OLA BALOGUN: HOW I ‘CREATED’ WITCHES OUT OF HUBERT OGUNDE’S IDEAS
Dr. Ola Balogun, the renowned Nigeria filmmaker, worked with several early modern day dramatists such as Duro Ladipo, Hubert Ogunde, Moses Olaiya Adejumo (Baba Sala), John Chukwu, etc. He produced the first film in Ibo and Yoruba and was the first black person to direct a movie in Brazil. In this interview, Balogun bares his mind on his encounter with the popular dramatists as well as his impressions on Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba and Fela Anikulapo. He also speaks on his Iroko music group, his new album and Yoruba mythology. Excerpts:
HOW did you become a film maker?
Films are like an illness and when you catch the virus, there is no going back. What happened was this. I happened to have gone to a university in France and you know that the French government had always been keen on cultural policies. So, each town had cultural centres where they have exhibitions, film shows, etc, and in the university where I was, I was also very active in the cinema club. Although while I was very young in Nigeria, there were lots of adventure films, western, Indian and so on, when I was in the university, I was made to watch and admire variety of films from Japan, Germany, classical films of the West.
Films that were mostly shown in the United States are not the best, they are for mass audience consumption. For example, there is a difference between pap fiction and great marks of literature. There is a difference between reading works of Charles Dickens, T S. Elliot and reading others from mass audience novelists. So, I was able to watch very good quality films which were works of art from many different parts of the world. I was very fascinated by these although I had always had literacy aspirations. I wanted to use films as a means of expressing myself to a very wide audience. That's how it happened. And my whole life has been eaten by this illness of film making as I will call it.
Can you give us an insight into some of the films you have produced?
Yes. But let me make a distinction between directing and producing. The director is actually the author of the film in the sense that the novelist authors his work. A producer is like a publisher. A producer is someone who makes it possible for the material to be brought together and to make the business dimensions of it. What happened is this, because there was nobody to produce our films, if you want to direct films, you have to be your own exhibitor, your our distributor, that's why all these terms have become muddled. You know we were pioneers in the era that we made films in celluloid. I made the first film in Igbo language. It is called Amadi. I also made the first Yoruba language film called Ajani Ogun. Amadi was with the late John Chukwu.
In Ajani Ogun, I had a collaboration with the late Chief Duro Ladipo. Duro Ladipo was a wonderful man. I always speak about him with great emotions. He was genuine.Ajani Ogun was very successful. We had good times together. Together, we worked on the film. He helped me with some of the actors in the Yoruba theatre. When I started, my first intellectual film was called Alpha. When I tried to show the film here, I didn't have any audience. Whenever I tried to show the film, there would be one or two people in the hall. So, that didn't work because film is a capital-intensive activity. And I noticed that the Yoruba theatre had its own following, its own stars and its own style.
I said; why don't I make film in the style of the Yoruba theatre which was such a tremendous success in Nigeria. There is a funny story I love to tell people. You know in those days the cinemas were mostly controlled by the Indians and the Lebanese. Only one or two Nigerians had the control of cinema theatres. There was a gentle man called George Nicole. He was a lawyer. He had a cinema theatre and controlled what was then called Glover Cinema. He ran the successful cinema house. So, I traced his house. He lived near St. Gregory's College in Lagos. In those days in Nigeria, you could go to someone's house without knowing him and ring the door bell and when he answers, you tell him what you want and he will gladly attend to you.
So I went to George Nicole's house. After the usual pleasantries, I told him: "I am a Nigerian and I made a film and I would like you to show it in your cinema theatre.” In fact, he laughed so hard that I was forced to join him in the laughter. So together we laughed. He said to me, "First of all, you are a Nigerian, you could not have made a film because Nigerians don't make films. Secondly, if you have made what you call a film, it cannot be a real film because where they make films, they have studios like in Hollywood or like in Delhi and Bombay. We don't have such in Nigeria; so where did you make this thing you call a film?” So we laughed together again. And he said, “you are a real joker”. And I said no.
I said to him, “if you want to know the reality of what I have told you, why don't you allow me when you are having your next film show during the interval for publicity, then you can allow this film of mine for one minute. If the audience is interested, maybe we can talk together to allow me to show it”. So, he agreed and next time he showed excerpts of it during the period of the advertisement. And the audience went wild because they could see their own people on the screen. They could hear their own language Yoruba on the screen. They were shouting. And the man said, “Ok, you have something that can be shown. But let us show it for only one night, only one night, you hear!” And we agreed. That night, I could not get near the theatre myself.
There were thousands of people struggling to get into that cinema theatre. The man himself had his agbada torn, he lost his shoes. But he was happy. You know why? He was inside the box office counting the money. Like a fool, I was outside admiring the crowd.
That's how Ajani Ogun got made and it was so popular. The young man who was the lead actor Ade Afolayan came from somewhere in Kwara State. He had a friend who was a fairly wealthy businessman. I think he made toothpaste and things like that. I can't remember his name now……
Could it be Chief Adedoyin?
Possibly, he was making such things.
He had something called Daily Need Chemist or Products... So, he was able to convince this man to provide funding to make another film, which I agreed to direct. So, they were producing the film. It was based on a novel by a Yoruba language author. I can't remember the name now, the original novel is something Elesin. I adapted it for the screen. I made a totally different story from it. We called it Ija Ominira. So, I made Ija Ominira and after that, I went on to make a film in Brazil which was called The Black Goddess.
I think in Brazil, I was the first black man to direct a film. Brazil, like the United States and Cuba, has a very racial structure because of the legacy of slavery in the country. Most black people in those societies were not deemed to be good for positions of responsibility and because of the history of slavery, they are usually at the lowest end of the society where they are regarded often as affiliate positions. They were usually not found as heads of enterprise. Later on, I brought some of those Brazilian actors to work with me in Nigeria and they were amazed to see black people managing top positions.
So, I was the first black person to do more than pushing something around film set in Brazil; or being just a carpenter, etc. After that, I did many films. I worked with the late Chief Hubert Ogunde based on his stage play “Aiye." I adapted it also to the film. Again there is a funny story attached to “Aiye.” Aiye, you know, is a story about witchcraft. Personally, I don't believe in witchcraft, so I asked the old man Ogunde when we were shooting the film if he could take me to where the witches were flying so that I could observe them! And he said “no you can't see witches flying because they are on astral plane”. So you can't see anyone who has actually seen these witches or angels flying..
On broom sticks?
African witches don't fly on broomsticks. They are said to transform themselves into owls, birds, cats, etc. Any way, I used my imagination, we made the actual flying sequences from animation. It's all technical tricks. Some years later, I was shocked when I heard a discussion about witchcraft where I was sitting. One lady jumped up there and said “witches exist and they actually fly; I saw it in a film “Aiye” by Chief Ogunde, it is real”.
I didn't know whether to hide under the table or not. Anyway, after Aiye, I made Cry Freedom which was adaptation of a novel by an East African author. It was about the liberation struggle in Africa, but a British guy took on the title of my film. But, I first used the title. Then, I made a film for Baba Sala. It's titled Orun Mooru. We used a lot of animation and effects. So, again, we had encounters with witches and wizards there.
Baba Sala is a genuinely funny man; I am sorry that his career has not taken the dimension that it should have been as successful as somebody called Mr. Bean in the UK who also is genuinely funny. This is because very funny actors don't need language to communicate; just the facial expression and physical attitude of those who are funny excite the audience.
Baba Sala had genuine potential. I should try to think that his problem may have come from trying to make a film by himself. I am very sorry about it. But, what I observed about him at the time is that he really had great potentials. I also made a film, a musical, which was really not a success with a foreign friend of mine called George Anderson, its called Muzik Man. In recent times, I have been very busy on my music project. And it is has reached a stage where I have to devote more time to it. It's from the Iroko music group and there should be something to come out of it in July.
Are we expecting you to release an album or CD?
Yes. We made attempts before to release an album, but, we did not get the satisfactory recording we wanted. But now, we've been able to record. I was able to take the band across the border to Cotonou, Benin Republic, to record satisfactorily. We have just finished the recording. Hopefully, the album will soon be released.
Why didn't you record in Nigeria? Were technical issues involved and you had to go to Cotonou?
You know a lot of things had gone wrong in Nigeria. In the Nigeria in which I grew up, in the Nigeria where I started appreciating music, there were major recording studios. In a city like Lagos, there were EMI, Decca. There was a wonderful studio set up by Ginger Baker and Fela. But, they have disappeared with the advent of the digital era.
The real studios which played music live and recorded it don't just exist anymore. None that I know of. I have a 16-piece-band and I wanted us to record music live as if we are playing to a live audience. This is because I noticed that African musicians perform best only when they can hear or see each other. When they play together, they feel each other and communicate very well. When I tried to do the recording in Nigeria, I made three separate attempts and wasted a lot of money.
There is a so-called studio that exists somewhere along the highway in Lagos. It is one of the worst experiences I had in all the years. What shocked me was that all the attempts I made to appeal to the proprietor to do things right, the man didn't care. He just wanted to collect people's money.
When you worked with the late Chief Duro Ladipo, you saw his production of Sango, his posture as Sango. What impression did you have then?
We had many plans. I loved Duro Ladipo as a person. It was beyond the professional level of all the people I collaborated with, he was the one that I felt was straight forward. Duro was a big man with big vision. I am sorry that death snatched him away. Duro was a school master, a school teacher and a staunch Christian. He had done a lot of research into the story of Sango.You know Sango was a historical as well as mythical personage. Historically, he was one of the descendants of Oduduwa after Oranmiyan. In the legend, he was supposed to have committed suicide out of frustration. But, historically, he was a valiant warrior and one of the most beautiful praise songs is the “Oriki Sango”. The praise songs...in honour of Sango.
Oloju orogbo, elereke obi stuff...the one with the eyes of bitter kola, and cheeks of kolanut?
..So, Duro Ladipo had done a lot of research into it. Whether he himself believed in the magic part of it, I really cannot say. He had also mastered the adepts of the Sango cult, the art of bringing out smoke and fire from his mouth.
Who are your role models?
You know there are people I have admired greatly in life. There are those who I have been privileged to meet in person. Some I only know. Amongst those who I met physically in this life space was Nelson Mandela.
No, in Europe. I was quite close to the ANC while they were in exile. Whenever they were doing things and needed media in Europe, I was involved with them and was very active. I was privileged to be close to them. I saw in Nelson Mandela a mixture of calmness, depth and inner strength. I once saw him get angry, not angry as such but impatient. When he looked at the person, the man nearly fell off his chair. I was also privileged to have a wonderful father.
I lost him quite young. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a man who I admired. I am proud to have been his friend. There were some aspects of his which were somehow. People will understand what I am saying. Fela was a genius. He was one of those few people I know who spoke the truth as he saw it. If Fela told you something is green, if you come back in five years, it will still be green. He never said anything he didn't know. I admired him for his ability to be straight. Again, there is a legend around him, his women.
He was a very hard working man, he was a very successful musician. I will say he was a man who worked hard about 16 hours a day, He was composing and practising on his saxophone. Again, there is somebody who I admire in Nigeria. He is Alhaji M. D. Yusuf. People don't know much about him. But, he is a man who is very honest in a certain way. You see, I mix with a lot of people. I have no prejudice about any religion.
There are so many who want to carry their religion on their head and try to show this by sitting in front of the church on Sundays or they are this or that. Alhaji Yusuf is a man who genuinely loves Nigeria but he was not given a chance. I also loved Ken Saro Wiwa. He blazed the trail of what we are seeing today in Nigeria. Although he was a pacifist, maybe that's one of his undoing. He never believed in violence. But, violence was mobilized against him. The man who presided over the kangaroo court that made General Abacha to kill him is still walking around. He retired from the judiciary and he is still walking around and nothing is said about him.
Then, I must talk about someone I never met. That person was the late Steve Biko, the anti apartheid activist that was killed in South Africa. Some years ago, I met somebody who had met the late Dr. Kwame Nkurumah and actually had a hand shake with the former Ghanaian president. I rushed to the man, shook his hand and held on tight. I felt that somehow I was getting my own hand shake. Cyprian Ekwensi, the novelist, is a man I genuinely admire. He is a wonderful human being. He has written wonderful slices of life in Nigeria. And, of course, Patrice Lumumba in Congo.
Then Marcus Garvey. He was the father of Africanism. He was the first person who got up to say, Africa should be for Africans, at a time when he was sent to jail on trumped up charges because the system of justice was aimed at those who are enemies of the establishment. For example, you have Charles Taylor in a European jail for war crimes. That is justified. The man has questions to answer. But, there are more people who have more cases to answer. George Bush Jnr, the American president, and Tony Blair, the British prime minister, have sent hundreds of thousands of people to death in Iraq for nothing.
They have organized torture openly and so, should they not be tried? Why should Taylor, as guilty as he may be, be singled out? Why not apply the same standard of justice to all those who transgress the laws.