BY ‘SEGUN ODEJIMI
Belinda Yanga-Agedah is a Nollywood filmmaker and media content producer who heads her own outfit, Rhythm Media Enterprise (RME) Pictures.
The Creative and Cultural Studies, University of Glasgow product has worked on the creative team of several television shows and series including Head over Heels on which she was a series director.
After several years of working on it, Belinda is ready with her first feature film, Romance is Overrated which stars Kiki Omeili, Bryan Okwara, Omowunwi Dada, Keira Hewatch, Mofe Duncan and others.
In this exclusive interview with TNS, Belinda discusses her love-hate relationship with Nollywood, issues affecting the industry, her early influences, Amaka Igwe and more.
What brought you into filmmaking?
The love I have is very strong for film. For cinema. It was something I knew I wanted to do. I started out in acting. I acted for stage before I went to school in Scotland. I majored in film and television analysis.
At what point did the love start?
I can’t really pinpoint but while growing up, I saw a lot of films that blew my mind. Sound of Music, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Fifth Element which is one of my favourite films, Casablanca, Exorcist… there were a lot of films from several genres that just kept blowing my mind. As I grew older, I started getting exposed to other types of cinema – Asian cinema, Indian cinema, European cinema. I can’t pinpoint but I just continue to consume all kinds of storytelling.
None of these films is Nollywood…
There were not really a lot of Nollywood films when I was growing up. Maybe in the 90s. Mid 90s was when I started getting really exposed to Nollywood films. But I had been exposed to Nigerian television as opposed to Nollywood. The usuals, Checkmate…I was exposed to a lot of Amaka Igwe‘s works that I loved. I enjoyed Tales by Moonlight and The Village Headmaster. With Nollywood, it was sort of a love-hate relationship. On one hand, I loved the fact that I saw people like me on TV, blacks, Africans telling our stories. On the other hand, all the technicalities that we fall short of. They really annoy me but I can’t stop watching them.
Has that relationship changed?
It has evolved but it’s still basically the same because I feel like we’re still struggling with the things that made me angry when I was just beginning to experience Nollywood. We’re still having those little problems that we shouldn’t have but it has gotten so much better.
However, our stories have become watered down. I thought we had better stories growing up, more in-depth stories as opposed to now where it seems everybody is more focused on the technical instead of what we are really god at – storytelling.
Why do you think storytelling has suffered?
I think it is a collection of different reasons. I would think that for one, a lot of people have come into Nollywood thinking there’s money and there’s fame. It’s not really about the passion for storytelling or the craft. They think I could be a director like Kunle Afolayan and be famous and that there is a lot of money. Or it could be laziness. I think there is a certain level of laziness going on in Nigeria generally, not just Nollywood. People are just not giving a damn about their work. It could also be oil. We like to blame oil as if oil is the cause of all our problems. Some people also just think that it would be too expensive to tell some kind of stories. It is not only thinking, it is also true. Filmmaking is not easy. There were many books I read when I was growing up and to make such books into films is definitely going to cause a lot. So I think that just pushes people off.
Talking about finance, part of the financial gap can be bridged by collaborations but you don’t see many collaborations in Nollywood, how do you think that can be changed?
I will agree that there’s not much collaboration in Nollywood. When you sit down to watch a film like Avatar, when the film starts, you see several names as producers, the opening credit will start with maybe 4 or 5 production companies. You can literally sit down for like 5 minutes during the end credits. I don’t know why there’s not much collaboration in Nollywood. It is not possible to make a film alone. that is why we are still making films for 3 million Naira, 1.5 million Naira or some crap money. But whether we like it or not, if we want to make money from this thing, we have to spend money. To spend money does not necessarily mean cash. Someone has a production company, you can collaborate and still get a producer’s credit for that. You have an equipment company, we can collaborate. Honestly, I don’t know how the problem of lack of collaboration can be solved. But we need to come together, tell diverse stories. Not “room-and-parlour. We have to chill with the “room-and-parlour” stories.
Some people might argue, which is my stance, that it’s a Nigerian factor. You might consider me a pessimistic person but Nigerians, we are not really nice to ourselves. You see someone doing well and you hear people say, “Anyway, my turn will come.” That’s the mentality. We’re always looking to pull down.
How was the Head Over Heels experience for you?
I was one of the series directors for Head Over Heels which, hopefully, will be airing soon. It was a time for me to learn. Majority of it was a learning curve for me. I have done TV but it was mostly news and entertainment shows. It’s like shooting a film but on a much longer stretch. It was a learning curve that I would never trade. Having to answer to someone else, my producer [and] my executive producer. It was a learning curve and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity. I really hope to do more of it.
What are the differences and similarities between doing TV and making films?
I’m of the school of thought that film is not TV and TV can never be film. TV will never be film in the sense that film is a form of expression. It comes a whole. It comes as a tool to air your opinions. Things bothering me, I could tell through film. With TV, I think it is used mostly for entertainment. It can be used for education but you have this longevity. There’re all these boundaries that you go with TV that I absolutely detest. What time is it showing? How many times do people go back to watch an episode one of season one of something? With film, you can go back 50 years after and watch it.
The similarity is that people are active. Someone is acting, someone is directing, you need locations, there is camera…those are the similarities, In terms of the essence, they are very different. Although TV is beginning to give some from of filmic aesthetics. You see what all these foreign companies are dong with TV now… you see companies like HBO and Netflix doing some good work with shows like Game of Thrones. But TV will never be film.
Safe to say you will lean more towards film when asked to choose?
Oh yes! I will always pick film.
Did you have any mentors?
I think it goes back to this Naija problem. It seems like everyone is in competition with you. When I moved back to Nigeria, I came back with the mentality that “Let’s do stuff, let’s do things”. But I have been burnt. So now, it seems like I want to protect my own space, protect my own vision because I couldn’t find people that wanted to teach you. You would ask questions but they weren’t responsive until I sent an email to the late Amaka Igwe which was very fascinating. I was so used to people not responding or if it’s a guy you’re talking to, they turn it into something else. So, when she responded I was like wow! She asked me to come to the office so we could talk but unfortunately, she passed on before we could see. So, I didn’t have any specific mentors. I think it is unfortunate that I should say that. I feel like I would have done so much better if I did. Especially with the films I made when I moved back to Nigeria. It would have been so much easier if I had people who were experienced in Nollywood.
I learn most of my storytelling skills by watching films, even though I went to school to study film. I watch a whole lot of films from all over the world. But that does not transit to reality. You have all these amazing ideas but Nigeria is a special place with special challenges.
Who would name as your filmmaking influences?
I’m a big fan of Darren Aronofsky. I just pick from here and there. I like Sophia Coppola… I don’t keep directors in my head, I keep their works. In Nigeria, you already know how I feel about Amaka Igwe. I loved Kenneth Gyang‘s Confusion Na Wa. So, I’m more about the films and not the person who made it.
Majority of my influences are from everywhere basically. Korean cinema is a major influence.
I feel like they have found a balance between art and commercial as opposed to Hollywood which is either one of two extremes. Their commercial films are not artistic and their artistic films cannot be sold. Korean cinema gives me both. I was just basically sick of Hollywood films.
Commercial or artistic?
I think filmmakers should do whatever they think is right for them, whatever makes them happy. Whether commercial or artistic, there are audiences for them. But I will focus on the artistic.
When I made Romance is Overrated, I took it to several cinema houses. The first said it didn’t contain stars. The second said they liked it but it was too artistic… to intellectual, inaccessible – whatever that means. But I am not willing to compromise on the artistic nature of my films. I plan on making a statement that we can find a balance. I believe there’s an audience for my films and I am willing to be patient. I’m in no hurry to blow, whatever that means.
Belinda Agedah’s Romance is Overrated will hit cinemas this September.