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23 Apr

Biyi Bandele: Cinema is the Medium Right Now

Biyi Bandele, the London-based playwright, novelist and film director, recently breezed into town for the Abuja premiere of ‘Shuga’, the TV-series on HIV/AIDS which he directed. He sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Oris Aigbokhaevbolo and Ladi Opaluwa. Excerpts:

How did you get involved in Shuga, and why?

I was approached by MTV Staying Alive Foundation. They told me about this series called Shuga which I didn’t know about because I had been busy the previous two years working on Half of a Yellow Sun and had no time for anything else. They sent me the Kenyan series. They shot two seasons in Nairobi, and they sent me those and I really liked what they were doing. I liked the message and I felt it was an important message to get into Nigeria particularly, since we know by very conservative estimate about 3.4 million people in Nigeria are HIV positive or living with AIDS. That’s the second highest number, second only to South Africa which has the highest in the world. Now you talk to the average Nigerian about HIV and they tell you, ‘no we don’t have that problem here’ and it’s not true. It simply isn’t true.

Is this the first time you will be doing something that is message driven?

It is.

How is that different from other things you have done before?

There is always a message in everything I do except I am not a social realist writer. I am not the kind of writer or director to whom message is the first thing. [But] there is always a message embedded somewhere.

In this case the message comes first…

The message is quite clear. It is there, but it doesn’t preach down. It is really subtle. It is really entertaining. It is really well written. It is seriously well acted, so it doesn’t look like something that an NGO put together (laughs).The production values are really high.

So would you say you approached this the way you approach a totally artistic project?

I did. I sat down with my director of photography and said, ‘we are not doing TV here’. We worked on it as if we were working on a movie.

What were the high points and the low points for you on this project?

We had eight episodes to shoot, and we had 31 days. Once you plunge into it, you got to keep going. And every day comes with its own unique challenges. You just have to fix it and keep going. The biggest headache we had in Lagos turned out not to be traffic. The biggest problem turned out to be generator sound. If you have a proper budget, the generator should be completely silent. All around us there were generators going on and sometimes we had to get production crew to go knocking on doors, begging people, sucking up to them, giving them money (laughs). Sometimes they oblige, sometimes they tell us to take a hike.

Having worked with artists from Hollywood, Chiwetel and the rest, and then working with this group here, any differences?

There is absolutely no difference. On Half of a Yellow Sun, I was working with Chiwetel, I was working with Genevieve, I was working with Thandie Newton, I was working with Onyeka Onwenu, quite often, all in the same scene. Onyeka was scarily professional. She was incredible. She was amazing. There is no difference. I cast these people, and they are really good, and they are gonna go places.

How did you get Tiwa Savage to feature in the Shuga?

I didn’t actually know Tiwa’s music until 2012. An actor who wanted to work with me sent me a music video with Tiwa in it, and he was one of the actors in the music video. He wanted me to watch it, and I saw this scene. I didn’t know who she was, and I thought…I mean, she was singing, she wasn’t acting, I thought this lady can act. When I was approached for Shuga and we were thinking of characters, I arranged a meeting with Tiwa Savage. I didn’t actually know whether she could act or not, but I knew.

What then happened?

She was great. She was actually better than I thoughtShe never acted before but I could see from the music video, she was cracking. She was great.

How was the adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun received at the Toronto International Film Festival?

The reception was incredible. It was unbelievable. We had three standing ovations. If you consider that at the festival last year, the three movies that you couldn’t get tickets to were 12 Years a Slave, the Mandela movie, and Half of a Yellow Sun12 Years a Slave and the Mandela movie were studio movies. These were movies that were made with about four, five times what my movie was made with. We didn’t have a penny going into that festival. We didn’t have distributors. It was pure word of mouth. So it was actually phenomenon. And then it opened at the London Film Festival, same kind of reaction. It opened in Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, it opened in AFI Festival in LA, it opened at Kerela in India, in Dubai.

It has done really, really well at festivals. Possibly because it is on the festival circuit some people believe it is gone on general release. It hasn’t. It will open in the U.K on the 21st of March. It opens in the U.S early summer. It opens here in Nigeria, shortly after the UK or before it opens in the U.S, I don’t have the exact date. And then it opens in Australia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The ideal thing would have been for us to make the movie and premiere it in Nigeria. Nigeria is a country that has a population of over a 170 million people but has less than 30 cinemas, which is almost criminal. The ideal thing would have been to be able to open nationwide and then take it abroad. But we had to be realistic, we had to look for distributors worldwide and we’ve got that.

How did you get involved with that and why is that movie important to you?

You mentioned earlier that I had a high visibility in the 90s. What happened was that I decided to stop writing plays.

Why was that?

Because I wanted to make movies, and I knew I had to make a choice. Because I think cinema is actually the medium in Africa right now. Theatre is a great medium but I wanted a medium that would reach a greater spread, and that’s cinema. When I write a play and it gets produced in a U.K. theatre, and once in a while, it gets done in Nigeria. But I could make a movie and just take a DVD, put it in my pocket and go show it anywhere in the world. I have been directing theatre for a very long time. Also, I have been in love with cinema for a long time. I mean I saw God knows maybe 500 movies in cinemas in Kafanchan where I was born before I saw my first theatre play. So I have been exposed to cinema for much longer than I was to theatre. But then the reality of trying to get anyone to give you money to direct a movie is very different dynamic. It took a while to get the right budget.

Are you never going back to playwriting or theatre?

I mean I write novels as well. I have a novel that is in my head now that I know I have to sit down for a year or so to write. But, no, I am not going to write a play.

Why? Theatre is a dead medium?

No, it’s not dead. Don’t quote me. I do not think it’s dead at all. I just think I’ve got one life and I have to choose.

So how did you get involved in Half of a Yellow Sun?

In 2005 I ran into Chimamanda at a literary festival that we were both invited to. At the time I was writing my novel, Burma Boy, which was set during the Second World War. I told her about it and she told me about Half of a Yellow Sun. At that time I had spent about two or three years trying to bring to the screen Chinua Achebe’s short story, Girls at War, and that wasn’t going anywhere, we just couldn’t get anyone interested. And when Chimamanda’s book came out, I read it, and I just thought, this is perfect. One of the inspirations for it, according to Chimamanda, was Girls at War. I love the characters. I thought what the book was about was an important experience for Nigerians. All these issues we never talk about and when we do talk about them, we talk about them in very emotive, very tribal, very nationalistic manner. And I felt it was something that we needed to talk about honestly.

You became personally invested in it?

I am a Nigerian, yes. And I was born during that war.

Half of a Yellow Sun was the first film you have directed?

Feature length, but I have directed other shorts.

So, how did you make the transition from writing plays to film? Did you have to go for training?

The only training I had was watching hundreds and hundreds of movies. There were days in the 90’s and actually in the noughties when I would watch three, four movies a day. And it was perfect. When you live in London, it’s just a perfect place to do that kind of thing.

You are comfortable in different genres, drama, fiction, and now film. How do you manage?

I am very comfortable in all. I write because I have to. If I didn’t write I wouldn’t know what to do. It’s a vocation. It’s like being a teacher or a preacher or something. It’s something that I love. I don’t actually love it but it’s something I have to do. It’s like if I’m not writing, I get into trouble. Directing is something I don’t have to do at all, you know. For me, it’s great to sit down and write. Sometimes you spend months, years, working on something, you and your computer. The thing about working on film is that you are working with other people, thousands of people. I love that.

If an idea occurs to you, are you sometimes confused as to the medium of expression?

There is no logic to that. I mean, I have an idea now. I got that idea in Lagos. I spent Christmas in Lagos, and I knew immediately that it was a novel and I have been writing notes, and I will have to find time at some point to write that novel. But it’s not a film and it’s not a play. I know that for a fact.

Which one do you feel most comfortable in and which do you find most gratifying?

All of them, when I am doing them. When I’m writing a novel my brain is so attuned that I cannot even imagine writing a screenplay. And when I spend a lot of time writing screenplays, I forget how to write novels. The truth is, whatever I am doing, at that point, that’s all my brain just concentrates on.

You have recently been involved in projects in Nigeria, are you planning to move back home?

Last year I was here for about six months, and the year before, maybe even longer. I come home quite often. I would love to have a base here so I don’t have to stay in hotels or stay with friends.

If you had stayed back in Nigeria, do you think you would have achieved so much?

No, I don’t think I would have been able to. My first play, my first novel, I wrote before I went to the university, and I couldn’t find a publisher. The play Rain wasn’t produced. I was a student in the department of drama at Ife, and it wasn’t produced because some people found it offensive. It was offensive actually, to be fair to them. It was provocative, rather than offensive. But that play was the play that started my entire career. It won an international award, and in four weeks, I had a publisher.

What are your thoughts about the state of writing in Nigeria?

I think it’s in good health. A lot of great stuff is happening. In the creative arts, I think Nigerians are doing really well. When I was studying drama in Ife, if you wanted to go out with a girl, when you told them what you were studying, always, without fail, they would say, ‘are you planning to change to Law, or to Medicine’. Now we have all these writers who have done their Law degrees, or have their engineering degree.

What next should we expect from you?

Right now I’m just promoting Shuga. I’ve got two projects, one a psychological thriller set in London, a film. The other is Burma Boy, my novel, which I am adapting. The film is completely set in Burma, but it’s a Nigerian movie. It’s about Nigerians in the war. My dad was one of them.

What would you tell a young Nigerian writer?

Follow your dream. But it’s also very dangerous advice, because as they say, you go hear wen (laughs)But if you keep at it and you are lucky, then it would pay off.

Box

Bandele Thomas: Works and Laurels

Books

·         The Man Who Came in From the Back of Beyond (Novel) ―Bellew, 1991

·         The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams (Novel) ―Bellew, 1991

·         Marching for Fausa (Play)――Amber Lane Press, 1993

·         Resurrections in the Season of the Longest Drought(Play)――Amber Lane Press, 1994

·         Two Horsemen (Play)―― Amber Lane Press, 1994

·         Death Catches the Hunter/Me and the Boys (Play)― Amber Lane Press, 1995

·         The Street (Novel)―― Picador, 1999

·         Brixton Stories/Happy Birthday, Mister Deka (Play)―― Methuen, 2001

·         Burma Boy (Novel)―― Jonathan Cape, 2007

·        The King’s Rifle (Play)――Amistad Press, 2009

        Staged Plays

  • Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (adaptation) ― 1999
  • Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (adaptation) ― Amber Lane Press, 1999

Films/TV Series

·         Half of a Yellow Sun, 2012

·         Shuga, 2013

Awards

·         1989 – International Student Playscript Competition ― Rain

·         1994 – London New Play Festival ― Two Horsemen

·         1995 – Wingate Scholarship Award

·         1998 – Peggy Ramsay Award

·         2000 – EMMA (BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Award) ― Oroonoko

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23 Apr

Araceli Aipoh is a Filipino married to a Nigerian who has lived in Nigeria for 27 years and in Abuja for seven years. She is the Editor of the blog ‘Inside Track Abuja’ and spoke to Alkasim Abdulkadir about life in the capital city

What do you like about Abuja?

Abuja is a great place for the mind and body. I think it's because it is generally a peaceful city, it is not overcrowded, the people are friendly and polite, the roads are wide and you have almost all the essential things you need within your reach. I know it all depends on one's personal needs and priorities, but I like the fact that I don't have to worry about being stuck in a traffic jam whenever I go out here in Abuja, or that there are lots of fresh fruits at any time of the year. I have very simple needs as a person, so for me, life in Abuja is quite perfect. I have peace of mind here and that's one of the things I value most.     
 
In your experience, what’s the difference between Abuja and other cities in Nigeria?

Each city in Nigeria has its own unique characteristic. I lived in Lagos for about 10 years, I have visited Ibadan once and I often go to Benin City, but I guess the differences I see are very superficial. For example, the cost of living –  which is way more expensive here in Abuja compared to any other part of the country. Another difference is that we all know that Lagos is highly commercialised, which makes it a bit chaotic at times; while Abuja is more organised in many ways. Here in Abuja you see the difference between a marketplace and a residential area, and there is so much greenery within the city with all these gardens and parks and trees and shrubs along major roads. The founders of Abuja had envisioned a well-designed city, and so far, I think that is being implemented.
 
Which restaurants or cafes do you like going to in Abuja?

I always go to either the Bukka Restaurant or the Oriental Restaurant at the Hilton. Then also to Woks and Koi at Silverbird Entertainment Centre. And we have our private clubhouse/restaurant at Julius Berger, so I also spend a lot of my time there whenever my friends and colleagues want to relax and socialise. There are hundreds of restaurants and cafes in Abuja but I am not the adventurous type when it comes to dining. I go to the same place again and again.  
 
As a writer, what events do you attend in Abuja?

I try as often as possible to attend the weekly meetings organised by the Abuja Literary Society. But there are a lot of activities organised by other literary groups as well, such as the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and the Abuja Writers Forum (AWF). Unfortunately I can't go to all these events as often as I would love to. There's just not enough time - and that's not an excuse.     
 
Why was the Expats Wives’ Association set up?

I don't know of any expat wives’ association in Abuja, but I know that there is an association of foreign women married to Nigerians and it’s called Nigerwives, which is a national organisation. In Abuja there is a group of international women that welcomes not only expats but Nigerians. It was formerly called the Abuja International Women's Club, but the name has been changed to the Ladies International Social Club of Abuja (LISCOA). Nigerwives and LISCOA were set up mainly as avenues for socialisation for their members and to give them an opportunity to network, to learn from one another, to share personal experiences and to relax. The choices for entertainment are limited here in Abuja, so people find a way to entertain themselves and forming clubs or associations is one of those.  
 
Do you drive in Abuja? If so, how has it being for you?

Yes I drive and I've not had any problems so far. I used to drive in Lagos which could be chaotic at times and really frustrating because of the traffic jams, but not here in Abuja. Every day the roads in the FCT are changing for the better, I mean look at the road going to Kubwa, or the airport road, which are just absolutely beautiful and driver-friendly. In fact, many roads are opening up and whoever is making all these possible should be commended. Money that is invested to create wider and better roads is never wasted.       
 
Do you visit any parks or gardens?

If you are talking about the bush bars, which are sometimes called parks and gardens where one can eat and have a drink and listen to a live band, then the answer is no. There are hundreds of these places in Abuja and I know that they are very busy at night but I haven’t been to any of them yet. I don't like loud music for one thing, but it will be worth a try sooner or later.   
 
Which organisations do you belong to?

I am a registered member of Nigerwives, which is only for foreign wives of Nigerian citizens. Then there is LISCOA and Pusong Pinoy Association (PPA) and also the Filipino Nigerian Families Association (FILGERIA). The last two have members only from the Philippines. There are lots of activities organised by these associations at one time or another including meetings, lunches, seminars, bazaars, fairs and holiday celebrations.

How do you relax on a typical weekend?

I go to the office on Saturdays so for me the weekend is just one day, which is Sunday. I stay in bed late and then have a long breakfast, watch TV, read a little and update my blog: simple things. Most of the associations I belong to have their meetings on a Sunday so I do my share of socializing during these meetings.      
 
What is Inside Track Abuja all about?

It's a blog dedicated to past, current and upcoming events in Abuja. It's a place where people go to when they want to know more about the city through the eyes of someone who actually lives here. It contains mostly my personal experiences, the events I go to and the things I do and see, but I plan to expand it to include other writers and make it truly diverse as far as content is concerned.     
 
When did you start the magazine and blog and how has it been received so far?

Inside Track is now mainly online and it has been going since 2008. My co-publishers and I have plans of publishing the print edition again in the future, perhaps as an annual report of what's happening in Abuja. The feedback on the blog is great, with many people in Abuja and other parts of the world visiting it on a regular basis. People from other countries that are planning to relocate to Abuja either temporarily or permanently have found information from Inside Track that has helped them to make their decision, and I do receive requests for posting of events on the blog. 
 
What advice do you have for those contemplating a move to Abuja?

Like I said, how you look at Abuja depends on your personal likes and dislikes. There's no place that you can call perfect, so come with an open mind and expect the best. Personally speaking, I have never had a dull moment here in Abuja so I don't regret coming here to live and work. Some people often say that Abuja is dull, but not for me. I have found ways and means not to make it dull.   

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