Kenneth Gyang is making Nigerian films, but for a global audience

By Wilfred Okiche

Posted on Friday, 24 June 2022 12:52
Kenneth Gyang
Kenneth Gyang

In May, Netflix scored its biggest Nigerian hit with the original title, Blood Sisters. The gripping thriller about two best friends on the run from the law, and the mighty reach of an influential family, has since hit over 20 million hours, becoming a global favourite. The key to its success? Not playing to a particular genre, says co-director Kenneth Gyang.

The four-part miniseries co-directed by Gyang and created by EbonyLife, Nollywood’s most prominent film studio, landed on the streaming platform’s global top ten chart for television shows, clocking well over 11 million hours of views in its first four days of release.

Blood Sisters has had a global imprint. It was the number one show on the platform in at least seven countries, including Nigeria, Kenya and Jamaica, and played in the top ten in countries as diverse as Brazil, Belgium and Mexico.

“We made rubbish of the idea that only one kind of genre can work,” Gyang tells The Africa Report, referring to a common myth among a segment of industry players that audiences are only interested in comedies or star-heavy ensembles.

“When you make your films with respect for the audience, then you can see the difference. With Blood Sisters, we had people from different cultures rallying round the opulence of Lagos and a tense but relatable tale of sisterhood and class conflicts.”

Change of pace

It isn’t the first time that Gyang has delivered a hit for Netflix, or EbonyLife for that matter. Sometime in 2019, the studio that is famous for smashing box office records with romantic comedies like The Wedding Party, was considering a change of pace.

EbonyLife founder and CEO Mo Abudu approached Gyang, a frequent collaborator on television series, such as Sons of the Caliphate and Castle & Castle.

Abudu was positioning her studio as the obvious partner for international collaborators looking to get in on the Nollywood action and needed to diversify the content slate.

There were few directors that could deliver a gritty story about the underbelly of sex work and trafficking in Lagos, one that would have the veneer of prestige and perhaps compete in the international film festival spaces. Gyang was one of them.

Òlòtūré, which premiered at the Carthage film festival in Tunis and was subsequently acquired by Netflix, became a big hit when it started streaming as an original.

When the studio was ready to make Blood Sisters, Gyang was involved from the beginning. He shares directing credits on Blood Sisters – two episodes apiece with Biyi Bandele (Half of a Yellow Sun).

Trailblazing path

A graduate of the influential National Film Institute in Jos, Gyang has, from the start of his career, carved a trailblazing path that has tried to expand the idea of what Nollywood film can be while inspiring a generation of creatives to think outside the box.

An avid film scholar, a 20-year-old Gyang got into the influential Berlinale Talents programme in 2006 with Mummy Lagos, an early short form project.

At the Berlinale campus, he was exposed to the inner workings of international cinema. His debut feature length, Confusion Na Wa, a twisty dramedy that plays on a simple premise of all the things that could go wrong when a man loses his mobile phone, was made possible by some prize money from the Hubert Bals Fund in the Netherlands. The film was a critical darling, winning the top prize at the Africa Movie Academy Awards.

Things are different now, but at the time I read the script for Confusion Na Wa, I had not seen anyone try to make anything similar.

Gyang’s Confusion Na Wa screenplay, which he co-wrote with Tom Rowlands-Rees, was able to attract an impressive ensemble of actors, none more high profile than Nollywood icon Ramsey Nouah.

The actor was so impressed that he offered to waive his fees in lieu of the film’s writers working on his next project. Nouah, who would go on to work with Gyang on Blood Sisters almost a decade later, tells The Africa Report: “Kenneth is a creative genius who loves what he does. We connected because we are both passionate. The essence of a filmmaker is to narrate a story visually and convince a global audience irrespective of language or cultural barriers. He ticks all the boxes for me.”

Veteran television writer and performer Tunde Aladese, who made her acting debut in Confusion Na Wa and later starred as the lead in Gyang’s sophomore feature, The Lost Café, a Nigerian-Norwegian co-production, tells The Africa Report: “Things are different now, but at the time I read the script for Confusion Na Wa, I had not seen anyone try to make anything similar. It had Tarantino vibes, the dialogue was clever and funny. The structure, which was way different from what was finally cut, was out of sequence and did not apologise for being challenging. I remember thinking that maybe if this does well, more films like it would be made.”

This would take some time, but it would eventually happen just as Aladese predicted. In the meantime, despite all of the acclaim and a fast-rising profile among cineastes, Gyang struggled to be taken seriously at home.

Industry revamp

Confusion Na Wa arrived at a time the industry was going through upheaval. Traditional distribution structures established by the marketers during the video boom were collapsing.

Filmmaking was mainly a crude apprenticeship system and no one had time to spare for a young, brainy cinema upstart who could talk film theory and would go to Europe to workshop his projects.

To keep busy, Gyang reverted to the relative safety of television – and NGO commissions – where he did mainstream work that would at least meet certain standards. He however says he has no hard feelings about this period in his career.

“Suits are suits. Whether it is Hollywood or Kannywood [Hausa-language cinema] they always think first of the business. How many eyeballs can you get to the theatres?”

Even when a new wave of studios and gatekeepers sprung up at home, Gyang was dismissed as a niche artiste who could not deliver the mainstream hits (read big, dumb, soulless projects).

The remarkable success of Òlòtūré changed the game for Gyang, making him one of the most in-demand directors in Nollywood. The studios want to work with him and streaming executives rest easy when they see his name attached to a pitch.

Mainstream embraces Gyang

Gyang embraces his role in the spotlight and expects that finally, talent and experience may be able to dictate who gets what opportunities.

“I want to inspire confidence in emerging filmmakers who can see now that they can tell their stories within the studio set up and maintain some creativity or integrity,” he says.

Aladese is excited that the mainstream is finally embracing Gyang and recognising the depth that he brings to his projects.

She tells The Africa Report: “For him, there was a struggle to keep the flame going and stay true to the vision. When people were only interested in ticket sales, he wanted to make Nigerian films that could travel and be respected both at home and globally. He spent years doing that while waiting for audiences to catch up with his vision. He had a lot of practice and experience under his belt so that by the time the current opportunities showed up, he was ready.”

In lieu of an identifiable style that is distinct to him, Gyang is somewhat of a shapeshifter. He can be trusted to slip easily into different genres, unlocking ways to tell compelling stories within established structures with familiar tropes as his tools.

He is excited by the opportunities that the success of Blood Sisters heralds. “Being in the mainstream means I can negotiate better and even greenlight some of my own personal projects that I am passionate about. It’s all about balance,” he says.

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