In his Imaginative Debut Feature, Walé Oyéjidé Brings Together Elements of His Life’s Work
The Nigerian American director has long used the tools of his multi-hyphenate trade to expand the ways Africans are seen. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, 'Bravo, Burkina!' gives him a larger canvas on which to paint.
Whether it’s employing asylum seekers to model his designs or adding his flair to a piece of pivotal clothing that the late Chadwick Boseman wore in Black Panther, Walé Oyéjidé has always been about using whatever elements he can to push the ways Africans have traditionally been portrayed. What he hinted at in his short film After Migration: Calabria (available on the Criterion Channel), which tells the story of two refugees settling in Italy, he now gets to explore further in the feature debut, Bravo, Burkina!
“It's the best sandbox in which to play,” Oyéjidé tells OkayAfrica about the medium of film. “It’s been the natural evolution of all the work we’ve done over the past decade, and for me, it’s the perfect Venn diagram.” From working with a composer on the score, which harks to his career as a musician, and creating the costume design, which is rooted in his work as founder of menswear label Ikiré Jones, Bravo allows Nigerian-born Oyéjidé to continue the theme of paying homage to the many cultures he’s experienced and to share stories of people who have traveled from one place to another.
Bravo is part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Next section, which spotlights innovative films that are set to shape the future of cinema. It has also been selected to open this year's FESPACO next month. Just as he did in the short, After Migration, Oyéjidé uses sumptuous cinematic images to re-shape the way migration stories are often centered on trauma and suffering. His lens has always been love-centered and steeped in regality, in a passionate effort to re-assign meaning to images that have too easily become the accepted norm, and in this feature film, his mission flourishes.
Photo: The Sundance Institute
Once again, Oyéjidé sets part of the story in Italy, a recurring mise-en-scène for him on account of its visuals and aesthetics, but also, for the role it plays in migration. “It’s prevalent everywhere, but because they are on the forefront of North Africans and West Africans crossing the Mediterranean it’s sort of the perfect staging ground – both from a story standpoint and also from a design standpoint,” he says. “So it's very much where I love to play. And also it looks gorgeous,” he adds.
Shot in two weeks, on two continents, the film was made with the collaboration of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, which introduced Oyéjidé to the weavers of a village just outside Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso who become characters in the film. “It’s set in Burkina Faso and the name is in the title for deliberate reasons, but the idea is that really this boy or child or person could be from anywhere, going to anywhere. It's intended to be a universal global story about the need to leave and the desire to return.”
Oyéjidé spoke to OkayAfrica about how this film, which sees a young boy leave his Burkinabè village, fits into his greater life’s work.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The costumes in Bravo, Burkina! are beautiful - and they once again speak to a different way of seeing migrants - how did you go about creating them for this film?
The through line of all our work has always been with the attempt to depict regality. So you'll often hear me say I have no interest in peddling in trauma. Every artist has their burdens that they carry which inform their work. I happen to be of a generation in which images of persons of African descent were almost always condescending, demeaning, not beautiful, perhaps with some degree of truth, but rarely with a wide enough aperture to show those people depicted as their full selves. With all my work, it is first and foremost, visually beautiful and respectful and regal, despite what is happening with the characters, even at their lowest points, even if they're villainous.
The idea is that you're showing that all these persons, particularly those of African descent – or really anywhere, the idea is that they're stigmatized, marginalized populations – you show them, or I intend to show them, with a vast range of nuance, and specifically, those who are from populations that have been disregarded, I seek to give the beauty and strength that I know that they possess. Because I know these people; they are aunts, cousins, people you know.
So when we're making clothing, the fact that this child might be in a village doesn't mean he looks destitute. This kid looks amazing. The fact that this person is an older man, walking the streets of Italy looking for work, doesn't mean he's not regal, doesn't have elegance. We know all these people. Like, I don't know any cousin of mine who doesn't have pride, who doesn't look stunning, when he or she is walking down the street, regardless of what their financial circumstances or job circumstances may be. The missing link for a lot of these very common immigration stories is that they're often made by a filmmaker who doesn't love the subject.
"When we're making clothing, the fact that this child might be in a village doesn't mean he looks destitute. This kid looks amazing," says Walé Oyéjidé about his approach to the costumes of 'Bravo, Burkina!'
Photo: The Sundance Institute
In all of my work, the reason that people are seen as they are, is because I see them as I see my wife, child, mother, aunt, brother's best friend. I'm looking at them through the lens of love, despite what's happening for them. The clothing really is just one more tool to depict the innate natural regality that all these persons, that we, you and I, know very well, possess. The clothing just helps them accentuate what has always been there, and that is the secret weapon that I have. But the clothing itself would do nothing; the magic really is in the people.
The change I seek to create in the world is what I didn't have when I was younger. I’m hoping to give both myself, and those who come after me the opportunity to see themselves in a way that they know themselves to be, so we don't have to pretend to be somebody else.
Lawyer-turned-designer Walé Oyéjidé is releasing his first feature film into the world, sharing his beautiful but mission-centered work on a new canvas.
Photo: The Sundance Institute
The film captures feelings, states of being, of leaving and returning - how did it unfold in your mind as the writer as well as director?
We definitely had it really well scripted, but I think the beauty of this work, particularly when you work, as we like to often work, with both a combination of non-professional actors and professional actors, is that people bring a level of authenticity in themselves. Also, the cultural sensitivity – despite the fact that I'm Nigerian American, these are all cultures, which you need to respect and kind of slow walk towards and let people educate you on their landscape and how they speak, how they eat, how they love and hate each other. I think people inform and bring themselves to the stories in ways that bring much more life than the words you might have on a page.
For example, the Italian artisans are a real father and son in their real space. This is really just us pointing a camera at them and saying, 'Be yourself within this construct narratively, but be yourselves.' It's the same thing in Burkina Faso. These are real weavers, in their real living space with their real issues and their real joys and their real happiness. It's about having the privilege to let people allow themselves to be shown in their own glory, as opposed to dictating and enforcing upon them a preconceived notion. Certainly, I have a point of view and an aesthetic lens, but it's one that seeks to collaborate, and respect those in their natural state of being, and hopefully reflect themselves in ways that they want to be seen.
What's behind the title, 'Bravo, Burkina!'?
I'm interested in making cinema and work that lasts beyond me because all of us will be gone sooner or later. So the question then becomes, if you are going to speak or make, are you wasting people's time or are you adding to the conversation? It is always my interest in adding and informing. It's not to say that this is the greatest work or the best but it is, I believe, a perspective that is unseen and hopefully, a perspective that will be healing. It's exciting to me, the idea that you can have African cinema that doesn't look at all the way people would assume when they hear the phrase.
When you ask a person outside of the continent, where and what is Burkina Faso, if they have an answer, it rarely will be a positive answer. So this is an intentional branding of an African nation. In my culture, in Yoruba culture in West Africa, and it's very prominent in Africa, all names have meaning.
It's my belief that I have a duty to make the world easier for those who come beyond. So when I have the opportunity to speak to the entire globe with art, what am I doing? Am I going to present my culture, my people, my continent in a way that sets us further back? Or am I going to do something that is uplifting -- despite how you feel about this work. Even in the naming, the simple naming, a thing people say with their mouths. Regardless of how the film is received, if nothing else, the title itself is a raised fist or a torch flame, and the hope is the beyond that, beauty permeates.
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