“A Tribe Called Judah is divine” – Akinlabi Ishola.
“When writing the story, we were keen on portraying family” — Collins Okoh.
By Seyi Lasisi
The Nigerian protean filmmaker Funke Akindele is known for multiple reasons. Now described as Nollywood’s box-office queen, with three (Battle in Buka Street, Omo Ghetto: The Saga, and A Tribe Called Judah) of the highest-grossing films credited to her, she is a filmmaker with a penchant for vigorously marketing her films and series, with an interest in crafting family-friendly movies which bridges the social divide between the ruling and working class. A Tribe Called Judah, Nollywood’s current highest-grossing film, is being praised for this remarkable feat, with all creatives that make up the production team receiving their deserved accolades. The script, too, has been lauded for the creative effort that went into the writing.
The names Akinlabi Ishola and Collins Okoh have also become associated with Akindele. Anchored on Akindele’s idea, the co-writers of A Tribe Called Judah, have built a bonding working relationship: Akinlabi worked with Akindele on the TV series, My Siblings and I while Okoh shares the writing credit with her on Omo Ghetto: The Saga.
In this exclusive interview with Afrocritik, Okoh and Akinlabi share their foray into writing screenplays, the behind–the–scenes ethics of working with Akindele and the creative intentionality behind writing A Tribe Called Judah. As they teased at the end of this interview, there is a script written by the trio that is currently in the development stages.
Congratulations on your groundbreaking strides as Nollywood’s highest-grossing screenwriters. To you as a person and to your career, what does this mean?
Collins: It’s a beautiful thing being Nollywood’s highest-grossing writer. It’s what every writer craves for. I’m in this position. And it’s a springboard to do greater things.
Akinlabi: It’s every writer’s dream to be successful on a grand scale. It’s an indication to do greater things in the future.
Your momentous record, in many cases, has years of stories behind it. What is yours? How did you find your way into the making of motion pictures?
Akinlabi: I started writing – prose, stories, and plays – at a young age. From 2013 to 2014, influenced by Linda Ikeji’s successful story, I started blogging. Because I relentlessly shared links to what I have written with friends and mutuals, a friend saw my story and proposed the idea of writing stage plays for the director of stage plays in church – The Starhub; the youth expression of Daystar (Christian Centre). That was how I started writing stage plays. Gradually, I started looking for ways to better my craft as a writer.
Collins: My story is similar to Akinlabi’s. I majored in Pharmacology and for a while, worked with the Ministry of Health as an Essential Drugs Project (EDP) Supervisor. During this time, I would write and publish my stories on my Facebook page The page drew traction, and someone reached out to ask if I was interested in making a screenplay out of the stories I had written. I responded in the affirmative. The person introduced me to Aunty Funke (Akindele) in 2019. By 2020, we started writing what became Omo Ghetto: The Saga. In 2023, we released the Amazon Prime Original, She Must Be Obeyed. And at the end of the year, we released A Tribe Called Judah.
How did you get involved in A Tribe Called Judah?
Collins: Aunty Funke had the idea for the film and she called me. We have a working relationship – we co-wrote Omo Ghetto: The Saga in 2020. She reached out to me in April and gave me the details.
Akinlabi: Aunty Funke came up with the idea for A Tribe Called Judah and reached out to me, it was a privilege I wasn’t going to decline.
Understandably, cast members often monopolise the spotlight when a film starts showing. But with A Tribe called Judah, it feels different; you are also sharing the spotlight. How would you describe the feeling of being recognised for your creative input?
Collins: It makes me feel great, seen, and appreciated.
Akinlabi: I feel great and privileged, for Aunty Funke bringing me on board as co-writer of the film. I’m grateful that I’m being carried along. It’s a feeling that I can’t put into words soon.
You have worked with Akindele before. What is it like to work with her? And how will you describe her work ethic?
Collins: She is hard-working and intelligent. Even when we are at our lowest stage, she is often there to motivate us to keep our eyes on the result. She knows what the audience wants and it’s beautiful working with her.
Akinlabi: You can’t deny that she is brilliant. She takes time to explain her vision. And this makes it easy to understand her vision. As Collins said, she is a constant motivator.
It has often been said writers are collectors; of names, places, events, influences, etc. How much does society influence your writing? And which screenwriters have influenced your writing?
Collins: Society does influence my writing. When I write, I pick fragments from my society. Poverty, wealth, crime, and romance are societal realities that surround me. Thus, they find a way into my writing. I don’t read literature while writing. But, casually, I enjoy reading the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s books. It’s not just the stories she writes that I find interesting but the dialogue. She has a special way of writing them. Another writer I love is Sidney Sheldon. Sheldon also inspires my storytelling too.
Akinlabi: My immediate society influences my writing because it’s what I see daily. I will want to write a story that once it is told, I can relate to. I want to write characters so that I can understand their backstory and motivations with ease. So, my society has a huge influence on how I write. I watch a lot of movies. The American playwright and screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin is another brilliant screenwriter I admire and connect to. Sorkin influences my writing.
As a writer, I know we can be very protective of our space and independence. I’m curious to know about the co-writing process. Are you able to have creative independence even when co-writing?
Collins: I have been in a co-writing situation in the past, where the development stage wasn’t smooth during creating the script, because we had different creative ideas on what the story should look like. However, in A Tribe Called Judah, I didn’t experience that because we all had similar visions. There wasn’t a situation of conflict or superiority of opinions. Whenever we had conflicting ideas, we often took time to discuss and resolve them. Looking back, with the acceptance the film has received, I’m glad that all the discussions we had while making the film were the right ones.
Akinlabi: I resonate with Okoh’s response. Aunty Funke told us about the idea she had and we went for it. With her involved, we often had discussions when different ideas arose. And when she isn’t seeing it from our direction, we explain the idea to her with references. We are glad we made the right decisions.
The film is also highly praised for its attention to detail, particularly with the thorough medical research and the presentation and complications of kidney disease. This is noteworthy because many times, research – especially medical research – is shabbily carried out in film. As a scriptwriter, why is conducting proper research important?
Collins: For accurate representation, the medical complication of Jedidah needed to be depicted. It’s important to ask questions about what you are writing.
Akinlabi: Research is very important in representation. I’m glad that we made the medical community happy with our spotless representation of Jedidah’s medical condition. To work with Aunty Funke, you can’t just casually say you have a notion. You have to back that idea with facts. Hence the research. From the onset, she had a vision even before the writing of the script. She often reiterated that A Tribe Called Judah is divine. One of the testaments of how divine the project is is the people she collaborated with in making the film. Each department of the film – writers, cinematographers, and sound designers, was able to see her vision and bring it to life.
How did you go about researching the story? And how did this elevate the storytelling?
Collins: Akindele is big on research, as she doesn’t want to make mistakes. While writing the script, we spoke with medical doctors and people with related health challenges. We asked about the symptoms and conditions associated with the health challenge. We did due diligence research to ensure that we didn’t make mistakes. The research we did made it possible for us not to become a laughing stock.
Akinlabi: The research played a major role in representing the medical condition. We could have written that Jedidah had a kidney issue without explaining how it affected her when she relapsed. Our consultation with medical practitioners gave us insight into the health conditions. And we are also glad that people who experience this health condition indulge us with their experience.
Another commendable aspect of the film is the familiarity between the brothers. Despite the differences in their cultural background, they are united. How was this unforced solidarity achieved through the writing?
Collins: The bond in a family setting was a concept we wanted to explore. When writing the story, we were keen on portraying family. We knew the brothers would fight and have constant misunderstandings. But, we also knew they would be united when it came to fighting for a common goal.
Akinlabi: Family will always support you. I’m privileged to understand the bond between brothers too. Thus, as Okoh said, representing family was a constant idea we had. And while writing, we wanted to ensure we don’t lose sight of this motive.
What should we be anticipating from you this year?
Collins: We are in the development stage of a project that we are co-writing with Aunty Funke. We aren’t sure when it will be available for public consumption. But, we are building and working on something.
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 they align with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: email@example.com.