A string of coincidences have finally ordered famed Nigerian author and filmmaker Biyi Bandele’s steps back home for good reasons. Bandele whose Burma Boy was published to critical acclaim a couple of years back has scored a back-to-back success as director of MTV Base’s youth lifestyle campaign series, Shuga, and a film adaption of Chimamanda Adicihie’s Half of A Yellow Sun. Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha caught up with him on a recent visit to Lagos
You may be forgiven if on a first encounter you conclude that Biyi Bandele is either a rock star or a reggae musician. What with his mat of dreadlock hair and an unconscious (?) love for boots! We were not the first to make this observation. But Bandele doesn’t have the slightest love for the microphone. Rather, his remaining creative energy is channeled into photography. And the day is not far when he plans to expose his collection of pictures at an exhibition.
Through many years of churning out characters and directing roles to fit into the clear picture on his mind, Bandele has acquired an infectious humour. Almost every sentence is accompanied by a chuckle. His humour streak, it appears, was being stroked at this particular meeting at Bogobiri Hotel in Ikoyi-Lagos in the right company of the reporters and his publicist, Adeoye Bobo Omotayo.
Tales of World War 2
Growing up in Kafanchan, Bandele recalls being regaled with tales of second world war by his father as if it was a birthday party. Unknown to him, these tales combined with his father’s religious love for the newspapers of the day were to later steer him into the path that would later be his career. From listening to the tales of war, and having lost a brother in Nigeria Civil War, Biyi was able to write an intriguing novel. Burma Boy, a faction inspired by his father’s boisterous narratives about the famous Burma expedition with the British army which he took part in and his own research in the British museum.
"My Dad had been in the army. He was in Burma during the second world war. The battle in Burma was between the British and the Japanese. He was part of a small elite commando-the Chindits- sent behind the Japanese front line. The guy whose idea the Chindits was, was an officer called Wingate who died in a plane crash during the war. He had a lot of detractors in the British army who said he was irresponsible, that the Chindits achieved nothing. Fifteen years after the war when the memoirs of Japanese military officers were published it came to light that Chindits were effective against the Japanese who found the African soldiers, most of them were Nigerians and they were not intimidated by the Japanese.”
Father’s Post-War Nightmares
The aftermath of the war played games with his father’s mind. He was never the same again. Though he died in 1984, Biyi remembered his sufferings.
"When I was a child, I remembered war was something that sprang up a lot in conversations on the part of my dad who talked about the war like one big party. But my mum and grandmother would remind him of how he came back from Burma. He came back in a strait jacket. You know, he completely lost it. It was something that pained him for the rest of his life. He had one or two bullets that were left because it was safer where they were than trying to get them out. He had this recurring nightmare where he would wake up in a fit and we would have to restrain him because it would take him a few minutes before he realised he was not at war and somebody was not trying to kill him. That was probably one of the things that turned me into a writer.”
That would not be Bandele’s only tie to war. There was another freak war-related incident. He had an older brother who he did not quite know. He was already a teenager at the onset of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967. He joined the army and was killed. Because his dad still had contacts in the army, he was able to verify exactly where they were ambushed. But his mother refused to believe that he was dead. As a child, Bandele always expected him to walk in through the door. His mother kept hoping against hope, believing that someone saw him in Sapele or Lagos.
Meeting Chimamanda Adichie
Incidentally, Bandele has just adapted Chimamanda Adichie’s book on the Nigeria Civil War, ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’. Still immersed in war matters, there is a possibility that his next movie will be an adaptation of Burma Boy.
The first time Bandele met Adichie in London, they got on like a house on fire. She told him about her upcoming book on the civil war, which was the same time he was writing Burma boy. He had earlier been a judge in Caine literary competition that Chimamanda participated in and had been blown away by her literary ingenuity. "It was at the Caine literary prize that I came across her short story which really blew my mind and I tried to get her on the shortlist. I was out-voted by the other judges. It was an anti-Nigeria thing. They said the prize was dominated by Nigerians. They wanted someone else to win that year. They made sure she didn't get on the shortlist.”
Half of A Yellow Sun had not become a phenomenal success when Bandele was inspired to make a film out of it. The production eventually took off with three great producers- Andrea Calderwood, Yewande Sadiku and Muktah Bakaray- who had tenacity. Despite the financial constraints, Biyi was too excited to be discouraged.
Half of a Yellow Sun in Movie
In Creek Town, Cross River State, where the movie was shot, a couple of mishaps were recorded. Surprisingly these unplanned incidents helped the success of the movie. One of the calamities was the outbreak of typhoid and malaria on location, which got the director to a close call with death.
"Within a week in Creek Town, I had typhoid, Thandi (Assistant Director) had typhoid; some people had typhoid and malaria. I was passing out. So I called the medical officer. He took me in his car to this private clinic. The doctor did every kind of test on me and said I was fine and I'm saying no I'm not. And then I got up to leave and he said, ‘oh I need to do a blood sugar test.' He took a pin, pricked my finger and drew some blood, then put the blood on this film that test your blood sugar level. If you are healthy, your blood sugar level should be between 6 and 10 but this went to 35. The medic who came with me was a white guy, the blood drained from his face, he actually turned white and the doctor came and looked at me and he said no, and said there must be something wrong with this machine so he brought another one, did the test again and he turned to me and said 'I'm afraid, I will have to detain you here.'
Battle with Typhoid
“And I said what did you mean detain me here, I'm here to make a movie. It was two days into the shoot, and he looked at me and said 'I can tell you for a fact that if you go back to your hotel, you will come back in a poly bag.' And I said 'wow! Ok' (laughs) it was Type 2 diabetes, so I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and typhoid on the same day. It was completely surreal because sometimes I would fall asleep and wake up at this sharp pain. The insurance company wanted to shut us down for five days but by next morning I was raring to go and I'm like 'insulin I love you.' We shut down for two days and then we were back shooting. Thandi didn't have a single day off. In a crazy way, it actually helped her performance in the movie. When you see her in that part of the movie, she looks as if she was dying. She wasn't well. So things happened actually I think as a result of accidents like that, I got a much stronger movie, than I actually thought I was going to achieve."
But that wasn't going to be the last of near tragedies that dogged their steps during the shoot in Creek Town. Rowing a boat back to Calabar in a deep storm after a late hour production was another near death experience. The boat was tossed like a piece of paper on the water, but they all survived it at the end of the day.
Unsure of what her reaction would be, Bandele developed cold feet on the day the movie was to be shown exclusively to Adichie, His courage failed him and he refused to attend. Having made a few changes in his interpretation of 'Half of A Yellow Sun', he was a bit skeptical if the author would love the changes. For instance, he told the story from the perspective of the twins, Olanna and Kainene. This is a variance to the original story centred around Ugwu, the house boy. Again, while Chimamanda told the story in series of flash, Biyi did a linear narrative of the civil war story; starting the movie from the end of the war. But he did not have to worry. Chimamanda did not complain.
Largely due to budgetary constraints, chunks of the shot work had to be excised from the final work, which premiered last month in Toronto, Canada. Nonetheless, Bandele is happy at the success of the movie, which features award-winning artistes like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Genevieve Nnaji, Onyeka Onwenu, Thandi Newton, John Boyega, O.C Ukeje among others.
Bandele Honed His Writing Skills at OAU, Ife
Bandele honed his writing skills at the University of Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University where he studied Dramatic Arts. He moved on to London and worked at the Royal Court Theatre where the likes of Wole Soyinka built his career.
There he met with a famous director Danny Boyle, who was back then just a stagehand. He started writing before the age of 12. If he used to thump his chest at the feat in times past, he has since stopped doing so as his 11-year-old daughter is adjudged to have written a better narrative. For the Bandeles, it is an emerging family of writers.