Funmi Iyanda

Funmi Iyanda is an award-winning TV personality, producer, broadcast journalist and writer. As the creator of Nigeria’s most iconic talk show, “New Dawn,” she has won fifty-seven industry awards, including the Nigerian Media Merit Award. Her BBC commissioned “My Country Nigeria” was nominated for Best News Documentary at the Monte Carlo Film and TV Festival whilst her gritty Web social-political diary, “Chopcassava” was nominated for Best Web Series at the Banff Film and Television Festival. One of Nigeria’s most respected voices, she is recognized as one of Africa’s Most Powerful Women and by the BBC as one of the Women to Watch of its 100 Women series. She has been named a United Nations Women Gender Equality Champion under the Beijing +20 Platform. She has a slate of critically acclaimed social documentaries and has written for TV, theater, news and music in a career spanning two decades.

Tara Karajica talks to her about her career, women in film and “Walking with Shadows,” a film that she recently produced and that had its world premiere at this year’s London Film Festival. “Walking with Shadows” is part of the wave of Nigerian art-house cinema that looks to explore universal themes and various aspects of life that impact communities. It is a gentle, story-focused film that highlights the inner struggle of coming to terms with one’s identity, particularly looking at same-sex relationships in a culture where these partnerships have been politically and socially banned. The film has been adapted from Jude Dibia’s 2005 book of the same title, which was awarded Sweden’s Natur och Kultur Prize.

 

 

 

How did you make the switch to film production?

Funmi Iyanda: I started my TV career with documentaries before doing the talk show. After the talk show, I returned to documentaries and in 2012 partnered with a UK commercial director to start optioning rights to classic and contemporary Nigerian literature for film. I thereafter registered OYA in 2016 with a slate of projects including long form features for stories I had encountered in Nigeria both as a talk show host and journalist. I saw the oncoming disruption to TV and a good future for a new type of Nigerian filmmaking reminiscent of the ‘70s and ‘80s which were the glory days of Nigerian cinema. The great Nollywood is a child of invention following the collapse of Nigerian cinema as a result of military dictatorships and economic collapse.

How did Walking with Shadows come about? How did it become the right story to tell about “the struggles with one’s self and society’s expectations in Nigeria, a country incredibly vibrant yet deeply and punitively conservative”?

F.I.: Yes, it is exactly because Nigeria is vibrant with possibilities, but bedeviled by repressive conservatism that I chose a story like Walking with Shadows. I feel that we need stories to tell us not just who we were and are, but who we can be and how the gap between is often a horror made more banal by its sheer pointlessness.

Walking with Shadows was a child of circumstance. I had met Jude in 2009 and declared an intention to make his books into movies. In 2014, I re-read Walking with Shadows at a time when the anti-gay marriage law had been passed in Nigeria and I was mentoring a number of exiled young Nigerians in London. The story resonated even deeper because I had become intimate with the struggles of many of them. Aside the prescient nature of the theme was the beauty of Jude’s storytelling and the way it appealed to everything I like about stories and my political stance on stories from Africa. It was a quiet, emotionally charged, elegant story that positioned characters from Nigeria without either of the frustrating caricaturing or canonization that African literature is often burdened with. It was not over-explained. It just was. It is my desire that audiences see Nigerian and African existences and experiences as equally soft, gentle, powerful, banal, funny, silly, mad and whatever else as any other. That is how we signpost our humanity as equal to everyone else. Emphasizing that are all as great, damned and evil as the next should allow us to reach empathy, understanding and cultural confidence.  Finally, the real theme of the book was the universal battle to find and assert ourselves as human beings, which is something everyone can relate to.

Can you talk about shooting and the making of the film, especially the financing?

F.I.: It took a while to get financing for the film due to the underlying subject. No one wanted to bet on it commercially, so my company OYA committed some seed funding, which I got as a loan from a UK bank from a bank manager who probably thought I was mad. My production partner, Olumide, and I then decided to pitch for institutional funding through TIERs, the organization he helped found and which he headed at the time. We initially got funding from a global non-profit who gave us a deadline that was impossible to meet, so we had to return the fund and continue pitching. We therefore had to make the film piecemeal as funding became available from a mixed back of funders that TIERs sourced. Olumide Makanju is one of the most resourceful people I know.

With shooting the film, I made some early decisions that we would give a chance to newer talents and faces as well as pay better than the industry going rate to actors and crew. We also determined to have a longer read through and shoot schedule to get better results. We flew both director and cinematographer Gerald Puigmal into Lagos to feel the source culture and research locations and then for casting and prep before the actual shoot began. Casting was an exhaustive process with a mixture of open auditions, actor show reel submissions and just simply trolling the internet for videos of potentials. It was important to get the Adrian character right as he was going to do the heavy lifting with the story. Once we found Ozzy, we knew he was our man as her had a great mix of a certain kind of masculine power and vulnerability. Once we cast him, the choice of others followed as they had to work with him for the core Adrian/Ozzy character. Shoot was supervised by Olumide who also found, recruited and hired the on-ground production crew in Lagos. Gerald, who is a talented director of photography, was great in the position of line producer to ensure everything went as smoothly as was possible in challenging Lagos.

How was it to work with Aoife O’Kelly? How did she get on board the project?

F.I.: I spent eight months shortlisting and inviting possible directors to send in a treatment after giving them copies of the book to read.  We sent out over fifty copies of the book. I had invited Aoife to read and send in a treatment after seeing her short film Lula from the cinematographer who I had employed on the series Ask Funmi. We got a lot of great responses – and I am looking forward to working with some of the directors –, but Aoife’s treatment stood out.

We needed a lot of preparation before the shoot in Nigeria as Aoife was a first time director, Irish and had never been to Africa. I did get some initial resistance to hiring her for those same reasons, but we liked the treatment she submitted and liked that she was gutsy enough to attempt it. Once signed on, we began a collaborative process to provide her with as much creative support, technical assistance and cultural interpretation needed from screenplay, casting and prep to shoot. Filming in Lagos was long, rigorous and challenging, but she handled it really well. Aoife was great to work with.

What impact do you think the film will/can possibly have in Nigeria, but also in the rest of the world?

F.I.: I think we have made an important film for Nigeria whose real impact will not fully unfold until later in the future. It is already much discussed and eagerly awaited for several reasons. I believe that one day, Walking with Shadows will become the reference for the beginning of the youth cultural pushback against limiting conservatism through film. As the most populated black nation in the world, a film like Walking with Shadows coming out of Nigeria and Africa will be Nigeria’s first gentle wave out to the world as a contributor to the radical cultural changes sweeping across many countries.

How does the film connect with the live interview on national television you did with Nigeria’s first openly gay man in 2004, an interview that had dire consequences for both of you? Can you talk about that experience that opened your eyes to the depth of homophobia and the heightened levels of social intolerance in Nigeria?

F.I.: The film is a continuation of my career-long attempts to promote social justice, egalitarianism and progressive liberalism through all forms of media. I really do detest injustice, chaos and waste. Social repressions are to me a form of waste which promotes chaos and foster social instability.  All of my career is a thinly veiled attempt to live in peace in a stable society and sustainable environment. Nigeria was not always this homophobic. We would no longer be so homophobic if the human waste that repression promotes was replaced by the sort of liberties that promote economic growth and individual prosperity for the largest majority.

In the press kit for Walking with Shadows, you state that “decades of institutional decay had eroded social cohesion in Nigeria” and that this “intolerance extended from gay people to ethnicities, religion and gender.” Can you comment on that?

F.I.: Nigeria, as it is now, is repressive to everyone except the very rich and/or politically powerful because all the institutions of cohesion, justice, rule of Law and democracy have been compromised, broken or made redundant as a result of decades of misrule. The battle is not just to free gay people. But to free everyone. That’s why the film is not necessarily about gay people, but all people who feel trapped by the suffocating expectations placed upon them to live a life less fully expressed.

Moreover, you also mention that from a TV journalist’s vantage point, you could see “how conformity had become an armor for survival for everyone in a society where no-one dared to be themselves.” Can you elaborate on that? Is this why it was important for you to make this film?

F.I.: Yes. That is why it is important to make this film and all the other sort of films that hold up an empathetic mirror to us all to question ourselves as well as forgive ourselves with the view to seek more for ourselves. Nigerian conformity is simultaneously a survival necessity as well as a noose around the neck camouflaging as a safety blanket. Something will eventually have to give. Perhaps, with a films like Walking with Shadows, we can begin a sort of awakening or at least give a future generation a postcard of the past.

Can you talk about Nigeria’s most iconic TV show, New Dawn, that you not only created and presented, but that you also produced and ran?

F.I.: I had worked as a journalist and columnist for five years when in 2000, I wrote the pitch for New Dawn because at the turn of millennium, Nigeria had just returned to democracy after nearly two decades of military rule. TV licenses were liberalized a few years earlier and granted to private TV stations, so there were many new political breakfast shows. I found a lot of them targeted men, but not women or young people as though these categories of people cannot be interested in politics or social issues, so I designed something that I thought off as a big filling breakfast for the whole family with bits of everything including lifestyle, culture, politics and sports. I had grown up with background of civil unrest, so I had a social crusading mentality which underpinned the show, but I also liked to laugh, so it had some irreverence. When I look back, I recognize why it was such a hit across the country. It was a tough show as it was daily and live for many years so much so that I never took holidays; I worked even on holidays. It was a show ahead of its time and ahead of the great income streams, technology and social media that it preceded. A show like that on the national network is no longer possible, so I am grateful I did it when I did.

Then came Talk with Funmi. What were the differences between the two shows?

F.I.: Where New Dawn was a variety studio morning talk show, Talk with Funmi was long form mix of documentary, travelogue and reality show which took a thirty-men crew on the road around Nigeria to take a deeper look at issues and bring the people and the government together. It was a bit mad the scale we pulled off, which was basically making thirteen high production value one-hour documentaries in a six-month turn-around without the luxury of multiple units.

You took the show to the people rather than deciding to shoot it at a studio. Why this approach?

F.I.: I was eager to reconnect with a wider audience than the studio talk format could afford me and censorship had become so stringent it was only a matter of time before the plug would be pulled, so I decided to pull it myself and end the show. I then chose to return to a bigger format I had used for my first TV production Good Morning Nigeria which travelled around Lagos.  This time, I would travel around Nigeria I thought; I possibly had some idea that I could solve some problems as I went along by highlighting situations on ground in stark relief. I wanted to feel the pulse of the nation and get a sense of people in their own communities. Without the cosmetic sheen of a studio. I also just wanted to have fun and try a format with production standards that we could sell to platforms like the travel channel. The challenge was that my own social crusading got in the way of good old fashion travel fun. I was yet to resolve the tension between social justice and entertainment.

How did you find the people you talked to?

F.I.: Research, great showrunners, newspaper reports, but mostly people come to me and my team with stories all the time.  They tell their own stories and tell us stories of others.  People have always trusted me with stories. I value and honor that.

You were interested in talking to people “great and small;” you were interested in all people and the many layers there are to their stories. You stated that your job was to give expression to people, especially those who are usually ignored. Can you elaborate on that? Is this what you did with Walking with Shadows, in a way?

F.I.: Yes, it is what I did. It is what I have always done.  I am attracted to the Other because we are all Others in some way and context. My belief is that if we understand this more, we will make better decisions.

Is that why you founded OYA Media? Can you talk about OYA Media?

F.I.: OYA is my fourth media company. I founded Funmi Iyanda Productions, Ignite Media, Creation Television and OYA from 1996 to 2016 when OYA was founded. OYA Media borrows from the Yoruba mythology and philosophy of the change bringer who uses turbulence and cheekiness. It underpins the desire to bring light to darkness and show the darkness of light. Oya tonally in Yoruba also suggests urgency and immediacy over matters of importance. The Oya deity is female whose turbulence is to restore nature and nurture. These are the underlining philosophies of our company whose goal is to tell great human stories with an unflinching eye, a warm heart, a great sense of humor and inclusivity. We are creatives’ creatives enabling talented people to create stories, arts, event and products to feed collective imaginations.

You said you were bored with the studio and “irritated with being typecast as a high fashion talk show hostess,” that you are “first and foremost a journalist, an interviewer and storyteller with the training and aptitude for rigorous research, creative expression and a little subversion.” Can you talk about being a female journalist in Nigeria?

F.I.: Being a female journalist in Nigeria is like being a female anything in Nigeria; it is an extreme sport. With the circle of institutional, political and economic breakdown and decay, the power structure becomes more and more male, masculine, old and rich. Those who suffer the most are women, young people, poor people, the old, the less abled and the sexual minorities. This pattern is typical of any society where human desperation has overtaken human opportunities. Being female in Nigeria is therefore needing to prove and explain yourself and your worth endlessly, as well as a never-ending fight to thrive, survive or just be.

Can you talk about working with the BBC and the fact they commissioned the documentary My Country Nigeria?

F.I.: Yes, that was quite nice. They commissioned it on the back of Talk with Funmi as one of the projects “For Nigeria at 50.”  It went on to be nominated at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. In 2011, which was also very nice indeed.

Are you a feminist?

F.I.: Yes, I am. I am on the side of female energy, the great sustaining energy of the universe available to women and men, but mostly to women.

There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past two years. What is your opinion on the matter? Where do you position yourself in this discussion?

F.I.: There should be more women in everything – not as a slogan or a superficial making of spaces for women, but as a reversal of the systems, processes, practices and beliefs that limit the ability of women to participate in anything and everything they chose, including how women and men are socialized. I see myself as a creative and entrepreneurial energy force who is driven by her own sense of purpose and is very much intent on getting on with this.

Who is your inspiration?

F.I.: Nature.

Who is your favorite female filmmaker and someone you would like to work with? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?

F.I.: Although I don’t judge people by gender and prefer to consider people by actions and contributions, I would say my current female director is the brave Kemi Adetiba from Nigeria. I would like to work with Angelina Jolie who seems like she’d take risks. And I love American Psycho by Mary Harron.

What are your next producing projects?

F.I.: A new TV show in Nigeria. A dark comedy series of sorts, a new book and adaptation and a true life story are all in the works with one launching in first quarter of next year.

 

 

Photo credits: Fumni Iyanda.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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