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'Not every Nigerian film is a Nollywood movie'

HE IS one of the most versatile Nigerian writers of his generation, racking up credits as a novelist, playwright and filmmaker. But of his many talents, Biyi Bandele says quite simply, “I’ve always just seen myself as a storyteller.”

Born in Kafanchan, northern Nigeria, the budding dramatist later moved to Lagos, before relocating to London, where he began his professional career as a playwright after earning a commission from the Royal Court Theatre.

Hollywood attention beckoned when he enlisted big screen stars Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor for his 2013 film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famed novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.

Set in 1960s Nigeria and centering on the lives of two sisters caught up in the turmoil of the country’s Biafran War, the critically acclaimed drama marked Bandele’s directorial debut in film – and brought a quintessentially Nigerian story to audiences around the world.

With Bandele’s additional directorial credits including MTV’s Nigerian TV series Shuga and his new film Fifty, which is set in Lagos, it’s clear that the successful storyteller has an affinity with Nigerian stories. And while some black talents in the creative industries take issue with their race or country of birth being used as a pre-cursor to their profession, Bandele has no hang-ups about being dubbed a Nigerian filmmaker – just be sure not to describe him as a Nollywood director.

“Oh, I don’t mind being called a Nigerian director,” Bandele confirms. “What I don’t want is to be called a Nollywood director. I’m not a Nollywood director. I’m Nigerian and Nigerian stories are very important to me. But not every film that comes from Nigeria is a Nollywood movie, in the same way that not every film that comes from India is a Bollywood movie.”

Revered for his novels The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond (1991) and the well-received Burma Boy (2007), along with plays including Two Horsemen and Brixton Stories, Bandele’s foray into film came when his first screenplay, Not Even God Is Wise Enough, was directed by Danny Boyle in 1993. Though Bandele admits “I actually wasn’t that interested in film except as a viewer at that point,” he explains that working with the revered English filmmaker sparked his own desire to direct movies.

“After working with Danny, I decided I wanted to direct films. I was directing theatre at the time and I’d done a degree in drama, so I was very much at home when it came to working with actors. So I began to study the craft of filmmaking – and it took many years!”

Additionally, the filmmaker reveals that working with Boyle taught him that acting – or at least playing bit parts – wasn’t his forte.

“On the first day of filming, Danny cast me as an extra in a courtroom scene. I was so bored I fell asleep,” he laughs. “I realised, on a film set it can look like there are a lot of people milling around doing nothing, when actually they’re working incredibly hard. But when you’re not involved and you don’t know that, it’s just boring! The trick is to be part of the action.”


TOP TRIO: Biyi Bandele (left) with actors Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who starred in Half of a Yellow Sun

Thankfully, Bandele found his calling in directing others to provide the on-screen action. He did this successfully with Half of A Yellow Sun, casting Ejiofor and Newton, along with US actress Anika Noni Rose as the film’s main characters.

“Chiwetel was on board right from day one. He’s an old friend and when I discovered the novel and I phoned him to tell him about it, he had actually just finished reading it himself. So he was on board straight away.”

Casting Newton, however, wasn’t so straightforward, with Bandele’s initial plans for her going out the window.

“When I was first approached Thandie, I actually approached her to play Kainene [the character eventually played by Noni Rose]. But we had a meeting in London that lasted around two hours and by the end of the meeting, she convinced me that Kainene was really the wrong part for her and Olanna was the part she should play.

“I realised that I was guilty of typecasting her, because she had played characters like Kainene throughout her career – she had never played an Olanna before. So I went into this meeting hoping to cast her as Kainene and by the time we finished the meeting, she had become Olanna [laughs].”

Female characters are also the focus of Bandele’s latest film Fifty, which will be screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival next week.

Set in Lagos, the film details a few pivotal days in the lives of four successful women approaching 50 and revelling in the power and supposed wisdom that comes with age.

“I was sent the script last year,” he explains. “It was really long, but I was able to rewrite it and cut it down.


COMING OF AGE TALE: Ireti Doyle stars in Bandele’s new film Fifty

“Although the original script wasn’t great, what attracted me to it was the fact that the year before, I had directed a TV series for MTV called Shuga, which is about teenagers behaving badly. When I read Fifty, it occurred to me that these women were the generation of the parents of the kids in Shuga. I thought it might be interesting to do a film about women of that generation. So if I hadn’t done Shuga, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could direct a film about women approaching 50.

“Also, I know that female actors in their 40s and 50s often find it incredibly hard to get meaty roles. And here was a whole movie about four women who were turning 50. I wanted to see how we could make it fun.”

With many successes under his belt and much more in the pipeline, what does Bandele consider his proudest achievement to date?

“Personally, I’m proud of my kids,” says the father-of-two. “Professionally, I’m proud of the novels, the films. But I’ve got so many ideas – there’s not enough time to do it all!”

Biyi Bandele’s Fifty will be screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival on October 17 and 18. For more information visit www.bfi.org.uk/lff

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