“Because of my fondness for music, I use it a lot in my films. As a director, I use music to communicate my characters’ stories. With music, I become vulnerable in my films…” – Kayode Kasum
By Seyi Lasisi
Oga Bolaji (2018), the first Kayode Kasum-directed feature film I saw, is a personal essay of the filmmaker captured on the screen, but with substantial adjustments. Kasum, like the eponymous Oga Bolaji (Ikponmwosa Gold), is a creative, but a filmmaker rather than a musician. Kasum’s kinship with Oga Bolaji is that they both stayed with their mothers, and despite mounting pressure from society to be successful, they are optimistic. As Oga Bolaji floats around from scene to scene, with his mother (Idowu Philips), reprimanding him as an act of love, Gold subtly reenacts Kasum’s personal story.
After the success of Oga Bolaji, Kasum has directed other feature-length films (Dwindle, This Lady Called Life, Kambili: The Whole 30 Yards, Sugar Rush) which have received both scrutiny and commendation. Kasum has also directed and produced a handful of short films (Road to Spotlight, Roles Reserved, and Hidden Figure). While Kasum is often associated with the director’s tag, he has also edited some films: Oga Bolaji, This Lady Called Life, Sugar Rush, and Ponzi.
In this exclusive interview with Afrocritik, Kasum speaks about the allure of working in a corporate setting before venturing into filmmaking, his infective affinity with music, and the rise in original soundtrack albums (OST) in Nollywood, giving insight into the creative process behind Oga Bolaji and Obara’m (2022), and his soon-to-be-released film, Afamefuna.
Although our conversation was mostly film-focused, we occasionally strayed into accommodating Kasum’s wanderlust taste in music into our conversation. Music, which Kayode described as a superior art form, often dominates the films he directs. Obara’m is a feature-length film where Kasum expresses this sonic interest more. Oluchi (Nancy Isime), the lead actor, not only carries the music in this film, but her father (Nkem Owoh) and several of the characters’ dialogue are occasionally articulated acoustically.
You are famous for your production as seen on various film credits. Our readers would however like to know more about you. So from you, who is Kayode Kasum?
I am a filmmaker and storyteller interested in telling and directing films that everyday Nigerians can find themselves in. I am an everyday person. I mostly try telling stories that always have a message about human beings and societies. I love telling heartfelt stories.
As someone with no knowledge about your filmmaking history, can you tell me what ignited your interest in filmmaking, particularly directing?
I daydreamed a lot while I was in school, this is because I did not have enough friends growing up and I was a very quiet kid. This daydreaming and quietness piqued my interest in filmmaking. But despite this interest, I did not know how to make a film. During my academic years in Yabatech (A polytechnic institute in Lagos), I came back home to discover that my brother had made a homemade DIY music video and I asked him how. After his explanation, that same day, I applied to go to film school hoping I would get in.
I read that before you made Oga Bolaji, you were working at Wale Adenuga Production as a motion graphic designer. Could you talk about what that time in your life was like? I am also curious to know how your occupation as a motion graphic designer has helped uplift your journey as a director and producer.
I worked at Wale Adenuga Production for more than a year. In hindsight, the job helped prepare me for the filmmaking roles I have taken in Nollywood. When I worked there, I was doing the same thing every day, nonstop; editing and putting out TV shows that were syndicated across Nigeria. And because I enjoy telling stories, I enjoyed the process of doing that. Part of what the job taught me was resilience and hard work. As someone who has always wanted to push the limit of what I can do, I strive to do better. So, while working as a motion graphics designer, I started learning 3D animation. All these were, in retrospect, my learning phase and foundation for filmmaking. My exposure to the 9-5 work structure of a corporate organisation helped prepare me, too, for the rigours of filmmaking. That is why I often advise young filmmakers and young people to work for a while in a 9-5 structure before deciding to pursue their filmmaking dreams and setting up a studio. Thinking back, through working in these corporate organisations, I was able to learn a few things that have helped me grow to where I am today.
I was reflecting on Obara’m and Oga Bolaji recently, and I noticed that though both films are distinct, they are similar in their inspiration. Both were influenced by your personal story. As a writer, I constantly offer parts of my biography to readers. To you, what do you think about filmmakers bearing their personal stories to the audience?
Nobody can tell your story better than you. I believe that as humans, we go through these different and unique experiences to be able to tell them to others, and since I have the gift of storytelling, it is important to tell these personal stories. I have realised in my years as a filmmaker that whatever we are experiencing isn’t exclusive to us; others are going through it, too. Thus, by telling these exclusive stories, we are subtly helping others with similar experiences. Stories are very important. Stories win elections. Stories are built into religion. Storytelling can change lives, and if you have the opportunity to tell one, I think you should. It is also important to be vulnerable. The more vulnerable you are, the more strength you find in yourself.
One of the things I observed while watching Obara’m and Oga Bolaji is that music plays a vital part in plot and character development. As someone who listens to music a lot, I am curious to know what your connection to music is and what importance you think music holds to a story.
I just love music. It is something I listen to religiously. Music is that art form that can make you feel happy or sad with just a track. I believe it is a superior art form. As a director, when you are telling a story visually, you need the help of other art forms to communicate the characters’ emotions that you want the audience to know. Music is a powerful tool to use to achieve that. With this understanding and appreciation of music, I often employ it to tell my stories. In Obara’m, you observe that apart from the characters’ dialogue, music was used to tell the characters’ stories and journeys.
Because of my fondness for music, I use it a lot in my films. As a director, I use music to communicate my characters’ stories. With music, I become vulnerable in my films. It is also a subtle way of letting the audience know I was involved in the filmmaking process. Music is one of my filmmaking signatures. When you notice the use of weird songs and soundtracks with heavy reliance on the trumpet, you can identify a film that I was involved in its creative process.
This next question is closely tied to the above question. There is a steady rise in the creation and use of original soundtracks (OST) and albums. What’s your general opinion about this? And what business advantage does OST add to Nollywood?
When I finish watching feature films — such as The Great Gatsby — one of the things I do is look for the original soundtrack album, because of my admiration for music. Hearing that people streamed the original soundtrack album of Obara’m always makes me happy. That means the team did something right. Also, as someone who loves music, it is a big deal to executively produce a music album. The creation of the original soundtrack album for Obara’m is just me leaving some of my filmmaking dreams and fantasies. Obara’m wasn’t part of a trend. I could even say we started the trend in Nollywood. And, for me, I guess the rise of OST in the Nigerian film industry is a way to show that the filmmaking space is evolving and embracing standards in making films and art.
After watching a film as an audience, you want to get lost in it and relive some of the experiences the film unearthed in you. An original soundtrack album does that. OST, in a way, takes the audience out of the world, and it makes it possible for a filmmaker to still embrace them into the world of the film. When the audience finishes streaming your film or after they have left the cinema, they can still connect with you through the OST. OST is another way of spreading and telling your story as a filmmaker.
Queen Moremi; The Musical (2018), WAKAA! (2016), Man Enough (2019), Saro The Musical (2013), and Heartbeat(2016) are Nigerian musicals that preceded Obara’m. What are your thoughts about musicals? Do you think we’ll get to a point where we’ll explore more musicals in Nollywood?
I have been in two meetings and I can tell you that there are more musicals in production. Nollywood is in the works to woah the audience with musicals in the future.
You work as a director-for-hire in certain movies (This Lady Called Life and Sugar Rush), and you have made films of your own that bear fragments of yourself (Oga Bolaji and Obara’m). With your experience as a director-for-hire and as a director of your own films, which do you have a soft spot for?
I think I like making my own films. But I also love telling stories. Storytelling is what I am passionate about so for every opportunity I get to do that, I don’t take it lightly. I devote my time, attention, and energy to it. I love telling my own stories. For me, those are my best moments. But again, there are times I meet people who are passionate about a story they want to tell and can’t do so themselves, I help them to bring their story out. I like doing this as much as I like telling my own stories. I am a storyteller and I can’t keep my gifts to myself.
As a keen audience of your feature-length and short films, I noticed that there are recurring faces and names in your production: Ikponmwosa Gold and Nancy Ismie as actors, Ife Olujuyigbe and Dare Olaitan, as producers or executive producers, amongst other names. These people help maintain a certain sense of consistency in your directed films. Can you talk about the relationship with these people and how working with them has impacted your work as a director? And also how have you been able to utilise these actors and show their range as a director?
Filmmaking is a teamwork; it is not an individual effort. This means that you are always on the lookout for like-minded people who love telling stories like you. These are people you always want to collaborate with. The names you mentioned are filmmakers I love collaborating with, and in the past, we have made some good films together. The future still holds more good films. Ikponmwosa Gold and Nancy Isime are actors I enjoyed working with due to how they can interpret scripts and stories. I enjoyed working with Isime in Kambili and Gold, for the first time, in Oga Bolaji, and I have always wanted to recreate that connection with these actors. I am also looking forward to other connections I will make with more actors in the future.
Every creative has a unique process and approach to their work. How do you approach the stories you direct?
The first thing, for me, is to know the theme of what I intend to say. I always, even when it is not my film, try to find out what the film is trying to say. And since I always try to root my films and stories in Nigerian realities, I try and discover how some of the situations in the story will unfold in real-life scenarios. I tell my stories from a realistic point of view. After I have found the theme and arrived at telling the story from a realistic lens, I become particular about taking the audience on a cinematic experience. Once these are settled, I try looking for actors who will understand what I intend to say. Although filmmaking is a journey and you find more clues as you are making it, it is always important to start with a direction in mind. Once I have these well-defined directions before starting production, I know I am good to go.
In the words of American film director Orson Welles, “The director is the leader of the orchestra.” This implies that the director organises and guides all the elements of filmmaking. Your area of specialisation, directing, has over the years attracted criticism from the Nollywood audience as being one of the issues plaguing Nollywood. What do you have to say about this?
This is a very good and important question. I want people to know that sometimes directors alone do not make films. Directors play a very good role in the stories that are being told. But they don’t have full control. A director can tell other crew members how he intends to execute a project and when he gets to the set, the producer(s) do not provide him with the necessary tools to realise that vision. In that case, the director is now making a film he didn’t plan. I have said earlier that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and many factors might sabotage a film. I also want to commend the effort of producers who go all out to provide a director’s needs against all odds. Conclusively, it’s not the director that makes a film.
Nollywood is constantly gaining ascendancy in the world. As a director, how does this make you feel? Also, what are the industry practices directors and filmmakers generally should discard or emulate to secure this growth?
Our storytelling needs to be improved. And I like the fact that Nollywood filmmakers are looking into that. We are trying to get our stories to the next level. I don’t think it is production value. I say this is because there is more funding coming into the industry now. This implies that the production value of Nollywood films will improve, too. A lot of people have paved the way and inspired others to want to invest in production. It is about getting our stories to be better. When we say “Afrobeats to the world”, that is for music, and as I said earlier, music is a superior art form with the ability to travel faster compared to films. There is a lot that goes into positioning a film to be great, and I know that the Nigerian film industry is making those connections and partnerships to make that possible.
Something Like Gold is currently showing in the cinema. What other projects should we be expecting?
The audience should expect Afamefuna. I am very excited about it. It is an Igbo-language film about the Nwa boy. Every year I always have a special project that I put out. Last year was Obara’m. This year it will be Afamefuna. Next year I also have a special project I am working on and it is also in the Igbo language. I was approached to make Afamefuna in 2022. It was a story I was passionate about making. We worked diligently on the film. What makes this film special is that a Yoruba boy (Kasum) is making an Igbo-language film. We created a structure in place to ensure that the Igbo culture is properly represented and not misrepresented.
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. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.