Kunle Afolayan is a renowned multiple award-winning Nigerian actor and film maker whose movies have graced all film festivals in the world. In this interview, he speaks on how to become a successful movie entrepreneur, compares English and Yoruba speaking films and discloses that though there is money in the industry, he hasn’t travelled the film path for cash rewards.
PT: When and how did your movie acting and directing career begin?
Kunle: I started as an actor in 1998 when I featured in Tunde Kelani’s film titled Shaworo Ide. After that, I did a few films here and there but because I was working in a bank at that time, I couldn’t really get to feature in a lot of films. In 2004, I resigned my appointment from the bank, I went to New York Film academy where I did a diploma, came back to Nigeria and set up this company in 2005. I did my first feature film in 2006 titled Irapada meaning redemption. The film enjoyed a bit of exposure here and there. It was premiered at the Pan African film festival in Los Angeles, United States of America. It screened at women of colour in Atlanta, US and went to a few other places.
PT: What’s your understanding of the Nigerian film industry?
Kunle: My understanding and experience of the Nigerian film industry didn’t start 10 or 20 years ago. It started like about 40 years ago because of the fact that my father was a film maker and I was opportune to watch and witness how films were made in those days, coupled with the fact that we all grew up on Indian films and Chinese films. When television started, we had very few channels and started broadcasting about four pm and everyone was always looking forward to watching Indian and Chinese films. But when it came to motion pictures, we used to have lot of cinemas around. And Nigerians would go all out to watch indigenous films at the cinemas.
PT: Did these play any role in the making of Kunle the film business man?
PT: How did these contribute to the birthing of Kunle the film seller?
Kunle: These are some of the things that have helped me in understanding the cinema business also in balancing content making and the business side of it. It’s a chain that if you really want to be successful, it’s like studios in America but we don’t have such as our studios are small scale but they function. In the 80s and 70s, the kind of operating models in place was quite similar to Hollywood but most of the film makers were also the distributors.
Kunle: Because they made the films and also have their own projectors and they travelled round Nigeria and west African countries with a team screening these films.
PT: Like mobile cinemas?
Kunle: Yes, mobile cinema was what was in existence because I used to travel with them then and we would go from one town to another. We had a vehicle and in it we had sound system, 16mm projector, tickets and all of that so that when you get to a town, we set up, do propaganda and announce to people that there’s going to be a screening and all that. That was the culture I grew up learning.
PT: How old were you when you started all these?
Kunle: I started traveling with my father’s crew when I was 12 years old. When I was 18, I used to go on my own. Some agents used to come from places like Benin republic and would book the films for screening and I would now take the prints with me to them because we don’t release prints and after they finish, they pay the balance and I would come back with the prints. In the course of doing all these, I learnt how to operate the 16mm projector and how to run the entire business chain. But now, it’s a bit different but the business angle of it is still similar to what is happening now. Apart from the ticketing software that has been introduced, every other processes- set up, remain the same.
PT: Why does your film seem different from other film makers’?
Kunle: I decided to adopt what was obtainable then and now to create a kind of balance.
PT: How would you describe what makes your films different?
Kunle: To start with, I tell stories that people can relate to. I tell stories that an average movie lover regardless of where they are from would understand. Primarily, I always consider Nigerians and Africans as my first audience. Secondly, production value is what I will never compromise because that’s what gets your films to the big screens and not just beyond the shores of Nigeria but the Nigerians and Africans in diaspora. If the production value is there and the quality is good then it would be open to exploration to different parts of the world.
PT: You said you make movies others can relate to, but can you say that about other movies emanating from Nigeria?
Kunle: Well, some yes, some no. But there are quite a number of stories that are primarily targeted at Nigerians specifically in different genres. Some of them are comedies, and these are comedies that only Nigerians would find funny. Even in my own films, there are some scenes which people here laugh when they see it but outside the shores of Nigeria, they have different perceptions about those same scenes. So, it is important to know your core audiences.
PT: You said your romance with movies began with Indian films. I remember them being considered classic in those days when we were kids. Today, what’s your assessment of these same Indian films?
Kunle: Before, I used to pay a lot of attention, they came across as real and serious but now, I laugh at most of their films because they are draggy, some of the comedies are plastic and some of the actions are…(giggles). But then it used to be a big deal! I used to prefer them to Hollywood films.
PT: What is your assessment of the plot in Nigerian movies?
Kunle: Nigerians just want to tell stories, and we have too many stories. The truth is, people like those stories, it’s just that most times, filmmakers don’t pay attention to details.
PT: How do you mean by attention to details?
Kunle: What I mean by attention to details is that for instance, a film is making reference to some rich guy who just won $5million contract, but when he is to be portrayed, he is put in a fairly used car and lives in one house that is not even worth $100,000. Or, someone is being portrayed as an office clerk but he lives in a mansion. To a lot of people now, it’s an insult. They can relate with your story but often can predict it from the beginning of the film. People have seen thousands of such films so are now a bit tired. The Nigerians that I know will pay premium to see contents.
PT: It’s been noticed over the years that Nigerian films mainly entail going to Alfas, Cele Churches or native doctors. What would be your advice to film makers churning out such?
Kunle: I would never try to change that because that is who we are really and that’s our reality. People face a lot of problems and they believe the solutions lie in all these places and that is why those stories are real. It explains why people could relate to those stories. People seek interventions through different means and when they are telling stories, we preach morals a lot in our films.
PT: So, why don’t you do same in your own films?
Kunle: In my films, you can see a bit element of that but not the way it’s being portrayed in most of these films. Also, the way and manner most of the directors present those things are wrong. Very wrong. But it doesn’t change the fact that that is who we are, that is how we run, that is how our daily life-to-life is, people seeking interventions from Cele, C.A.C, people think that if you have a predicament, it’s the devil, so must go seeking intervention in those places. If you watch Indian films as well, any time they are in problem, they go to the temple. You can only preach what you know.
PT: Nigerian films tend to portray certain religions as superior to the other. Do you agree with that?
Kunle: I don’t agree with that because whichever way you want to look at it, religion is a fundamental problem all over the world. The only problem I have with Nigerian films is how those religions are being portrayed. Those who try portraying the herbalist (giggling), always make them live in very dirty surroundings. It’s just silly! Some of the Cele ones are placed in one very small church. It could be better. Like I said, that is who we are and how we get intervention from God.
PT: Talking about the babalawos (native doctors), some years ago, in the course of an investigation, I had to meet with a native doctor who even did divinations for me as a part of my story. This guy and his other colleagues drive latest brands of jeeps. But native doctors are a far cry from what our film makers portray. What could be responsible for the various wrong characterization/character portrayals?
Kunle: I think they not being deep is as a result of not doing proper research and investigations. If you do research and get to find out how a babalawo sets up their shrine, you can create it at the backyard of your house. Meaning, you don’t have to go anywhere. All of these have to do with professionalism and doing proper research. Like you said, I equally did a couple of documentaries for M-Net, and I had to interview some babalawos and that gave me deep insight into how these things work. So, a lot of people make films but they don’t do research. No matter how low your budget is, how many people will you explain to why you have a bad film? People don’t care; if you are doing a film, you are doing a film. If you don’t have enough budget, then don’t do a film or do a film that won’t require such story and would help you achieve a very good result. It’s about doing proper research and going ahead to recreate such.
PT: Nigerian films recycle the same characters who are often known for just particular kind of roles. Why the stereotype?
Kunle: It’s the same in Hollywood. Bruce Willis is always playing the bad guy, Denzel Washington is always playing the cool guy, and these guys have been there for more than two decades doing the same thing. But may be in their own case they do one or two films in a year, while in Nigeria, those actors do may be 50 films (giggling) in one year. A talent is a talent. We can’t change that. If the talent still has the relevance to still be in the industry, they would be there. There are so many aspiring actors with less training but who believe that they have all the talents in the world. But for me, in doing my findings, I realized that most of them lack discipline and discipline is key in the profession. I think it’s the same trend everywhere. Even in India’s film industry.
PT: A movie director, now turned music director, said there’s no money to be made in making films that’s why he quit films for music. How true is that?
Kunle: The person is a joker! I’m not in the film industry for money. If I’m in film for money, I don’t think I’ll be here because I’ve invested virtually my life and everything I’ve got into this. I do all of these because I see the future. It’s not all about doing this one film and make money. Every money we have made from projects, we put back in the company to make sure it’s running and can serve the community.
PT: So, what would be your advice to such young directors?
Kunle: You just need to be sure of what you’re doing. You need to be able to balance creativity and commercial. They need to understand how to maximize every aspects of your contents. And you can’t do that all by yourself if you don’t understand it, then you consult people who seem to have an idea. There’s no excuse for failure in creativity.
PT: You’ve been a terrible victim of piracy. What do you propose to be done to eradicate this ugly trend?
Kunle: We are already trying to push a lot of ideas. It’s only the government that can do something because they make and effect the law. The piracy law we have at the moment is not strong and that’s why some people will say if I pirate your movie the worst that will happen is I’ll be imprisoned for three months. Or I’ll be asked to pay N100, 000. This explains why the law is being violated. In India, it’s death sentence and in the UK it’s 15 years imprisonment. We’re proposing series of ideas and suggestions to the people in authority.
PT: At international film festivals like in Europe and US, do people respect Nigerian films?
Kunle: No, they don’t. They respect the French films more because most European countries always have stakes in French films. Most of their funds always go to those countries. In Nigeria, we hardly wait for such funds because the process takes time and a Nigerian film maker who has got an idea simply wants to pick the camera and shoot. This process will take at least one year and they would want to impose some ideas and persons on you. I’m not saying it’s bad because they are putting their mouth where their money is, but in all European festivals I’ve been to, African films that have very good slots and run usually have co-productions with a European country.
PT: Funding has been said repeatedly by film makers to be a huge challenge encountered, but your films are high-end projects. How do you get funds for your films?
Kunle: Through different means, most times, personal funds. Also, I have a lot of friends in advertising agencies, media and for all the films I have done, they all have bank loans as part of the funds. In the last five years, I started building equipment rentals of the company which is why I said that we re-invest every dime made. I always seek corporate partnerships as well.
PT: Do you agree that the English speaking film makers are not as original as their Yoruba speaking counterparts?
Kunle: I will not say they are more fake, I will put it as they don’t pay more attention to details like their Yoruba counterpart. Most of the English films is all about glamour and for the Yoruba films, it’s all about the story.
PT: What do you watch out for in scripts?
Kunle: It must have cultural and entertainment value as well as universal theme.
PT: If you were not in film production, what would you have done?
Kunle: I don’t know o. But I know it would be something in the entertainment industry.
PT: What’s your typical week day and weekend like?
Kunle: If I’m in Nigeria and not on set, I’ll be here because we have facilities and do post-production. And I do consulting.
PT: In the next five years where do you see yourself?
Kunle: I don’t know. If I’m alive, I would be shooting films.
PT: You mean you don’t set goals?
Kunle: I’m not God. I live by the day.