Adetokunbo Shittu is a film and theatre producer, director, actor and writer. He started his directing journey at the Dramatic Arts Department, OAU, where he graduated with a degree, majoring in Play Production and Directing, over a decade ago. Since then, he’s handled productions like Femi Robinson’s Ajantanla sponsored by the Lagos State Government for the Centenary Celebration of Nigeria in 2010 and Gboyega Àjàyí Bembe’s Towo Omo for the Lagos@50 celebration and a lot more. Shittu talks to Tosin Clegg about movies, his production style, early days as a film maker, his new movie and lots more
Growing up in Ilesa
grew up in Ilesa, Osun State and the Egungun festivals gave me my earliest exposure to performances. I and my immediate elder brother mingled freely with the itinerant audience until our feet could go no further. The TV serial, Arelu also fired my zeal and aspiration to one day be part of the theatre and film business. My family later had to relocate to Zaria, where I started school afresh because of some policies I was too young to understand. Zaria then was cosmopolitan, with people of varying ideas and orientations from across the country mixing freely with the native population, with little or no frictions. Being a time when entertainment for kids was so limited, I and my little friends had time to play outdoors, inventing our games and sports. The only available television station was the NTA, which opened at 4pm, with children’s cartoons programmes.
These formed the mental template of our creativity. Our note books became drawing pads on which we visually retold our dramatic scenes from the last cartoon episodes we watched. Soon, we began to make cutouts of these characters and playing them against light sources to observe their shadows at Night. This we soon developed into a shadow theatre where we charged tokens from little friends not so artistically inclined. I was an animator and made quick bucks for goodie-goodie then. That childhood experience formed the bedrock of my pursuit of visual and performing/film arts at both secondary and tertiary levels of education, and made me an outstanding director during my days at the University.
Life is a mirror of who we are
Life is what we make out of it. It is a mirror of who we are and doesn’t exist independent of us as individuals and a people. A Yoruba adage says “it’s they who keep their space clean that enjoy the benefit of the clean space”. That, for me, encapsulates life and its essence. I believe in living peacefully with everyone regardless of differences. Strife and needless competitions bring about tension and negativity. I bring this to play in my works. A calm and friendly atmosphere, where offenses are quickly addressed humanely and put behind, fosters productivity and a free flow of positive energy. We can all live and work peacefully even when we’re not the best of friends. We just need to be humane.
My artistic sensibilities
I developed artistic sensibilities right from a tender age. Many attribute this to my being left-handed but I’ve seen more creative persons who are right-handed. The TV serial, Arelu, which was an action-packed dramatisation of the tension between the good and evil element of society also captivated me a lot. Fast forward to Zaria, a cosmopolitan city then, and boiling pot for cultural diversity, further influenced my love for the arts. At Zaria, my little friends and I, had fun playing outdoors and developing our own sports and entertainment.
From this little beginning I discovered my flare for the arts, visual and performative, which made me opt for drama in the university. The Dramatic Arts course at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife has an aspect dedicated to film and media arts, which exposed students from 100 level to final year to the theories and practice of film and media arts. This was a good springboard for me to hone my skills working on student film projects, and later on, freelancing with First Abisogun and Magnum Entertainment Network. This coupled with my training as a director, which was my major, made foray into film production and directing stress-free for me.
Making films for a living
Watching a good film has always felt like paradise to me. I’ve always promised myself that one day, one day, I too will make films for a living. Having started out as a visual and plastic artist in my pre-university years, I’ve always known that the arts, including theatre and film are my best career options. Film is the closest among the arts to life and life fascinates me a lot. So, what more can one wish for?
I derive inspiration from the richness of African oral and performative traditions. We have so much to tell and show the world, stories that are uniquely ours and are worth telling. The Asians, Americans and Europeans are telling theirs, even tapping freely into our archives, why not us? I see great films coming out of Nigerian production houses already and this is exciting and inspiring. My creative process entails, conceiving ideas that are beneficial, researching deeply on them, making wide consultation and exploring partnership opportunities where necessary. Getting a good team to work with also cuts the workload by half. As a producer too, the last point above also relates to getting good scripts from levelheaded writers to start with.
My modern fictional drama
My recent production, Atunwa is a modern fictional drama. And it was inspired by the story of a mythical character, Eleko Idere, in Irosun Meji of the Ifa corpus. She reincarnates in the 21st century Lagos Island suburb to pay off the debt of Karma she acquired in her past life as a successful merchant. The story exposes human interconnectedness and the inevitability of rewards for every action. It reflects the African concept of life, death and rebirth.
The cast include Tina Mba (Kemi Oye), Jide Kosoko (Tunji Oye), Yomi Fash-lanso (Dare), Kehinde Bankole (Bisi Oye), Okey Uzoeshi (Wale Oye) and Alvin Abayomi (Lolu Oye). Others are Gbugbemi Ejeye (Linda) and Emem Ufot (Sunday). The casting was done based on the artistic requirements of the script and the visualised audience range. It’s a deeply Yoruba story which must also speak to all other cultural and linguistic sections of society, so, with the Co-Producer, the Associate Producer, and of course contribution of the casting director, I opted for the mentioned actors based on their observe capabilities.
A democratic production style
My style of production is democratic. Knowing what to expect from every member of the team, but allowing them to function maximally. My work, as a director, is to help deliver the production from the realm of concept, like a midwife does a baby, it’s not to help father the child. I often prefer stylized naturalism and I guide all the creative imputs towards this end. My works are exceptional for their content and vivid execution, allowing various elements to communicate parts of the message.
In the beginning, it was rough. Days of free and next to free gigs just to improve efficiency and prove that one can do it well. At first, I focused all my attention on live theatre production, wrote, published and staged quite a few. Along the line, an actor friend advised me to switch to screen since it is part of my training. I joined a Yoruba film production company where I ghostwrote, acted and provided unpaid advice on directing and shots conception. Acting in a scene or two in the film was always my reward, but it helped me acquaint myself with the processes and players in the field. I came about growing my brand by putting my nose to the grind, studying, learning, observing, providing services without any hope of gratification. This eventually worked together with my artistic flare which I had cultivated since childhood.
Meaning of good acting
Good acting, in my view, is seamless interpretation and portrayal of a role in such a way that both the actor and the character merge up into one new believable entity. The basic element of an actor, in my view, is one, which is discipline. With that, an actor will acquire the skill-set, physical, mental and vocal means of character interpretation, and would be easy to direct. Distribution is another very technical and slippery challenge, but a good production starts with a good script. The Nigerian film industry has improved drastically in this area, but good scripts can’t be too much.