It’s snowing in Lagos: Tomisin Adepeju and Mike Omonua in conversation

As BFI Southbank’s No Direct Flight season prepares for check-in, two of the programme’s leading, cross-continental filmmaking voices sit down for a chat.

31 July 2019

By Tega Okiti

Appreciation (2018)

As a teen, Nigerian born Tomisin Adepeju moved to the UK. After settling into the Nigerian contingent in south-east London he began making films. At roughly the same time Mike Omonua, a British born Nigerian, began experimenting with filmmaking after he had moved to Nigeria. Without knowing it, Adepeju and Omonua have been part of a migration tag team.

The two have been brought together for the BFI’s latest film season, No Direct Flight (NDF); not in real life, but in the digital realm via Skype. It’s a fitting connection, given the premise of the season to explore black aesthetics as the internet turns 30. At a time when movement within the African continent – and for Africans globally – couldn’t be more complex, the playful visual presentation of the season also hints at something a little deeper.  

Adepeju and Omonua are the first pair to come together under the banner of NDF to discuss their craft and exposure to the digital community that the season proposes. As Nigerian filmmakers specifically, the pair also bring to light interesting reflections about their position in the next chapter of African arthouse cinema in this filmmaker to filmmaker conversation captured by No Direct Flight co-programmer Tega Okiti.

Loop Count (2018)

Tomisin Adepeju: It’s weird. I feel close to your work and even know what you look like, but I haven’t met you. I don’t know if this conversation could have happened 20 years ago. Do you think the internet has shaped your journey in any way? 

Mike Omonua: I’ve just made a film called Loop Count (2018) based on the six-second Vine videos for Twitter. I remember watching a lot of Zach King’s Vines until they cut the app. I’ve always been obsessed with memories and how we can all remember the same situation differently. I wanted to tie that app to our experience of memories. I don’t think a film like Loop Count could exist without the Vine. I really enjoyed watching your film Appreciation (2018). It’s incredible. Where do your influences come from?  

TA: European filmmakers inspired me, but I feel in my last three films my voice is more apparent. Faith, love and death ultimately mean a lot. With Appreciation, I wanted to make one last short that would really be me. It was inspired by Yasujiro Ozu. I really like the way he frames characters. They’re always locked off-centre. Appreciation was about grief. You’re locked in this state and ultimately trapped. The pastor in the film is grieving. Everyone comes to her, but she can’t move. I wanted to capture her mindset. 

MO: I could definitely see the Asian influence. Park Chan-wook does a similar thing. I also love Ozu. What would you say an African aesthetic looks like to you?

Appreciation (2018)

TA: Work that captures African characters in a way that is beautiful, bold and ultimately interesting. I want my work to do that. I’ve lived in London for 17 years; my last visit to Nigeria was eight years ago. I feel that has impacted my work. I love Nigeria, and I would say I am more Nigerian than English and my work captures the dichotomy between the two places. I want to capture the richness of Nigeria in my work, but I live in a space that doesn’t celebrate my culture. I want to try to carve out a space that is solely about Africans; about Nigerians. Appreciation was my way of saying that there’s a pool of Nigerian people here in England. That film was shot in my church; in my town where we only really see black faces. You live in space that is really African, that’s inherently black. How do you carve your own visual style? Especially as your work subverts what Nollywood is doing?

MO: Everyone here is mostly Nigerian. I know it would be a lot more difficult if I were making Nigerian films in London. In finding stories, I tend to look to ordinary people. There’s a sense among cinema types here to make films about the elites, to show Nigeria in a good light. I think we’re here as filmmakers to reflect society as it is – good or bad. The story for my film Born came from a newspaper article about a man giving a woman a drink to terminate a pregnancy. That for me is a real dramatic moment. What does that look like? Those were the kinds of questions I was asking myself. When it comes to the films I make, I experiment with the forms of cinema. I’m trying to find new ways of doing the same thing. In terms of Nigerian Nollywood cinema, there’s also a tendency towards the dramatic.

TA: You don’t exaggerate or glamourise anything. Most films I see capture a melodramatic side of our culture. It’s part of who we are, but you ground these characters and make them real people.

MO: Yes. It’s a conversation we have here. Nigerians are expressive, so when we make our films they’re expressive. Nollywood’s original makers come from theatre backgrounds. As time has passed, the new generation has learned to make from the old. I acknowledge that aesthetic, but I don’t want to go there. I think there’s also something artistic going on that you and I are part of, which leads me to my next question. How connected do you feel to Nigerian filmmaking, because you’re a diaspora filmmaker? 

Loop Count (2018)

TAThere’s something about that word ‘diaspora’ that always makes me cringe. I acknowledge it, but I think I’m a Nigerian filmmaker, perhaps because the films I make are set in the Nigerian community. For a long time, I thought I was a British filmmaker, as my earlier films were trying to explore British-European roots. For some reason, I didn’t acknowledge the fact that I was born in a country with such a rich heritage. Film conveys life, but you also extend a bit of yourself. It’s incredibly personal. Eventually it made sense for me to merge my culture and my work. It was transforming. I realised I had to embrace an African aesthetic because it informs the kind of films I make. 

MO: In the last 10 years I feel like there’s this kind of renaissance in African art. When I was growing up in the UK it wasn’t cool to be a black African. Maybe it’s music. I’ve noticed a trend that you can be African and you can be cool. Your films are in Yoruba and that’s cool! The language elevates the work to a whole new level. It makes my spine tingle. This is what I wish I had in growing up in the UK.

Appreciation (2018)

TA: I actually thought you were born and bred in Nigeria. How has that impacted your work, because you are British! Why have you adopted Pidgin English?

MO: The filmmaker I met when I was here was Daniel Oriahi on an online forum called The Auteurs [now Mubi]. I did a short film and it was all in English. Very experimental but very European in style. I just felt there was something wrong with it. Outside everyone is speaking Pidgin and different languages. I thought these films have to reflect where I am. I was going to the cinema a lot in Lagos. A problem I detected was that they didn’t reflect reality as much as they should. I grew up watching a lot of American films, and I use this analogy to describe my early screenplays. I would write a scene set in Lagos and the first line would be ‘Lagos. It’s snowing…’ When you have these influences, you tend to write things that don’t reflect where you are. I don’t speak Pidgin, so I’d get my cousin to translate my scripts for me. When I started hearing the exchange between actors it was like poetry. When I would cast them, they’d say, “Oh thank God it’s in Pidgin.” A lot of them prefer it. I understand the need to use English to be able to sell films abroad, but for me it’s more real. 

TA: Do you think you’d be making these kinds of films here, in the UK?

MO: Oh no! I like it here because there are so many stories that haven’t been told. I read, I go to museums, to cultural centres. I was in Calabar, and I was reading about the fattening rooms for women before they get married.

TA: There’s a film in there!

MO: Nigeria is tough, but in terms of the stories it’s really exciting!

This conversation was captured by Tega Okiti in a partnership between No Direct Flight and People’s Stories Project (PSP) – part of the British Council’s arts programming across Africa.

No Direct Flight ran at BFI Southbank through August 2019.


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