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Leading Conversations on Inclusivity, Babatunde Apalowo Takes First Nigerian Queer Film to Berlinale

Leading Conversations on Inclusivity, Babatunde Apalowo Takes First Nigerian Queer Film to Berlinale

Leading Conversations on Inclusivity, Babatunde Apalowo Takes First Nigerian Queer Film to Berlinale

“Our goal with this film was to create a work of art that would not only entertain, but also challenge audiences to confront their own biases and assumptions about love, sexuality, and the human experience…”

By Seyi Lasisi

The first time a Nigerian indie filmmaker got to the Berlinale, it was in 2020. It was a migration-themed feature film, Eyimofe, written and directed by Arie and Chuko Esiri. Three years later, another Nigerian indie film had its world premiere at the Berlinale: Babatunde Apalowo’s All the Colours of the World are between Black and White, notable for its distinctive LGBTQ theme — a theme frowned against in Nigeria, the filmmaker’s home country. Pre-premiere of the film at Berlin, it acquired an international distribution deal with Coccinelle Film Sales. And trailing its premiere, it won the coveted Tedy Award for best LGBTQIA+ feature film.

Apalowo’s debut directorial drama follows the story of two men, Bambino (Tope Tedela) and Bawa (David Ariyo), who meet in Lagos, and develop an attraction to each other but struggle to express their affection in a society where homosexuality is illegal and considered a taboo. Like Bambino and Bawa, queer people in Nigeria have to navigate this dangerous terrain.

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All the Colours of the World won’t be the first feature-length Nigerian film to spotlight queer characters. Jerry Chiemeke notes in his essay that the few Nigerian films with queer characters promote stereotypical views about the LGBTQIA+ community. It is this need for emphatic conversation around inclusion and acceptance that Apalowo is aiming to start with his film.

In this exclusive interview with Afrocritik, Apalowo speaks about the multiple events that inspired the story, his concern about the film’s reception in Nigeria, and how All the Colours of the World contributes to the conversation around inclusion and acceptance.

Our audience would love to know a little about Babatunde Apalowo. What was growing up like for you? How much of your background influenced your filmmaking?

I grew up in Ado-Ekiti where access to films was limited, and it wasn’t a place where one could easily dream of becoming a filmmaker. However, despite these limitations, I was exposed to the rich cultural heritage, traditions, and social and political issues that affect the daily lives of Nigerians. These experiences have influenced my storytelling, characters, and themes that I explore in my films.

As a child, I was very curious and creative, and I always found ways to tell stories and express myself through different media. Visual storytelling particularly captivated me, and I often created my own comics and illustrations. My grandmother, who was a storyteller, heavily influenced me, and her storytelling style, particularly her use of “Alo,” a traditional Yoruba storytelling art form, instilled in me a love for storytelling that has persisted to date.

You studied Civil Engineering. What influenced you to “leave” Civil Engineering for filmmaking? A personal attraction to films from childhood or…?

I was always drawn to visual storytelling. However, when it came time to choose a course of study, I opted for Civil Engineering as it was seen as a more practical and lucrative field, not unlike the reason many Nigerians gave for choosing their Bachelor’s degrees. However, while studying engineering, I never lost my passion for storytelling and filmmaking. I would often find myself watching movies in my spare time and dreaming of one day being able to create my own stories on screen.

After completing my degree, I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue my passion for filmmaking. I knew it wouldn’t be an easy path, but I was willing to take the risk in order to pursue something that truly made me happy and fulfilled. So, while it may have seemed like a drastic departure from my engineering background, my decision to pursue filmmaking was a natural progression from my lifelong love of storytelling and visual media.

How does the word “polymath” which inspired your company’s name, “Polymath Pictures,” describe you as an individual and filmmaker?

The name “Polymath” comes from the Greek word meaning “having learned much.” I have always been passionate about learning and expanding my knowledge in different areas, not just within the field of filmmaking. I believe that being a polymath means being able to approach storytelling from a multidisciplinary perspective, drawing inspiration from a wide range of sources and fields. It means being curious, adaptable, and willing to take on new challenges. As a filmmaker, I strive to bring a diverse range of perspectives and experiences to my work. Also, I wear many caps on production (as editor, writer, and director.) Whether it’s through exploring different genres, experimenting with visual styles, or delving into complex social issues, I always aim to bring a unique and multi-dimensional perspective to my filmmaking.

I want to clarify something important regarding my name. There seems to be a confusion between Tunde Apalowo and Babatunde Apalowo. Both names refer to the same person, but they represent different identities for me. I use Tunde Apalowo when I work on projects where I don’t have full control, while Babatunde Apalowo is used when I have full creative control over a project. To be clear, I used the name Babatunde Apalowo as the writer/director for All the Colours of the World…

All the Colours of the World Are between Black and White is the second feature by an indie Nigerian filmmaker to premiere at Berlinale. Congratulations on this! What does this feat mean for you?

Having my film premiere at Berlinale is an incredible accomplishment and a validation of the hard work and dedication put into creating this film. It’s an honour to be selected to showcase my work alongside other talented filmmakers from around the world at such a prestigious festival.

However, it is unfortunate that this is only the second feature film from a Nigerian filmmaker to premiere at Berlinale. This should not be a feat to be celebrated, but it does highlight the need for more representation and support for independent filmmakers in Nigeria and the African film industry as a whole. It provides an opportunity for our voices to be heard on a global stage, and for the world to see the diversity and richness of our stories. I hope that this will encourage and inspire other filmmakers to continue creating and sharing their work, and for our industry to continue growing and thriving.

Your film is a story of love, although one which our homophobic society frowns against. What inspired the story? Was it real life, or thoughts around Nigerian laws against homosexuality?

The inspiration behind this film was multi-faceted. While the story initially centred around a photographer that wants to capture the vibrant city of Lagos, my perspective changed when I had the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend. It was during this time that I learned of the tragic news that my former bunkmate had been lynched. The experience deeply impacted me, and it made me reflect on the harsh realities that many individuals in our society face due to their sexual orientation. As an artist, I believe that it is important to use my platform to shed light on the human experience, and this inspired me to create a film that explores the complexities of love in the face of adversity.

While the story is not based on any specific real-life events, it is influenced by the broader cultural and legal landscape in Nigeria, which unfortunately remains hostile towards the LGBTQ+ community. My hope is that this film will encourage empathy and understanding, and help to bring about positive change in our society.

How did you address the societal constraints of being gay in your story? Tell us more about Bambino and Bawa, and how they were able to live through these societal-imbibed constraints.

We sought to convey the emotional depth of Bambino and Bawa’s love story amidst the societal constraints and pressures they face. We aimed to create a visual language that would evoke the complexity of their relationship, as well as the beauty and vibrancy of Lagos, the city in which their story unfolds. The characters of Bambino and Bawa are portrayed with sensitivity and nuance, capturing the intricacies of their personalities and experiences. Although societal constraints play a significant role in their story, we also wanted to convey that their inability to fully express their feelings for each other is not solely due to external factors. Instead, we aimed to explore the internal conflicts and struggles that they face as they navigate their relationship.

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Babatunde Apalowo. Credit: Brigitte Dummer

Throughout the film, we employed a range of visual and storytelling techniques to convey the emotional depth of their relationship. We used lighting and color to create a visual language that reflects the complex emotional landscape of the characters, and we incorporated music and sound design to further deepen the emotional impact of the story.

Our goal with this film was to create a work of art that would not only entertain, but also challenge audiences to confront their own biases and assumptions about love, sexuality, and the human experience. We hope that the story of Bambino and Bawa will inspire empathy and understanding and that it will contribute to a broader conversation about the importance of acceptance and inclusivity in our society.

The Nigerian society doesn’t have much empathy for the LQBTQ+ community. Are you worried about your film’s reception in Nigeria due to its subtle LGBTQ theme?

While I am aware that the portrayal of LGBTQ+ themes in our film may be challenging for some viewers in Nigeria, I believe that it is important to stay true to the story and the vision that inspired it. Of course, I hope that our film will be received positively by audiences in Nigeria and that it will contribute to a greater understanding and acceptance of diversity in our society. However, I recognise that there may be individuals who are uncomfortable with the subject matter, and I respect their right to their own opinions.

As artists, our responsibility is to create work that is honest, thought-provoking, and true to our own and others’ experiences and perspectives. We cannot control how audiences will respond to our work, but we can strive to create work that is authentic and meaningful.

Ultimately, my hope is that our film will contribute to a broader conversation about the importance of acceptance and inclusivity in our society, and that it will inspire empathy and understanding among audiences of all backgrounds and beliefs.

All the Colours of the World is your lengthiest film title. You usually have a preference for short and precise titles: Crack, Suicidal Proposal, Phone Fight. What inspired this title? And what relationship exists between the title and the story?

I suck at coming up with titles, but I think I hit a goldmine with this one. All the colours of the world are literally between black and white. Take any colour and increase the brightness, it gets to a point where you will end up with white. Decrease the brightness and of course, you get black. But it is a commentary on the idea that love and relationships are not limited to a binary concept of heterosexual or homosexual, but rather there is a wide range of diversity within these categories. There are complexities of love and relationships between people of the same gender or different gender, to be honest, it all depends on the nuances of their experiences.

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It’s also a metaphor for the idea that love, like colours, exists on a spectrum, and that there are many shades in between the extremes of black and white, and that life and the world are not always clear-cut or simple. And finally, it is a commentary on Nigeria’s view of the LGBTQ+ community, and how it is often viewed in black-and-white terms when in reality, there is a wide range of diversity within this community.

Ahead of the world screening, Coccinelle Film Sales acquired world rights to your film, and the film got nominated for the GWFF Best First Feature Award. What does this mean to you, the film, and your production company?

The acquisition of world rights by Coccinelle Film Sales, and the nomination for the GWFF Best First Feature Award are both incredible achievements for the film and our production company. As a filmmaker, it is a validation of the hard work and dedication that we put into making this film, and it is an acknowledgement of the talent and vision of everyone involved in the production. To be recognised on a global scale, and to have our film screened to audiences around the world is a tremendous honor, and it allows us to share our story and our vision with a wider audience. And also, we won the Teddy award at the Berlin International Film Festival, which is an incredible achievement, and it’s the highest honour that a film with an LGBTQ+ theme can receive. It’s a testament to the power of storytelling and the ability of film to create empathy and understanding across different cultures and societies. We’re honoured to have received this award, and we hope that it will inspire others to follow their dreams and create art that reflects their unique perspective and vision. We believe that film has the power to change the world, and this award is proof that dreams do come true.

For our production company, these achievements represent an important milestone, and they give us the confidence and momentum to continue to create bold, thought-provoking films that challenge conventions and expand our understanding of the human experience. We are grateful for the support and recognition that we have received, and we look forward to bringing more impactful stories to the screen in the future.

Getting to Berlinale –  one of the most coveted fiction film festivals in the world of cinema – is tedious. Can you walk us through the process of getting your film selected for the festival?

It all starts with creating a great film that is unique, engaging, and has something important to say. Once the film is completed, the next step is to submit it to various film festivals around the world. This usually involves paying a submission fee and providing the festival with a screener of the film. With Berlinale, we were able to get a waiver code. After submitting the film, the waiting game begins. Festivals receive thousands of submissions every year, so it can take several months before you hear back from them. If your film is selected, you’ll receive an official invitation from the festival. I already gave up hope of us getting selected when I received their official invitation. Damilola and I jumped on a call and screamed for ten minutes straight.

You tweeted about Berlinale being the biggest stage for you as a filmmaker. What possibilities do international film festivals hold for filmmakers in Nigeria and Africa at large?

International film festivals present tremendous opportunities for filmmakers in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. These festivals provide a platform for filmmakers to showcase their work to a global audience, which can help to bring attention to their work and potentially lead to distribution deals and other opportunities. Furthermore, being selected for a prestigious festival like Berlinale can help to raise the profile of Nigerian and African cinema as a whole, and challenge existing stereotypes and perceptions about African storytelling. It also provides an opportunity for African filmmakers to connect with other filmmakers and industry professionals from around the world, which can lead to collaborations and further opportunities.

Nollywood mainstream filmmakers seem to have an aversion to submitting to film festivals. What are your thoughts about international film festivals and how they are regarded by filmmakers in Nigeria?

I understand that there may be some reluctance from mainstream Nollywood filmmakers to submit to film festivals. This could be due to a variety of factors: lack of knowledge about the festival circuit, financial constraints, or a preference for more commercial success over critical acclaim. But I think it is important for Nigerian filmmakers to explore and embrace the opportunities that international film festivals can provide. By sharing our stories with a global audience, we can break down cultural barriers and help to create a more inclusive and diverse world of cinema.

We’re seeing more African and Nigerian films now playing and winning at the biggest world festivals. But there are still a ton of stories that haven’t made it to these festivals yet. What do you think the cinematic community, in the world, is missing out on due to this? And how can this paucity of Nigerian films at these festivals be addressed?

The lack of Nigerian films at major international festivals means that the global cinematic community is missing out on a diverse range of stories, perspectives, and experiences. Nigeria has a rich cultural heritage, and our films have the potential to showcase this to the world. By not having these films represented on the global stage, we are limiting the scope of the cinematic conversation and missing out on opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and dialogue. To address this, we need to create more opportunities for Nigerian filmmakers to access funding and resources to create high-quality films. We also need to encourage filmmakers to submit their films to international festivals and provide support and mentorship to help them navigate the submission process. Additionally, we need to improve the infrastructure of the film industry in Nigeria, including investing in training and education programmes for filmmakers, as well as improving distribution channels for their films. By doing this, we can create a thriving film industry that is capable of producing films that can compete on the world stage. It’s important to note that the film industry is a global export, and every country has the potential to showcase their unique cultural stories and perspectives to a global audience. During Berlinale, the largest film market, EFM, takes place in the Groupis Bau hall, and different countries have their stand promoting their film industries. Even countries that do not have a film showing at Berlinale participate. However, Nigeria had a film showing at Berlinale this year, but there was no Nigerian stand, which was quite disappointing.

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Credit: Rainer Schadow
People outside the borders of Nigeria, and even within, have preconceptions about filmmaking in Nigeria and the themes our film should explore. In an interview, CJ “Fiery” Obasi stated that his Sundance award-winning film, Mami Wata, seeks to demystify those preconceptions. Did you have a similar intention with All the Colours of the World,  and do you think the film will lend itself to that goal?

Not intentionally, to be honest. All the Colours of the World was crafted to delve into the intricate and multifaceted nature of love and relationships, which are not frequently portrayed in Nigerian cinema. The film was meant to challenge the notion that love is restricted to a binary notion of heterosexual or homosexual relationships, and instead, it exhibits a broad range of diversity within these categories. As an artist, my primary objective with the film was to narrate a story that embodies the human experience and explores the intricacies of love in the face of adversity.

While we did not set out to demystify preconceptions, I do believe that All the Colours of the World has the potential to contribute to that goal. Through this film, we showcased a different side of Nigerian cinema that is not often explored or seen, and in doing so, we hope to offer a new perspective and open up conversations about the variety of themes and narratives that Nigerian filmmakers can bring to the table. By creating a nuanced portrayal of love and relationships, we aim to challenge preconceptions and stereotypes about Nigerian filmmaking, which, in turn, may encourage more diverse and inclusive stories to be told in the future.

The last AMVCAs saw you winning best picture editor for For Maria Ebun Pataki. How do you manage to be a screenwriter, director, and editor? What advantage does being an all-rounded filmmaker give you as an indie filmmaker?

I am still overjoyed for winning AMVCA as best picture editor, considering the fact that I don’t edit commercially. I only edit for myself and close friends. For me, the core of filmmaking lies in storytelling. As a filmmaker, I see writing and editing as my most powerful tools for refining a story at every stage of the process. Writing allows me to create a narrative that is uniquely my own, while editing provides me with the ability to shape it into the most impactful and compelling version possible. As a director, I am always conscious of the power these tools possess, and I employ them to craft a story that is both intentional and beautiful. Ultimately, I believe that the essence of filmmaking is storytelling, and I am grateful for the skills that enable me to tell these stories with precision and grace.

 

Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex.

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