Nollywood's Must-Watch Director - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Nollywood's Must-Watch Director

Nollywood's Must-Watch Director

By Neil Parmar


Because you might start seeing a lot more of her work, even if you aren’t in Nigeria.

By Neil Parmar

The red carpet is out at the historic Elgin Theatre. It’s opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and Kemi Adetiba is about to step onto the stage and into the spotlight. But the Nigerian director is growing increasingly nervous, having suffered a nightmare in which only 10 people appear for the world premiere of her new movie. At one point she confesses, “I didn’t want to attend.” 

Yet a sold-out crowd of some 1,400 moviegoers has turned up and wrapped around the block to get in. Actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and whose family is Nigerian, is also here as a special guest. “I can’t wait to see this film,” Oyelowo booms into a mic, revving up Adetiba’s audience. “I’m so proud of Kemi.”

At 36, Adetiba, a confident yet shy former radio DJ, is now part of a male-dominated club directing within Nigeria’s Nollywood — the world’s second-biggest movie market by volume, behind only India’s Bollywood and ahead of America’s Hollywood. Her cinematic baby, The Wedding Party, opens December 16 in Nigeria and has already kicked off a series of eight features from Lagos under a TIFF program that showcases “gutsy new works by contemporary directors living and working in one of the world’s biggest film industries.” Still, Adetiba feels out of her league: She first tried her hand behind the camera in 2009 with short videos, and this is her first feature film. Until recently, she was known for being on radio and TV. “I feel like the baby of the group,” she says during an industry discussion among illustrious Nigerian filmmakers.

But she’s already making her mark, first for having been handpicked by producer Mosunmola “Mo” Abudu (aka “Africa’s Oprah,” as christened by Variety and CNN) to direct The Wedding Party; then for having managed all the famous egos — Sola Sobowale, Richard Mofe-Damijo, Ireti Doyle and so on — and numerous extras on set. The film follows the comedic and at times romantically dramatic lead-up to a wedding featuring two Nigerian families: one where newly rich parents of the bride want to splash out for her nuptials, and the other where the folks believe their son is marrying beneath him. 

It’s an interesting choice to debut internationally with a slapstick comedy, and Adetiba is aware that comedies are rarely rewarded at the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes. But she’s less interested in awards, and “just wanted to make a movie where people can come out of the cinema saying, ‘I had a great time.’” Viewers at the screening certainly guffawed throughout, and most film critics have been receptive. Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director, calls the movie “a hilarious melting pot of potential disaster.” Directing The Wedding Party has unleashed a passion for features, though Adetiba is most known for music videos. 

Despite Nollywood’s growth, which has been valued at over $3 billion, the industry still faces many challenges, especially for newbies like Adetiba. “The industry is not as developed” as Hollywood, says Abba Makama, a Nigerian filmmaker whose Green White Green debuted at TIFF. That means directors such as Makama and Adetiba find themselves directing a lot of details both on and off set. In short form, Bez Idakula, the Nigerian singer, praises Adetiba for having “amazing control” and “an eye for detail.” She’s overseen some of his music videos — telling him how to smile (“Don’t give me a smug look”) and to loosen his shoelaces, for example. The pair collaborated in 2010 on More You, a soulful R&B song that inspired Adetiba. The softly shot, sorrowful vignette portrays a love story cut short by death. Their sultry follow-up, Say, which garnered best video at the All Africa Music Awards in 2014, feels more cinematic with its presong buildup, a surprising plot twist, closing credits (“Written and directed by Kemi Adetiba” precedes the cast list) and a dramatic trailer that teases the seven-minute affair.

Adetiba seems born for showbiz. Her father helped develop Nigeria’s advertising, broadcast radio and TV industries. Throughout her childhood, she joined him on trips to radio and television stations. She also appeared in an ad for OMO laundry detergent — Dad oversaw that particular account. “Creativity was nurtured in our household,” says Adetiba, who grew up grooving to Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder before amassing a collection of cassettes, then CDs, that helped her earn the high school nickname “DJ K.” Although Adetiba studied law and considered a more steady career like her mom — an engineer — her inner music aficionado reemerged when she took a radio station gig at university that evolved into hosting nationally syndicated shows as well as TV programs such as Maltina Dance All.

A desire to get behind the camera and tell stories drew Adetiba to the New York Film Academy in 2007, and she’s been directing music videos since she finished — trying to “cram little movies into them.” Now, she’s discussing new projects that could get her “back to my comfort zone, which is intense drama and emotions.” Indeed, the major challenge for this Jill of all trades as she mulls over more features “is finding the right script,” Idakula says. “She needs to be very emotionally involved and know this is it for her. So far, she’s done that.”

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