Because of Tunde Kelani’s first-hand experience of Yoruba traditional culture, his knack for details, the high level of visuality in his perceptive skills and the constant enrichment of his mind with literature from diverse cultures of the world, it is little wonder that he has finds release for his great store of skills and knowledge in filmmaking.
Tunde Kelani is socialized into a rather unusual flavour of Nigerian culture. Though born in Lagos in the 1940s, at the consummation of the colonial era of Yoruba history, he grew up further inland in Abeokuta, experiencing first hand a vital vestige of Yoruba traditional file. These circumstances seem to have coalesced with his urbane disposition brought about by his easy access to Lagos, thereby laying the foundation of his present mission of employing modern information technologies to document traditional Yoruba culture.
On the other hand, TK (as he is fondly called by friends and associates) seems to have a peculiar bias for the visual mode of perception. When he speaks, the level of details that he supplies is not likely to emanate from concepts mediated merely by sound and text. Rather, he seems to draw from visual imagery clearly painted in his mind at the time he encountered whatever experiences he may be reliving. Further more, TK is an avid reader, who as a young boy had read almost all the then known classically written Yoruba literature available in Nigeria of the 1950s and 1960s. This deep foray into Yoruba literature was complemented by his voracious appetite for the literature of other lands. While his peers prided themselves on reading some of the contemporary English novels of those days, TK not only read these same novels, but also went further into more challenging African, English, Greek and other classical literatures. As a high school boy, he usually exhausted the recommended reading list for the literature class within the first couple of weeks of every term. He and another friend were said to have competed to exhaust their school library and both succeeded by their third year in school!
As a nine-year-old, his most prized belonging was his camera, which he quickly outgrew, once he became aware of all the features in more sophisticated models that his camera lacked. So, although a little bit absurd, he considered taking the camera to a blacksmith to help modify it to incorporate these features. This constant quest for better features persists for TK to this day, as he is notorious for spending his last dime to acquire the latest technology in photography and cinematography.
By the time he graduated from Abeokuta Grammar School, the same school that produced such old school boys as Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, with flying colours, TK was clear that his vocation lay in photography. In his mind, his career path did not include a Higher School Certificate and subsequently a university degree, as was the case with many of his contemporaries.
In 1969 while working as a raw materials controller at the United African Company A.J. Seward in Lagos, he read an article in the daily news about a successful London exhibition featuring the Nigerian photographer Dotun Okubanjo. The exhibition, which was opened by the then Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa proved to TK that his dream of becoming a photographer actually had a chance of turning into a reality. After patiently watching out for news of Okubabjo’s return to Nigeria, TK managed to secure an apprenticeship with the inspiring photographer in Lagos in 1969 and 1970.
When TK completed his apprenticeship, the newly established Western Nigerian Television was seeking to employ accomplished photographers as a trainee film cameramen with a minimum qualification of the West African School Certificate. TK fit the bill, emerging as the only successful candidate out of about fifteen that applied for the position, and started a filmmaking career that was destined to later on redefine African cinema.
Work as a trainee film cameraman at the Western Nigerian Television did not only provide him with the opportunity to learn various darkroom skills, but the new television station was also a natural beehive of activities for the best of Nigeria’s various media. TK started hanging out with the great artists of the Osogbo School of Yoruba Art, which was then being mentored by Ulli Beir, the indefatigable aficionado of African art and culture, and TK began a friendship and close working relationship with Hubert Ogunde, who is often called the father of modern Yoruba theatre. Thus was created for TK, a rich technical and artistic environment that served as the seedbed for his successful careers as a director of photography, film director, film producer and the chief executive of Nigeria’s foremost production house.
His insatiable quest for higher degrees in motion picture production took him to the London International Film School, where he obtained a diploma in the Art and Technique of Filmmaking. By the end of his study in London, TK was technically equipped and psychologically prepared to come back to Nigeria and face the onerous task of documenting the colourful community festivals he had experienced as a child in Abeokuta. “It is sheer drama, theatre at its best.” TK says of these festivals that celebrated various Yoruba pantheons. He still recalls and relates with relish some of the astonishing performances of these celebrant worshippers, the techniques of which he sought to explain even as a child.
Today, apart from doing newsreel work for BBC world service and other international news organisations in Nigeria, which he does purely to make ends meet, TK’s passion lies in documenting Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage in documentaries, shorts and features. He has contributed in various ways to most of the feature films that have been made in Nigeria to date. He worked as cinematographer on Anikura, Ogun Ajaye, Iya Ni Wura, Taxi Driver, Fopomoyo, and Iwa which he also co-produced. This represents a sizable segment of the popular Nigerian films that were made in the celluloid medium before the recklessness and philistinism of military rulership made it virtually impossible for Nigerian filmmakers to function according to the dictates of their art. More recently, with funding from South Africa as part of the M-Net New Directions Initiative, he functioned as cinematographer on Twins of The Rainforest (16MM), A Place Called Home, (16MM), A Barber’s Wisdom (35MM), and White Handkerchief (16MM), which he also produced and directed.
While most of his contemporaries considered it below their dignity to contemplate work in video, TK did not wince to embrace what he as a rule does not refer to as video but digital filmmaking. By so doing, he has managed to make no less than seven full length features which now represent some of the best offerings of the prolific Nigerian video phenomenon. These include titles such as Ti Oluwa Nile, Ayo Ni Mo Fe, Koseegbe, Oleku, Saworoide, Thunderbolt and most recently Agogo Eewo. “I am a firm believer in alternative technology for motion picture in Africa,” TK says with conviction. “My ancestors used wood, terracotta, bronze and whatever else they could lay their hands on to document their reality. If we do not use whatever we can to document our own present realities, our children will suffer identity crises if they have to recourse to archaeology to find out about how we lived in the age of multimedia.”
Thus, as a director of photography, TK stretches the optical capacity of digital video close to its elastic limit. “Light is my main tool. What I actually do is use light to create what I see in my mind’s eye. I then use the camera to record as much of it as technology makes available to me before NEPA (Nigeria’s Public Power Utility Company) switches off my lights without asking me.”
As a director, TK digs into the deepest recesses of his mind drawing gems from his past and thereby playing the role of a bridge of sorts between the present and the recent past. With the deeply theatrical culture of his Yoruba pedigree, he seems to have perfected the art of conveying Yoruba traditional theatre on the cinema screen without necessarily importing the ‘blockiness’ of the stage to the screen. He cleverly manages screen dialogue in a way that retains the wit, humour and dramatic vitality of Yoruba life without losing the visual essence of his medium. His subjects vary as widely as the diversity of the Nigerian reality. Culture, politics and inter-ethnic relationships are some of the issues he has addressed in some of his works. Whatever subject he examines however, there is a consistency of a deep philosophical underlying to the plot, juxtaposing the vitally of the scared with the reality of the mundane and the power of tradition with the inevitability of change.
As a producer, he maintains a clear understanding of what the viewing audience expect of him and he even manages to castigate then while they are enjoying it. He has a strong relationship with the traditional Yoruba theatre movement, which constitutes a major group from which he draws actors and actresses. They also, in their own part, hold him in high regard, acknowledging him as a vital link between their history on stage and presence on the cinema screen. Unfortunately however, with all his other enviable skills, one crucial skill for a producer that continues to elude TK is how to get money out of a Nigerian bank.