School in 1976 and there had been other people before that time. In the Yoruba tradition we had people who are trained as apprentice actors in the traditional traveling theatre who now went into television and now came into making films. Their style and orientation is that of spontaneity – they can work loosely and relied more on oral than formal script structure. So this element you can see in their work so it is an acceptable tradition.”

For the future TK pointed out that Afrika was at a disadvantage when all film had to be shot on 35mm as it was too expensive “but now the new technologies have empowered Afrikan filmmakers to tell their stories themselves and this is getting popular as people have found the freedom of expression and can control the means of production which is available and which is affordable and since we have stories to tell then obviously they are not wasting time at all. And the audience is asking for more. In fact, Nigeria has an important role to play in the development of Afrikan cinema and the future is very promising.”

‘The Narrow Path’ was filmed over a two-year period and shot straight into a computer rather than on tape and transferred. This halved the time of the post-production process, “we just gave them file formats in folders and they just went straight to work…and by the end of ‘The Narrow Path’ we had the ability to use selective focus…so ‘The Narrow Path’ was evolving with the technology.”

The film cost $75,000 and is TK’s most expensive although he has usually spent around $60,000 for his films [Cf. A typical ‘Nollywood’ film would cost $15-20,000]. “We are not part of ‘Nollywood’. I think that my industry predates ‘Nollywood’ which is just about 12 years old where because of technology everybody has access to making movies and some marketers who want to sell their VHS or CDs simply gave people money to do that. So that is different from some of us who are filmmakers, who are storytellers, who have experienced film and all the technologies. For instance, I’ve come across people who say they’ve made 100 movies over a period of five years and so on and in 12 years I’ve managed to make about ten! You know, it takes a long time before a good film can be made…Some of the films I made 10 years ago are still in demand, I have to keep South Afrika away from acquiring some of these films most of these films that you describe [‘Nollywood’] have a short life span, shelf span. They disappear in three weeks and they are never heard of again. Whereas my own work is going to last forever. So it’s a different ball game altogether. It’s not the same industry…everybody is just doing his own thing and we have our own audiences. We never meet, we don’t use the same talents, we don’t use the same stars and we don’t use the same themes.”

For people outside Nigeria wanting to direct films there TK recommended that first of all you have a story to tell and look at what audience you want to target. With digital editing post-production is no longer an issue. You need to get permission from the Nigerian Film Corporation who has laid out guidelines for productions. For investors it is best to have a producer or associate producer based in Nigeria who knows the ropes.

On regional co-operation to boost Afrikan film TK pointed out, “The closest neighbours to us, Benin Republic, in the south-west of Nigeria and the colonisers just drew a line and said ‘you belong to France and you belong to England’ so we are already ignoring that barrier and we are finding that we are the same people and our progress and development will rest in co-operation. There are even people who are thinking politically of a United States of Afrika so I think this is the way to go. We have had one or two local collaborations in Francophone west Afrika and even in my old age I’ve started to learn to speak French…so we have to work together…I am working on ‘Pourquoi-moi?’ which is an experiment because we certainly think that we have the tools now to make films to fit the ideal cinema structure, primarily Francophone. If this experiment is successful we think that we can revive the cinema-going culture and start another culture together in the whole of Afrika by putting into those theatre movies not programmed by America, not programmed by France but films made by Afrikans.”

TK’s parting words were “People criticise the Nigerian film industry but they forget that it is a very young industry and rather impatient… but the interesting part of it is that we do a very rich cultural heritage. We have vast literary resources. We have people who are talented and very hardworking. We have the technology on our side and so I think Nigeria is close to breakthrough and that within the next few years you will see another breed of the Nigerian films and so let’s wait and see.”


Source:  MasterClass on Nollywood, British Film Institute