An accomplished professional, Tunde Kelani’s exploits in the film industry have earned him international recognition. In this interview, he talks about his career, family and other related matters
At 68, Tunde Kelani, is one of Nigeria’s foremost cinematographer. A film-maker, storyteller, photographer and producer, TK, as he is fondly called is highly skilled and proficient.
Pleasant sounding, he is an interviewer’s delight. His careful choice of words will excite any discerning mind. Articulate in his delivery, he talks in a tone that readily affirms whatever message he is trying to put across.
For a man who has many parts and a tradition of excelling in all of them, Kelani, does not hesitate to discuss his modest background. Taking a walk down memory lane, Kelani, throws light on his childhood. He says, “When I was five, my father sent me to live with my grandparents at Abeokuta, Ogun State. At that time, the first phase of the free primary education by the Western Nigerian Government, led by the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was about to kick off and my father wanted me to benefit from that programme. As my parents’ eldest child, I went to live with my grandparents at our family compound. I started life in this new environment that was quite different from Lagos. Apparently, the experience prepared me for my latter life and I thank my father for taking that decision.”
Having enrolled at Oke-Ona United Primary School in 1955, he recalls that he was often poked fun at. “What I knew was that everybody laughed at me when I started living at Abeokuta, because I was scared of everything including goats. I could not even go out at night and I did not even understand what the Oro Festival was all about,” he says with a tinge of amusement in his voice.
However, his relocation to Abeokuta, led to a series of events that set the tone for his career. He noted that even though he missed his mother every day, he was exposed to several things that stirred his interest in film-making. He says, “I benefited a lot from oral tradition. It was amazing that everybody had a story to tell me. They told me incredible stories about the real world and other things. But as soon as I started schooling and was able to read and write, I went into books and stated to experience D.O Fagunwa’s books like Igbo Olodumare, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale, etc. Suddenly, I was just catapulted into another world and that fuelled my fantasy.
“Growing up in that environment, I had the whole world as my playground; from the forests to the banana grooves up to the banks of the Ogun River. I started to experience and know a lot about nature and other creatures. It was a wonderful world.”
Excited at the prospect of making something out of these new experiences, a young Kelani, chanced upon photography and even though young, he pursued it vigorously. “In my final year at the primary school, I had a friend whose father was a photographer and I followed him everywhere because he had a box camera with which we took some photographs. I was fascinated by this technology that enabled people to freeze moments. It blew my mind completely and I knew that it was going to be important to me in life,” he says.
It did not take long before Kelani, got his first camera. With a feeling of triumph, he relates the episode. “As a student of the famous Abeokuta Grammar School, I bought my first genuine camera. It was more plastic than anything else but it worked. It was a Kodak 127. I owned it for a year or two and in my second or third year, I bought a Rapir Mark 2. When I got it , my enthusiasm for it waned because it was not professional in any way. It was not until my final year in secondary school, that I was able to buy my first Single Lens Reflex; it was a Halina 35. From then on, I became really excited.
“I had a friend in school, and together, we became photographers. We taught ourselves how to process films and do all the necessary photography-related things. After I returned to Lagos and worked as a clerk in one or two places, I got apprenticed as a photographer,” he says.
His restless spirit would not let him be and again, Kelani, found himself watching a rich mix of American and Roman –Italian films at cinemas in Lagos. This singular act ensured that he was inevitably drawn to the cinemas. He became interested in motion pictures and decided to get trained.
He says, “I was employed as a trainee cameraman at Western Nigeria Television and that was how I started a career in television as a cameraman.”
Craving the cinema experience and coupled with his insatiable quest for excellence, he saved some money and enrolled at the London Film School. He says, “I had to focus on the television which resembled a box at that time. This was quite different from the giant projectors I used to see at the cinemas, so I wanted to tell stories using big pictures on the screen.”
After completing his course at the London Film School, the multiple award-winning cinematographer, became an independent film-maker and produced his first film, The Dilemma of Rev. Father Michael (Idaamu Paadi Minkailu). It was an adaptation of Adebayo Faleti’s novel. Since then, he has shot and produced several films including Ti Oluwa Nile, Ayo Ni Mofe, Koseegbe, O Le Ku, Saworoide, White Handkerchief, The Campus Queen, etc.
His ability to make thought-provoking films is a celebrated feat and he attributes it to his passion for excellence. He says, “My films are hits because I respect my audience. My name and reputation are all I have. There is a standard below which I cannot perform. It takes time and consistency for an audience to trust you, so I try within the resources available to me at any particular time to take a story and share it.”
He prefers to talk about his career highlights as he believes every film of his is a breakthrough movie. Listing some of the highpoints of his over four-decades-old career, the soft-spoken and assertive storyteller says, “The technology has given me the ability to have a body of works. If you look at what I have done between Ti Oluwa Ni Ile and Dazzling Mirage, which is my most recent work, you would see quite a lot of progression in terms of technology, technique and content. From this body of work, you can see that all of my films are meaningful and not just entertainment films. All of them including Maami and Dazzling Mirage, have strong positive female characters because it is important to me that African women should be given their rightful place in the community.”
The CEO of Mainframe Productions, he points out that it is not a coincidence that he makes films with socio-political themes.
“As a film-maker, I am affected and I am concerned. I make films about what is important to the people. I think that the direction of my own cinema is to share my cultural experience and also look at the society itself. I use cinema to look at the socio-political life of our people as part of the instrument of development,” he states.
Quite impressed that the Nigerian film industry has come a long way, Kelani, makes a subtle comparison of what obtained in the industry then and now. In a voice filled with concern, he says, “If we start to look at the cinema then and now, it has to be a great jump. Certainly the technology has changed. Previously the technology was boring because every material that was needed to make a film was imported and after the film had been made, we had to ship everything back to America or England, for processing and final post-production. Today, technology has made it easy because alternative means of making motion pictures by video or digital film-making has taken over. This means that the films are much more independent and there is a lot of diversity in the industry.”
Like most film-makers, Kelani has been a victim of piracy and he shares his experience. “In this journey, I have failed many times but there are some people who are dear to me and have supported me. They have raised me over and over again. In 2008, all my works including Maami, were pirated. It crashed my career completely. To be able to get going again, I owe it to God and some well-meaning Nigerians. Even now, the challenges are many and daunting but it is the name and what you do that make people think that you are a billionaire. I have no regrets because when I look back, I can say that against all odds, what would have happened if we did not make Saworoide or Thunderbolt, for instance. In that sense, we have something to show.”
Becoming successful at what he does did not come easy . According to him, he has had to make some sacrifices. “ To be able to be successful in any way, I have had to sacrifice so much and my immediate family have had to bear the brunt. From my wife, Adetoun, to the children, we denied ourselves so many things,” he says.
One career highlight he is particularly proud of is the Mainframe Film and Media Institute, Abeokuta. He talks about it with a distinct glee in his voice. “ It is so important and vital now because I believe that I possess the maturity and experience to pass on to the new generation. The institute is not just about me, we draw resources from the high-ranking professionals in the industry. On the advisory board are the likes of the Vice-Chancellor of Kwara State University, Prof. Abdul-Rasheed Na”Allah, Prof. Abdulrasheed Na ‘Allah, Prof. Sophie Oluwole, Prof. Femi Ojo-Ade, Prof. Akin Adesokan, and Dr. Sola Olorunyomi to name a few.
One of the ways he unwinds is through reading. “I believe the secret to creative film-making is in books. That is why I tell young people to read as much as they can. It is a pity that Nigerians don’t like to read. When I come across a fantastic story, I just want to share it .There are still tons of books I want to read and adapt into cinema,” he says.
Even though he is busy most of the time, his days are patterned. He says, “My days are straightforward and my needs are minimal. I start the day by eating two bananas, one orange and tea that is laced with herbs. My midmorning breakfast is pap laced with herbs that the Yoruba people call agunmu. I drink my pap with bean cake fried with palm oil. In the afternoon, I eat eba or something in that class and I take something light before I go to bed. During the day, I take out my bike and I go to visit people in Abeokuta.”
His style? “When I was young, I occasionally used put on a shirt and tie, because one was required to dress that way to job interviews. Since I became free, I have repented and asked God to forgive me for putting on those things. My style is traditional and I love to promote our local culture,” he says with a hint of pride in his voice.
Even though none of his children has yet to take after him, he is optimistic they might still embrace his field. he says, “None of my children has followed in my footsteps, but they have taken part in one or two things. However, we can’t rule it out completely because one of them studied International Law and Diplomacy and another one, studied Computer Engineering. The beauty of the entertainment industry is that it has a lot of diversity as well. It is a cinema of collaboration from all walks of life,” he concludes.
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