There’s no doubt about it – Nigeria is having a moment. Not only are South Africans blasting Naija music on every corner, but acclaimed Nigerian filmmaker Akin Omotoso recently caught the attention of celebrated US filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who has chosen to showcase Omotoso’s directorial success story, Vaya, on her distribution platform Array.
Vaya is a heart-breaking, stunning film depicting Jozi’s grit and glamour.
Omotoso may be known for his politically charged Pan African repertoire, such as God Is African (2003), A Place Called Home (2006) and Man On Ground (2011), but his talent also lies in making crowd-pleasing, accessible movies. The year before he made Vaya, he created the African Movie Academy Award-winning romantic comedy Tell Me Sweet Something (2015), inspired by 1997’s Love Jones.
This may seem like an incongruous journey, from Tell Me Sweet Something to Vaya, but perhaps Omotoso has studied the South African filmmaking landscape long enough to know that, sometimes, it’s worth producing a film for everyone’s palate, offering them something sweet, before you hit them with something a bit harder to swallow.
It seems like whatever Omotoso touches, whether it’s sweet romcoms or hard-hitting true-to-life dramas, turns to gold. What is it about his storytelling that we love so much?
As the title of one of his first films, God Is African, suggests, this is a filmmaker who has no problem at all with offering provocative, controversial ideas to filmgoers. He’s open to the awkward questions that come when his films are being screened to a wider (sometimes ruthless) audience, and the fiery conversations that will ensue at the director’s Q&A.
Then there’s the subject matter. Man On Ground calls South Africans (and Africans in general) out on allowing a xenophobic beast to rear its ugly head. It’s like he’s encouraging us as a society to have the tough conversations through his films.
One thing that’s evident in all Omotoso’s films is his love of layered storylines.
And it’s no surprise that his creative process is just as complex and well-thought-out as his films’ narratives.
In a recent interview, he spoke of how he made Tell Me Sweet Something. First, he got 10 actors in a room to workshop the concept, and then he and his production partner, Robbie Thorpe, spent the next two years writing the script.
When they were done, they had a month of rehearsals, shot the film in just over a month and edited it for a year. A process that took over three years of meticulous mastery deserves all the accolades it gets.
These days, most Hollywood filmmakers seem to be pandering to the fact that audiences don’t want to think too hard when it comes to entertainment. We watch movies as a way to escape the daily grind, to step out of our difficult realities for a few hours.
But then along comes Omotoso, inspired by the sheer genius of old-school filmmakers like Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing) and John Singleton (Higher Learning). His stories pack a punch and don’t let us wriggle out of our responsibilities to our fellow human beings, not even for a minute.
Take Vaya, for instance. It’s a tapestry of three different characters’ stories, their past pains and their present traumas, laying out a thrilling journey of optimism, hope, and despair, all set against the backdrop of contemporary Johannesburg. It may sound difficult to watch, but, like so many of Omotoso’s masterpieces, you’ll find it impossible to look away.