Kenneth Gyang grew up in Nigeria, watching action films starring people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan. But the narrative style of directors like Quentin Tarantino and Alejandro González Iñárritu convinced him to make a career out of it, and profoundly influenced his storytelling.
“It's not about how to entertain people with lots of what people want to see. It's about what do you want to tell people?” Gyang said. “When you watch their films there are lots of underlying messages that you can actually just get from just watching their films. So I actually took that to heart.”
Although it’s not widely known to American audiences, Nigeria’s film industry – known as “Nollywood” – is actually one of the largest in the world, alongside the U.S. and India. Gyang draws inspiration from everything from mid-20th century Shaw Brothers Hong Kong action films, to northwest African francophone films.
“Nollywood, we always love sensational stories like the way Americans tell their stories,” Gyang said. “But how can you actually fuse maybe a deep message and not tell the story in a very slow manner like many francophone people tell their films? So that is why I actually tried to find a balance.”
He tries to find that balance in his latest film, Confusion Na Wa. It’s inspired by African musician Fela Anikulap Kuti’s song “Confusion Break Bones,” where he lists the breakdowns of social institutions in Nigeria.
“Out of just like a small case, somebody would just rise up and go start chaos, and people would start fighting. And lots of people would die,” Gyang said. “I feel people in society are not really protected like maybe the issue of rape, and of course corruption. When we treat that topic in the film, you find out the father takes justice into his own hands, because he wants to protect his daughter. So I think, one, you don't really have a lot of solid institutions protecting the people, everything would spiral out of control and there'd be so much confusion. So Confusion Na Wa is a film of surprise, because there's so much confusion.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT,HOST: Kenneth Gyang, welcome to World Views.
KENNETH GYANG: Oh, thank you very much.
GRILLOT: I'd love to just begin by asking you what took you into filmmaking. As a Nigerian, it seems like you were probably exposed to a lot of different types of film. But tell us a little bit about what excited you about film, and made you become a filmmaker.
GYANG: Oh, well, I mean, growing up I actually always wanted to be on the radio because I was exposed to a lot of short-wave radio. So I always listened to the BBC in Nigeria. So I wake up at maybe 4 a.m. to listen to Network Africa and all that. So I told myself, 'OK, when I'm out of school, I'm just going to get myself involved in a radio production and all of that. But then, I realized that my voice was not really a radio voice, because a lot of people, when I talk to them on the phone, they will say, "Oh, hello ma'am." But I'm actually a man. I'm not a lady. So anyway, I saw a poster advertising the National Film Institute one day, and so I went there. Natioitnal Film Institute is in [unintelligible], where I come from. So, I went there, and I inquired about admission. So I entered this school, and still I actually thought that maybe I'll be taking some acting classes in order to work on my voice. But then I started writing. So the first short film that I wrote was done by somebody. And I didn't like the interpretation of what he did with my script. And I told myself, 'OK, next time when I write, I'm actually going to just do it myself. So that's how I started directing. And so I would say it's actually purely by accident, I think.
GRILLOT: Purely by accident. Well, I think you sound great on the radio, by the way. So, as a writer though, somebody took your script and did something with it you didn't like. So you felt like you were writing something that you intended to be presented in a certain way. And this wasn't what was done. But do you also think that maybe when you make film, that some of us who watch film don't take it in the way then it's meant to be taken?
GYANG: Yeah, but as an artist, it's always about what it is that you want to say. Lots of people will have different interpretations of your work. And some might like it, some might not. Some might actually say, 'OK, this is what it's all about,' when actually you were intending to say something else different. So yes, I think it is OK for people to interpret your work the way they want it to be interpreted. As an artist, I think you're always supposed to stay focused and try to express what you think you actually set out to express in the first place. So yeah, when I give you my script and I think that the interpretation is not in line with what I set out to interpret from my head, then I think that, yeah, I could actually take it and just do it myself, so...
GRILLOT: Well, you were apparently influenced by a number of different artists and filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino is one of them. Tell us a little bit about some of the people that have influenced your work, and I assume that you probably watched a lot of American film. It's obviously the largest film industry in the world. But others, too? Bollywood? I know Nigerian film is called "Nollywood." It's the third-largest film industry in the world. Who are some of the other people that have influenced your work?
GYANG: Growing up in Nigeria, of course we had access to a lot of borrowed films from the north. And because I'm from a [unintelligible] part of Nigeria, lots of people always feel that our culture is closely linked to that of Bollywood, because of course they don't touch hands. A man will not touch the hand of a woman in the film, and they will not kiss and all of that in all of those films. So acting like a lot of northerners, because even though I'm from a different language. I speak a different language, but we're all influenced by the bigger language, which is Hausa, and of course their culture. And so we had access to all of that. And of course American films, and films from Hong Kong. We used to watch people like Jackie Chan back in the day. So it was a lot of action films. And of course Schwarzenegger. But then, when I got into film school, I started looking at film in a different way. I started getting exposed to the works of Quentin Tarantino, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. I watched Amores perros, and I really liked it. And so after that I started following his work. Babel. 21 Grams. And of course Quentin Tarantino too. And so you will actually see it in my first film that I try to follow the structure almost in the same way they actually tell their stories. Because always, different strands of stories, but then trying to talk about how all these, and trying to find a connection in their own world that the directors are creating. And of course, some of the topics they always talk about, it's not about how...yeah, it's not about how to entertain people with lots of what people want to see. It's about what do you want to tell people? And of course, some of the time when you watch their films there are lots of underlying messages that you can actually just get from just watching their films. So I actually took that to heart. So of course there were some francophone films too. Filmmakers from French-speaking parts of Africa. People like Ousmane Sembene, [unintelligible], and all of that. But the thing is, I just told myself from Nollywood, we always love sensational stories like the way Americans tell their stories. But how can you actually fuse maybe a deep message and not tell the story in a very slow manner like many francophone people tell their films. So that is why I actually tried to find a balance. So that is what I actually find in works by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Quentin Tarantino.
GRILLOT: So speaking about some of the heavy subjects that you deal with in your film, and telling it in a feature film way, but giving us some real substance. One of your first films, Blood and Henna from 2012, you focus on the 1996 Phizer clinical tests in Nigeria. Now this is something that many of us don't understand, and even know about. But drug companies like Phizer and perhaps others that are testing medications, potential new drugs, antibiotics and others, on children in other countries, and And in this case in Nigeira. And the outcomes there. Tell us a little bit about this story and why this became a subject for you that you wanted to put into a feature film.
GYANG: If you look at a lot of donor agencies, they go the northern part of Nigeria to go and work. They do that because they think that a lot of people are not educated. And it's true that we have a lot of illiterates. But in the case of polio, for instance, people are always resistant towards having their children immunized with polio vaccinations. And so a lot of people say, "Oh, these people are really backwards. They don't really understand that this is for the good of their children and all of that. So I actually got interested beyond what it is that our people [unintelligible] taking some of those vaccinations coming from abroad from these companies. So I saw a film called The Constant Gardener, which of course was done by one of my favorite directors, Fernando Meirelles. So I started reading about a constant gardener, and if you look at it, it was actually linked to the story that happened in Kano, and I didn't even know that actually there was a pharmacy doing clinical tests that happened in Kano back in the day. And I was like, "OK, you take the story, you tell the story through the eyes of a foreigner, which of course, a white person, an American, beause it does give the film traction and a lot of publicity. And so I was like if this story actually happened in Kano, I should actually tell the story with the locals through the eyes of the locals. So I decided to research more into it, and then I saw a lot of videos, and I talked to lots of people, and I followed the case. And I think why I even went to make the film in the first place was because the kids became a little messy because I read an article. Wikileaks came up with a lot of articles, and so we actually got some classified documents on a conversation that happened about how Phizer wanted to blackmail our minister of justice [Mohammed] Adoke. So they actually are going to drop the case. And so I think it was a case of maybe between $1 billion. I'm not really sure, but the figure was a lot of money that the Nigerian government was suing Phizer for. At the end I think they paid like $70 million. And so for me, I thought it was a bit of an injustice. Not for us, but of course for the people out there. And it's not only that clinical tests happen in Asia and Africa and all of that. So not only in Kano. So I decided to make a film. So what I did was I actually got some of my friends who are really popular Housa film industry. So we made a film. So I wrote a love story about a guy who is actually having problems with his wife because they don't have children. And at the end of the day they had twins. And of course the meningitis outbreak came, and of course they found themselves in the camp where the clinical tests happened.
GRILLOT: So I'm curious about this. You're a feature film maker, but this is a topic that might be in some ways really great for a documentary film. So how would make that distinction as why you would tell this story, you would create this story, a love story, that would tell the story about what's happening in Kano or what's happening in Nigeria or elsewhere, and not do it through documentary film? What's the advantage, do you think?
GYANG: So, the thing is, when I make a film, it's always about my people first. It's always about trying to tell them, OK, trying to get my audience [unintelligible] before I think of an international audience. And I don't really think that people will sit through a documentary like that. So you have to make it entertaining, because if you want to pass across a message where I come from, you have to put it in a very nice way. So you make it entertaining, people follow the story, and then, "OK, this is what it is." And of course, one of the thing that made me to do the film, again, coming to your earlier question, is because I actually want people to understand that when people are fighting to not have their children immunized is because of things like that that happened before. And not because they're illiterates.
GRILLOT: That experience that they had. And so the feature film audience is obviously larger. The target audience is much larger. The risk, though, is that they think it's perhaps fictional and not true.
GYANG: OK, so, because at the end of the film, I go to clips that are actually true. So yeah, when the credits are rolling, you can see true footage of a newsreel talking about the event, so you know that, OK, it's not actually a lie.
GRILLOT: So you're connecting that real story to it. Well, so let's talk about your most recent film, Confusion Na Wa. A dark comedy, as it's described. But it focuses on issues of morality and how unfair life can be. We all know life is unfair. What is it about this film? Why focus on unfairness, and what are we supposed to get out of that?
GYANG: So it was actually inspired by a Fela Anikulap Kuti song called "Confusion Break Bones." So if you listen to the song, because Fela is really this huge musician out of Africa. He's one of our biggest exports, so we always put him in line with Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, and all of that. So yeah, he had this song called "Confusion Break Bones." And in it he lists the breakdowns of social institutions in Nigeria. A loss of [unintelligible], no drugs or traffic is messed up, all of that. So, we decided, because I come from Jos. And Jos is in the middle part of Nigeria. So it's sort-of like a mini-Nigeria. It's a multicultural society. And we have people from maybe the north, the south, the east, from all of West Africa, coming to Jos because back in the day it was a hub for tin mining. And we grew up loving each other and all of that. But then, because of politics, people started going along, people started along religious lines. So what happened is, out of just like a small case, somebody would just rise up and go start chaos, and people would start fighting. And lots of people would die. And apart from that, there are so many things that have to do with [unintelligible[. I feel people in society are not really protected like maybe the issue of rape, and of course corruption. You try to be an honest worker, but then of course the whole corruption is going to overwhelm the Nigerian civil service. So we decided to make a film set around a fictitious city. So basically, it's about the unfairness of life. For instance, the whole issue of being gay. They have passed legislation that if you're actually guilty, you'll go to prison for 14 years. But being gay or not is not a problem for Nigeria. We have bigger things that legislation could actually be passed on. So people are not really protected. So you find out that we're trying to play with this issue. The man thinks it is OK to take his son to a whorehouse to "get cured" of being gay. So you're trying to balance it, and what is morality? Is it morally right for you to do that to your son? So it totally depends on where you actually look at the film. And a few days back, I got a message from my friend. He was saying that his girlfriend went to work at a bank. And she got raped by her boss, and all of that. So now we're thinking, "How is that person, how is she going to resolve it? Because she doesn't really have the law backing her up. And that's why, when we treat that topic in the film, you find out the father takes justice into his own hands, because he wants to protect his daughter. So I think, one, you don't really have a lot of solid institutions protecting the people, everything would spiral out of control and there'd be so much confusion. So Confusion Na Wa is a film of surprise, because there's so much confusion. That's what Confusion Na Wa means.
GRILLOT: Well, Kenneth, you're taking on some very important topics and big questions, I can see. So thank you so much for being here today and sharing your work with us. We all look forward to watching it.
GYANG: Alright, thank you.
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