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Exclusive Interview: Akin Omotoso, Director of Vaya

As an official media sponsor of the release of Vaya, we had the unique opportunity to sit down with South African filmmaker Akin Omotoso to discuss his film Vaya and its theatrical release in the United States on October 26th!  Vaya, distributed by ARRAY (a company owned by Academy Award nominee Ava DuVernay) has a limited theatrical run, but will drop on Netflix on November 1, 2018.

An accomplished actor and director, Akin Omotoso, is a cheerful director who had many insights about his film Vaya as well his experiences in the filmmaking industry in South Africa. Throughout the interview, he is very comfortable, often smiling and chuckling as he relives his experiences making the film and as an actor, director, and producer.

Here’s Akin’s full exclusive interview with Demand Africa:

DEMAND AFRICA:           Your latest project is Vaya. What drew you to this project?

AKIN OMOTOSO: Vaya came out of a process called The Homeless Writer’s Project, which in itself came from another TV series by my company and I did … We’re really interested in people who lived on the cracks of society in Johannesburg in particular. We very rarely see stories about people from … Who live on the streets and that kind of sense. So we were interested in that kind of exploration. So, there was a book that we adapted into a TV series, the TV series was called A Place Called Home. It ran for three seasons, and once that finished, we wanted to continue that exploration. And Robbie Thorpe, who is also co-producer and co-writer on Vaya, and my partner with RIFIFI pictures, set up a space where people from the streets could come and share their stories.

So, what initially started as a therapy or way which people… Found a place where they could share. Then over the course of six years, the story of Vaya was born. The group was large to begin with, and as the years went on, it got smaller. Then, there were four gentlemen left, and the film Vaya is based on their experience coming to Johannesburg, so it’s based on true stories. It came out of that kind of organic process, but we as a company, are really interested in those kind of stories. This was a real blue print of what can happen when you leave something to grow organically.

DEMAND AFRICA:           The plot of the movie, in light of that?

AKIN OMOTOSO: The plot of the movie is… three strangers get on a train from Durban to Johannesburg. All three of them have a mission, the first one, a man, tasked with bringing the body of his father back home. He goes to Joburg to find his auntie, the only one who’s interested in the body. The second story, this young woman has to return a girl to her mother, she gets to Joburg and realizes the situation isn’t what she thought. And in the third story a man is promised a job and he discovered the job isn’t what he thought it would be. All three board the train at the same time. They never meet, and their stories are intertwined.

DEMAND AFRICA:           What language is the film written in?

AKIN OMOTOSO: Vaya is written in Zulu, which is the language that, again, out of the organic process, this is the language of the streets and we thought that we really wanted to retain the authenticity. So you really get a sense of the textures of that community and so on. So it’s in Zulu, subtitled.

DEMAND AFRICA:           Vaya was born out of The Homeless Writer’s Project, as you said. Why did these stories resonate so deeply with you?

AKIN OMOTOSO: The stories resonated deeply with me because I think, on a number of levels, one is the idea of again, creating a space where … We all love stories, so there’s a space where these stories are being groomed organically. I think the way in which that group did it, and I’ve got to shout out, Robbie, Harriet, Zabo, David, Saba, and Madoda and Craig, who really crafted the story over those years, and it went through a lot of ups and downs.

But like I said, I am really interested in stories of people on the margins of society. At least, an aspect of that. To be able to come in, to met every Wednesday, so you can imagine over many years, just meeting every Wednesday. And the opportunity, ’cause knowing it went direct to film, to start from imaging something… So you just have this imagination of, “Oh, it’s gonna be on the street.” To then watch a first draft of the script being delivered to you four years later, or whatever it is. Then that process goes into casting, DOP, and then I’m standing, talking to Demand Africa and The Africa Channel, releasing the film.

DEMAND AFRICA:           How many people actually wrote the script, and how was that collaborative process? What was that process like?

AKIN OMOTOSO: It was very organic in terms of the way in which the script was written. They would collate the stories. Everyone always says, “Who did the writing?” There’s always a, “Who was doing the actual, one, two, three typing?” It was a real group effort. If you can just imagine a space where there’s a board, stories are written, different people assigned different stories, and then it’s all collated. I can only tell you that it was … There’s something about time and how that’s allowed to mature. A lot of times if something wasn’t working in the script, they would go back into some of the other stories and then they would find a way to make it work.

A lot of respect to them, and how they did it. Because then for us, it was just important to make sure that we captured and kept the heart of what they spent so much time cooking.

DEMAND AFRICA:           How important is it to you, to make films that tell real stories, based on real people?

AKIN OMOTOSO: It’s very important to me to tell stories based on real people, for a number of reasons. Not as the only way to tell stories, but I think there is something about our shared experience. There is something about somebody having lived it and then what’s the possibility of film? The possibility is that you can re-tell the story so that people who never heard it, could maybe see it. Or in the case of Vaya, you could say, “Yes, it takes place in Johannesburg, but actually, a lot of things are going on there, we can all agree with.”

That’s what I love about films that I watch, where I’ve never been to a certain country, but the imagery, the way in which the filmmaker has made it work, has really touched me. If it’s based on a true story, I’m even more interested, because you wanna go see more. I think in the case of Vaya, it’s really the idea of, we all have a cousin who’s come into town, we all have a sister or someone that’s going somewhere, so all we know people who move. So the idea of these people coming to Johannesburg just felt exciting, in the sense that we could relate. And then the idea of family that ultimately betray you, these are things that are not restricted to Johannesburg.

DEMAND AFRICA:           Are the actors everyday people professional actors?

AKIN OMOTOSO: The actors in Vaya, it’s a combination in fact. Majority of the actors, it’s their first time on the screen. Because we really, again, we wanted to get people who, at least from a South African perspective, who weren’t “known faces”, ’cause in a way … and I took a lot of flack for this… “What do you mean? We can play from the street.” I’m like, “I’m sure you can. I have no doubt.” But you wanted the audience to go on a journey, that it was with people you didn’t know. So, we started from that point of view and working with the great casting director, Moonyeenn Lee, she had this idea of open castings. I think I saw the entire of Durban. Just to find people who would give us that authenticity, and I think for each project that kind of thing is important. We were really blessed on this film, so even though a lot of the actors you see, it’s their first time, you would never guess.

They were ready, they were committed. It was a real dream. It was some of them, like the guy who plays Nkulu, he was the last person we saw in Durban. He’s an IT student who was to be an actor, and his friend who was doing the casting said, “You better get over here to do this. I’ve seen everyone here. You can come in and do better than …” And he came, and he was the last one, and he was the one we cast.

I know many stories like that of the casting. Even the guys who the story’s based on, who did the writing, they’re in the film as well, ’cause I wanted … They’re on set all the time, but I wanted their DNA not just on the script, but I wanted their DNA in the film. They’re in the film as well, and in fact in some of the scenes that they actually took part in, in real life.

DEMAND AFRICA:           In another interview that you did once, a while ago, regarding Vaya and Johannesburg, and you said that “the city itself bend you toward itself.” What did you mean by that?

AKIN OMOTOSO: I think when you think of Johannesburg, or when I think of Johannesburg, there is an image that Johannesburg has, that the minute you get in the city, you don’t even have to have left the airport. You just feel this heartbeat, like where does this come from? And as someone who lives in Johannesburg, and the first time I went there, that’s what I remember. And I guess in that sense with Vaya, I wanted that idea of that energy, that mystery. This place that’s just so beautiful on the one hand, and full of a lot of secrets. In a way, Joburg just bends you towards it. You can navigate this space to be yourself, but there’s something about the construct of that city, which is for the most part, a place where everybody comes to look for gold.

There’s something about a place where, I have something to offer you. You might not have come here merrily, but you’re here. And everyone is here, looking for the gold. I think that’s something that has always fascinated about Johannesburg.

DEMAND AFRICA:           Vaya was released theatrically. How did your partnership with Ava DuVernay and her production company, Array, come about?

AKIN OMOTOSO: The partnership with Ava and Array came about a number of ways. One, I’m a big fan of her and her work, and especially what she does with Array. I think anybody who goes out of their way to make sure the stories are shared, never mind stories of America, stories of the US and the world. It speaks to everything that appeals to me as a filmmaker, so I was already a huge fan. It only made sense, the way in which we were working in the community, that this would be the right partner.

We were very fortunate that when we submitted it for consideration, they were very happy to have it. It’s a meeting of kindred spirits. It makes the most sense, and we’re very excited about it. I think that in this day and age, you have to have, again in the ethos of Vaya, and the idea of people moving and sharing, and community. I think that’s what Ava represents. I think that’s what Array is doing. And for us to be number 19, tells you a lot. And you know that if you’ve seen all the films, you can see where the ethos is in terms of the messaging, in terms of the kinds of stories, and the need for these kinds of stories on our screens.

In a time when you can’t really see a lot of these kinds of films, that we’ve come along where there is an Ava, there is an Array, and there’s the Netflix opportunity. It just feels right. If you can think of years of sitting and waiting and imagining a film. If this film was made earlier, we might not be here talking. So the fact that we’re here at this point, is really, really exciting.

DEMAND AFRICA:           What’s it like working with Ava DuVernay, and do you have plans for future collaborations?

AKIN OMOTOSO: It’s great working with Ava DuVernay, and I obviously want to be able to take the partnership forward, and this has been a great, great, again, partnership. Not just that, her stuff and how they do things, and how they treat people. And again, it’s the work. For me that’s always a very attractive and inspiring quality. That you’re with people who are in the trenches, who are actually doing what they say they’re doing and not just … They’re doing it. We hope that Vaya will be one of many. We’re the 19th, we’re hoping we could be also 21, 22, 23, 24 [Akin chuckles].

DEMAND AFRICA:           How did you get your start in entertainment?

AKIN OMOTOSO: I got my start in entertainment by studying … I studied to be an actor at the University of Cape Town. So I started studying drama. While I was studying drama, I realized acting is cool, no issue. But I really loved telling stories. As an actor, you’re one part telling a story. As a director or a write, you have an opportunity to tell the kind of story you might want to see, or that doesn’t exist. That was something that was very attractive to me, because again, if you look at representation of the imagery, sometimes you gotta correct some of those things, and the only way that you can correct them, is if you’re writing them.

I really had that in mind, that … Acting is fine, but I will try and write the kinds of films that I would want to see, or that I would feel challenge a particular narrative. So, while I was in drama school, I was fortunate that my parents bought me this little digital camera, and I was really self taught. I didn’t know … I didn’t need the lights, and I had acted, my classmates were actors, the actors are on camera, everybody’s happy. So, it was a process of teaching oneself about this medium, and each year at drama school, I learned something new about the camera. I also had an opportunity, I borrowed the University’s camera, and I just walked around and I just tried to familiarize myself with it. I left school, I began the process of starting making more professional work. But that’s how it started, drama school.

DEMAND AFRICA:           You’re an actor, writer, and director.  Do you have a favorite? Or all three disciplines bring out something different in you?

AKIN OMOTOSO: I’m very fortunate that I write, direct, produce, and act. And I like them all, but I think like I said, the directing and the idea of shaping a narrative is really, really crucial. I think that for me, to be able to do … A lot of the people I admire do a lot of those things. If you look at the stories most filmmakers, they say, “This is what I feel you should know,” in terms of filmmakers with the voice. It’s not necessarily about the commercials here, the ones that say, “I want you to look at this, I want you to have a look at this kind of landscape.” So that was very attractive to me, and as an actor, you get to be part of something else. For me, whenever I’ve acted on other people’s films, I learned a lot.

Before we shot Vaya, I was very fortunate. I had a part in Queen of Katwe, and Mira Nair’s is a director I really admire. So she was shooting that about four or six weeks before we started shooting Vaya, and I had a call for two days. Just to be on that set for two days and watching what Mira was doing and working with David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o was there, it really helped me when I went into Vaya. Because that’s someone I admire, and watching how she was working, trying to bring some of that ethic to what we were doing, was really, really incredible.

So, that’s what I mean, that there’s no … I don’t see the things as separate. They’re all part of the parcel of trying to be a better storyteller.

DEMAND AFRICA:           As an African filmmaker, what do you hope resonates in each of your projects?

AKIN OMOTOSO: As an African filmmaker, I would say what I hope would resonate … Well, one I would say I’m a storyteller, so let’s start there. But I just hope that it’s about bringing multiple representation to the screen, and that the experience of Africa, or African Americans, it’s not one thing. When I think for too long … I think it’s breaking down a little bit. But for too long, it’s always one thing. I feel my contribution, I hope my contribution with the films, is that you get to see a kaleidoscope of experience, good and bad.

DEMAND AFRICA:           You appeared in some long running TV series and hit films, such as Queen of Katwe and Blood Diamond. Tell us about some of your experiences on set. Especially working with Lupita Nyong’o and Djimon Hounsou and Leonardo DiCaprio.

AKIN OMOTOSO: Working with Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Lupita, always great. Always great. These are people who are on top of their game, especially in the case of, if you look at Lupita, what she’s been able to do. Being on that set with her on Queen of Katwe, again, was just amazing to watch her transformation, again, it’s the details. It’s the process of what they’re doing. I’m normally more fan. “Oh, I gotta be professional. Don’t mess up your lines. Come on now. Don’t be the reason they’re doing take 2, Akin. Don’t be the reason.”

That in itself is a privilege, and also in those places, Queen of Katwe as well, David … They give you the space to contribute, and that is always great. ‘Cause again, it speaks to our share community of filmmakers. With Leo, what was funny on Blood Diamond, was that he and I share the same birthday, and we were born in the same year. So I said to him, “We share the same birthday, and born in the same year.” So he said, “Then you must be one cool mother******.” [Akin knods knowingly and smiles; he’s amused.] So I said, “Yeah. Thank you, Leo.”

DEMAND AFRICA:           You’ve appeared in films on Demand Africa and that have aired on The Africa Channel as well. How important is it for you, to be apart of projects that uplift Africa and diaspora?

AKIN OMOTOSO: It’s very important to be part of projects that uplift Africa and the diaspora, and especially Demand Africa and The Africa Channel. Because here’s the thing, I remember once … My late grandmother, rest in peace, was from Barbados. I remember being in Barbados and … It’s one thing to say I’m acting in something. It’s another thing for them to see it. I remember one day, we were in Barbados and she, I think The Africa Channel had now arrived, and she could watch her grandson in the show. Now on the one level it’s like yes, that’s great. It’s your grandson. But the bigger idea, and I think that’s the those of what we’re talking about, is that we have to be able to see ourselves. And for too long the image is controlled, it still is, but you know what I mean, for the most part. So for me, anything that can break through and allow other … Especially our cousins who have left, who don’t live on the continent, because also the information that’s given is also strange. If you say to somebody, “Yeah, but I’ve also watched this.” It’s like, “Wow, you guys have TV sets?”

That thing is dangerous, because what it’s telling you is that you’re not getting the same information we’re getting. So there’s a disconnect with the knowledge. For me, anything that helps break that down, I’m there. I think Demand Africa and The Africa Channel does that well, because it can’t be overstated. You gotta be able to see multiple experiences of people who look like you, so that you can start to understand what we share, where we’re different, how do we celebrate, and that in itself, that diversity, is exciting to me. And that is why a lot of filmmakers seek out what’s happening this side of the world. That’s how you keep tabs with, “Oh, that’s an interesting filmmaker that’s coming up.”

So, always to break down this idea of division, which I think for some strange reason, certain aspects of society want to promote that.

DEMAND AFRICA:           What have been some of your most significant revelations about life, as you continue to create film content?

AKIN OMOTOSO: Some of my most significant revelations about life as I continue to create film content… I would say that this was never something that I expected. So in other words, there’s a kid at a drama school who’s like, “I wanna do this.” And that’s 21 years ago, so I guess the biggest revelation is, the dream was always to share the stories. Make the films, try and get them out there, and hopefully getting them out there, there might be one or two people who like to see them and they have a conversation. I can’t overstate the community. People say, “Yeah, you’re just saying that.” But the truth is, if you can screen something, we were fortunate with Vaya to screen in many places. If you can screen something in a place where the people can understand and relate to the journey of a young person who is confronted with something, that’s the greatest revelation. Because that’s where you really start to get to the kernel of the human experience.

For me, every time there’s a film and every time there’s an opportunity to travel, it’s really that. That people surprise you. That life surprises you. When you thought the film would do this, then it does something else. Or, I don’t think it would do that, and then somebody gives you … And that is the teacher of life. Sometimes you get knocked, a lot of no’s, people tell you. So in a way, it has been a teacher of life. I’m trying to look for a good example. Also, it can teach you about how kind or how cruel people can be, and how generous sometimes, people can be. In learning from their generosity, you can also be better and seeing how people respond to certain things, you can also learn.

I would say it’s that kind of journey, and a continual journey. Also because I never … I remember a lot of “Well, is it going to work?” And I was saying this to a bunch of students, was that the minute I felt like, “This is the thing I’m gonna do,” I became obsessed with, “Well it has to work.” You have to fully throw yourself in here. That life of film has been continuously really, really inspiring to me. I don’t get bored. I get excited by people doing these things. I don’t feel threatened by people doing… the more creativity that surrounds me, the more you wanna soak it up.

DEMAND AFRICA:           When you meet a young person and they express their wish to write their first script, what do you suggest they do first? What’s step one?

AKIN OMOTOSO: Whenever I meet a new person or somebody’s who’s aspiring to become a filmmaker or script writer, my first step is to say, “Think of it as a marathon.” The first thing you have to do is, “imagine a marathon runner,” is what an older filmmaker said to me, “and the preparation she has to go through, and then once you can think of that, that a marathon runner takes a lot and the marathon itself is long. Once you can embrace that, then I feel like you can really start to approach.” I normally start with the marathon, and usually most people just [Akin makes a motion with his hands to suggest running straight through quickly, and he chuckles]. I guess what it is about the marathon, is that I never want to be the filmmaker that hides things from younger filmmakers. When I was coming up, there were a lot of people who told me very hard truths, and they were right. The ones who lied, you could see immediately. My whole thing was like, “I will never be the one who lies.” In a way, sometimes people really want you to lie to them. They want to know that, “Just tell me step one, two, three, four.” Like we’re kind of discussing now, “and I’ll be fine.”

I say, “For me, the step is, you have to give yourself to it and understand it’s gonna be a long journey. Once you do that, really, everything else is fine. Because then you’re prepared for the journey. You’re prepared for the no’s, you understand why you are staying out late at night and your friends are partying. Because at the moment when you are presenting your work, in that dark room… the work makes sense. This is what it’s about. So for me, I say that. That’s step one. Step two, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and challenge you. Not challenge in the sense of, they just wanna, you know [Akin shows a fist]. But that they’re going to make sure that whatever it is we’re doing, it’s going to be the best of this thing. Those things are hard, and the journeys to find those people is also hard. Again, find those people, find the people who will hold you, and everything should be fine after that.

DEMAND AFRICA:           In regards to your journey and finding your people, I wonder, did you ever have a mentor in the business? Or someone that really helped shape your career?

AKIN OMOTOSO: I had a number of mentors in terms of just becoming a filmmaker, so we can structure it on different levels. One, I’d say, my parents, you know, my dad, my late mom. They really instilled in me the sense of, “You can be what you wanna be,” so I was fortunate to grow up in a household that nurtured these ideas. And then, obviously you go on and you start to watch films. So for me, at the time when I was becoming a filmmaker, we didn’t really have the internet, so you know, you had to really soak up everything and read up everything. And so I would say a lot of the people, a lot of the mentors have been a lot of the filmmakers and the films that I’ve watched, and just how those filmmakers got through all these processes. And then I’ve been fortunate in life to meet people who… too many to name, who’ve just been helpful. And I’d rather focus on the people who’ve been helpful. People who, sometimes it doesn’t go well, you also learn some things from them, but for the most part I found the people that, you know, are helpful.

DEMAND AFRICA:           What’s your favorite part about being a storyteller? Part of the journey that moves the script to the screen, an idea to the screen? What’s the most exciting part about that?

AKIN OMOTOSO: I think the most exciting part about being a filmmaker is that idea that you really start with nothing, and that you don’t know where the journey is gonna land up. So we start in a room with seven people conjuring up a story, and 10 years later you’re presenting Vaya. And that journey is really priceless. And what I like about it is you can’t control it, no matter how much you try. The story will tell you how it wants to be told. And that journey is what I look forward to.

DEMAND AFRICA:           So it took 10 years from start to finish?

AKIN OMOTOSO: Aha aha, there we go. Yes, so the idea that a story Vaya starts with seven people in a room imagining something, and 10 years later we’re presenting the film, or Array is presenting the film to the world and to Netflix.

DEMAND AFRICA:           Can you speak to your own experience about how different the filmmaking process is here in the US versus how it is in Africa?

AKIN OMOTOSO: I mean the filmmaking process here in the US versus Africa, I would say, is … the thing about the filmmaking process and the reason why I think a lot of people are drawn to it, is that for the most part, the camera, lights, action, mics, people, you know? So that part is not foreign, I think there are other things in different communities that probably … permits, you know? I mean permits, you know, if someone’s asking, “Do you get permits?” Like, we gotta get permits. So, I would say that each place has its own unique rhythm, but the tools of the medium stay the same. And that, in a way, is pretty remarkable. Whether you’re shooting in Johannesburg, Lagos, or Los Angeles. Somebody’s gotta bring the wardrobe, somebody’s gotta make sure the camera lens is clean, somebody’s gotta ask the questions. And that, for me, is always … sometimes there’s scale, so obliviously the scale you would see.

I remember one time I was shooting when I was making my first film, “God is African”, we used the lights, I think we had a combination of five lights which fit in the boot of my car. And we were shooting at this one location and then there was a commercial, which was next to us, and they had like 10 trucks of a lot of lights, and I may or may not have considered taking one of those lights. I didn’t [Akin laughs]. So, scale is something, but the way in which you make the stories stays the same.