“Adults in Nigeria enjoy animated stories as much as the kids. But it has not been expressed in the cinema culture. I believe as our body of work increases, it will change…”
By Seyi Lasisi
It’s the season of first times for Nigerian indie filmmakers. For the first time, a home-grown Nigerian filmmaker, C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi, will premiere at Sundance. And for the first time, a Nigeria filmmaker, Babatunde Apalowo, took his queer-themed All the Colours of the World are between Black and White to Berlinale. For Esther Kemi Gbadamosi, the stop motion animator, she also occupies the first position as the Nigerian animator to get selected for the Berlinale.
Seconds into his BAFTA’s acceptance speech, Guillermo del Toro (Pinocchio) made some insightful remarks about animation not being a genre for kids but “a medium for art; it’s a medium for film.” In 2020, the Adebisi Adetayo-directed Lady Buckit and the Motley Mopsters, became the first feature length animation Nigerian film. With this film and the Showmax animated series, Jay Jay : The Chosen One, inspired by the life of Augustine ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, and Esther Kemi Gbadamosi’s Radioxity Media, Nigerians’ reliance of foreign studios for animation could be reduced. Gbadamosi is on the pathway of putting Nigerian animated films into conversation around Nigerian films.
In an exclusive interview with the Afrocritik, Nigerian animator and filmmaker, Esther Kemi Gbadamosi, spoke about her childhood journey as an animator, the Berlinale film festival, and the prospect for animation in Nollywood.
For our curious readers, who is Esther Kemi Gbadamosi? What was growing up like, and how much of your background influenced your career in filmmaking?
Growing up was a lot of fun, as well as tough. I was raised by a single mum and grandparents, who believed strongly in good education. I was a tomboy all through school. I enjoyed sports like basketball, volleyball, table tennis, boxing, long distance running, and I was passionate about football. I also enjoyed drawing on everything around me, especially my exercise books.
In my teenage years, I spent more time assembling things: electrical devices, furniture and general craft. This was what drew me to engineering. Packaging engineering designs and illustrations directed me to film and animation. I started filmmaking, by creating documentary stories, then narratives before focusing on Stop Motion Animation which is a medium that highlights most of my skills in art, engineering and filmmaking.
You studied agricultural engineering. Why and how did you move into the film industry?
In my third year, I was disappointed when I got to my departmental workshop and saw so many amazing machines which I didn’t even know existed. I decided people out there needed to know about the machines. Thus, I would go to the workshop regularly and take pictures and videos, so I could tell stories about them. During my IT which was at the National Television Authority (NTA), I learnt how to make documentaries (my supervisor didn’t think it was a good idea at first) and presented my first documentary, which had some animated scenes at the IT Defence. I got a standing ovation that day. The rest, they say, is history
In addition to being a writer and cinematographer, you’re also the CEO of Radioxity, your media company that specialises in animation. What attracted you to animation as your creative medium?
Right from childhood, I made cartoons, telling simple stories. In school, I made money by illustrating other students’ machine ideas in 3D softwares. I also made commercials using the 3d animation medium. Some years after school, I realised animation may not be able to sustain the business financially so I just stuck to documentaries and live action films, leaving animation as a side hobby using children’s toys. I made two animated films as a hobbyist, which did so well to my surprise. So, in 2020, during the COVID-19 season, I made the decision to focus more on animation as a key creative medium.
Four of your animation projects, some still in the development stage, are featured in this year’s Berlinale Talents. Congratulations on this. What does this feat mean for you?
It’s been absolutely overwhelming. I almost do not have words to describe my thoughts, considering that stop motion animation is a relatively unpopular approach to film until more recently.
The journey to Berlinale is distinct for different individuals. Can you tell us how you got to Berlinale?
I’m a stop motion filmmaker telling African stories. I attended the Annecy Animation Festival last year to present my project, through the MIFA Campus that was organised in Nigeria. I was also at Durban FilmMart to make a similar presentation/pitch. That’s how I gained interest in applying for Berlinale Talents. The application document was quite exhaustive, so it took a while to fill and submit. I just did my best and forgot about it, feeling I probably won’t be selected. The selection email was an absolute shock!
What does the Berlinale acceptance mean to you, fellow Nigerian and African animators, and the future of animation film in Nigeria?
I think it’s huge. It hasn’t happened previously. It has come to add to the narrative that we’ve got something to show the world. I met about 202 other top emerging filmmakers, plus a couple of international celebrities worldwide who can now recognise us animation producers apart from Nollywood. So I believe it will open more doors of opportunity.
How do you feel about the Berlinale sessions? As an African filmmaker, what epiphany have you had during the numerous sessions?
I have learnt a whole lot. Things I would never have known as an African Filmmaker, like the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. The fact that we may have limitations based on location doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to beat it.
The issue of inclusion and diversity is gaining the spotlight in international film festivals with filmmakers from obscure regions getting accepted to festival circles. As an African filmmaker, what can you say about the level of diversity on display at the Berlinale?
It was intense. It made it easier to bond with others and work out partnership possibilities. Inclusion and Diversity was critical to every session and activity.
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 Nigerian filmmakers?
Film festivals are usually a test to the quality of the film. Not commercial viability, but how beautifully the filmmaker was able to convey the story. I believe when we submit our films more, we will gain more creative respect on the world stage. The idea of our films being looked down upon no longer exists in an impactful way.
Film festivals offer a wide range of possibilities for creatives in the filmmaking ecosystem. What are the potential benefits international festivals hold for Nigerian animators?
Exposure, partnership possibilities and of course telling our beautiful stories to the world of professional filmmakers and beyond. Film festivals offer a life changing opportunity for all animators.
To people familiar with your portfolio, you aren’t new to festival circles. What distinct traits do you find appealing about the Berlinale as it relates to the animation genre?
Berlinale is a huge festival for film in general. Fictional features, shorts, documentaries etc., were heavily on display. Being an animator makes you a bit more unique. The festival definitely finds a way to showcase animated projects and animators to its really large audience.
It was Guillermo del Toro that said: “Animation is cinema. Animation is not a genre for kids. It is a medium.” As a professional animator, how do you respond to people in the Nigerian space who see animation films as a “genre for kids?
Not fair, but I’m not surprised. It’s essentially culturally-generated and not the real deal. Adults in Nigeria enjoy animated stories as much as the kids. But it has not been expressed in the cinema culture. I believe as our body of work increases, it will change. It will naturally become irresistible to not just children and youths, but mature minds as well.
There are always elements of cultural representation in your animated films. Tell us about your featured projects at this year’s Berlinale Talent
It’s really about our unique experience and perspective different from the rest of the world. The feature stop motion animated film, Prepared to Die highlights the story of passionate soldier “Wale,” who is ready to give it all for his country but is being held back by the idea of not leaving his loving family stranded. The military-based film explores distinctive cultural interactions and elements.
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 and genres, animation for instance, 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?
It’s just a matter of time. It’s so exciting to see us showing up and winning in the biggest film Festivals worldwide. It passes across the salient message to others that getting accepted to film festivals is also possible and it’s really just the beginning. The animation space is growing exponentially every day. The foundation is looking good. The world should start getting ready for our stories because when we touch down, it’s going to be big!
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.