Kenneth Gyang has always had a deft directorial touch from his first feature, Confusion Na Wa to his latest, Oloture, produced by Mo Abudu and EbonyLife films and which made its debut on October 2 on the streaming platform Netflix. In this interview, the award winning director talks to Toni Kan Onwordi of thelagosreview.ng about the making of the movie while providing further insights into the characters, their motivations and the overall narrative arc of the film. Excerpts.
Toni Kan Onwordi: So, how did Oloture happen? Who made first contact and where did the story come from?
Kenneth Gyang: My first contact with the making of Òlòturé started when Heidi Uys got in touch with me in behalf of Ms. Mo Abudu’s Ebonylife Films. She said this is the perfect film for me. Something I would love to do because they know I’m very picky with projects. The story came from an idea from Mo and Heidi had then Yinka Ogun penned the earlier drafts. Craig Freimond later came onboard and they both worked together
TKO: I know that when Mo calls you have to answer but what it is about the story that made you say “Hey, Heidi you are right. Let’s do this.
KG: Well Heidi told me about the script and I wanted to read it to be sure it was a good material that’s right for me. I read the script and immediately got in touch with her that I wanted to do this. Funny, when Heidi called…I was already working on another trafficking story called El Dorado Road which was selected to be at EAVE Producers Workshop. That story is different. It is about The Road to Hell. So basically, the journey. EAVE Producers Workshop is a one year program in Europe for people who want to get into elite producing. So I was already on a trafficking story and it made sense to use my experience from there on Oloture.
TKO: Cool. Talking about “journeys”, your films at least from Confusion Na Wa to The Lost Cafe always riff on a sort of journey whether physical or psychological but there is always an endearing quirkiness. Oloture does not have that quirkiness. It is a more grounded story in my view. What was different?
KG: Well, I would say this though, they all have the same element at the end of the day… unfairness of life. As I mentioned earlier, trafficking is a huge deal for me because I travel a lot and I see some of these young women so I wanted to make a hard-hitting film and throw away the quirkiness. But there’s still the journey in Òlòturé like the other films. A physical one.
TKO: I hear you about the “unfairness of life” but you approach fate and existential fatality from a different angle. You are not primarily concerned with moral judgments. You are more concerned with how chance alters or affects. Look at the ending of Oloture for instance. Is that a correct reading?
KG: Well, I would say that most of my films don’t have traditional Nollywood endings and I’m quoting something you once wrote when reviewing Ema Edasio’s Kasala… You said Ema, Abba and I make a films that show what it means to be young, Nigerian and hopeless.
TKO: Ahh, don’t quote me. I am just a critic sounding off. What do I know?
KG: Now the ending of Òlòturé for me is a testament to that hopelessness that sometimes stares us in the face. Before making Oloture, years ago…I came across a BBC radio Documentary called Desperate Dreams. It is a three part Documentary about migration from Africa and one of the most striking episodes was on Ferinatu, a young lady from Edo who got stuck in Agadez and was sleeping with 14 different men a day before meeting the BBC Reporter who helped to bring her back home.
TKO: What the hell?
KG: She later realised that the child she left at home was dead and her mother was being ravaged by disease. Again, the young girl ends up being HIV positive. But with all that, she’s still saying she would love to still move to Europe despite all of that. So for me, Oloture had to have an ending that would be hard-hitting in order to bring the attention of people to this menace.
TKO: Hope and despair are always present in your films. Look at Ali Nuhu’s character in Confusion or Lala Akindoju’s character in Oloture as well as the rest of the girls. There is always hopelessness staring them in the face even if they don’t know it. On a scale of 1 to 100 how hopeful are you about Nigeria?
KG: I love Nigeria. That’s why I haven’t run off to live abroad with all the opportunities staring me in the face. But as an artist I don’t gloss over the reality of my environment.
I showcase these problems so that we can all tell ourselves the truth and work towards building a better country. This for me is how I can contribute to Nation building
TKO: Well talking about environment, you have helmed a film that has all the feel of an independent production but it is Mo and Ebonyfilms producing a Netflix original. How did you pull of that trick?
KG: Haha. When I was making that film we used to joke that I am making an independent film with the budget of a studio film. It was easy to pull it off because of the target. Ms. Abudu wanted a great prestige film and I’m some sort of a prestige film expert in Nigeria because that’s what I live for. So, I advised accordingly and I presented my vision clearly so it was pretty easy to get whatever I was looking for.
TKO: So let’s talk about something I found odd in the film. Beverly Osu. She has an almost none speaking role but men, her eyes are eloquent. Why did she have such scant lines?
KG: Haha. I wouldn’t say that is odd. That for me is Beverly Osu and what a good actress she is. Elite performance. And we’ve seen a lot of these performances even in Hollywood from actors like Brad Pitt and a host of others. People have been talking about her non-speaking performance and she’s getting praises for it.
TKO: I agree completely. She was silent yet present and impressive. Yes and I think it takes a good director to focus on her even when all she is doing is opening those expressive eyes. Kudos.
KG: Acting for the screen is about the little nuances and not about having lines and she delivered.
TKO: So let’s talk about Ehi aka Oloture. I liked the fact that she is courageous and intrepid but she is stupid AF. The ending has me betting on a part 2. Is this correct?
KG: Actually no. We made the film without a Part 2 in mind. See, Oloture started her investigation journalism as a small time journo who was having fun doing it but the encounter with Phillips became the catalyst for continuing the journey and getting deeper underworld in order to take them down. There was no proper planning so she left herself exposed.
TKO: Yes I could see that and I mentioned that in my review that she is emboldened but there is also some hubris and impulsiveness in her actions and it was the catalyst for tragedy.
KG: Exactly! A Twitter comment said what the film showed is that sometimes you need to take a step back and leave things alone.
TKO: Exactly. Here is what I have in my review: “After her encounter with Chief Phillips, Ehi should have learnt to leave well alone but she returns, emboldened by her horrible experience and descends inevitably into the underworld.”
KG: Exactly!!! That captures it. We need to learn to step back. Retreating is not cowardice. We need to retreat and plan.
TKO: Blossom gives a great performance and so does Ikechukwu but Blossom takes the cake with his earnestness. He is a professional torn between his job and his growing feelings for Ehi. It was a bad cocktail in the sense that it made him unable to exert full authority. He was a very conflicted character. Do you agree with that reading of his character?
KG: Definitely. It is almost like you read the other drafts. That is his backstory. There are scenes we took out where he’s trying to show her love. In fact we filmed a kissing scene but I took it out and threw it away.
TKO: A quick aside. When he said I love you my friend I was watching with said “ha his ex-wife must not watch this o.”
KG: Ha ha.
TKO: Now to Omoni and Ikechukwu. Omoni plays against type but nails it. She is that Mephistophelian character promising heaven but delivering hell. I liked how you kept her reined in.
KG: I had to make sure she was in character by shielding her from people who always want to talk to her as a star. She told me she didn’t want people around her because she wanted to stay in character. Also, Alero is an ex-trafficked woman herself who paid her dues in full and right now has lost all emotion. She’s also working for a Mafia group that will have no qualms taking her out as well so she’s always trying to stay on top of things.
It was my job on set to keep prepping her and making sure she kept pushing herself in order to exhibit that coldness.
TKO: Ikechukwu as Chuks is anachronistic as hell. He wants to be a big American pimp with swag but instead of a Cadillac he drives a rickety Volvo. Whose idea was that? That was wicked, man.
KG: Lol. There’s a scene where he is in a confrontation with Alero and she tells him he’s a dying breed… pimps are. The pimp industry used to be huge. But international sex trafficking has become an industry that’s worth billions yet he’s still living in the past and trying to be a pimp, American-style. So the Volvo could have been his answer to a Cadillac in Lagos. Haha.
TKO: Sambasa as Victor was for me the weak link and I think it was because he was playing to type as usual but what he does at the pool scene redeems his character and presents some emotional gravitas. I think Sambasa is a good actor who hasn’t been cast in the super role that would make him shine. I think his best role for me to date was in another Mo Abudu production, his turn in Wedding Party 1 when he picks up the invitation card that falls off a dispatch rider’s bike. His smile was pure evil. So, was that pool scene part of the first draft seeing as Effiong’s character had warned Alero that “15 girls na 15 girls.”
KG: We had 23 drafts but the pool scene was consistent in the later drafts.
TKO: It was brilliant and unexpectedly shocking.
KG: I would actually say that I didn’t want Sambasa to be way over the top. He has such a personality that I didn’t feel he needs do to go over the top to scare us.
TKO: Yes. menace doesn’t have to be loud. Consider Louis Cypher in Angel Heart or Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate or Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. They are menacing but cool.
KG: Exactly. I agree. Sambasa probably needs a film where he’s the leading man.
TKO: Two more questions and we are done. First, how much did BAT pay you guys for all that smoking?
KG: Haha. It is against the law for any tobacco company to put even one naira in anything that could be deemed as an ad. I asked someone from BAT and they said they would be at risk of getting shut down. The smoking helped with the visual flow of the scenes because we wanted smoke on set that was organic.
TKO: Oh, cool. Finally let us look at that ritual scene. Mr. Kenneth Gyang you have over 10 naked women and all you give us is one shot of a side boob. What is wrong with you, man?
KG: Looool. I didn’t want it to be sexy… I wanted people to see that other banality and unsexiness of nakedness, sometimes
TKO: Thanks Kenneth.
KG: Thank you so much and good talking to you
Oloture is streaming on Netflix and stars Sharon Ooja, Omoni Oboli, Patrick Doyle, Blossom Chukwujekwu, Ikechukwu, Sambasa Nzeribe, Omowumi Dada, Lala Akindoju, Beverly Osu and others.