Funmi Iyanda: Blazing a Trail as a Debutante Movie Producer

Funmi Iyanda

After a widely successful stint interviewing diverse personalities and shaping the conversation as a television talk-show host, Funmi Iyanda is blazing a different trail in the world of moviemaking with the production of ‘Walking with Shadows’. Her inspired detour into movie production throws up several questions as to her motivation for making ‘Walking with Shadows’. To answer these questions she bares her mind in this interview with MARY NNAH

What attracted Funmi Iyanda to movie producing as a story telling medium? What informed the choice of ‘Walking with Shadows’ as the story to tell? What does Funmi hope to achieve with the movie and what emotions does she hope to invoke in audiences? What does the 2019 BFI London Film Festival premiere of the movie mean for her as a debutante? These questions are pertinent given that she has had a widely successful stint interviewing diverse personalities and shaping the conversation as a television talk-show host. Now, she is blazing a different trail in the world of moviemaking with the production of ‘Walking with Shadows’.

Produced by her movie production outfit, OYA Media, ‘Walking with Shadows’ is a movie adaptation of Jude Dibia’s 2005 book with the same title. It is directed by Irish writer and director, Aoife O’kelly, and features a stellar cast of Nigerian actors including Ozzy Agu, Zainab Balogun, Wale Ojo, and Funlola Aofiyebi-Raimi.

The movie, which premiered on Wednesday, October 9, at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival, is set in Nigeria and explores the universal themes of truth, self-acceptance, courage, freedom, humanity, and love.

‘Walking with Shadows’ marks another phase in Funmi Iyanda’s illustrious career which has seen her win 57 industry awards including the Nigerian Media Merit Award. Her BBC commissioned ‘My Country Nigeria’ was nominated for best news documentary at Monte Carlo Film and TV festival whilst her gritty web social-political diary, ‘Chopcassava’ was nominated for best web series at Banff Film and Television Festival.

Funmi has a slate of critically acclaimed social documentaries and has written for TV, theatre, news and music in a career spanning two decades.

Can you tell us what got you to movie production? Did you at any point feel dissatisfied with what you were doing before now? 

I got me into movie production, as an extension of everything I have spent 20 years doing. Movies are long form story telling. I have been telling stories in different formats since 1995. I have done magazine shows, variety shows, talk shows, reality-esque shows, documentaries, web series and now feature. Formats are just a vehicle of telling stories. You pick the most effective for the story you want to tell.

That said, after I ended New Dawn in 2008, I took the show on the road around Nigerian on Talk With Funmiwhich was a long form mix of documentary and reality formats. My experiences on the road brought the social issues NEW DAWN treated to stark relief. I could see that the populace was post-shock and post-care. It therefore is a little futile to provide information and knowledge in an environment where it didn’t seem to move the dial much. I thereafter decided to provide understanding which can hold up a mirror today and a sign-post for tomorrow’s generation. Also, TV as a format had become disrupted by social media globally and was mostly puerile in an environment where the industry did not even exist in the first place like Nigeria. It made economic sense to diversify into film as well as other formats. This is why in 2011, I gave an interview where I declared the intention to start making films. Thereafter, I registered a company in the UK with a British partner and proceeded to option classic and contemporary Nigerian literature as well as develop a slate of work that matched the ethos of the niche of stories I prefer to get told.

Subsequently I moved on from that company and founded OYA which has operation in London and Lagos and it’s the company that has produced this adaptation of Jude Dibia’s walking with shadows along with TIERs.

No, I did not feel dissatisfied with what I was doing, I continue to do what I was doing in better, more efficient ways. I am not a person given to dissatisfactions.

How long did you nurse this thought before it came to reality?

It is not a thought, it is a strategy. I started my first company in 1996. I have visibly and steadfastly worked non-stop since then producing iconic shows, events, projects and content cutting across politics, social issues, sports, culture, arts and film. I suspect I am frozen in the minds of many as Funmi of NEW DAWN so they struggle to see much else however acclaimed and regarded. This I find amusing and sweet but a tad irritating.

You have always been a renowned TV personality, now going into movie production; did you have to develop special skills to do this? I mean, what was the learning curve like?

No I already possess special skills, perhaps the challenge with seeing those skills is the fact of the TV personality label, as you may know I conceived, owned, wrote, produced and presented New Dawnfor the 8 years it ran. Before that I wrote and produced Good Morning Nigeriaand MITV Live. After New DawnI produced, presented and wrote Talk With Funmi,Chop CassavaPH StoriesLagos Stories EYOAsk FunmiHow To Fix NigeriaOya Chroniclesand so on. Many of these are well regarded and beloved by audiences in and out of Nigeria; there-in lies the special skills as a writer, thinker, journalist, producer and entrepreneur.

What is the feedback you expect from the Nigerian audience who will watch this movie? 

People often have very fascinating and varied interpretations and reactions to any form of creative content so I try to be more in a space of observation than expectation. I am looking forward to seeing what people make of it. My only expectation is that they get a chance to see it and make their own deductions.

The film is an adaption of a novel by Jude Dibia and you maintained the title – what informed your choice of this book for your film?

It is a beautifully written book, tender, poignant, well observed and internal. I liked that the drama was pulled back and restrained. I’m often frustrated by the tendency to be-labour stories out of Africa with worthiness, over explanation and overt caricaturing. Jude allowed the characters to breathe, to just be and to be flawed and questing. This matched my own story telling sensibilities. I’m passionate about preventing human desperation by positioning us all as human equals as prone to good and evil as the other. That way we can hopefully reach understanding and organise ourselves and societies better.

Those stories are also much more fun to tell. As a technique I knew it would be a difficult movie to fund but relatively achievable because the scale was small and characters few. Jude was a great guy to work with. And Olumide Makanju who headed TIERs at the time an incredibly resourceful and forward-looking person. We liked the book title, so we kept it.

What is the major theme in this film and why did you think it was a story that must be told?

The major theme is the struggle to find and be true to one’s self whilst balancing familial and societal expectation. It is a great story for a country like Nigeria where people are so delightfully vibrant yet deeply conservative and repressive. It is a universal story of the value of the self which we can all connect with.

What lessons/message do you intend to send out to your viewer with ‘Walking with Shadows’?

Enjoy the movie.

How long did it take to produce the movie from the point of conception and how much did it cost to put everything together?

It took three years and cost a lot, including money.

What informed the choice of your characters and actors for this movie?

We spent a lot of time studying actor show reels, watching them in film and life as well as holding open casting and auditions.  Ozzy Agu was a unanimous choice to play Adrian/Ebele. He has dual strength and vulnerability and the capacity to deliver pulled back drama. Zainab Balogun could give that girl next door aura with an undertone of manipulation and repression which was needed.

We wanted Funlola Aoifiyebi in a role that took her out of her comfort zone as Mama Njoku, Adunni Ade was a cheeky choice as Carol, whilst Wale Ojo was a finely drawn barely-there Papa Njoku omnipresence. There were great new discoveries like Riyo David who plays Abdul. The actors knew this was a project that allowed them expression in new ways and were committed totally to the project.

What were the peculiar challenges you faced in putting this together?

Too many and too boring to list, I am not one to dwell too much on difficulties as I expect them, suffice to say, film making, like life is a hell of a journey but it’s totally worth it and then it’s on to the next project which we are already working on.