An award-winning film producer of Sango, Obafemi Lasode, has embarked on another big project to produce and direct a movie on Osun. He told Flora Onwudiwe that funding has been a setback, for an idea conceived a decade ago. He also talked about his interview with the late Susanne Wenger (Adunni Olorisha) and her experiences with the deity, among other issues. Excerpts…
You gave Nigerians a beautiful epic movie, Sango. What inspired you to shoot the movie?
First of all, I believe that it was by divine grace that I was able to produce my epic movie Sango, the legendary African King. The genesis of contemplating shooting such an epic movie has its roots from when I was a student in the United States of America in 1979 through the 1980s.
That was a period when Afrocentrism was taking over. African Americans were really interested in African identification. It was the period of Mohammed Ali and Pan Africanism.
My African American friends and colleagues were fascinated with stories of Orisha, and changing their names to African names.
They would often ask me questions, and complained of not much African heritage movies to watch in the era of Sinbad, the Sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp, Hercules and they would often tease me about no African Epic movies at the time.
At the time, one could get smuggled, faded, very, very poor copies of Duro-Ladipo and Hubert Ogunde’s plays on tape in New York. I went to a computer store in Manhattan and came across a computer game called Shango, dressed like a Chinese warrior, and I was shocked that there was an attempt to distort our rich African heritage. But shooting epic movies is a very, very expensive business.
You are trying to replicate a period in history, and your environment has to reflect the period. Not like shooting a Nollywood, where you can rent your uncle’s house, or your Aunt’s car, and modern costumes. For instance, because of development, if I wanted to shoot a historical movie in Lagos, I would either have to go to the outskirts of Lagos, for a village setting or get a location and build sets.
So, that’s why Film Villages are extremely important, and states should include them as part of their cultural tourism infrastructure.
How does it make you feel, making such a beautiful movie?
Movie making is one of my passions, along with other production formats, music and documentaries. It is satisfying and gratifying when members of the public acknowledge one’s efforts, with a lot of appreciation. But more importantly, these works are for generations to come.
What challenges did you face when you started out as a film producer and how were you able to overcome them?
Principally, I studied radio, television and film for my Masters Degree at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. I had the opportunity of getting further exposed in that sector when I got a job as Promotions Coordinator, Inner-city Broadcasting Corporation, New York, owners of WBLSWLIB, as well as a radio programme presenter’Africanvogue’ on WNYE, Medgar Evers College, New York.
I was deeply involved in propagating the best that Africa had to offer in the area of music and information to the Africans, and African-American communities in New York. As well as working at the Apollo Theatre in New York, promoting African artistes such as Fela, King Sunny Ade, Chief Oliver De Coque, Sonny Okosuns, Twins Seven Seven and others. Since the black community in New York was supported with minimum funding, we were taught to maximise results with minimum funds. I brought that philosophy back to Nigeria, and it has worked ever since.
If the idea to shoot a movie on Osun was conceived over a decade ago, why are just embarking on the project now?
First, we must understand that after attending two or three Osun-Osogbo festivals to shoot my award-winning documentaries, I noticed that there were not in existence (to the best of my knowledge) very little audio-visual materials, about the festival and more importantly, a movie on Osun.
That was the prime subject available on sale, for the teeming international visitors to take back home with them. That was what encouraged me to try to fill that gap. I had discussed it with the various relevant Osun State officials, over a 15-year period, (after my Sango Movie).
Those officials lamented that the State was cash trapped, and its priority was to try to off-set staff salaries and other priorities. My position had always been that I don’t expect the State to fund such a project, but they can refer us to groups, organisations, and private individuals that would be ready to financially support such a venture.
15 years later, one is still waiting, but I have begun to shoot my script bit by bit.
What does the movie on Osun tell its indigenes or the Yoruba as an ethnic group?
When researching for the Queen Mother Osun story and script, we noticed that there are two themes prevalent; the mythological stories and the historical account as espoused by historians such as Reverend Johnson in his book ‘History of the Yoruba’ and other historians.
Historians also acknowledge that Yoruba ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ were once human beings that were deified at the end of their human existence.
Osun is a case in point. My movie production tries to highlight the life and times of Osun, the second wife of Alaafin Sango of the Oyo Kingdom. We attempted to trace in the movie her journey from Royalty to divinity.
The lesson we wish to impart is that there is a need to document African history for generations still coming.
In this case, I chose to attempt to document African history in movie format.
Of what significance would the movie be to tourists that come yearly to Osun Osogbo festivals?
I noticed a need for a movie (s) about Osun for visitors to take back with them to play for their families and friends. I noticed this first when I was a student in New York in the early ‘80s, and I saw that the void was yet to be filled. If we allow outsiders to do it, then there will be the danger of distortion of our rich African history for commercial gain.
Adunni Olorisha, (Susanne Wenger) before her demise, was said to have volunteered to worship the deity, Yemoja. Did her presence and beliefs add value to the existence of man and its environment?
What I do know is that you can use one word to describe Adunni Olorisha, Susanne Wenger, and that is passion. She taught us to appreciate what is ours, and share the joy we derive with others, particularly international visitors. I had the good fortune of interviewing her for a one hour documentary and you could hear the passion and dedication in her voice about her being, work, and challenges in her artistic endeavour.
You are always digging deep into the Cultural heritage of Nigeria/ Africa and your efforts reflected in epic movies like Sango, Lishabi, Tears of Slavery, Mask of Mulumba and more, were all these researched. What has always been the perception of the audience after watching these movies?
I always remember how my New York African American friends and schoolmates were hungry for such movies, and that is my first target audience. Nigerians can come out to support a good movie. The major problems with Nigerian movie makers are lack of funding and a good distribution system (local and international).
After shooting Sango, you were quoted as saying you felt so sad leaving the sets behind. Did you not realise at that moment that the movie was make-believe?
The issue was that I felt sad that the beautiful sets constructed outside of Ilorin, Kwara State, could not be maintained for the use of other movie makers. But it also made me realise the importance of a Film Village.
I was sad that I could not hand over the sets that we built to a Cultural Tourism organisation that could take over the movie sets on behalf of other movie makers to use and reuse.
That is my very point. With development fast taking over in Nigeria, there will be nothing left to remind us of our historical existence.
The idea of Film Villages has been raised but except for Tinapa in Cross River State, no other State has deemed it necessary to officially provide such facilities.
But as time goes on, I believe that this issue would be addressed. No one can point out where Nollywood is located in Nigeria.
You were exposed to studied film outside the shores of Africa. What is your assessment of what is available back home?
There will always be hope for the upstart in the industry once their projects get the financial and other support. There will always be a movie topic that attracts the right financier.
Which of your films would you say made you popular?
My movie on Sango, the legendary African King, continues to be very popular. But from the response I have received so far, my uncompleted Queen Mother Osun is generating a lot of interest.
As a filmmaker, would you also say that film making is a profitable venture?
Film making can be a profitable venture once an effective marketing and distribution plan is put in place and followed.
As a songwriter and singer, why have you not given it another thought to go commercial with that?
I am a producer not a performer.
There is nothing more exciting than getting excellent performers to interpret one’s production.
Do you intend to lecture at the University after your PhD programme?
No, I love my studio life. My main purpose for attending the PhD programme at the University of Abuja, is to develop a supervised blueprint that will show how the export of Nigeria’s Cultural Products can one-day outpace petroleum export.
How do you relax?
I love reading publications and exploring new computer Software.
Which is your best food?
My best food is boiled plantain pepper less soup with shrimps.