Movie directors are reputed for very busy lifestyles. When a rare opportunity came during a recent road trip to Ilorin, Kwara State, with female directors letting their hair down to unwind and talk about their productions at the Kwara State University (KWASU), it was a great chance to talk to the young filmmaker, Adeola Osunkojo, the last of nine children with a formidable portfolio of film and television credits.
As though oblivious of the time on the conspicuously placed wall clock in her hotel room, she warmly received her reporter-guest, who reflected on the early activities of the day and why her background as a graduate of Creative Arts had been the nursery for her artistic growth. Her works speak for her. Tales of Eve, So Wrong So Wright, Binary Unit, Diary of A Nigerian Couple, and Help My Wife is Pregnant are some of the television series that she had directed. She also directed Season One to Seven of the popular music reality show, Project Fame and was an assistant director for the box-office hit movie, ’76.
Against the practice of directing are the nagging issues of producer’s interference, gender discrimination and cinema’s intrusive roles. Osunkojo, who propped herself up with a pillow spoke on her authorship and why her multi-genre film content differentiates her from others.
“Every director has a style and that is authorship,” she began. “Over time, that style comes based on your experiences. I worked seven years as a reality show director and that tells in my work. A lot of times, we want to make videos that are our own expression of what is interesting or entertaining; how life is. If you really and truly want to be a film maker, and you want to tell a story, tell them your own way. The cinema is fun. It is not so serious. The greatest film makers went against the status quo. We have opened ourselves to the creative opportunities in cinema that we know what is available for us to tell our story and if a technique does not work for me, I take it out and do exactly what I want to do. If anyone likes it, fine.’’
Osunkojo is a no-nonsense director with a stern face during shoots. Once, during a class production that she directed in her second year as an undergraduate, she had asked a classmate to leave her set when he was receiving a phone call instead of paying attention. While dealing with cast may not be difficult, the story takes a different twist when a director works with a producer who wants to control the production process. Osunkojo explained that artistic freedom in directing is not really absolute.
“The reality is that when it comes to authorship in directing, there are different levels,’’ she continued. “For television formatted shows like Project Fame, I had to work within that format and so the director’s work was to find the way to direct within the tenets of the format so it varies. The issue of artistic freedom for the director varies depending on the genre. For the television shows, you can have four directors working on a series.
“In ‘My Flatmates’, we have two directors. Our works must look the same and it must be like one person’s work. For us, it is where we use our resources that we insist on doing exactly what we want to do. We tell the story how we want to. Sometimes, you work with some producers who are very insistent on some certain ways and what I have learnt to do over time is to put it in my negotiation that I will have my final cut and then you can always put your input wherever you want to but at the end of the day, I want to have a final cut of it. That’s what film makers abroad also have to fight for. Even the foreign film makers have the issue of artistic authorship and the freedom to make all the choices. But in reality, you can’t have 100 percent freedom of artistic expression because there are too many factors.”
After screening her mockumentary sitcom at the Department of Film Production at KWASU, “Life of A Nigerian Couple” which fuses different film techniques such as pop-up art and talking heads, some among the campus audience were shocked to discover that a director can actually break rules for good.
“I don’t take filming so seriously and that is how I work,” she said. “At the end of the day, it is entertainment-not a thesis. When you watch a movie, you can then write a thesis. Before you break the rules, you must know what you are doing. Every rule has a limitation. No rule is perfect and there is no guarantee that it is going to entertain everybody. Know your rules and choose the one that works for you,’’ she said in reaction to her avant-garde techniques of filming.
As a female director, Osunkojo is not immune to the gender discrimination in her line of profession. Although directing is a female-dominated area in Nigerian film industry, women directors are not as respected as the male.
“People are brought up to have more respect for men, so it is important for you to understand how a woman functions in the business place. You must learn to put your foot down because people are going to try your resolve. People will want to see how much they can insult you or take advantage of you because they assume you do not have enough, so you must learn to speak up.”
Facing cinema rejection is one of the plagues in the film industry. The cinema owners dictate the kind of movies that will make box-office hits and are afraid of experimenting with any work that deviates from the regular template. Osunkojo has an interesting encounter with cinemas with the movie, “Charmed.’’ At the moment, television is where she is ‘grooming her turf’.
“Television gives you time to develop your style. Some director’s styles don’t evolve until five years of practice, it is a process, it can be a very long one,’’ she remarked.
Of course, film making is a very expensive investment no matter how small the budget is. Osunkojo advised that if anyone wants to venture into it, it must not be at personal expense. She learnt to source for money from the right sources without putting herself at the risk of sexual harassment.
“When I did the first season of ‘The Life of a Nigerian Couple’, I had N500,000 and I borrowed N500,000 from my mother and I had to pay her back. She is from Ibadan. When I got my salary, I kept only 20percent for myself. 80 percent was for paying people back and the money I made through distribution was what I made to do the second one.
I added more money because I wanted better picture quality, more characters, and more locations. I don’t think it is a bright idea to use one’s personal money to make a movie. It is best to source for funding because that keeps you on your toes and you will want to repay the money that you borrowed. More money means that you can do more, it doesn’t necessarily translate that way but money helps. Sometimes, the difference between a television movie and a cinema bound movie is money. Money is so important in the film industry and we have to find a way to pull the money. Even icons like Spike Lee went through all this – they have to look for money.”
Working on ‘76 as Assistant Director to Izu Ojukwu, an award-winning film director is an experience she cherishes. She has shot and directed the documentary movie around the events of ’76 movie, titled 76: Behind the Story which she obliged this reporter to see while travelling through the Ogbomosho axis on the way to Lagos. Yet to be released, the director’s cut itself was like a full-length movie in the visual depth of narration and the emotions that it evoked. Scenes from the movie were juxtaposed with the actual footage and live interviews with the key players of the documented history.
“Izu Ojukwu holds a very special place in my heart,’’ she said as she recounted her experience with the period movie. “I worked with him in Alero Symphony and I was an assistant director but Izu made me look deeper. He is very big on details, wanting to know what the extras are doing. Izu taught me not to compromise but to take my work seriously because he says the film lives forever. 76 was a period piece so we had to start looking for things like newspaper clippings, cars and then we did a documentary on 76 where I interviewed the wives of the alleged coup plotters and the man who signed the death warrant of the said coup plotters, General Olusegun Obasanjo. I was able to see the perspective of the women and the former Head of State and both sides had good points. It is left for the audience to decide what they really think about the whole situation.’’
Osunkojo is one of the 17 female directors that form the subjects of the book, “Ladies Calling The Shots’’ written by Niran Adedokun. The book is described by the Lagos State Commissioner for Tourism, Arts and Culture, Steve Ayorinde as “a telling testimony about women who stood up to be counted behind the camera and succeeded in using their lenses to define the trajectory of a home-grown industry.’’