FUNMI HOLDER: The Nigerian Actress Who Went Back in Time


Sometime last year, Funmi Holder, Nollywood filmmaker, and actress who plays Amaka Ade-Williams in Africa Magic’S long-running TV series, Tinsel, went searching for a true African story that centres on a strong female character. Her quest led her to an iconic figure in Yorubaland, Efunsetan Aniwura, the second Iyalode of Ibadan. Funmi is happy. The feeling of bliss radiates all over her as the flurry of her words are accompanied by enthusiasm. She beamed with excitement with her every move, writes Vanessa Obioha

Funmi Holder is happy. The feeling of bliss radiates all over her. It shows in the way she speaks. Her flurry of words are accompanied by enthusiasm. You could hear the excitement in her laughter; a rich bubbly sound that often sees her throwing her head back or clasping her hands. The musical peals of laughter were pleasing to the eardrums. She beamed with excitement with every move she made. Sometimes, she replaced that happiness with seriousness to buttress a point as she discussed her latest movie, ‘Efunsetan Aniwura’, due in cinemas in January.

The movie, she admits, is responsible for her blissful state.
Initially, when she embarked on the project, her state of mind wasn’t this relaxed. There were doubts cast around her mission to tell the story of one of the most revered women in Yorubaland. Comments like “Are you sure Nigerians are going to accept this movie? It’s an epic, Nigerians like comedies but this is too heavy for the Nigerian audience,” were said to her.

The Osun State indigene was adamant in her pursuit. “I didn’t care. I was determined to do it.”
In a way, the film was inevitable for Holder who wanted to tell a true African story about a woman. The legendary Iyalode of Ibadan is a fascinating subject, not only to Holder but to historians and other creatives who had also captured the legend in various mediums. There was Prof. Akinwunmi Ishola who brought the story to the stage in the sixties. A film adaptation of the play by Ishola was directed by Tunde Kelani in the last decade.

Aniwura attracts such fascination because of the intrigues wrapped around her personality. Born in the 18th century in Egbaland, Aniwura was respected as an astute businesswoman and political leader. She was so influential in Ibadan where she migrated to with her husband Ajani, that even the traditional chiefs feared her. However, the part of her lifestyle that is often seen in the public domain is her ruthlessness as a result of her inability to conceive after losing a child at childbirth.

Historians postulate that the trauma of losing her child had adverse effects on her emotions such that she banned her slaves from having sex or getting pregnant. Defaulters of her command were subjected to a painful death.

Aniwura who became the second Iyalode of Ibadan in the 1860s was alleged to have killed 41 slaves in her lifetime according to Ishola. She was also reputed to have had about 2,000 slaves and multiple farms, exporting agricultural produce to Porto-Novo, Badagry, and Ikorodu. She was into tobacco and slave trading. She also manufactured a local cosmetic product, kijipa, that was transported to America for use.

The iconic woman’s downfall came in 1874 when she ran into bad luck with Aare Latoosa, the de facto leader of Ibadanland. Their feud stemmed from Aniwura’s growing influence in the town which Latoosa considered a threat to his rulership. She eventually died on June 30, 1874. Her death has been a subject to historians who plumb the true happenings that led to her death. Two accounts so far hold sway. One narrates how Latoosa used her adopted son Kumuyilo to kill her. Another posits that Aniwura had willingly drunk the hemlock when Latoosa came to arrest her.

In Holder’s movie, these accounts are verified and the truth is unveiled. Holder was bent on relaying the true events that marked the legend’s lifestyle, thus, she spent six months researching the subject. A trip to Ibadan to visit descendants of the icon proved worthwhile at the end of the day.

“We went to the family house, met some members of the extended family. They were very receptive from the outset,” Holder said. “They gave us their full support. I did a full interview with one of the prominent family members. I have everything recorded on tape.”

Some of her findings she said are carefully detailed in the film.

“Part of her story we get to hear is that she was this wicked woman that was killing everybody. We don’t really get to hear about her good side and what led to those violent actions that are being projected so much. The difference is that I took it from where she was born, her teenage years up to when she met Ajani, got married and moved to Ibadan and what actually happened that made her switch into that wicked woman.

“The humane part of her is what the family also longed to see in the public domain. They expressed displeasure at how the deceased has been portrayed in the public. During my encounter with the family, I noticed they are not very happy by the way she has been portrayed. It showed in the body language of the family members I interviewed,” Holder said.

She added, “They would like for some other good deeds she has done to be discussed too. They are not denying she did some of the evil things but they would also like the positive things to be told.They were very particular about that, they warned me to ensure that I tell the world that she is not that bad but there’s a reason why she turned into who she became.”

In Ibadan, Efunsetan is still held to a certain level of reverence. Statues of her can be seen in parts of the ancient town. She is hardly talked about by indigenes and when her name springs up, it is either in awe or fear.
If the legend was situated in a modern-day setting, Holder believes that she will make a good feminist because of her strong character and the way she protested against men who abused their wives.
“But people don’t know that part of her. It is one of the things that viewers will see in the movie,” said Holder.

Approaching a controversial subject like Aniwura was not an easy walk in the park for Holder. It required her to put in hours of work, reenacting the 18th century setting on film. She explains the process that was involved in producing the movie.

“It was difficult to re-enact the 18th century because nowadays one can easily see pure water sachets lying around,” she explained.
“So we had to look for a remote location. We shot in Ibadan and Ilesha. We looked for a very remote area without modernity, and then we built the set. We had to build everything from scratch, the houses, everything.”

Then, she stated: “For the clothes, I have to get a costumier that understood what type of clothing was worn in the 18th century. You can’t give me Kampala because the fabric didn’t come till a certain period. They had mud houses but it wasn’t the kind that you will find in the 80s and 70s. They used the ones with thatched roofs. So there was a lot of deep research into the old Oyo Empire. Even the accessories they used, from the cowries, the guns.

“For everyone that worked with me, I told them that they had to look at the period I was trying to reflect. I know that I can’t get it exactly but let it be close. So it was a lot of work for everyone that worked on the project. I was on top of their heads.”

For the titular character, Holder chose veteran actress, Clarion Chukwura.

“I wanted Clarion because she had that carriage. She sometimes doesn’t need to speak to you, she only has to look at you to convey her message. I wanted that carriage, and from my research on my subject, I got to realize that she was a strong powerful woman. So I wanted someone who would exude power, command, and control and Clarion just fit the picture perfectly.”

Veteran actor, Alex Usifo, played Aare Latoosa while Holder who made a name for herself as the charming Amaka Ade-Williams in the long-running TV series, Tinsel, played the slave that dared to break the rules of Aniwura by getting pregnant. For her role, she had to go bald, although a low crop of hair sits on her head at the moment.

Holder also revealed that she deliberately chose evergreen actors and unpopular Yoruba actors to interpret roles. For her, it was not about discrimination, it was a way of maintaining mystery as well as professionalism.

Holder, who produced, co-wrote and co-directed the film believes that the film is a good way of portraying culture.

“Our culture is dying. It’s so sad,” she lamented. “You talk about a historical figure to the younger generation and they have no inkling of who you are talking about. It is very sad. Our history is going. I’m beginning to panic. Look at China, India, they don’t play with their culture.

“They do their films in their language and they don’t care. Even when it is an English language production, they still inject their language in it. They always show their culture.”

She, however, advised: “I think we should start imbibing that culture. Our industry is huge. I travel a lot outside the country, people talk about Nollywood. Since they watch our films anyway, let’s start selling our culture to them and you will be surprised at how fascinated and interested they are about our culture. I just got back from Egypt and I can

tell you that they are very fascinated by our culture.”
Travelling, it seems is one of the favourite pastimes of the actress who is a graduate of Botany. A trip to her Instagram page shows mementos of her trip to various countries across the world.

“My breaks on Tinsel give me the opportunity to travel. It gives me so much pleasure to see other countries, cultures,” she revealed. “I am a very curious person by nature so I like to see how people from other parts of the world interact. How they eat their food and then if I can, I go to their film studios, go to the locations where films are shot like Hotel Rwanda, Atlas Studio in Morocco. Because of my art, I like to see how some of these things are done. It enriches my mind and exposes me.”
If you asked the charming young lady about her daily activities, her response would be Tinsel. Her day starts with Tinsel and probably ends there.

If she is not on the set of Tinsel, she would probably be chilling at home with a cup of tea, listening to music or watching movies on Netflix.

But for now, she is basking in the positive vibes that have greeted her film since she released the trailer on Instagram.

“I’m happy that I succeeded and the kind of response I’m getting from the film trailer is very uplifting because I wasn’t too sure in the beginning. I’m glad I didn’t care then. I’m happy that it is generating buzz. When I see the comments on Instagram and Instablog, I’m literally amazed. I’m really excited that people are looking forward to the movie,” she said with delight.