From writer/director/producer Adekunle “Nodash” Adejuyigbe, Delivery Boy tells a bold, forthright and heartbreakingly ominous story of sizzling rage as a tool for seeking closure. Amir (played by Jamil Ibrahim) is broken after years of sexual abuse at the hands of an older Muslim scholar tasked with guidance and protection. A transfer to a camp for young Islamic scholars confirms a switch to the dark side and when he ends up on the street as a stony, knife-wielding vagrant, he kicks into actions plans to punish the man behind his pain.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Film Kaku, filmmaker Adekunle Adejuyigbe talked about arriving Lagos as a green filmmaker, how years honing his craft in TV eased the multitasking Delivery Boy demanded, the importance of trainings, festivals and global validation, the definition of African Storytelling and what he plans to do next.
Filmkaku: There’s been talk about your reputation as a stickler for order and discipline. Getting you to speak to us is huge and we’re grateful. And, out of respect, I think it’s only right this interview adopts a more militarized tone.
Nodash: (Laughter) Really? I don’t think that’s true. Maybe on set, yes, I take discipline seriously. But when I’m not working, I’m just like everyone else.
FK: As opposed to losing control of your film set.
FK: So, let’s dive right in. You’ve been around for a while. TV productions, Music Videos and now feature length filmmaking. How did it all start for Nodash?
Nodash: I’ve always been inclined to storytelling. So, even the music videos I directed back then were shot like movies. I didn’t have the resources to make an actual film so I tried to play around with things as much I could. With time, I moved to short films before I eventually made my first feature length film.
FK: What was the first short film you made?
Nodash: I made a number of shorts for myself but I can’t remember their titles right now. But the first short film I made with a title I can remember was with Tope Oshin. It was her first venture into filmmaking too, back then. She’d seen some of my music videos and was interested in working with me. But back to stuff I did for myself, the first thing I can remember is a pilot episode of a proposed TV series called Rush. The company I was working with at the time were interested in making a TV series. They got Yinka Ogun, Tope Oshin and myself to work on the project.
FK: It all started from television production for you. How did you break in and how have you adopted ideals learnt there in forging a path for yourself via your own production company and films?
Nodash: I never joined TV to settle. There was always the plan to pivot to making films. How it all started is quite funny. I went to the TV network and asked for where they were lacking personnel-wise. They said they had editors but needed more. I knew a bit of After Effects but not editing so I thanked them and went back home to teach myself editing over the next months. When I felt good enough, I went back to the TV network and told them I was ready to be an editor.
FK: Interesting, this was when?
FK: When editors had to work with the first sets of Adobe Premieres.
Nodash: Yes sure, we all started with version 6.5 and had to work with these huge desktops. Working was quite the chore back then but we had no other choice. The main idea behind starting there was just me trying to find an inroad into the industry. I wasn’t a Lagos boy so I had to be creative with my approach. With time, I showed that I was more than an editor so the chance came to try my hand at directing and then later, I became the head of productions. The beauty about TV is that you get to work with the best hands and minds. Ideas are consistently exchanged and it’s only natural that you get better.
FK: You also learnt how to handle the camera in the middle of this?
Nodash: Yes. When I wasn’t getting the type of images I wanted, I knew I had to do it myself. I gave myself a week to learn everything the camera department was all about and when I did, I started directing the camera. But it was just coverage, you see, it was easy, I could learn it all quickly. Cinematography for film took more time but I stuck to it and later became proficient at it.
FK: How does self-learning cinematography work?
Nodash: Studying hard. There are materials all over the internet. You get them and study them. The thing about learning, self or otherwise, is that the technical aspects are easy to learn and replicate but to really stand out, you have to find your magic, what’s going to make you standout in your chosen craft. And that’s something nobody can teach you. And contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t just come with practice. There has to be a deliberate effort to think about and work out what’s going to be yours and yours alone.
FK: Beautiful. Your debut film, Delivery Boy, was met with critical acclaim upon its release. There were praises directed at the writing, cinematography, editing and acting. And surprisingly, you helmed all these positions. How did you combine all these competencies without letting up in any?
Nodash: I don’t think you can combine really. The aforementioned fields are so distinct and independently accomplished that you can’t really combine. In my case, my extensive experience as a creative director, producer, editor and cinematographer in TV came to the fore here. Writing has always been a skill I had honed growing up so I had no problem writing down the idea. After writing, I produced, then directed and then shot it. I bit them off in stages. But it’s important to mention that this approach won’t work if you don’t have a great team around you. For my writing, I had people I could trust with feedback. And on set, I set people that helped too. So, it was not a one-man mission. It remained the team effort that it should be.
FK: Having worked for and with other people, seen the difficulties that come with pooling funds, shooting and distribution, how did you navigate the hassles that came your way? Not forgetting that Delivery Boy is a sharp departure from the predominantly lighthearted Nollywood narrative.
Nodash: Film business in Nigeria is treated, by many, like it’s cast in stone. Everything is all too structural. Go to the cinema, sell to TV and watch the earnings trickle in. Who says it has to be this way? The same goes for the stories we choose to tell. Who says it has to be a drama or a comedy? I think most ideologies peddled about the industry are based on assumptions and the young filmmaker must try not to think in that direction. Admitting that no one really knows how this thing works is, yes, scary but it also frees your mind to be creative with your project. The most important thing, at least that’s what I told myself back then, was to bother myself with making a film people would enjoy watching. But also, forging a new path comes with its risks. It can be a lonely walk and it’s just you and your spirit left to battle against the tide. This is why I produced Delivery Boy myself, I wasn’t going to gamble on someone else’s money.
FK: So, it was self-funded?
Nodash: Yes. But it’s different now with the experience gained. I can take more risks now and not feel too apprehensive about them.
FK: You wrote the script with your budget in mind?
Nodash: Absolutely, it was the only way to make it work.
FK: Because I know young filmmakers insistent with starting out with a bang so they get stuck trying to raise funds so they can shoot the explosions and tricky sequences written into their scripts.
Nodash: I can’t say they are wrong or right. But it’s something I wouldn’t do. Even if I’m not funding the film, I must be sure I can raise the funds to execute what I have written down. Foresight is key when it comes to filmmaking, especially at stages where the business is integral. Also, before investing in any production, you must have an idea of how much you’re going to recoup. It’s only right. And it’s not restricted to financial returns, it can be anything that will be beneficial to you in the long run.
FK: So why go for a story with such weighty themes? Why didn’t you for a simpler drama or a romantic comedy? You know, something easier to execute.
Nodash: I’ve gotten this question many times and I wish there was a cool, quotable response to give. But the truth is there are certain stories I’m inclined to tell because I know I’m going to enjoy shooting them. Delivery Boy happened to fall into that bracket. At the time of conception, the insurgency in the North was huge and it was all everyone was talking about. The same way. The popular way. I always told myself there had to be a different dimension to the narrative and that was how the idea for the film began to form. While writing, I did a lot of research, interviewed trusted connects in the Military and when I was done writing, I proceeded to shooting and that’s it. The goal wasn’t to recreate the typical American war movie but to tell a fresh human story about a problem the country continues to struggle with.
FK: Did you have any creative influences that guided the making of the film? And let me blow this open by asking for your filmmaking influences.
Nodash: I don’t really have a particular person I could point to as an influence. Rather I expose myself to all films, books and experiences and get inspired by every and anything.
FK: Or let me ask the question in a different way, where do you drink from? So, others can get ready with their cups.
Nodash: (laughs) Read a lot of books. Discuss them with friends. Another thing that guides me is an image from childhood; an image I’m sure others have in their heads. It’s one of us, as kids, listening to a folktale from an older person, getting lost in the moment, forgetting everything else, practically sitting still like a statue. That’s the exact image that fuels my storytelling experience. The critical question for me is how do I, an African storyteller, armed with African stories, captivate my reader or audience with the telling of these stories?
FK: That’s a good question.
Nodash: Let me share a story that captures this even better. I once read a book called A Forest of a Thousand Demons, written by D.O. Fagunwa, and I remember being very impressed. Later, I got my hands on the Yoruba version. I dived in and it felt like I was reading a totally different book. The narrative gap between both versions were wide. What this did was to reveal English Language as very limited and expose the strength in our indigenous stories. The feeling I got while reading the Yoruba version of the book is what I try to infuse into my films.
FK: Delivery boy was made in 2016 but didn’t get released until 2019. An extensive festival run played a part in the delay but it was worth it, considering the accolades that have come your way ever since. Now, what role has the festival run played in the distribution of your film?
Nodash: My assumption when I made the film was that the cinema wasn’t for me. I opted for festivals, did very well and started to turn heads. The beauty of a festival run is the exposure to an international audience. There’s nothing like watching people from different corners of the world talk about your film and providing valuable feedback. The Nigerian filmmaker is constantly battling with an internal confliction of how to present his country. The worry is if the world will accept the raw Nigeria you choose to show them. Thankfully, I kept things honest with delivery boy and the reception was good.
FK: I can relate to this. In a conversation with Tunde Kelani months ago, he talked about your culture being the passport to international relevance.
Nodash: That’s profound. And to add to that, filmmakers should realize that nobody wants to be told or shown what they know. The beauty of modern entertainment is in offering something fresh. And thankfully, Nigeria is replete with so much freshness and untapped beauty waiting to be shared with the world.
FK: Let’s talk about the training in Berlin. What was the experience like?
Nodash: Yes, I was one of the 21 cinematographers invited from all over the world for a masterclass organized by the Berlin Film Festival in 2015. It was a really profound experience for me. The first class we had was about cameras from an editing perspective and I walked in ready to take notes, but I soon realized that everything discussed were things I discuss with Nigerian cinematographers on a daily basis. And this was how it was throughout the masterclass. Of course, I learnt a few new things, but realizing that I, and by extension Nigerian filmmakers, are actually good at what they do and not “behind” as we like to think was quite the surprise. The way the country is configured, the constant hustling and bustling, can make us lose sight of the stuff we are made of and that’s what the training corrected; it was a reminder that I’m good enough to compete.
FK: What are the five films you would recommend any filmmaker to watch as soon as possible?
Nodash: I know I’m expected to quote a list off the top of my head but, sadly, I don’t. Not because I don’t have favourite films but because I’m wary of suggesting certain films are standards. And I think it’s a mistake a lot of filmmakers make. Taught that certain films are must-sees, filmmakers are forced to replicate them in their works and that, to me, is not the way forward if we’re serious about telling original stories. Yes, we know about Citizen Kane, Psycho and the classics film scholars like to talk about. And yes, we appreciate them. But are they all what good filmmaking is allowed to be? Bollywood wouldn’t be where it is if the filmmakers obsessively tried to replicate some standard communicated to them. No, they found their own way and are better for it today. The thing about these so-called rules we imbibe from the west is that they were informed by cultures peculiar to them. Trying to fit them into our storytelling, devoid of their original context, is hardly going to evoke a reaction from people as much as it should because it won’t register.
FK: This is an interesting direction. You are forcing me to question a lot of things I used to believe about filmmaking.
Nodash: This is a conversation we need to start having. We can’t continue to mimic these Western films and want to compete. That’s not how it works. I’m not saying there aren’t standards to look up to or admire but African filmmakers must continue to question these standards and stop accepting them hook, line and sinker. Africans have a larger emotional bandwidth; we’re very emotional people. So, the conversation for African filmmakers should move beyond the popular standards of the west and more about the choices we can make to satisfy the bandwidth of our audience. We need to free up our minds and start approaching creative decisions without the pressure to be like Hitchcock or some other filmmaker.
FK: You’re right about that.
Nodash: Why do we have to shoot Lagos a particular way? Why do we have to go to Broad Street or some place to shoot certain things? Is it because American films have short New York in similar ways and they looked good? You must question every decision you take as a filmmaker.
FK: That’s true.
Nodash: What’s important, at the end of day, is how well you’re able to connect with the audience.
FK: Emotional impact.
Nodash: Exactly. That’s all that matters. Not the references, the shots, the style. Just how well people respond to your work. That’s what should be at the fore of your mind.
FK: I like how you have redirected the question from merely reeling out a list to reimagining the conversation around African filmmaking.
Nodash: It’s a conversation I’m constantly having with myself. So, back to the list, watch everything. The good, the bad and the ugly. Watch drama, comedy, romance and anything at all. Don’t limit yourself to certain types of movies. Then when you want to make your own film, do it in a way that feels honest to you.
FK: So final question, what are your thoughts about where the Nigerian Film Industry is and what are the things we need to fix?
Nodash: I think the industry is where it should be. I hear a lot of people say we’re far behind and I always ask them, behind what exactly? Usually, money is the common complaint and I don’t agree. I see it this way: film industries go through two phases. A phase where they just start out and people just watch them, wondering what the hell they’re doing. And then there’s the phase where the industry starts to acquire stature and slowly becomes viable. This is the stage where investors pump in money and everybody’s happy. The Nigerian Film Industry has only entered this second phase and that’s why I think we are where should be. What I am worried about is where we go from here.
FK: What are you seeing?
Nodash: I think we need to start concerning ourselves with defining what art can be. Because, my friend, art is powerful. We need to realize we can “weaponize” art into influencing leadership, society and culture. I’m not suggesting that every film should heavy with messages about social change, no. Film should entertain. But it doesn’t have to be devoid of messages. A common mistake is thinking it has to be one or the other when the two functions can exist together. Also, if we can collaborate more and organize our structure, the industry should look a lot more impressive in, say, five years.
FK: This has been a deeply enlightening conversation and I’m sure there will be a sequel to this where we can talk more about African filmmaking.
Nodash: I’m always available for a conversation.
FK: Thank you very much Nodash, it’s been great having you.
Nodash: The pleasure is mine. Thank you.
The trailer for Delivery Boy: