Award-winning Nollywood filmmaker Kunle Afolayan, in a Q&A session with the famous camera brand, Canon, discussed the importance of technology and digital streaming platforms to African cinema and how they have helped our films travel.
Also, I spoke with him about his upcoming #SexForGrade drama, Citation. The film follows Moremi, a female post-graduate student, who must find a way of dealing with constant sexual harassment from a popular lecturer, Professor Lucien N’Dyare.
Fashion blogger and designer, Temi Otedola, makes her film debut as the lead character, Moremi. Otedola’s innocent looks and ability to speak multiple languages was key to casting her. “It is rare to get an actress who is innocent-looking and speaks French and English in Nigeria,” Afolayan says over the phone.
Citation was shot on locations in Nigeria, Cape Verde, and Senegal, but it was “supposed to be a small story, shot in one university in Nigeria,” Afolayan says. But on realizing the film’s potential, he decided to make it bigger. Below he talks more about the film, Temi Otedola, and Nollywood’s growth since The Figurine.
How did you get into the film industry?
I was born and raised in Lagos. I’ve always had a great appreciation for amazing stories and films because, as a child, it was all around me. My father, Adeyemi Josiah Afolayan, was a famous theatre and film director; he was also a producer, so film is in my blood. After secondary school, I attended the Lagos State Polytechnic, where I obtained a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Business Administration and Management.
Afterward, I worked in a bank, but that wasn’t my true passion, I always wanted to work in the film industry. So I took the leap of faith in 2004 when I resigned to pursue my passion for filmmaking. In the same year, I enrolled at the New York Film Academy, which is where it all began.
Can you tell us about your work to date and your style?
I try to be as original as possible, telling stories that are close to me and that I truly understand. Yes, I am a director, and I can turn my hand to many different productions, but when it comes to storytelling, I am deeply rooted in my environment, I draw a lot of inspiration from my roots. For genuine and meaningful productions, authenticity is essential.
An important goal of mine is not only to tell great Nigerian and African stories but to share them with the rest of the world. Stories about people are universal, and if produced well, anyone can understand them.
For example, my latest film, Citation, has a story I believe will resonate far and wide. It is about a young woman in university who is being groomed by her lecturers in return for better grades, a topical subject in Nigeria, and something I believe happens across the world but isn’t discussed. The benefit of independent production companies is that they are less scared to tell hard-hitting stories, so there’s a lot of grit and emotion to them.
What inspired Citation?
The subject matter, which is #SexForGrade, is something that has been in existence for so long, maybe before some of us were born. But it has become rampant and uncontrollable in recent times. I approached Ford Foundation for a different project; I think it was Mokalik that I pitched to them, and they said their focus then was on sexual assault, that if I had anything in that area I should come back to them.
Then I reached out to Tunde Babalola (October 1, Mokalik) with a few ideas in my head to see what he can put down that covers that area. Then he did a treatment, which I submitted to Ford; they liked it and decided to partner with us.
But at the time Ford showed interest, it was just a one-theme story idea, so I told them we had to develop the entire script. I realized it had to be done well, and it was during this period the BBC released its #SexForGrade documentary. Citation was supposed to be a small story, shot in one university in Nigeria, but I felt I shouldn’t restrict its potential, and decided to make it bigger.
What prompted the decision to cast Temi Otedola, a newcomer, in such an important and potentially iconic role?
I started talking to Teni before the first draft of the script was written. When I realized the film was going to be multilingual – predominantly French, English, and Yoruba – I asked her what language she could speak. She said she speaks French and English but can’t speak Yoruba, and it is rare to get an actress who is innocent-looking and speaks French and English in Nigeria. These were some of the qualities I saw.
I gave her a monologue to do, which she did well, and I just felt she was the one. Also, I like using new faces and bringing up new talents. When she did that monologue – which I will release later – I was wholly convinced that she was suitable for the role, and I had to groom her for about seven to eight months before shoot.
Then when I put the cast together, I put her in touch with Gabriel [Afolayan], who played her boyfriend, to teach her Yoruba. I also put her in touch with Jimmy Jean-Louis, who played the professor so that they could rehearse in French, and I saw the dedication. She’s got quality, and being a newbie doesn’t mean you can’t deliver what an established actor will deliver.
How much has Nollywood grown since The Figurine?
That was 11 years back. I think Nollywood has grown because when I made that film, you could hardly find any Nigerian movie that matched it technically. But people have improved in terms of technical quality, which is why Netflix is taking some of our films, even though there are some films I don’t think are worthy, but they need to build a catalog that caters to different audiences. Some people like slapstick comedy, they don’t want to see anything serious, they just want to sit down and laugh.
I think the quality overall has improved, look at 93 days, for instance. Now people pay more attention to the technical details, and I think, for that reason, we have upgraded.
The concluding part of the interview – where Afolayan talks about African cinema, Netflix, and how his films got on the streamer – comes out on Sunday. To get it first, subscribe to our newsletter below.