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MY UPS AND DOWNS – TUNDE KELANI AT 60

By SOLA BALOGUN and FEMI SALAWU
Tunde Kelani
Tunde Kelani

For the maverick cinematographer, Tunde Kelani, whose name is synonymous with quality in the Nigerian motion picture industry, life may well begin at 60. The leading filmmaker and director told Daily Sun at his Lagos, MainFrame Productions' office recently: “I could say my professional career and life begin at 60”.

He explained further “everything I have done previously from Ti Oluwa Ni Ile to The Narrow Path to me, was an era and that era is now closed because it was in standard definition.”

The 'new era', according to the ace filmmaker opens a new chapter of technology with Arugba, his new film which is billed for release soon.

A sneak preview of the film revealed the rich inspiration, which Kelani drew from the yearly Osun Osogbo Festival but which he has chosen to tell from a more contemporary, creative angle.

Members of the artistic community were not left out, penultimate week, as friends, relations and fans gathered at O'jez Night club, National Stadium, Lagos to honour the ace filmmaker at a birthday reception organized by Committee for Relevant Art (CORA). The monthly highlife party also honoured actor-cum-scholar, Sola Fosudo, who turned 50 this year.

Romance with technology

Owing to certain circumstances in Nigeria, we have decided to adopt the video format for film making. Of course, it is not really appropriate professionally and I can understand why most of my contemporaries and peers shied away from the video and chose to do nothing.

So, it was a challenge for me, because apparently I was more interested in using any technology available to continue to tell the stories. Within the last 15 years, there has been tremendous advancement in media technology. In fact, everything I have done previously from Ti Oluwa Ni Ile to The Narrow Path to me, was an era and that era is closed because it was in standard definition.

Although, after a while, the Nigerian industry has come to standardize in digital video but we are still in standard definition. What the new technology has afforded us is that we now have the capacity to move on and take advantage of the low level digital format. It is an exciting period for me to have access to high definition format within a fairly low budget. So, from this year on, we have started a new series based on high definition and the first film we produced for television on Environment in England is Life in Slow Motion written by Tunde Babalola. The latter is based in England and my new work Arugba benefitted from this aspect of technology for the first time. I can confidently promise Nigerian audience of the highest quality and standard within a moderate budget.

Place of culture in my works

It comes from a degree of experience and maturity. I have witnessed almost all the technologies and I can now see things from a better perspective. I can see where we stand and where we can continue to be relevant in the scheme of things. All along, I have been influenced by my cultural experiences and I think that is the way forward. I hope to pay more attention to the promotion and preservation of our cultural experience as well as package our stories for the global audience. Also, with the advantage of technology, I think it is possible for me to do more within three years what I have done in the past 15 years. Collectively, Nigeria stands at the threshold of breakthrough because within the next two or three years, it will be a challenge to us all.

Osun Osogbo and Arugba

Of course, I am interested in the new generation and I am greatly influenced by my cultural experience. For somebody like me who was raised and fed with Yoruba literature, I think we have not exhausted all the available resources. I am also concerned about the issues of women who are under-represented in all spheres of our life. I am also interested in cultural diversity, which will continue to pilot anything I do from now.

There are so many other aspects to Arugba, apart from the symbol of purity which it is known for. First, when there is a tumult in the society, our parents would perform a sacrifice and look for someone to carry it to the river. In this case, the Arugba being a traditional symbol goes to the river carrying the objects of worship followed by thousands of people who in any case are disoriented, who are in search of significance, who are confronted by all sorts of global influences on their lives and are in need of purification.

They are scattered and rudderless and hopefully when the Arugba returns from this trip, there will be some kind of change or process of reorientation. It is working at so many levels especially with the usual issues confronting us today such as millennium goals, eradication of poverty and disease. Others include preservation and promotion of indigenous cultures. My own point of reference in Arugba is the South-west. And that is because after we lost Hubert Ogunde, who was a cultural icon and who installed minimum standard, nobody has done anything close to what Ogunde did if we agreed to use him (Ogunde) as a bench mark. But Arugba will try to meet that standard which I think Ogunde would be proud of.

Production of Arugba

For the first time, the production of Arugba was a different experience for me. Although, we recorded last February in Abeokuta for over 20 days, the project had started for over a year after the submission of the script by Ade Adeniji. What we later tried to do was to handle all artistic departments after we had taken care of the literary aspect.

The next was to look at the performances. Many of the actors who have played kabiyesi in the past have been overused and we needed to inject fresh talents from different backgrounds.

So, we wanted Peter Badejo, whom we flew in from U.K and who was very cooperative despite his crowded schedule. Also, we had a new discovery in Bukola Awoyemi, a graduate of Theatre Arts Department, under the tutelage of Professor Ayo Akinwale. We were stunned with her performance on the role of Arugba although I am not surprised because Nigeria is blessed with many talents. The discovery of this girl also led us intossing her in a creative way, we were very lucky to have her. She was level headed and very cooperative and is always willing to work.

Of course, we had about four companies that provide all the resources and the man power we needed. And then, playing opposite role to Bukola Awoyemi is Segun Adefila, who leads the Crown Troupe of Afrika and currently running his Masters degree at University of Lagos. Adefila is a passionate young man who continues to impress me. Apart from participating in the film, he also supervised all the music and choreography.

We also have Pat Nebo, who did the production design. There is also Bisi Ogunde, who worked on the costumes because we wanted to make a statement with the costumes. We had talented technicians both within MainFrame Productions and outside. These include: Lukmon Abdulrahman, whojoined me to handle the camera and photography, Bode Odeyemi on sound and Oluwole Olawoyin on gaffer/grip. Some of the equipment were supplied by DVWORKS. The rough cut is being handled by Akeem Olowokere (Jungle Studios) and the duration of entire work is put at 120 minutes.

Moments of despair

The first challenge was being able to show on the screen what the possibilities are. THis is not to say that my professional career has been on a smooth sail. I have also had terrible downs. I am just lucky because there have been some people who have consistently held my hands and always pulled me up each time I was down. That is why Arugba is special to me because I owe it to one young man, Dr Olatunji Olowolafe, who is our executive producer. It is true the arts suffer a lot, particularly the motion picture industry. But with people like Dr Olowolafe, who is willing to support, I think this year would be a wonderful one.

UNESCO declaration

Actually, UNESCO has declared 2008 as the year of languages. Most of what I have done usually fall into documenting culture. For instance, The Narrow Path is not just an adaptation of Bayo Adewale's novel, The Virgin, it is for me, an opportunity to document almost all what I have seen while growing up. Now that I have managed to put these together, I feel fulfilled in that sense. White Handkerchief was only 17 minutes, and I felt we have not just done justice to the source material hence we decided to do the full version in The Narrow Path.

Training and experience

I was employed by the former Western Nigerian Television as a Film Cameraman in 1970. Walking into that historical place which was the first television station in Africa, I was accepted as a member of the family. They all took me as an adult and a colleague and taught me all they knew. Our general manager then was Engr. Teju Oyeleye and others who came later include Chief Ayo Ogunlade, director programmes, Sam Adegbiye, and most importantly Tunde Adeniji, head, Film Unit, whom I worked directly with. He gave me the necessary confidence and foundation as a professional. There were other people like Hamzat Lasisi who was the chief cameraman and a number of other people who taught me all I knew and, of course, Engr. Vincent Maduka, who later took over as G.M. After that, I joined NBCTV Victoria Island, Lagos where I continued to work with great influential people.

Passion for film making

As a film addict, I found a new pastime in visiting the cinemas when I moved to Lagos. I saw a lot of American films which made lasting impression on me such as The Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, The Ten Commandment, The Helen of Troy among others. I learnt through those films that there was a lot of difference between the films we shot for TV and the ones I watched in the cinemas. This encouraged me to study The Art and Technique of FilmMaking at the London Film School. Two years after my programme, I went into freelance (independent) film making.

About retirement

I can't start to talk of retirement now because some of the film icons who are my forebears and who I respect are still working. For example, British-born Christopher Doyle who is in seventies and is still shooting films. For me, I could say my professional career and life begin at 60. God's willing , with long life and good health. People should expect from our stables films like Arugba, Life in Slow Motion, Dog on Lions Trail(An Adaptation) and many more.