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African and Nigerian Stories Being Told on a Large Scale Are the Only Way We Can Be Humanised as a People

In September 2022, Osiberu’s Greoh Studios signed a three-year deal with Amazon to develop and produce original scripted TV series and feature films. In 2018, she headlined Nollywood Film Festival in Scotland. In 2017, Osiberu wrote and directed Isoken, a film about the challenges faced by unmarried female professionals amidst pressure from family, as well as romantic interracial relationships in modern Nigerian setting.

For her directorial role, she won Best Director at the 2018 Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCAs) and got an Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Director nomination. With her feat in the industry, following Isoken (2017), Sugar Rush (2019), Brotherhood (2022), her latest film, Gangs of Lagos, is currently streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she speaks on the processes, challenges and theme of the action-crime thriller.

What’s the inspiration behind Gangs of Lagos?
Twelve years ago, while I was shooting a series, Giddy Up, in Isale Eko (a surburb on Lagos Island), across the window from where we were, I could see another building’s window section and I could see the people living there; they essentially became the characters. I saw a mother cooking dinner and feeding her children. I thought about what it would feel like to live in Isale Eko, being stuck there and wanting more after generations of living there.

The message of humanising people whose lives we don’t understand; it’s a very revealing film. The world of political connected thuggery. There’s some empathy, dream and love. I also hope people get entertained.

Share with us the process of bringing Gangs of Lagos to life, from concept to production?
The concept from 12 years ago; it’s a script I’ve tried to write several times over the years. I met Kayode Jagede and he seemed like the perfect person to co-write the script with. In 2019, we began the process of writing the script.

Initially, we thought it would be a film for the cinemas, but as we fleshed it out, we realised that this was a film that has real scale, so we decided to make it authentic enough to portray the lives of real people. At this point, we didn’t have the funding or a deal and we didn’t know if any global streaming company was going to buy it.

We reached out to friends, family and investors I had worked with in the past. Thankfully, 30 investors actually believed in the dream and came together to finance the film. We shot the film in July 2021, Prime Video acquired it in 2022 and is released in 2023.

What’s your biggest challenge filming this project and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest problems was shooting in Lagos; it’s a very unpredictable city. You can make several plans, but the dynamic nature of the city can set you off balance, especially street harassment, because most of the scenes were shot outside, to just being in Nigeria.

How did you arrive at your cast and crewmembers, what was it like working with them?
I had worked with Big Brother housemate, Tobi Bakre on my film, Sugar Rush; I had always been curious about seeing him in other roles. Sent him Direct Message on Instagram saying, ‘look, I have something for you, it’s big, but I’ll get Lala Akindoju to train you, but I see you being able to do it’. He was excited and said, ‘let’s do it”!

With Adesua Etomi, I have always been curious about seeing her beyond the pretty girl look and romcom; I wanted to see her in something gritty. I had seen Chike in several shows and I wanted him to play his character who’s also a musician. I’m a huge fan of Chioma Chukwuka and I knew I wanted her to play the mum’s role. Her scenes were few, but I wanted someone experienced to pull it off, because her scenes were heavy.

I really wanted the older actors in their various roles as well. Ola Rotimi stood out at the auditions and this was amazing, because the character he was auditioning for is ‘Kazeem’ and he has the most unique role. Kazeem’s character progression in the film is one that only a mastercraft actor can pull together and Ola Rotimi fit the bill immediately. It was a Yoruba role so, I wanted a Yoruba actor to play it. I actually offered the role to a different actor, but Demi Banwo recommended Ola Rotimi who’s a theatre actor and actually someone I’ve never heard of. But at the auditions, he nailed it and I knew I had found Kazeem.

What’s the role of women in the production and how important is it to have women in key roles?
Lala Akindoju who is my friend and someone I have collaborated with on projects from my first production Giddy Up is also a producer on this film. One of the first things I do when I have ideas is call her up and ask her what she thinks about it. She usually thinks my ideas are crazy, but she also thinks that I can achieve my dreams and is willing to go along with me on those journeys. It is so important to me as a woman to have someone like that in my corner and I’m thankful for her.

Maryam who’s the line manager held the set and production together and she’s a powerhouse of a producer. A lot of the special effects, makeup was done by women for the gory scenes. There were a lot of fight sequences that required blood and prosthetics and blood. I called them the blood sisters; they also were in charge of some stunts and training women to perform stunts. Women were in charge of delivering the quality of film that we wanted. Women were so key in making the film happen.

What do you think sets Gangs of Lagos apart from other action crime-thrillers?
Authenticity is the main thing; I like action that is grounded in some level of reality. The authenticity is what sets it apart for me. I love action as a genre, but not just in itself; I love action that is driven by some level of reality and emotions.

Human relationships will unfold as you see family, loyalty and the humanisation of the pawns used in common vices in Nigeria and how these decisions are affecting people’s lives daily in the country. It’s not like any action crime-thriller out there.

What was your experience working with Prime Video?
When we finally raised the money and started working on the film, we realised that this was a film we wanted to be viewed on a global scale; we wanted a partner who saw this vision. We met with a few streamers, but Prime Video responded to us a few days after streaming the link and said they wanted to go on this journey together with us.

The feedback from the Prime Video team is always great and they say they don’t regret buying this film and they’ll make sure the largest possible audience gets to see the film and that’s what you want in a partner. The Head of International Originals tweeted the link to the teaser of the film and in my books, that’s what dreams are made of; I was utterly elated. You want the local community to embrace the film, but you also want a larger community to accept it and that is the opportunity that Prime Video represents.

How did you ensure that the film accurately represented the people and culture of Lagos, while still appealing to global audience?
For me, it was important that I actually used Isale Eko for the film, but I also wanted a majority of the actors used in these scenes to be people from Isale Eko. Background actors and extras are actually everyday people from Isale Eko who have never acted.

We also used the iconic masquerade, Eyo in a way that has never been used before; it’s a big part of the film. To me, appealing to a global audience is about telling your story authentically. Once you’re authentic and tell a tale based on global themes, anyone can relate to it.

Can you discuss the themes of friendship, family, secrets, and betrayal in Gangs of Lagos, and why they are important in the story?
They are important in the story because anyone in the world can relate with these themes. Also, as a culture in Nigeria, we believe in destiny, fate and there are themes of spirituality in the film.

Oba’s soul seems to be fought for by his parents. His mother is a white garment Christian who tries to change the path that was created for him by being a male child born in the Isale Eko community. His father was an African spiritualist who got his powers through traditional means. His mother fears that he will go down his father’s path and die young which is why she struggles to get him out. He meets a gangster called, ‘Niniolowo’ who sends him to school and sells him a dream of a better life outside the community but that is the same dream that leads him back to the path that was foreseen that he would thread in the first place but he doesn’t know that.

How important do you think it is for Nigerian stories and perspectives to be represented on a global scale?
African and Nigerian stories being told on a large scale are the only way we can be humanised as a people, because the world is largely dominated by stories about Americans. When there are no specifics, people tend to be generalised.

So, I believe our stories need to be told to encourage foreign interaction with who we really are to avoid us being reduced to poverty and fraud.

What other projects are you working on currently, and what can audiences expect from you in the future?
I signed a three-year contract with Prime Video and the audience can expect a wide array of films with different genres over the next couple of years.

What was the most rewarding aspect of creating and producing Gangs of Lagos?
It’s having my dream of over 10 years about the film come to fruition and on the scale that I imagined it in the first place. It’s a full circle moment for me. In essence, for me, it is seeing it actually happening. Also, being able to be a part of the birth of several actors’ careers on a large scale is a reward in itself.

Ola Rotimi didn’t actually want to come to audition that day, because he lacked funds and had been struggling in the theatre circuit for years; this was Tobi’s first major lead in a film and it is a Prime Video original. Also, this is Chike’s first film.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers and storytellers in Nigeria?
My advice is always to start. Find a story that you and your friends can tell. Mobile phones these days have good video quality, use them to tell short stories you care about and collaborate with people who are around you.

Like Ashe said, start where you are, create stories that are around your values and as that value is seen, the opportunities you’re looking for will come. If you keep chasing opportunities without adding value, you’ll end up being stuck in a rut.

What do you see as the future of Nigerian cinema?
I would hope that the future of the Nigerian cinemas is two-fold; that it gets to be seen by more Nigerians on different platforms and producers actually get to earn off their work which will enable them become more ambitious to create more stories. Also that the industry becomes global and can be monetised.

Source : The Guardia