Bode Sowande: “Africa has a treasure chest of stories, but the craft is still something that needs attention.”
When Wole Soyinka was a political prisoner in Kaduna Prisons, Dapo Adelugba directed all the artistic activities of Orisun Theatre and Sowande was one of the writers-in-residence. It was a good environment to learn about theatre as they were on stage, and were on television every week. The company developed a repertory of plays that were constantly being put on stage.
“Adelugba would simply put me behind the typewriter, a cup of coffee, and I would be typing away scripts as best as I could. There would be the original script, then there would be the camera script for television,” Sowande recalled.
In 1972, after graduation, he engaged Soyinka about starting his own playhouse, teamed with group of writers, and started Odu Themes which celebrated her golden anniversary last year.
Considering the ambitious name of his theatre company, his ring side experience during the adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s play, “Kongi’s Harvest” and many of Herbert Ogunde’s original stage materials in big pictures, The Nollywood Reporter took him on about the challenges that have stunted the adaptation of Nigeria’s rich stash of plays into films. It’s been a long drought until Biyi Bandele Thomas’ shot the “Eleshin Oba” movie out of “Death and the King’s Horseman.”
TNR: Why is there a challenge making many of the great plays that we have into the big picture?
Sowande: Okay. I think there are some personal choices that some of the writers of my generation have made. And those choices were made due to critical observation of the film medium and the film craft. There are so many weaknesses that you see in the Nigerian movie industry.
The commonest that is so obvious is in costuming. Just go and watch a foreign movie for 10 minutes. You will see how the costumes communicate messages.
I have seen a couple that are very impressive. “Omugwo.” The one that has to do with the mother-in-law going to take care of the newborn baby. Excellent. Then, of course, the one that my late wife loved, “The Wedding Party,” with all those people that I know: Sobowale and others. That one captured what you can call the high society. Then the very old “Taxi Driver” that Afolayan— Adelove— did was also excellent.
Of course, the Hubert Ogunde films, all of them. I think, in fact, the Yoruba movie industry wants to replicate Hubert Ogunde in multiple fragments.
That’s the way I look at the Yoruba Nollywood , that will concentrate on the evil eye, and all the babalawo thing. Whereas if you watch Ogunde, Ogunde was an initiate of Ifa. And he wrote like an Ifa scholar. And he interpreted the conflict between darkness and light, the way it would be interpreted in all the theories of drama in the world. Excellent standards that still remain unbeatable when it comes to the content of the story.
I have seen so many films imitating Ogunde and failing woefully.
What of the stage to screen adaptation of “Kongi’s Harvest”.
I auditioned for a role there, the role of a newscaster. They said, you look too young for this role.
Well, my friend was there, Gbemi Shodipo. He played the detention camp superintendent. Gbemi and I were foundation members of Odu Films.
The quality of the film was very good. What failed the film, when it came out, was an attitude, what you could call a racist resistance to the African voice.
That’s an issue facing African cinema. If you did a film at the time, the foreign audience had issues with what the actors were saying because African actors have a different way of speaking. It is true. It’s not something that we can deny. It is for that reason that if you want to act in England, you must have done your speech work. There are so many speech coaches in London. If you want to play the part of a cab driver, you get a speech coach to teach you. So if you now want to act like Orlando Martins did in Hollywood alongside Reagan, you would have to speak like them.
A decision was made to have an overdub of American voices when “Kongi’s Harvest” was done, and the post-production was completed. The Nigerian audience saw it at the premiere, and everybody just went crazy.
It was very bad. Soyinka’s voice was not Soyinka’s voice. Adenuga’s voice was not. All of them. The sync of the overdub was even horrible. So, it was a failed project. I remember Soyinka made the first statement that he was dissociating himself from that particular film project.
But today, it’s been rehabilitated. And I’m sure it can still go on collegiate circuit. Films that go around schools and campuses in Europe and America do make money, if one keys into their circuit.
“Amadi” was produced by Ola Balogun. John Chukwu played Amadi. Amadi’s story is the reverse of urban drift. The central character got tired of Lagos. He was leaving Lagos for his village. And the beauty of village life emerged from the film as being better than the hustle and bustle of Lagos. It was a short film. Very good.
All the examples were celluloid. What you have today is a technology that has been upgraded from the crude videotapes thing. It has been upgraded digitally. The way it happens in the film industry is that you shoot first with the highest grade and then you do video distribution. Now, what happens in Nigeria is that, Nigerians adopted the lower grade and then, deceived themselves that they were doing cinema. Did you understand my point?
Yes. But some of the cameras are shooting at 8K line resolution. They’re almost as good as…
Almost is what you are saying.
The error that the Nigerian film industry made, I would like to call it videographic industry, was to deceive themselves that what they produced was equivalent of film. And the shock came when entries were being made into international festivals, and they were being told, “Sorry, this does not pass you know, as a qualification for what we want to do.”
Africans are being told to do things in their languages for particularization. Now, if you want to subtitle the films, you better make sure that the dialogue is not much because there’s very little the eye can read when the emotions are a bit agitated. You know, in film, light travels faster than sound.
So, while the man is reading, emotions are racing ahead, and he stops reading.
Yeah, so those are the challenges?
I have a friend doing films all over the place. He says to me, “Bode give me a script.”
I’ll say, “Look, the scripts I have, if I’m going to give you, I will want to go back to the drawing board. I will want the scripts, some of the characters to speak raw Yoruba, and some of the other characters to speak minimal English. We take time, maybe in a year, I’ll be ready for it.”
Now, our neighbours, our Francophone neighbours, crossed that hurdle decades back. Sombène Ousmane shot all his films in Wolof, one of the languages of Senegal. And the camera spoke more than the humans. That’s one of the crafts that limits Nigerian films: too much talk. You keep saying, “She’s a pretty girl, she’s lovely.” Let the camera show the loveliness. Shut your trap. Let’s see what the lady looks like.
That is a weakness. And as a scholar, when we were discussing as academic, I often say, “You know, we have not yet come out of our culture.”
But it will pass. And that stage will go. You know, I thank God that other foreign enterprises are showing interest. America is looking for fantastic things all over the place now. We have a treasure chest in Africa, the whole of Africa. Stories we can write about, but the craft is still something that needs attention.
You wrote “The Night Before”, “Farewell to Babylon”, and “Flamingo”. What are the challenges stopping them from being adapted to cinemas?
First of all, personal choice. “The Night Before”, “Farewell to Babylon”, “Flamingo” comprises a trilogy.
When [Bola] Ige was governor of Oyo State, he commissioned the latter for this series. And it was done as a 13-part series. And, to be quite honest, a film project was discussed at the time with Yemi Faronbi who was the GM or the consultant to this series at that time. But one thing happened: the military came in again, and this series became something else.
So, the personal choice is this distrust that it may not be handled well. Then the second thing had to do with professional remuneration.
You are compelling me to make a revelation to you, but I will make a revelation. One of my plays is based on a particular politician. A producer in Lagos called me to Lagos, and then he brought a financier from England and we discussed. In addition, we had a meeting with the other scriptwriters who would translate the thing into a film script before we would start shooting. But then, Nigerian factor: we applied for funding. It was promised. The particular bank involved crashed. And the financier went back to England.
I always have projects in the fires, always. However, the question is why I did not do that. If we had completed the film, it would have been out there by now.
Now, it must have taken some time for Wole Soyinka to allow Biyi Bandele Thomas to direct “Eleshin Òbà,” which Mo Abudu produced. I mean, Biyi Bamidele Thomas was quite close to all of us, and to Soyinka. After the film adaptation, they came out with a critique that the film was not as good as the stage play. Unfortunately, I cannot myself comment. So, sometimes when the text goes to screen, it happens in the best of spaces when the audience will say the book is better than the film, or the film is better than the book. So, if you look at “Eleshin Òbà,” independently as somebody who has not read the play, maybe you will see a fantastic film. But because you have read the text and you have also seen the film, you could be wondering where is all that beautiful poetry of Soyinka in the film.
You are suggesting the treatment may not be quite up to par?
I also say in the classroom that technology came and then we use the technology as if we are using toys instead of actually using the technology as craft: Instruments of craft. That I believe will pass. I’ve even encouraged students to go from high tech to low tech and see whether they can find some art in the lower technology of the past rather than depending on all these digital stuff.
How might we take Nollywood to the height of Hollywood?
As I connect entertainment with tourism, I’m going to mention three capitals: London, Paris and New York.
New York is the capital of money: global money. Wall Street is the headquarters. Now, Broadway is the capital of theater: commercial theatre; that is, what you can call professional theater. On the other hand, Hollywood is the capital of the cinema. New York is East; Hollywood is West. They connect through money. Money must connect with cinema and theater in Nigeria through investment.
A theatre director will say, “I’m looking all over London for the old widows because they inherit their husbands’ money and they don’t know what to do with it.” Now money connects and money now says “I am energy. I only have meaning when the energy is regenerated and not wasted.”
Who will be the audience? The quantum of money that London theatres get, a large slice of it comes from foreign tourists. You see Chinese, you see Japanese, you see all of them buying tickets and then you see the English people too. Now if you find a star quality actor and they see the adverts, everyone is going to queue up. That’s how it goes.
Those cities I’ve mentioned make money from tourism. The hotel industry, the food industry … you cannot be in New York and not see foreigners. Not only Chinese; we see Senegalese selling silverware in Harlem. You see them selling Adire and so on. So if you don’t make tourism buoyant, you cannot attract international money. This is a fact.
Go to Paris, too. It is also tourism. Can you do that in Lagos?
When my theatre career started, we would start plays at 8 pm until we moved from night time to matinee. We did plays at 4pm and, in the 1990s, 4pm, 5pm. By 7.30pm, we went back home. MUSON has tried to recommend night shows but insecurity is a factor to consider.
I was with the Lincoln Centre Theatre for a while in New York. Very close to Broadway,, and it is a 24 hour busy part of New York. You have traffic on Broadway until, maybe, 3am. Between 3am and 5am, the streets will be empty. So, what I’m saying is if we want to imitate them, we must create that atmosphere for people that are ready to spend a lot. And we must create a safe environment for them to do so. That is the way it goes.
Abuja is a very promising city to cultivate into this culture. It can be a tourism destination. It can also be made safe. But is it a tourism destination now? Can it be safe? Can travellers travel from Ilorin by road to Abuja? From Lagos to Abuja? And, then, as they are travelling along, stopping on the way to buy artifacts and all that? Can they eat locally?
However, leave Nigeria and go to Cote d’Ivoire, and you see the sharp difference. Go to Senegal. There is a village in Senegal, a whole village, that is just flooded by tourists. And then let’s come back to Ghana.
African-Americans, a long time ago, just identified Ghana as an ideal place for roots. And then they started that festival that happens every August. That festival, I told my students, you have to book your participation a year or two years in advance. There you see African-Americans happy to be back home. And the Ghana tourism industry is more buoyant. We may be a bigger nation but their own tourism industry is more attractive. That’s where the answer is.
The point I’m trying to make is that the commercialism of the environment is what feeds the theatre.
But sir, you seem to be limiting the question to theater maybe because theater is your area. Why are we not having all our great plays made Into films?
I just told you.
You talked about the rights and then the disposition of the writer, we have the same thing abroad, like you said. It’s not really about the Nigerian film makers, but why can’t we go international?
What makes us cautious is, ah! Okay, look at what happened to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It was spoiled on TV. It was, I mean, you just cannot see the epic proportion of the text in the medium. Up till today, sometimes, it is mistakenly assumed that only a man from Achebe’s culture would be able to interpret it. So, if some of the good names in Nollywood tried to do Things Fall Apart, it will fall flat.
At one point, it was said that, perhaps, it should be done in Igbo language and then it should be subtitled. However, would that be the only characteristic of an epic required? Anyway, that’s just a hypothesis.
Now, my own personal choice: you want to do my film? I start by saying, “Hey, wahala, don dey.” This is because the craft is the problem. The craft. Nonetheless, now, it’s changing. It’s not changing massively. It’s changing slowly.
Have I mentioned poor enumeration.
You mentioned that.
When an actor says, “I’ve acted in 100 films. I don’t even know the number.”
And then you say, “You must be a multimillionaire.”
And the actor says, “No.”
No? If that is the case, it means somebody somewhere is doing a wrong thing.
Some people say it’s the marketers. Some marketers make more money than producers.
A producer did reveal that the first portion of money he got ever in his career, which was large, he used to buy a plot of land and whatever he had left, he managed it on the project. So with this kind of racketeering, you find that there cannot be prosperity. The structure in the developed economy will be you earn your fee, and you pay your tax.
And then the studios are highly competitive. The competition is razor sharp. You have to have good actors, good material. Everything must be ready.
I’ve seen shadows roaming across some Nollywood films You see the shadow floating across, which means the lighting is poor. Costuming is poor, and education is almost nil.
Intellectual property is priceless. That’s why you have to handle it with care. You pay a fee and you pay royalty, if it’s television or cinema. You don’t pay a fee once and tell the person to go to hell.
He sees his film 10 years later on the screen and the son is asking, ‘Daddy, they’ve done your film. Are they going to pay you?’
The man says, “They paid me 20 years, 10 years ago.”
That’s stupid. But that is what is happening in the Nigerian film industry. So when you look at this and somebody says, “I want to do your film,” your default response will be, “No, forget it.”
We are so rich in material that, by the time we start with knowledge and wisdom – not repeating errors of innocence and ignorance – we will hit the ground running.