Filmmaking is a serious craft that strikes deeper than mere interest, or passion, or certain words of affinity coined by several artists to describe their relationship with the art. It is a process of transformation, or in modern language, self-discovery—not just for the artist but also for the spectator who admires the craft.
But over the years, we have come to terms with a more critical aspect of this craft; that is filmmaking or cinema becoming an agent of social commentary and change. This unique style of storytelling is seen in titles like Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee), Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay, 2021), The Colour Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), Pad Man (R. Balki, 2018), Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), Oloture (Kenneth Gyang, 2016), Eyimofe (Chuks and Arie Esiri, 2021), Saworoide (Tunde Kelani, 1999) and so on. These stories have taken huge strides at resuscitating social consciousness on issues that would otherwise be swept under the carpet.
Azeez Akorede has found herself in this very niche of storytelling. Speaking with us, she explains how her unique background has shaped her perspective on cultural representations in film and has also inspired questions that (according to her) might be uncomfortable to people of certain social and religious affiliations. Korede has a distinctive body of work to her cause: from directing Tip of the Edge (About a woman who thinks she killed her husband and her mother) to recently winning the Netflix UNESCO’s African Folktales Reimagined competition. Yes, she’s a new voice on the block but her unique taste in storytelling has made her a filmmaker worthy of attention.
Welcome to Filmkaku, Akorede.
Congratulations on winning the UNESCO African folktale competition for Nigeria.
Thank you so much.
While reading about you, I noticed you once worked with the BBC. How has your radio career come to influence your filmmaking journey today?
When I was younger—probably around 8 or 10 years old—I used to write short stories and books. That was where my storytelling journey started. But at the same time, I liked creating and building. In fact, I remember having a career choice crisis back in secondary school. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be in the Sciences or the Arts. I thought I’d be well suited for a career in engineering but I eventually went to Art class. Sad to say, I couldn’t study Theatre Arts at the university as the institution I studied at didn’t have the facilities for it. I later opted for Mass communication instead, because I couldn’t wait another year to study Theatre Arts somewhere else. Lucky for me, Caritas University—the institution I studied in—ran a campus radio station. And in those days, there were a few radio stations around, so we had a lot of people tuning in. I participated in a youth group program for radio by assisting the program’s production team. Eventually, I was moved by my desire to create and began anchoring my own programs. Also, I read one of Tomi Adesina’s blog posts which I kept seeing as a radio drama. I think this perspective was because of my experience at Caritas FM—where I played a BBC media action drama series titled ‘Story Story’ several times. I loved the series a lot and one day I said to myself “why not do something like this?” Also, I interned at a private radio station in Enugu called Solid FM, for a semester. The difference between both radio stations was that in Caritas FM I only worked with cassettes and analog systems but at Solid FM everything was digital, and also, it was there I worked with proper audio processing software–Adobe Audition–for the first time. And when I went back to Caritas FM, I stopped using the analog system and instead chose to use my laptop and mic to record and edit my shows. So, with a very cheap mic and my laptop, I started recording my radio drama series. I also got help from the drama group on campus. We just came together and did our thing. It didn’t turn the way we expected though. And I think that was because I hadn’t written a proper script before. So, the whole process was me teaching myself how to adapt prose into script form. Even though the series never aired, it was a huge learning experience for me, and it was something I knew I wanted to do more often.
The radio or the drama aspect of it?
The drama aspect of it. That whole process of creating and making it happen was fantastic. When I graduated, the campus radio station offered me a full-time job which I did before enlisting for NYSC. However, I decided to jump into TV during my service year since I had been doing radio for so long. Luckily, I got an opportunity to serve at a TV Station when I was posted to Abuja. And that’s what I did for one year. While I was at this TV station, they wanted to make me a reporter but I kept running from it. I was more interested in programs because they provided more room to express my creativity. After NYSC, I joined the BBC in 2018 as an assistant technical producer. It was also during this period that I started working on their radio drama series – Story Story.
So you’re saying radio inspired you and gave you a platform to see and experience drama till knowing that you wanted to pursue it?
What kind of films were accessible to you while you were in Enugu and Abuja, apart from your radio experience? I mean films that inspired the kind of storyteller you were going to become.
I saw several Hallmark films and a lot of romantic comedies. My mum always had these CDs: Maid in Manhattan, Sound of Music, and others. I’m sure I saw those movies at least 20 times each. We also saw several Nollywood movies because there was a video club close by. I grew up exposed to those kinds of movies. However, when I got into the University, I didn’t end up seeing as many movies as before. Instead, when I took interest in drama, I read extensively about it and in the process, got exposed to movements like the French New Wave and so on. Looking back, what I think influenced me most was the Hallmark films. Being a curious child, I always imagined what went on behind the scenes and sometimes, I imagined myself doing some of those things.
Interesting. Your first film was Tip of the edge. Actually, the first film that I saw from you was Man Coin, and I’ve also read interviews where you talked about the recent Netflix win and future projects. I have observed that a few of your films merge technology with culture and sometimes superstitions. What attracts you to this approach of storytelling?
I read a lot of fantasy novels while I was growing up. My Mom had the habit of buying me a lot of novels. I grew up with books like Enid Blyton’s The Magic Treacle Jug. But as I grew older, I got more aware of myself and started thinking a lot about our own magical, mystical, and spiritual backgrounds. Also, hearing all the talks about “village people” influenced me. I’ve always been curious about technology too. I read a lot about history and mythology too. I loved studying mythology as a child, thanks to Encarta, a digital encyclopedia software I spent a lot of time with. There was a time I would go online and look through journals and news stories on recent happenings in tech. I found it so fascinating because you get to see how over the past century, we’ve made so many technological advancements more than ever. I never stopped imagining questions like, “Where are we going to be in the next 100 or 200 years?” “How far can we push this?” “What is possible?”. Also, reading about ancient civilizations carving their homes from rocks and how the pyramids were built increased my interest.
This leads me to ask you about your writing process. I mean, you’ve talked about your experiences with radio and drama groups in school, studying the French New Wave, and now, you’ve also talked about your interest in technology and fantasy. How does this affect how you think about creating synopsis and treatments? Do you start with an idea and later on improve it or do you adapt things you’ve seen?
I’m thinking about this question because it feels like every story has a different process.
I get that. I’m asking because I’m assuming a time comes when you begin to know what you enjoy, what you want to do, and the broad themes you wish to engage in. I’ve been reading your tweets for the last few weeks and I’ve seen some of the things you’re cooking, and the pitch decks you’re trying to build. So, I’m thinking that there’s a bit of unity coming in because as a storyteller, you’re getting to the point where you’re becoming aware of the kind of issues you’re interested in and the kind of stories you want to tell. That’s really what I want to know—the unity between your stories and the exposure you’ve gotten.
Over the years, I’ve made it a habit to note the issues that bother me. Growing up, I never saw any Muslim presented on TV and even if they do, you’ll find that it’s either related to terrorism or oppression. There’s one issue and there are others I’ve accumulated over the years. But more recently—I’m talking 2 years ago—I’ve started putting down some of these issues, ideas, and questions I have about the World and sometimes they form threads and story ideas. Even my project that won the Netflix UNESCO competition is a product of some of these ideas and questions I’ve had. Another point might be that my background which is not necessarily unique, but just not very common. I’m a Yoruba Muslim who grew up in the East and attended a Catholic University.
Well, I think it’s unique because you have a special viewpoint on issues and sit at different intersections. That’s a great thing for an artist to possess as it allows you to interrogate society with a bit more honesty. For instance, you now have a perspective on why it’s dangerous to have a single narrative for Northern or Muslim women, and you also see the prejudices that are in some parts of the country and how to balance everything. So, it’s a unique perspective.
Exactly! Even as I’m going to make films, I already know that most of my protagonists are going to be Muslim females. And I’m also going to ask questions that a lot of Muslims may find uncomfortable.
And that is your way of thinking through some of the things you’re also finding out yourself?
Exactly! I’ve always considered myself not to be a very opinionated person and I think it is because I tend to understand the different sides of an argument. So, it’s hard for me to say that I strongly support one side just because they are right. Now, concerning my writing process, I take up these ideas and sometimes where I start is not where I end. Also, having learned a bit about storytelling, I ask all the usual questions about how strong the character is, motivations, needs, and themes. I’ve also learned that the most important questions I need to answer are: “What exactly am I trying to say? What is my argument? What is the message I am passing across? Do I have a compelling enough character in a compelling enough world to get this message across?” These are my guiding questions for any story I develop.
Interesting. As filmmakers, we’ve had discussions about how difficult it is to make films in the world, generally, and how difficult it is to do it here in Nigeria. So what keeps you going? Why do you keep on trying to make films?
For me, it’s like a desperate need to tell these stories that I feel nobody else is telling right now. And I think that I’m in a very good position to tell them. I mean, who else is going to tell a story about an Igbo Muslim woman for instance? It has to be me! And I keep telling myself that I haven’t started telling the stories that I really want to tell. I also don’t like the 9-5 life. I always get tired after one year and just wish to go off and express myself. That’s pretty much it.
Wow. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Do keep us aware of anything you want to do. We will always give you a voice and a boost where we can.
Sure. Thank you for having me.