“Everybody knows at least one person who has been affected by SARS”
An interview with Bolanle Austen Peters on her upcoming film 'Collision'
Bolanle Austen Peters, a woman who commands presence, in-person and online. As the Weekender’s interview with her was ongoing, it became apparent why she is known for her initials. She is filled with poise, grace, a talent for theatre and film production, mixed with a genius intellect backed by prestigious law degrees and a career. Bolanle Austen Peters is a woman who needs no introduction. As she turned on her video during our zoom call, she was sitting in what appears to be her office; in between planning for the movie selection of her new film Collision Course as the closing film of the African International Film Festival AFRIFF 2021.
Festival closing films are typically the centre piece film of festivals and are important films that satisfy the festival critical screening and review criteria for it to deserve the festival closing night spotlight.
Elegant and poised dressed in a white shirt, a black sun hat, with a confident smile.
She has every reason to smile; Bolanle Austen-Peters (BAP) is one of Nigeria’s most prolific theatre and movie directors and producers. She has pioneered the national and international re-emergence of the Nigerian theatre industry. With a passion for the arts, BAP founded Terra Kulture in 2003 after developing an interest in the creative sector. Terra Kulture was established because there were few places in Nigeria with the appropriate ambiance for Nigerians and foreigners to learn about Nigeria’s rich cultural and linguistic heritage. After years of hard work, Terra Kulture is a resounding success recognized as a significant cultural hub in Nigeria for expatriates, students, Hollywood and Nollywood stars, artists, and members of the diplomatic corps.
An indigene of Ekiti, born in Ibadan, Oyo State in the south-western region of Nigeria, Bolanle Austen-Peters is a lawyer by training. She began her career serving as a lawyer with the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Switzerland, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the United Nations Development Programme. In 2000, after Bolanle Austen-Peters and her husband decided to relocate home, the quintessential business woman soon realized that she had a burning desire to create jobs and engage in passion-driven activities. After a bit of soul-searching, Terra Kulture was born. She is also the Founder of BAP Productions, a company behind multiple award-winning movies “93 DAYS” and the blockbuster “The Bling Lagosians” in 2019; both currently streaming on NETFLIX.
The BusinessDay Weekender attended the premiere of her new movie “Collision,” which will be coming out in February 2022. This powerful movie tells the story of a law enforcement officer and an aspiring musician whose worlds collide. It is a depiction of the realities of the average policeman and a young music artist.
How important was it for the film’s premiere to occur during this period, as Nigeria looks back at the anniversary of the #endsars movement and the recent judicial findings?
It’s funny; it was coincidental. This story was told from a human perspective as a Nigerian. I noticed I was very emotional. In the beginning, like many people, I didn’t understand the #Endsars movement. I have a lot of young dancers at Terra Kulture. What I did was I started asking everyone, “have you experienced these SARS people before? Nine out of 10 had experienced them. Many adult women didn’t know about their existence, quite honestly. I might have heard one or two people tell somebody they had been harassed, but definitely not one in ten. As I asked around, my dancers started sharing some of their encounters with SARS. Some of them had become so used to it that they had a speed dial on their phones for who to call as they headed home each night.
The majority of them often leave Terra Kulture at times at seven o’clock so that they won’t get too late because they know that at times when you get too late that’s when you get picked up and then don’t forget that a lot of artists have a distinct look: dreads, a funky look. Maybe that’s why the movie resonates because everybody knows at least one person who has been affected by SARS. I was not also trying to be a gospel of hate; I just wanted to tell the experiences the same time I tried to tell the story of what the policeman in Nigeria is going through, and that was why it was vital for me to make one person the bad guy, rogue law enforcement officers, which were the SARS guys which I called ZARS. Hence, there was something I did there that many people didn’t notice really is that there was an accidental discharge. Mide did not die. The car guys put the final bullets and set him up as a thief because we noticed that when they shot him, he actually twitched his body. We meant that there was still life in him, and those guys took it away from him. It was just a timely release; I didn’t even know when it was going to the cinema, though because it will go on platforms and cinema, the dates will be announced.
How did you come up with the story for Collision?
BAP: When I got the script, it was supposed to end with the policeman being the villain and killing this young man in cold blood, but somehow, I felt the need to tell a balanced story. In Nigeria, we are victims of this environment, and the story conveys that the policeman is a victim of the society in which he finds himself. The average Nigerian youth now, from all the things they’ve faced from not getting jobs, not getting a quality education, all the different things that most of us miss out on even as adults, is a function of the society that we find ourselves in. I wanted the two stories to meet, and it was important that when they did meet, whatever was trying to divide them was actually the problem, and that was the system. I flipped the story. I had sleepless nights trying to save this policeman and tell his backstory, to tell his own part of the story. A system that breeds people who are supposed to protect you and who turn against you cannot be sound, and it’s not that man’s fault. He has become something that he never planned to be when he set out to serve and protect. I think that is where I was coming from. I changed it; I just changed the script. I had to get into the head of the policeman, and I had to get into the head of Mide, the main character, the emotions, what were they both going through, and really it was about the frustrations that every single one of us faces daily. When our worlds collide, whether at work or elsewhere, it can have very severe consequences; that really is the issue.
How are you preparing for your release? Will you utilize digital platforms such as Netflix or Amazon?
Cinema runs always demand a particular type of energy that I really can’t muster, and you know, it requires you to make noise all over the place. I don’t have that energy. It’s just noise, you know? If news agencies can do that for me, everybody will watch it on a platform. Going to cinemas in Nigeria doesn’t really do much anymore because financially, you’re set back at the end of the day. Secondly, most of my viewers don’t get to the cinema anyway, look at the numbers that go to the cinema, they are very small. I might as well just put it out there for the whole world to see.
The casting in the film is quite spot on. How did you find the perfect cast?
We all have our strengths. One of my strengths is in casting and being bold to cast people that are not popular or famous, the tendency in Nigeria is to always cast the ones that have zillions of followers. With stage, we could carve a niche for ourselves in Terra Kulture, using people who can act instead of famous people. When we did that, we realized that people would watch once the product is good. The same model is what I have transferred into moviemaking. I tell people, “if there’s a role for you, and coincidentally you’re famous, I’ll be thrilled.” I’m not going out to look for fame, and that’s why I told you cinema also doesn’t really work for me anymore, because cinema owners are driving the market in a completely different direction, which is fame, as opposed to the ability to deliver. It’s more your ability to deliver that particular role? So that’s what I did. With casting, I always give Bling Lagosians as an example. I cast Elvina Ibru as the lead, and the cinema has actually told me that, “oh, you can’t… Bling Lagosians will be a flop.” They were wrong because it ended up being the only Nigerian movie that has ever made over N100 million in summer. I followed my conviction that a good actor is a good actor; if I can get what I want out of them, the public will feel it. There are so many examples of famous people that I’ve worked with. I’m not prejudiced against fame. I’m just saying that rules are based on ability as opposed to the number of followers. So yes, it was important that Mide was believable and was important. On the other hand, Bam-Bam (Big brother) is famous, as she’s not an actress. But see, that is the wife, his wife.
Bam-Bam came into the movie not because she was famous but because she was the best for that role when she auditioned. She couldn’t believe she got it. For me that’s what’s important.
According to UNESCO, Africa’s film and audiovisual industries could create over 20 million jobs and contribute about 20 billion to the continent’s GDP. Is it essential for Nollywood to have partnerships with international bodies, and if so, what does this mean for the industry?
It’s good for people to recognize what we’re doing, but to be quite honest, all those reports to me are just stats. They don’t really add value to Nigeria; I know many of the international organizations they talk about. What has made Nollywood or the music industry or what have you, what it is today, is the sheer will, and tenacity and talent of the Nigerian youth and those of us who practice in the space, none of these international organizations have really stepped in to help, assist or grow the industry. All these are sound bites; when you’re capable, you simply are just that…capable! And when you’re needed, or when you’ve achieved, people will always talk. I think we should just consider what we’re doing. And like the music industry is showing them now, nobody went… Wizkid, Burna Boy, all of whom did not go to UNESCO for validation. They did it, and now people are writing about them. And I think that really is the bottom line, where Nollywood just was selling bazillions, they’ll keep writing the reports. It’s okay; they should keep writing.
A UNESCO report stated that over 1000 movies were produced in 2020, and only 40 of those films were Nigerian. What are we doing to make sure we have more content on the platform?
In terms of picture quality/technicality of a movie, it’s a question of funding, education. You know, when you can’t elevate your game, you don’t have the requisite education or funds, no matter how good you are, if you don’t have the right tools and have the right post-production, companies, with sound, light, all those things will not work. If you noticed that movie was a night shoot, and you could see everything. If you notice the sound, there is nothing wrong with the sound. We just did everything abroad, all our sound, lighting. We had to get people who were experts in this area to balance everything out. It goes back to funding; if you have the suitable funds, you’ll do things at the right level. We have to educate a lot of younger people to get into the space of acquiring technical skills. At Terra Kulture, we’ve started a vocational school online training school called TAFTA. Terra Academy for the Arts, where we’re training young people on lighting, sound, you know, hair and makeup for stage and for movies. These things are coming up. One or two other people have started thinking about educating more young people to get into the space. Things will get better. The quality of movies now is obviously much better than what we had a couple of years ago, and we’ll keep getting better as we go along.
What can we expect next from BAP?
The first is that theater is back. Every Sunday, there’s theater on our lawn at Terra Kulture every Saturday and Sunday. If one comes to Terra Kulture, there’s a play showing every weekend. In addition to that, this Christmas, we’re going to have Death and the King’s horseman, the Stage version, which we did in Easter and got rave reviews. So hopefully, if you’re able to catch it out, we create it, even if it’s probably my best artwork, to be quite honest. It will run from the 26th of December all the way into the new year.
Collision will be available soon.