Image by Mark Peckmezian.

Sundance Winner Akinola Davies Jr Explores the Sweet Spot Between Nollywood and Hollywood

Filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr Explores the Sweet Spot Between Nollywood & Hollywood

Winner of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, London-based Nigerian filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr speaks about his experimental film 'Lizard', what belonging looks like and the overlap between Hollywood and Nollywood.

In early February, the jury for the short film competition at the Sundance Film Festival announced the Nigerian film, Lizard, as the winner of the Grand Jury Prize, the highest honour for that category. Thirty-five-year-old Akinola Davies Jr, Lizard's director and co-writer (with his brother Wale, better known as Tec, one half of the rap duo Show Dem Camp) accepted the prize from the United Kingdom, a country he has called home since the age of 13.

Lizard follows the adventures of an eight-year-old girl, Juwon (Pamilerin Ayodeji) who is kicked out of Sunday school service and goes on a tour of the massive compound where she witnesses firsthand the dynamics at play in and around a Lagos Pentecostal megachurch. Davies Jr makes use of elements of magical realism to thrust audiences into the world of this innocent as she grapples with the images she comes in contact with. The film closes out in a climactic act of violence that recalls Davies Jr's memories of growing up in a country under censorship and military dictatorship.

With this Sundance triumph, Davies Jr became the first Nigerian filmmaker to achieve this distinction. However, he is no overnight success though. Born in London and raised in Lagos, the multi-disciplined artist attended school in the English countryside and has been grinding for a while now. The bulk of his creative work—music videos, fashion films, experimental films—have navigated aspects of belonging and existing in some kind of "middle".

In 2017, collaborating with photographer Ruth Ossai and stylist Ibrahim Kamara, Davies Jr paid homage to his Nigerian roots for French luxury brand Kenzo in a video film titled Unity is Strength. He has participated in the Berlinale Talents and opened his first solo show at Art Basel in Switzerland. He is also a prolific music video director, shooting visuals for British acts, Larry B and Mischa Mafia.

We caught up recently with Davies Jr via Zoom from his home in London.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

I saw Lizard at Sundance and it is impressive but also quite the head-scratcher. How does an idea like that come to you?

The inspiration for Lizard was growing up in Nigeria in the nineties. Everything but two moments in the film happened to me in real life. All I really did was collect these childhood memories of mine and merge them into my understanding of what you can do with a short film. The starting point for me was an experience of us getting robbed at gunpoint at church once and I kind of worked backward from there. I don't have any ill feelings of growing up in Nigeria and I won't say I romanticise the brutality of some of those moments. But as a child, you don't know any better and your experience is your experience. I grew up in Gbagada, in Lagos Mainland and we went to church in Ikoyi and Ilupeju. I was [and] still am a very curious person so a lot of it was wandering around, getting kicked out of Sunday school. I always found church services tedious so I would look for how to entertain myself.

Still from 'Lizard'Image provided by the artist.

When you decided for certain that you were going to move forward with the idea, what was it like putting it all together?

I met the brilliant people at BBC Films and I was trying to show them this other project I had which was basically a glorified music video. They passed on it and told me they wanted to make a film. At that point, I was like why would you want to make a film with me? I had only ever made music videos, never a film. They assured me they had seen my work and believed I could do it. I pitched a film that was my idea of what I thought they would want. Ultimately, they said yes but as I watched some more short films and did more research, my plan began to change. When I make something, I want to put my heart and soul into it so if I never get to make another one, at least I can be proud of myself. I wanted to pay homage to growing up in Nigeria because I had never seen it done in a way that I could relate to. The films I saw did a lot of talking down to kids as opposed to seeing the world from their perspective. Children have fantastic imaginations and if you think to yourself, where can you put a 10-foot CGI lizard on-screen and justify it? It has to be from a child's perspective otherwise the film becomes a Nollywood-ish black magic kind of thing which isn't what I was going for at all.

"I wanted to pay homage to growing up in Nigeria because I had never seen it done in a way that I could relate to."


Also the three-act structure and the way we consume film is very European and America-centric. African filmmakers have been making incredible films in a diversity of challenging ways for a long period of time and maybe we don't always get to see them but the Sembènes and the Diop Mambétys were making non-linear linear films. So the Western-style will tell you to do it this way structure-wise; a beginning and an ending and a middle section but as an African filmmaker, I feel like you don't have to do it their way. People can figure that stuff out and if they cannot, then they can put whatever they feel into that moment and it works.

Did you always know you were going to put in a 10-feet size CGI lizard in your film?

That's funny. I knew I was going to put a lizard in there as the story developed. That is one of the first things I knew would happen. I wanted to have an aspect of magical realism and I have always been fascinated by lizards. People ask me what the story with the lizard is and I am like I don't know. But why not? I grew up on a television show called Tales by Moonlight and in these stories, humans and animals existed side by side and it was the most normal thing ever for a man to converse with a turtle or a lion. No one raised a brow. That's the kind of storytelling I was used to. I insisted on working with Nigerians, shooting in Nigeria, and having my story be as authentic so that it can sit beside something like Tales by Moonlight. If you saw Tales by Moonlight, this film will not feel like a stretch. For European storytelling, everything has to make sense to a large extent but in African proverbs, for example, it doesn't. You get the gist of it by understanding it is all part of a larger story.

Philippe Lacôte's Night of the Kings, which also played at Sundance, is concerned with the vitality and inconsistency of oral storytelling traditions. Interesting that both films even though thematically different, sort of overlap in this regard.

On the one hand, we have grown up on a diet of Western cinema and maybe there is a generation that thinks that is the only way to be telling stories. But in contrast, you have Nollywood and Nollywood tells its own stories its own way. There is this tension where people talk down on Nollywood because it has its own aesthetic going on that not everyone understands. But I think at some point both cultures have to start having a conversation. The sensitivities of Nollywood and Hollywood at some point have to overlap.

"The sensitivities of Nollywood and Hollywood at some point have to overlap."

You grew up in Nigeria, then moved to the UK where you live and work. Do you feel that people like you are poised to lead these conversations and blend these cultures?

The question is: are we going to try to do Hollywood in Africa or are we going to want to keep our own version of storytelling? For me, it is both. I don't watch a lot of Nollywood but I would love to think that Lizard is an extension of what it means to make a Nollywood film in a sense. Both retain the affinity for the mythological even though Nollywood is skewed in a basic good vs evil kind of way. With my films, I just want to honour who we are and how we tell our stories. If we take the aesthetics from the West and put in our storytelling gusto, I feel like it is more dynamic. Like the way that Night of the Kings jumps from A to B to Z and back again, but it remains incredibly easy to follow. That feeling is like listening to your mum or aunt tell stories.

Still from 'Lizard'.Image provided by the artist.

This may be an unfair judgment, but I wouldn't expect a filmmaker in your position to have such fond feelings for Nollywood. In my experience, the urge for filmmakers like you is to distance themselves from Nollywood-as-genre.

I think maybe there is an element of feeling like an outsider because I have lived in the UK since I was 13. There are a lot of things I think are of value in Nigeria that maybe you don't see value because you are so close to it and I am from a distance. If someone calls me a Nollywood filmmaker then I accept it. It is what it is. Nollywood is still very young compared to other filmmaking cultures and at some point, if we all work at it, it is going to mature. I would like to be associated with Nollywood and be part of the conversation on its evolution. I know that is a grand thing to say because I am still fresh and obviously just because I won an award doesn't make me an expert on Nollywood or anything, but I have seen a lot of value in the craft, talent and workmanship over there. I think it should be allowed to grow and make mistakes and evolve. I hope Lizard can be considered a Nollywood film and I wear that with pride. If I have any spere of influence I would hope to inspire the next generation of talent to make films that are more refined but still within that space.

I suppose I should ask the question that everyone who has seen Lizard has on their mind. What is going on really?

Hahaha! What do you think is going on?

I feel like the film takes us through the mind of this child, asking us to see the world through their eyes, with wide-eyed innocence and plenty of imagination. And it reminds us of the ways that kids are constantly processing the information overload available to them in a way that makes sense specifically to them.

That is pretty accurate, and everyone has a different take, but you just summarized it pretty well, maybe even better than me. I enjoy hearing other peoples' opinions of it because it helps reinforce my own opinions. I had a lot of intentions that I wanted to explore not necessarily knowing why. I think that children are brilliant and resilient and are great mediums to see the world through and great engines for storytelling. Girls get policed more often than boys so it was important for me to engage that period of curiosity before everyone starts telling you what to do and how to feel. A lot of things were happening to me as a kid with this sociopolitical background of violence and trauma. I love home and now wish it were different but that is just the way that things were for me. For the adult, I wanted to make something that you can watch and understand immediately but still be disoriented by it. And for children, something they could watch and just be excited [about] without necessarily appreciating fully what they are seeing.

Your brother, Tec is a rapper. What is that creative collaboration like and are there other gifts he has hidden away that we should be aware of?

He is best known for his work with Show Dem Camp but my brother is an artist first and foremost and rap is just one of the outlets for his artistry. The rapper is a poet and a storyteller, and my brother was the only person I knew who had written a screenplay when I conceived Lizard. We get on famously, he is my best friend and the one person I want to tell stories with. I respect people who do not think of themselves in this singular capacity and are willing to explore several facets of their talent.

Follow Akinola Davies Jr on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo Credit: Netflix

The Stars of 'Blood Sisters' Talk About Becoming Netflix's Biggest Hit

We sat down with Ini Dima-Okojie and Nancy Isime, the actors who brought life to Sarah and Kemi, to talk about shooting Blood Sisters, acting in Nollywood, what's next, and more.

Earlier this month, Netflix's "first original series" from Nigeria was released. The limited series, Blood Sisters directed by Biyi Bandele and Kenneth Gyang, follows two friends, Sarah (Ini Dima-Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime), as they go on the run after the death of Sarah's fiance, Kola (Deyemi Okanlawon).

The show explores familial dysfunction, murder, the meaning of sisterhood, and how valuable friendships can be, with its central premise around domestic violence, a theme known to many.

Since its release, the four-part crime thriller has received praises, with Variety calling its first episode "explosive" and "hard-pressed to walk away." After its first week of release, the limited series sat at number nine on the list of most-watched TV shows globally, with over 11,070,000 hours of viewing, making it a first for Nigeria. This comes after Netflix’s first Nollywood film of the year —Chief Daddy — faced harsh criticisms from viewers and critics alike.

The success of Blood Sisters shows that cinematography isn’t the only selling point of Nollywood. And for Nollywood content to thrive on Netflix, there should be an investment in all areas, from the storytelling down to the marketing.

For Ini Dima-Okojie starring alongside some of Nollywood's big names — like Kate Henshaw, Ramsey Nouah, and Uche Jombo — was surreal because these are the people she watched growing up. "But when it came to filming, it didn't matter if you've been in the industry for just four years or 30 years," Dima-Okojie said. "All that mattered was everyone was ready to work."

Like Dima-Okojie, Nancy Isime also loved acting alongside them, even though it wasn't her first time working with some of them. "I was there for work and understood that it was bigger than just being Nancy Isime. It was me at work."

We sat down with Ini Dima-Okojie and Nancy Isime, the actors who brought life to Sarah and Kemi, to talk about what it was like behind the scenes, acting in Nollywood, what's next for them, and more.

Blood Sisters | Trailer | Netflix

What's one thing you learned while shooting this series?

Ini Dima-Okojie: One thing I learned for sure is that Nigeria is ready to tell its authentic stories to a global audience. We're not just prepared; we're capable of standing behind any industry. I could feel that from being on set, with the professionalism I encountered. I also learned that it is good to be kind, deliberate, and mindful of what people are going through because what we do has an impact.

Nancy Isime: For me, I learned it's possible to have good production in Nigeria. I've been blessed to be in a couple, and this was one of them. And it's a highlight so far. I also learned about the characters.

Nancy Isime,

Photo Credit: Nancy Isime,

What was it like playing your roles, and how did you get it?

Dima-Okojie: When I got the audition file for Sarah, I went on my knees and told God, "I want this." You can tell from the size alone, and I think that has happened to me only three times in my career because it doesn't often happen as an actor. A week or two after I sent in my audition tape, I got an email telling me to send another tape, but this time, it was for a different character, Timeyin. Altogether, I auditioned for Kemi, Sarah, and Timeyin.

I was so excited playing Sarah. I felt so lucky because, at the end of the day, an actor is only as good as the opportunities they are given. So playing Sarah had me go deep into the character, asking questions and putting myself into her shoes.

Isime: It was wonderful playing my role. I had gotten an email asking to read for Sarah, not for Kemi. So I made my tape and sent it in. Then, I was called in for a private audition and read through with everybody. However, I was called back and was told that Netflix wanted me to play Kemi, and I was like, "What is a Kemi?" Because I never read for her. So I was reluctant to accept because I didn't know who the character was and if she'd have the opportunity to show her acting range. But I took it, and when I read the script, I was like, "Yes, Kemi. Yes, baby, let's do this."

What was your favorite scene to film?

Dima-Okojie: My favorite scene? That's hard. I had so many unforgettable moments. However, I think one monumental period I'd like to pick on is probably when Sarah stood up to her abuser Kola and told him, "No!" because that was very big. She barely speaks up and is so used to being bullied, whether for good or bad, even in her beautiful friendship with Kemi, where she's always being told what to do. But in that scene, she had found the strength and was finally able to speak up, even though she knew what his reaction was going to be.

She spoke up for herself at that moment, and I think it was a huge moment for Sarah. It was a huge moment for people who may have experienced [domestic violence] because if there's one thing I realized from research, it didn't matter where people who are susceptible to abuse are from. Whether they were black or white, old or young, it was a triumph for Sarah and everyone going through any form of abuse.

Isime: I loved every single scene of playing Kemi because, as you noticed, there's no scene she's in that is a usual scene. In fact, no scene in Blood Sisters could have been done away with if you noticed because every scene is putting you on edge the entire time. Coming to set every day, I was like, "we're h-a-p-p-y," because yes, I was happy.

Ini Dima-Okojie wearing white sneakers

Photo Credit: Ini Dima-Okojie

What was the most challenging scene?

Dima-Okojie: For the challenging scene, I'll like to break it into physical and emotional parts. It was very physically challenging for Sarah. From when they decided to go on the run, physically, we were in Makoko, running all over the community, jumping from canoe to canoe. We also went to Epe, where we were barefooted. It was grueling as an actor and a character because this wasn't a fit character. Emotionally, I had to understand everything that Sarah was going through. I had to chip away from who I am as Ini to connect with what she was going through, which can be draining. But thank God I was surrounded by amazing people and directors who eased the process and were there to pick me up anytime I was down.

The series is a global hit on Netflix; how does that make you feel?

Dima-Okojie: Honestly, it's surreal. It makes me emotional half the time because, as a performer, all you want is for people to watch your work and for it to resonate. Being an actor, people see the glitz and the glam, but it's a lot of work. You chip away part of yourself to give a character life, but it's worth it.

Isime: Floating. Floating in a bubble, floating in gratitude. It feels so good. Imagine having 11 million hours of watch time in five days? It's no easy feat. I don't think any African show has been able to do that. So for that to come from Nigeria, and for me to be lead? I don't think I'll ever come down from this high that I'm on.

You are both a part of a new generation of Nollywood actors doing amazing if I say so myself. What is that like?

Dima-Okojie: Generally, I think being an actor in the world today is incredible. Nollywood has gone through much because we were in a time where we didn't have financing and institutionally there's no backing. So being able to be in a world today where everything is global, and I can do something here in Lagos, while people from Japan, Belgium, and Qatar, are sending texts telling me they watched me and loved it, I don't think there's a better time to act than now. It's a fantastic time to be a Nigerian actor.

Isime: It feels good to be recognized for something I'm passionate about and love. I feel blessed because Nollywood is bigger than I am. It goes beyond ego and wanting to be the best because we're all part of something way bigger than us. And I'm so happy to be able to contribute to this industry, leave my prints in the sand of time, and say that yes, there was a time I was not just a Nollywood actor, but every single person can confirm. I mean, it's one thing to say you're an actor, and people start asking, "which film you act?" "this one too na actress?" but you can't say that when it comes to me. And it also feels good to be recognized by the AMVCA, which is a huge organization.


Photo Credit: Netflix

Now, let's go behind the scenes: did anything funny, sad, or surprising happen while filming?

Dima-Okojie: There were so many exciting moments, not necessarily sad moments. We filmed for over two months at the height of COVID-19, so you can imagine all the craziness that must have happened.

I remember while filming the dinner scene after we had our COVID-19 test, they told us a cast member had the virus, causing us to reschedule. Another moment was when Ramsey Nouah brought a crocodile for us to eat while filming in Epe, and it was delicious. I honestly had lots of happy moments.

Isime: I feel like all these emotions happen naturally because I was happy every day I was on set. But something interesting that happened was the fact that Ini and I got so into the characters that we took it just beyond acting. We felt every emotion that the characters went through. We had one crying scene together, and I promise you that they cleared the room for us because we had to cry to get it out for a while. Because in reality, when something happens to you and you cry, you don't just cry for a bit. You have to let it out, and that was us. We were Kemi and Sarah and needed time to grieve. To let it out. It was an interesting event, and I had so many times I was tired, mentally and physically.

What's next for you? Any upcoming projects?

Dima-Okojie: There are so many exciting things in the works. First of all, I am getting married. Immediately after that, in June, I am going right back to set for the second season of Smart Money Woman. There are a couple more projects in the work that I'm not allowed to speak about yet, but there are exciting times ahead.

Isime: I love that question, and I also don't love that question because I don't know what's next. I'm just living my purpose, taking one day at a time, and grateful for every part of my journey. If you had told me five years ago that I'd be here, I would say it's a lie because I was probably sure that I knew where I was going. So what's next for me is a beautiful life, more projects, and more fantastic performances.

My show, The Nancy Isime Show, is also doing very well and happens to be one of the most-watched talk shows in the country, so I'm hoping that expands better. I'm also hoping to bring about a few more creations to life.

Arts + Culture
Image courtesy of the artist

Spotlight: Timi Nathus Is Making Digital Art Mainstream

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In our latest piece, we spotlight Nigerian multidisciplinary digital artist, Timi Nathus aka NAZQUIAT. Nathus's shares his #Afrotroves NFT collection with us, and explains it as "Each NFT was made from sacred artifacts that were previously stolen and haven't set foot in Africa hundreds of years". Nathus and a cohort of digital artists are reclaiming the images and stories that were stolen, and instead using them to empower and inform his own communities. By breaking the mold of traditional art and storytelling, Nathus's decision to establish this collection as a series of NFTS is shifting the power struggle and encourages the celebrations of the old and new.

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If you like these music lists, you can also check out our Best Songs of the Month columns following Nigerian, Ghanaian, East African and South African music.

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Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

Rwanda's Salima Mukansanga Sets Historic Sights On FIFA World Cup 2022

The Rwandan official has been named as one of the first female referees in history to officiate at the men's FIFA World Cup.

For the first time in history, a select group of female referees has been chosen to officiate matches at a FIFA Soccer World Cup. This year's international sporting event will be hosted by the Middle Eastern country Qatar and runs from November 21st to December 18 later this year. Among the history-making female cohort is Rwandan referee Salima Mukansanga, who made headlines earlier this year after becoming the first female referee to a match in the African Cup of Nations.

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