Biyi Bandele: An Exit So Shocking, So Unexpected…

Yinka Olatunbosun

“I consider myself to be a storyteller. I use all sorts of media, but I am first and foremost a writer.” That was how Biyi Bandele introduced himself to the world in a video clip shared by EbonyLife Studios, a film and television company that had just produced his latest work, The King’s Horseman, due for a premiere screening at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. The movie will be the first Yoruba language film to be screened at the prestigious film festival in the special presentation category. The recent trailer and poster posts by Bandele himself on his social media accounts have heightened the anticipation for this Netflix original, which is a screen adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s 1975 classic tragedy, Death and The King’s Horseman.

This was one reason why the news of his death, which was announced on his Facebook page by his daughter, Temi Bandele, who revealed that the filmmaker had died on August 7, sent ripples of shock waves across the arts community. Although the details of his death remained sketchy, friends such as Steve Ayorinde disclosed that the UK-based writer had died in Lagos.

Bandele was Nigeria’s lost but found treasured storyteller. He had been swarmed by several film projects and books. In a tribune penned by his friend, a writer and cultural activist, Kola Tubosun, it was revealed that Bandele has a novel that tells the story of Samuel Ajayi Crowther and his generation of West Africans in the offing.

“He wanted to start a PhD programme in the UK and he had movies to direct,’’ he wrote. 

No doubt, the sudden death of Bandele at 54 sent shock waves across the global creative community.

Netflix Nigeria described his demise as ‘a monumental loss to Nigeria’s film and creative industry.’

“He will be remembered as a powerhouse who made some of the finest films out of Africa,’’ the press statement read.

Steve Ayorinde, a journalist and former Lagos State Commissioner for Arts and Culture, described Bandele as a very “private person,’’ citing the way the news of his death in Lagos came in from London in an interview with ARISE television. “Biyi was a creative person, a storyteller and an African all through his life. He never forgot his roots. And you would see that in the way he loved to appear- his clothes, his hairstyle and then he dropped Thomas from his name. He used to be called Bandele-Thomas.’’

Mo Abudu, the founder of Ebony Life Studios and one of Bandele’s long-time collaborators also mourned the late multimedia storyteller.

“He was so passionate about Elesin Oba more than any project he had worked on with us and was so excited when he heard about our selection at TIFF. I am sad that he will not be at TIFF and he will not get to see how loved his last project was.’’

One of his unfinished projects is the movie production of his novel Burma Boy. Aside from his oeuvre of writings, he is a documentary photographer. His thought-provoking pictures of the people of Lagos are a celebration of everyday heroes, conveying hope and joy even in the absence of perfect living conditions.

Born on October 13, 1967 in Kafanchan, Kaduna State, Bandele developed an interest in the arts at a very young age. His father, a war veteran, introduced him to the library, and he fell in love with books. He started to write stories of his own by copying writers that he liked. He was also a very keen observer of his environment, as he would reveal in a conversation with students of the Portland Community College in 2015.

“I spent a lot of time as a kid at the train station,” he was once quoted to have said. “My mother had a kiosk at the train station where she sold food. I knew from a very early age who the thieves and pickpockets were because I could see them. No one told me, I just knew. I went from copying writers that I knew to writing what I knew. One of the things I was very familiar with was pickpockets and how they deceived themselves. I wrote about that and it was published in a regional newspaper.”

That became the first piece of writing that he was paid for. Years later, at 16, he started working on what would later become his first novel, The Man Who Came in From the Back of Beyond, published in 1991. In 2007, he published his most acclaimed novel yet, Burma Boy, described by The Guardian UK as “a fine achievement.”

In 1987, the BBC advertised a playwriting competition and he entered the play for it. Two years later, the play won the International Student Playscript competition of 1989. It was the first time since the 50s that anyone outside North America and the UK would win. As a result, Bandele was invited to the UK for the performance of the play. He had a copy of a manuscript of his novel that he had wanted to publish in Nigeria but couldn’t get any willing publisher. Within a week of arriving in London, he had publishers from Italy, Germany and France and in the UK.

“I started writing from there. I got a job as the arts editor. I was 21 then. I didn’t have a plan. I was just someone who did things. I started writing plays for the Royal Court Theatre. In 1994, I was invited to a workshop for playwrights who were interested in writing for television,’’ he revealed.

The only problem was that Bandele wasn’t interested in writing for television but there was £2000 for every participant. So, he went for the workshop spread over two weekends. The first weekend, they were assigned to write a scene for a movie. Buoyed by the zeal to write, Bandele adapted his novella that he had submitted to a German publisher into a screenplay. When he submitted it, the faculty was impressed and in two weeks, he got a call from the head of screenplay at BBC. His work had been approved and would be directed by Danny Boyle.

His other plays include Marching for Fausa (1993); Resurrections in the Season of the Longest Drought (1994); Two Horsemen (1994), selected as Best New Play at the 1994 London New Plays Festival; Death Catches the Hunter and Me and the Boys (published in one volume, 1995); and Oroonoko, an adaptation of Aphra Behn’s 17th-century novel of the same name. In 1997, Bandele did a successful dramatisation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Brixton Stories, Bandele’s stage adaptation of his own novel The Street (1999), premiered in 2001 and was published in one volume with his play Happy Birthday Mister Deka, which premiered in 1999.He also adapted Lorca’s Yerma in 2001.

Bandele was writer-in-residence with Talawa Theatre Company from 1994 to 1995, resident dramatist with the Royal National Theatre Studio (1996), and the Judith E. Wilson Fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, in 2000–01. He also acted as the Royal Literary Fund’s Resident Playwright at the Bush Theatre from 2002 to 2003.

His first short film “The Kiss’’ was just a tip of the iceberg. His debut directorial work in feature film production, ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’’ remains the biggest budget movie in Nigeria estimated at $12m. The movie, based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was screened in the Special Presentation section at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. But the movie was later banned from Nigerian cinemas.

Next, he shot the movie ‘Fifty’ which was included in the 2015 London Film Festival. He also directed the third season of the popular MTV drama series, Shuga and this year, he directed the first Netflix Nigerian Original series Blood Sisters.

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