Meet Nigerian Film Maker Ema Edosio Deelen
By Liam Klenk
Ema Edosio Deelen is a gifted Nigerian film director and producer whose feature comedy Kasala! successfully made the global film festival circuit in 2018. In this interview we are not only looking at her first successful feature film, however. We are also getting to know more about Ema’s motivations. We hear about her dreams and her vision for the future of her peers and the creative arts in Africa.
Dear Ema, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. Please tell us a bit about who you are?
My name is Ema Edosio Deelen. I am a film maker based in Lagos, Nigeria.
Growing up in Nigeria in the Nineties, we were not encouraged to be creative. Going into the arts meant failure in Nigeria and most parts of Africa.
My parents picked my career for me. Everything was organized.
So, I studied computer science. While I did, I always kept an eye on the place where I wanted to be: the film industry. It was growing and I was fascinated about what I saw on TV.
I told my parents, “I want to work in a production company.” They were shocked.
First of all, no one really knew what a production company is.
Plus, it seemed so unsafe. People wanted their children to be a doctor, banker, or pharmacist. Something that will guarantee their material safety and survival. There was hardly any social security in Nigeria. My parents wanted me to have work which will sustain me and my family long-term.
How did you find your way into the film industry, despite these challenges?
I insisted, followed my dream and started working with one of the top video directors in Nigeria.
I started being exposed to the film industry.
And then, I went to film school in the United States.
After I finished my studies, I decided to come back to Nigeria. Because there was a lot happening in my country and I felt I needed to be there.
I began to work for big television brands. It was a great opportunity. I also worked as a video journalist.
And I realized there was a need for authentic and new voices. The way TV dramas portray people from low income communities is quite far from reality.
When I filmed in the streets as a journalist, I saw that people had problems. But there was this sense of pride that wasn’t being celebrated on TV. Living in those conditions, you need great strength to survive.
I realized, I needed to change the narrative. Needed to celebrate their stories through the medium of film. I wanted to celebrate the strength, endurance, and dignity of people who were living under harsh conditions.
I kept working in my jobs, and saved money. When I had managed to save 10’000 dollars, I directed my own feature length film: Kasala!
In 2018, my movie went to thirty international film festivals. It won nine awards.
Kasala! depicts an adventure-filled day in the lives of four young men in a slum in Nigeria’s vibrant economic capital Lagos. Tunji, a fast-talking teenager, borrows his uncle’s car and takes his friends on a joyride around the neighborhood – until they crash the car. They have only five hours to raise the required funding for car repairs before Tunji’s uncle gets back from work, but the avenues explored by the boys to find quick money only get them into more trouble (‘Kasala’ is problem in the local dialect).
Rather than showing the ills of the slums, the movie highlights transcendental values such as friendship, tenacity and courage – packaged in a light-hearted comic narrative.
Currently Kasala! is available on Netflix Africa. I am planning to have it available on other platforms, too, so the movie will more easily be seen abroad as well.
After making Kasala! and being so successful with this movie, I became kind of a local legend.
Because everyone always thinks to create a film you need to have millions of dollars.
But I had been able to do what I was passionate about, and to create the stories I was passionate about, create my own narrative, with small funds.
This inspired many people and showed them it is possible to have a voice even if you don’t have the backing of industry giants.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a new film project I am very excited about.
It is about a mechanic who lives in poor conditions in Lagos. He decides to follow his dream and become a contemporary dancer.
My new movie will be based on the contemporary African dancing coming out of the slums. This type of dancing is absolutely powerful.
Many people in the slums face forced eviction. In the film, they use this contemporary dance as a form of protest. They dance as a form of fighting and speaking up against social injustice.
Following your dreams is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do in your life. Following that crazy voice inside of you. It is one of the hardest and most rewarding things to do.
Through the main character in my movie who drops everything to become a dancer, I will show people it is possible.
It’s a message to Nigerians and a lot of people out there, all over the world. It is a hard journey to be who you are meant to be and do what you are meant to do. But it is so very rewarding.
My movie is fiction, but my message is real and so important.
When someone watches the movie, you empower this person to see they can do it.
That’s the most important message for me.
I am really excited about creating this movie. And I am excited about the future.
How do you see the creative realm in Nigeria and in general? What are your hopes, your visions for the future?
There is a shift happening, away from the grander, organizing structure.
Now is a time for creatives. We have the easiest access ever to our audiences.
One of the things we have to do as creators is to shift to a professional state of being where we are not just creators but also brands.
We need to create our own eco-systems and let them spread.
One of the things that is amazing about being a creative is to watch your work come to life. That’s the magic of creating. You have this force within, constantly pushing you and the creative thoughts in your head.
The more you listen to that voice, the more you are honest with that voice, the more you will open yourself up and accept every aspect of it.
In Africa, there is something happening in that people are speaking up more and more.
They are embracing their own voices.
There is this narrative about Africans and Africa. A narrative which has been built up over decades.
People don’t realize the responsibility that they have in the sense of what they add to this narrative. You are accountable for what you put out there.
A lot of the narrative surrounding Africans is that they are poor and weak.
If you constantly give people that message and you don’t highlight and celebrate their strength in the stories and art you put out there, then it continuously undermines their sense of self-worth. It drains them. Until they view themselves as weak, too.
But think of it for a moment. A man who owns nothing and supports himself and his family by pushing a wheel barrow every single day… that kind of endurance comes from a source of great strength and courage.
People don’t realize that they have the power to shape mindsets. Words and stories are important.
And how we tell these stories is important.
This is who we are. This is how we do it. Gradually, step by step. This is how we fight. By making our voices heard and creating our own narrative. We are pushing for a better future.
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