Bolaji Kekere-Ekun is an interesting man who does interesting work. When you ask people about him, the responses are linear yet varied. People know he is the guy behind the cool-sounding 37thState production company. They know him as the filmmaker who was a part of P. Diddy’s Sean John Fall 2013 campaign. In his field, he is viewed as the man who made lifestyle documentaries a viable thing. Whether they realise it or not, many of the Lagos-based creatives currently promoting the redefinition of their country’s image owe some credit to this filmmaker.
Lagos is has seen many changes over the past eight years. In 2008, the current Minister for Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola, was still serving his first term as the state governor. The city did not have many places for creative displays of expression, and seeking avenues to discuss and promote culture would be classified as an active hobby. But interesting things were starting to happen.
For Bolaji, this simply means that filmmakers have the additional responsibility of combining depth and entertainment
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In small clusters across the city, a revolution was in its infancy. It was then that Bolaji, who had left a corporate job and gotten an MFA from University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, decided to carry a camera wherever he went.
“The cultural revolution was not being documented and I realised I needed experience,” Bolaji said. So he would shoot events wherever he was allowed.
At that time, the only people using cameras at events were newspaper photographers or event camera men, and none of them had the particular concern of presenting these events in the way Bolaji envisioned. “I wanted to create new content that told African stories,” he says.
Event coverage is by no means new; Lagosians are ardent event lovers and nothing makes a better souvenir than a video for posterity. This was before Instagram and the explosion of contemporary photography. All Bolaji needed to do was document his people doing and enjoying what they did and make them realise they enjoyed watching it too. The rest is history.
He shot, edited and posted the videos on YouTube, and the views and the praise trickled in. YouTube got in touch, and he struck a deal with fellow filmmaker Abba Makama to cover the company’s launch in Nigeria – and 37thState was born. Since then, they have worked with the Lagos State Government, with Hennessey, and a host of corporate and creative clients.
Under 37thState he has tracked 2Face’s trip to Cognac, France, he has shot Lynxx and his friends as they toured across Nigeria, he has documented exhibition openings, and the lead up to fashion collections. He has also made documentaries and the speculative short film Nkiru, about a sea goddess.
There are those filmmakers who refuse to conform to popular Nollywood standards of filmmaking, while others are unwilling to push new subject matter.
Giving Nigerians what they want
Bolaji is a graduate of English Literature so his love for story is nuanced. He loves films with momentum, such as psychological thrillers, dramas, the supernatural – or, as he describes it, “something that moves’. The last good film he watched was Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out.
“I like being able to tackle real subjects through an entertaining lens. I want to explore things that are serious and important, but end up being entertaining, not preachy,” he said of the film.
Get Out tackles the subject of racism using horror and comedy, a result that creates an insightful exploration of race in America without any of the high-wire emotions and politics that are frequently attached to the subject.
There is a belief that only a few artists can tread the line between serious subjects and commercial appeal. Kanye West, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola are some such examples. This ethos is often a source of debate and discomfort for many creatives.
In Nigeria, in a film industry that still primarily thrives on producing small-budget spectacles, the concept that ‘entertaining’ and ‘important’ are mutually exclusive often feels magnified. During Social Media Week in March 2017, a panel on the future of film in Nigeria was held. At this event, film director Niyi Akinmolayan remarked that anyone who wanted to make money from film in Nigeria only needed to make a basic comedy set somewhere fancy. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe a work is not important if it does not fulfil some responsibility beyond pure entertainment. Finding a middle ground is a challenge not only due to the films available but also because of the limited distribution options in the country.
The result is filmmakers who come from opposing ideologies. There are those filmmakers who refuse to conform to popular Nollywood standards of filmmaking, while others are unwilling to push new subject matter. This kind of thinking is limiting to both audiences and creative practitioners.
The belief that popular media in Nigeria can evolve beyond spectacle and become a tool for necessary conversations about ourselves and our society may not yet be a popular opinion. However, the media is a powerful tool and should not be limited to black-and-white logic, or just entertainment or passing information with little style. The result is a gap which can reduce the potential for innovative cultural expressions.
Setting new standards
For Bolaji, this simply means that filmmakers have the additional responsibility of combining depth and entertainment. Perhaps he is one of the visionary few, or perhaps he has simply learnt to observe and understand Nigerians without falling to the pressures of the industry.
For example, he noticed that Nigerians really enjoy and engage with documentaries, citing the popular documentary by Jide Olanrewaju, The History of Nigeria, as inspiration. His most recent release, Eko for Show, a historical presentation of Lagos fashion, was also received positively, and years later people are still engaging with the subject.
He believes Nigerians will connect well with similar historical documentaries that will fulfill the dual purpose of informing and entertaining them at the same time. This belief was validated while he was attempting to make a documentary on the Afrobeat musical style and realised that many of the artists themselves were unaware of the music’s history. And so while his vision had to be redirected, the intention remains uncompromised.
“I like being able to tackle real subjects through an entertaining lens.”
“With original content, one needs capital; I decided that instead of releasing in drips and drabs I would work on building a sustainable model and have a more focused impact rather than doing one video every month, or every few months,” said Bolaji.
The 37thState’s YouTube channel has not been updated in two years, but the quality of the work still impresses. These days Bolaji is concerned less with sharing African stories globally and more with Africans telling their own stories and giving themselves a history that empowers them.
“We need to work on ourselves because we don’t know our history,” said Bolaji. “History illumination will have a bigger impact on collective consciousness than the other cosmetic narratives.”