by Nana Ocran
March 19, 2014
in Film and TV
“I am ashamed to say I was one of those over privileged kids that felt my country was in many ways a failure and simply wanted as little to do with it as possible.” This statement comes from the young UK-based actor and filmmaker Damola Adelaja, whose candid responses to questions about his work and background are actually quite refreshing. The admission about his feelings towards Nigeria serve as a background to the story behind his directorial film debut, Fela Sidy, which won the Best Short Film category at Milan’s 23rd African, Asian and Latin American Film Festival in 2013. This recognition has resulted in the film (for which Adelaja is also the sole actor) being shown at the 2014 Montreal Black Film Festival, with a few more international screenings scheduled for later this year.
These are great achievements, but it’s worth looking back at the actor’s personal and cultural journey in order to understand his particular choice of directorial focus.
Having had limited contact with Nigeria since attending boarding school from the age of nine, the scheduling of an uncharacteristically long visit to the country in 2012 came at a crucial time of personal reflection for Adeleja. His identity and career as an actor was being uncomfortably shaped in the UK, where ‘there are only so many black natives and street gang members one can play before feelings of frustration set in’.
While in Nigeria, his time was spent learning and reading about great Africans; Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Wole Soyinka and Fela Kuti.
“I was absolutely enthralled by Fela’s message” Adelaja recalls. “I learnt that like me, he came from privilege and for a long time he’d looked down on his culture because he had bought into the idea that to be a man of pedigree, one must be less African and more European.”
It was during what should have been a chilled out night of socialising that Adelaja’s cultural epiphany seems to have really taken root. It also seems significant that this moment took place at the time of the country’s fuel subsidy protests.
“I sat in the home of one of the other Naija rich kids” he says. “There were some great people there that night, but one particular guy’s attitude struck me cold. He reminded me why I’d stayed away from fellow Nigerians for so long. He was self entitled and looked down on the protestors. What they were fighting for was an inconvenience to him as the new curfew meant he couldn’t drive his new gas guzzling car.”
This jarring perspective caused a reaction in Adelaja that wasn’t just based on a response to the speaker’s lack of empathy. Despite his internal feelings, there was an equally uncomfortable awareness that ‘not one of us had taken to the streets, or in many ways cared’.
His sense of being part of an atmosphere of collective apathy weighed heavily and caused a reassessment of his own position as well as a new, and deeper respect for his own family legacy. After all, his own grandfather Abraham Adesanya, a political activist, had put aside his and his family’s needs to fight for the basic human rights of the masses.
So, with this awareness and a redirection of his creative energy, a mission grew to make his own voice stand for something.
It was from this point that the film Fela Sidy was born as an idea and a reaction to what Adelaja saw as a ‘man-child’s attitude’ and the shocking contrast between the concerns of ‘the two per cent rich against the ninety-eight per cent struggling’.
The title, Fela Sidy, is a play on the words fuel subsidy, which highlights the protests, and a Fela CD, which politicises the protagonist through music, in a condensed personal narrative that runs at just over eight minutes. Playing the part of a young, moneyed, and politically disengaged Nigerian, Adelaja’s subject goes through a gradual metamorphosis, aided by the sounds of persistent radio and TV reports on the status of protest, and a rhythmic and galvanizing effects of a Fela Kuti track that snakes its way into the character’s subconscious.
“I used Gentleman for the soundtrack” says Adelaja of the film’s background music. “It perfectly encapsulates the sense of shedding an idea of how to be, in order to create the person one authentically is.”
A ‘mantra song’ as far as Adelaja is concerned, Gentleman was the track that sparked his own evolution once he’d mentally and physically separated himself from the apathy of his fellow young Nigerians during the non-fictionalised version of events. The parallels between the real Adelaja and the onscreen character in Fela Sidy are obvious. It’s this duality that speaks volumes about society, connection and a sense of community over individualism.
“What the film did is humble me” he adds. “It offered validation and proof that standing for something does pay dividends. The audience feedback also encouraged me in my plan to reframe black characters on film. No more thugs, crooks or drug dealers. Like Fela said, get rid of colo-mentality, embrace who you are, hold your head up high and be a boss.”
Nana Ocran is a London-based writer and editor specializing in contemporary African culture. She was Editor-in- Chief for the Time Out Group’s series of guides to Lagos and Abuja, and has consulted on, and established publications on West African culture for the Danish Film Institute, the Arts Council England and the Institute of International Visual Arts. She was a nominee for CNN’s African Journalist of the Year (2011), and Curatorial Advisor for the Afrofuture programme at La Rinascente during Milan Design Week 2013. Nana Ocran is a regular features writer for Arik Airline’s in-flight magazine, Wings, in which she writes about art, lifestyle, innovation and cultural trends relating to Arik’s 33 destinations. She has been a jury member for Film Africa London and the Festival del Cinema Africano, d’Asia e America Latina, Milan. She currently blogs about Lagos for Virgin Atlantic.
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