Thursday 15 February 2024

Francis Oladele: My Tribute to a Nigerian Filmmaking Pioneer

My tribute to Francis Oladele being read by torchlight before a generator was switched on. The scene was at a Lagos exhibition relating to his life and the wider celebration of 50 Years since the filming of "Things Fall Apart". The exhibition ended on Saturday, September 4th, 2021. (Photo Credit: Modern Film Archiv).

This is the text:

Remembering Francis Oladele.

"My uncle Francis Oladele was the embodiment of the early Nigerian pioneer spirit. By this I mean that as the time of national independence from the British colonial master drew closer, the average person became increasingly more infused with a kind of frontier spirit. This African Zeitgeist had many layers and forms of expression such as the culture developed around the Onitsha Market Literature. But it was firmly rooted in an ideology of self-progress and communal betterment.

A key requirement for attaining this was the idea that one had to travel abroad to secure a sound education. For the typically conservative-minded Yoruba family, this often-meant study of the law, medicine, accountancy, and other professional disciplines in the United Kingdom. But for the free-spirited Uncle Francis, the future was in the creative arts and in the United States. And it is in America that, ever the inveterate networker, he sowed the seeds of his future ground-breaking film projects.

The names startle: he was friendly with Babatunde Olatunji, became a roadie for Ornette Coleman and touched base with Melvin Van Peebles. The common denominator between all three men was that they were pioneers. His reach was extensive as the name of his film company “Calpenny” reflected. His backers were from California, Pennsylvania, and New York, and as Ossie Davis noted the nationalities of the crew which was assembled to work on Kongi’s Harvest -Nigerian, American and Swedish was a testament to his go-gettedness and ability to get things done.

He had the ability to create a hub wherever he laid his hat.

The Kongi Klub in the Adamasingba district of Ibadan was a venue at which he could keep a pulse on the trends of the Nigerian music scene of the 1970s and where he could direct foreign visitors.

Although Nigeria today has what may be termed a film industry, one which generates a sizable amount of revenues, it is one which for the most part is bereft of the values and cinematic culture which my uncle sought to create in Things Fall Apart (1971) and Kongi’s Harvest (1970). He told me that he felt unable to remain “productive” in that climate and was content to spend his retirement corresponding with researchers who wanted access to materials he had accumulated during his film career.

What I remember most about him was his gift for storytelling: anything from hair-raising tales of his encounters with reckless drivers on Nigerian roads to his decision to spend some time travelling America via the Greyhound Line.

There was a surreal tale about attending the Moscow Film Festival at the invitation of the Soviet authorities. When it was over, he had intended to fly to the United Kingdom to complete the formalities of editing a film. But his Soviet sponsors would have none of it and insisted that he leave Moscow via an already booked flight to Lagos. The way Uncle Francis told it, after some discussion he felt obligated to get on the Soviet plane lest he be forcibly taken onboard a waiting Aeroflot plane and tied to his seat. There was perhaps some embellishment to the story, but he did have to journey all the way back to Lagos only to take the next flight to London.

On a more serious note he did tell me of how he turned his Lapiti Estate home in Oyo into a safehouse for his old friend Wole Soyinka when Soyinka was a fugitive from the security agents of the Nigerian military dictator, General Sani Abacha. It was from there that Soyinka made his escape through the border with the Republic of Benin.

I am delighted that he is being accorded with the honour of the festival including the restoration of Things Fall Apart. I hope that it can serve in some way as a means of re-energizing or re-orientating Nigerian filmmaking towards a more purposeful cinematic culture."

- Adeyinka Makinde, Author, Writer and Researcher, London, June 2021.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2021).

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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