Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:37 am
Dapo Adeniyi, seasoned art journalist turned filmmaker is currently working on the movie, Ake, an adaptation of Soyinka’s book, Ake: The Years of Childhood, a dazzling memoir of the Nobel laureate. FUNSHO AROGUNDADE recently visited one of the movie locations in Iberekodo, Abeokuta and met with Adeniyi, who opened up on the Ake project and why he chooses to adapt the book into a motion picture.
Tell us how you came about the adaptation of Professor Wole Soyinka’s book, Ake: The Years of Childhood, into a motion picture?
It has a history. Ake actually came up by itself, so to speak. When Professor Wole Soyinka got the Nobel Prize, some members of the board of Nigerian Television Authority thought they should celebrate the prize by doing an adaptation of one of Soyinka’s works. Definitely, it was not the first adaptation that NTA would do. They did Things Fall Apart. It was that adaptation that produced Pete Edochie. I was actually invited by the NTA to a conference in Ogere, Ogun State, and that was where I got to know that they had problem with Things Fall Apart. The person who did the adaptation didn’t fully understand Things Fall Apart, and the production literally fell apart.
I was told but couldn’t confirm it that Chinua Achebe actually disowned the production. So when the plans now came to do Wole Soyinka’s, naturally many people felt that NTA was going to be in deeper water. Because if you have problem with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which everybody knew and millions of people had read, even as a school text, now dealing with Soyinka would be somehow difficult. In fact, nobody on that board of NTA had read Soyinka, so they didn’t even know where to start from. They didn’t know which book to adapt. Considering these, the adaptation was likely to give them problem if they could not handle Things Fall Apart.
But then somebody else on the board of NTA felt it was a problem they could overcome. He advised that they should simply approach Soyinka to decide which of his books they could adapt, and possibly give them someone to handle the adaptation. If anything went wrong as with that of Achebe’s book, NTA would be able to throw its hands in the air, saying it’s not their fault. So the idea sounded like a good one and they approached Soyinka. And Soyinka didn’t choose Ake. He chose a book called Season of Anomie.
Season of Anomie, of course, is the fictionalised version of The Man Died. A lot of people felt that Soyinka actually opened a can of worms in The Man Died. But I think Season of Anomie is even fuller. A lot of things that Soyinka probably wanted to say in The Man Died, but for some reasons he was not free to say it. He then buried everything in Season of Anomie. They now asked Soyinka to give them somebody to write the adaptation. To everybody’ surprise, it was this small me (Adeniyi) that he mentioned and the NTA people came.
I was a research assistant in Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University) at the time. Kalu Okpi, the famous novelist, was the Chief Scriptwriter for NTA at that time, and he was the one that came down to meet me at Ife. And he was quite surprised that I was so young. But we got talking and that was how I got into working on that project.
During the very first meeting we had with Soyinka in 1988 on the Season of Anomie project, NTA came with many prayers. The first was that they should try and make changes because of the political import of Season of Anomie. The implication for NTA at that time would have been enormous. The northern pogrom, the massacre of the Ibos in the North, was there. Wole Soyinka, obviously himself was the one veiled as Ofeyi. Zaki Amuri in the novel is Ahmadu Bello. Anybody seeing the movie will know. Chief Batoki is (Ladoke) Akintola so on and so forth. And NTA was a bit nervous and they asked if we could make changes. We were in Soyinka’s house somewhere in Abeokuta behind a bakery called ‘Tekobo’. And Soyinka now told them that: “By the time you are done with those changes; you will end up with nothing. That means you can’t do it. So why don’t you just fold it up?” That was how the meeting came to an end. And we were back in the then Ogun State Hotel in Kuto where we lodged. Meanwhile, I had formed a kind of friendship with Kalu Okpi. After resting awhile in my room, I now thought of seeking him out. When I got to his room, I was shocked to find him in tears. He was actually crying and I asked him: “Kalu, what happened to you? What tragedy befell you?” He now said I couldn’t understand, that it was the meeting of that afternoon. And I said, which meeting? He replied that it was the meeting with Prof. I then told him that if they were not doing the film any more, it wasn’t his loss now. It was his employers that should bemoan their loss. He repeated that I couldn’t understand. Kalu said that he lost four siblings who were killed in River Benue during that pogrom Soyinka talks about in the Season of Anomie.
You know, I have never seen where art affected someone directly like that. In school, we learnt a lot about art is life; art is mirror of life. We thought it was just an abstract thing. But I never knew art could affect someone directly like that. So, Nigerian history was history to the rest of us but memory to somebody like him. He said Soyinka wrote in defence of himself but because of the stupid job, he was on the other side defending those who murdered his family members. All of these were very shocking to me. Then came the obvious question: Then why the Season of Anomie? If you wanted to celebrate Soyinka, why chose Season of Anomie? That’s when he gave me the narration with the Board of NTA. I now suggested to him to change the story and look for something innocuous. He then asked: ‘Like what’? I told him that since they wanted to celebrate Soyinka, why not Ake? Ake is Soyinka’s personal story, Ake is Nigeria history and it is about Egba women’s riot. What are you looking for that is not in Ake? It is pleasantly playable and realist. He said, why didn’t I propose that to him before the meeting with Prof.? I said it was not too late as he could go back and meet with Prof. in his office at Oke Ilewo that he wanted to change the project to Ake. He did as I said and Soyinka approved it. Eventually, in a matter of weeks, I had written all the scripts, gave it to Soyinka to see, and then submitted it to Peter Igoh of the NTA. Two weeks after that, the board of the station was changed and a new board who no longer believed in the project came, and that’s when the project went into abyss. Of course, I went back to NTA to collect my script.
When did you decide to take over the project independently?
In 1992, when I set up Backstage Production. After I have decided to work privately on the project, I consulted with a few of my friends who are in banking as well as wrote many companies for support on the project. After receiving some encouraging responses, I now wrote Prof. (Soyinka) for permission. Of course, he got my letter but didn’t reply. One day, I came down to Abeokuta to meet him. Once with him, I asked him if he did get my letter. Soyinka gave me a long look. I repeated the question and he took a longer look, held his beard, looked down for some time, looked at me again and then shrugged. He then said: “Dapo, you know what? You’ve done a lot on this project already, if you want to do it, go ahead.” Two of those companies we wrote to gave us positive response. One was Union Bank of Nigeria, whose chairman at that time, Emmanuel Olisambu, was an art collector. The bank wrote back to express interest but before they could make any commitment, the board was changed and other people who didn’t believe in the project were appointed. Agip Petroleum was the other company. When we wrote to Agip, the company’s chairman also asked some of his executives to have meeting with us and they agreed to finance the project. However, we held series of meetings until June 12, 1993 caught up with us and nobody could mention Soyinka’s name in the country anymore. Of course, we had to wait until the restoration of civil rule in 1999. Then, I now reviewed the project and found out that so much had changed. There are lots of opportunities emerging with digital age. The tools of the trade have changed positively and are now more affordable. So I brought in a friend, Tunde Babalola, who had been in the movie industry. Unfortunately the relationship didn’t work out. But to shorten the story, last year, it dawned on me that Soyinka will be 80 and his birthday was coming. We didn’t want to do a post-humous production of Ake. I need him to see the movie. I need him to be part of it, thus, the attention the production is getting now.
What stage is the production since you once promised to premiere the movie this year?
The movie is 93 per cent ready.
How did you deal with the issue of funding?
When we decided to continue with the production again I said to myself, we are not going to approach all these companies again since we didn’t have much luck the first time. So I told the cast and crew that they should believe in us as we would give them their dues at the right time. But it didn’t turn out well as we didn’t get the kind of response I expected. We had to look inward and talk to our business partners and friends. At the end of the day, we got what we called ‘Free Funds’ – loans withour interest. Also, one or two companies that I don’t have their permission [to divulge their names] gave us money. A notable poet, Niyi Osundare, once called me on the phone and said to me that this project is too big and too important to go forward without hitches. In other words, I shouldn’t expect things to go smoothly. And I am telling you, Ake is very big. Most producers wouldn’t shoot rushes of more than five hours for a movie of one and a half hours. But with Ake, we have shot more than 17 hours, just to tell you how big the film is. But the gladdening news is that we have done 93 per cent of Ake. Even with that 93 per cent, we can hit the town but I only wanted to have everything. But we still need money for post-production abroad.
Tell us about the cast?
We have been very fortunate with the cast and crew. Ake is star-studded. Mrs. Taiwo Ajai-Lycett played Madam Kembiri, one of the Egba women leaders. We have Yinka Davies, the soul music singer, who played Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mom; Jimi Solanke and suprisingly, Chief Festus Onigbinde, the famous coach and FIFA member, who many people didn’t know has an art background, did the part of Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s grandfather. We also have Toyin Abiodun, who played the role of Rev I.O. Ransome-Kuti, that’s Fela’s father. We also have Alex Bart, the Art Director of the British Council, a couple of guys from the French Embassy, and also the Director of Alliance Francaise in Ibadan, who acted the role of Principal that admitted Wole to Government College, Ibadan. There are also Wale Adebayo (Sango), Bayo Bankole (Boy Alinco), Yeni Anikulapo-Kuti, Lanike Onimisi and Gbenga Ajiboye. We have three Wole Soyinkas in the movie. They are Funbi Oladele and Mofiyinfolu Oladele (Wole 1 and Wole 2), and then Jedidah Ogunremi (Wole 3). Prof. (Soyinka) himself is doing the voice over as the narrator.
How challeging was it for you to get the props, especially the automobile and architecture of those days in the 1940s?
Those were the real challenges but we were able to get some. The Bolekoja, for example, we had to go as far as Imeko, Ogun State, before we could find a very good one. The truck ran faster than my jeep when we took it to Odeda (a location we used as Isara). We were also lucky to get a truck that brought the soldier into Ake in 1945. We got that one in Lagos and had to bring it down. We managed to get Alake of Egbaland’s Rolls Royce and that of Mrs. Kuti, reputed to be the first Nigerian woman to drive a car. We also needed to get some cars on the road to establish that 1940s period. We wanted to bring some from the United Kingdom but later discovered that most are not necessary. In terms of architecture, we initially wanted to use computer-generated imaging, CGI, but later found out that it was easier to use what we call ‘set extension’. If you look at the trend in movie today, there is what we call “Chromal Key”, a complementary system used for special effects in movies. Ake, where Soyinka grew, has all kinds of gangling rocks. We had to import those rocks to this location using chromal key. Also, the coal train that actually took Wole to Abeokuta from Lafenwa Train Station would actually be in England and that part of post-production we are doing in UK. We will take the relevant cast there, green-screen it and key Abeokuta into it. So,you will see Abeokuta but not know that it is UK.
Many great authors have shown discontent with the film adapations of their books. What are you doing to avoid such wih Soyinka’s Ake?
You need a lot of courage to take on such Herculean task. You need a lot of vision. Vision means that you have an assurance of success before you set out, and you are commited enough to pay whatever price in order to actualise your task. Fortunately, Prof. himself believes in us. If he didn’t all these years, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Despite all the hitches in the past year, he never for once flinched. He never for once said to us: “You guys are not serious.” He never for once said that and that is very amazing. Even when I asked him for a written authorisation, he did it without any question. What else can I ask for? By the way, Prof. and I have come way back. I met him for the very first time when I took a complaint to him when he was Head of Department, Drama in 1981, in Ife. We became very close when I began to do the translation of D.O. Fagunwa’s book into English. So I have known him down the years and have a fair idea of his person. Soyinka might look like a finicky person but he is also somebody who is very understanding. However, it is not easy to recreate the 1940s in 2014. It’s not easy but we have tried our best.