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Kayode Kasum Wants To Hug You With Film
The filmmaker talked about his love for film and music, his latest, Obara'm and everything in between.
How do you prepare for failure? For the possibility of your dreams not coming true, especially on the scale that you’d prefer? This was never really something I’d thought about, but today, I am on the other end of a call with someone who planned a legacy to encapsulate potential failure with the same passion he works towards success.
It is the thing I love about journalism, about meeting people and learning about them — the surprising turns in their lives and the intentions behind actions laid bare for the world to inject their own meanings.
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A few days before this conversation, I had seen Obara’m, a film that follows the life of a young woman who abandons her daughter and aging father to chase wild, artistic dreams. Beneath the music and relatable storytelling, the film is really about the intoxication of reinvention. Oluchi (Nancy Isime) dreamt up a parallel, more comfortable life and truly chased it, albeit poorly. But she chased and her inability to meet up was not for lack of trying.
It was the same thing Kayode Kasum envisaged when he made his first acclaimed film, Oga Bolaji. “I just made a film that was in a way talking to myself,” Kasum tells me. “I asked myself a question, and I was like ‘You want to make films, Kayode? Yes! What if you don’t make money from films?’ And I told myself that I don’t care if I don’t make money from films. I’m still going to make films till I’m forty and living with my mother, and I’m broke. And that was the story. Oga Bolaji was basically me facing my fears.”
This was 2018 and it was the project through which an audience came to identify with Kasum. The film, which had a successful festival run, followed the life of the eponymous Oga Bolaji (Ikponmwosa Gold), a happy-go-lucky retired, 40-year-old musician whose life changes forever when he crosses paths with a seven-year-old girl.
“I created a character that was going to be 40-year-old Kayode — that’s chasing his dreams and has still not made it — that was living with his mother. Like Bolaji’s mother will say “Oga Bolaji,” my mother used to call me every morning because I lived with her. She would say “Kayode” in a similar way,” Kasum tells me with laughter in his voice, the kind that underscores fond memories. “The film was more like a love story between myself and filmmaking, facing my fears. I didn’t want people to know that I was talking to myself. So, I made Oga Bolaji a musician.”
Despite the deflection with the career choice of the main character, the decision to use music was not coincidental. Music is a mainstay in Kasum’s work, and he has gone all the way with Obara’m, which is dubbed a musical.
His dad used to play a lot of classic music, like Beethoven, and Kasum never quite understood why. “But I guess I now understand,” Kasum notes “[it is] because music makes people feel different things. I grew up understanding that if I wanted certain things out of life, I had to work hard for them. I had to work hard to make my dreams come true, and music is one thing that always helped me through that journey because I’m a very quiet person.”
In Oga Bolaji, there is a scene where the main character is walking through a market with so much noise in the background. But he has his music on and just keeps going, unperturbed. “That’s basically me,” Kasum says, explaining the relationship between himself and music.
(A man lost in music despite background activities. Created with Midjourney’s AI bot)
The same musical philosophy informed Obara’m but it was a little more chaotic because the project is his most ambitious yet. It is a film he has always wanted to make, to experiment. “I had a story that had been brewing in my head, the only thing that I could see when I closed my eyes was church robes and people dancing, but as I began to make films, other films [came] first.”
When he was ready to make this film, he cast Nancy Isime, who he’s worked with in Kambili, as the lead. “Nancy is my muse. It was not easy for us at first but we get each other now,” he says and true to a discerning eye, Isime’s acting in Obara’m is one of her most natural in a while. But she was not the real star in the film, child actor Darasimi Nadi, who played Ihunanya, shone brighter than the rest of the cast that featured legends like Nkem Owoh and Onyeka Onwenu alongside acclaimed musical band, The Cavemen — sibling duo Kingsley Okorie and Benjamin James.
Nadi’s casting is another page in Kasum’s faith story. He had seen Kevin Hart’s Fatherhood and was super impressed by the child star, Melody Hurd’s acting so much that he printed her picture as reference for Ihunaya in Obara’m. Immediately after Nadi entered during the auditions, he knew he had found his child actress. “I put that picture on my vision board and I prayed. The next thing was the auditions and she was the first person that came in.
“Everybody on my team was like we need to see other people, Kayode, but I said there’s nobody else to see. This is what I asked for and the person has been delivered,” Kasum says, reeling with excitement as he recounts the experience.
When I watched Obara’m, I was curious about the artistic choices as I thought the movie could stand on its own, without the music. But as Kasum and I talk more about his relationship with music, his choices begin to make sense. He agrees and mentions that he had a story that could stand alone but the whole package of the film just had to happen. Obara’m is a marker for his growth, a gauge for how far he has come since he first started making films.
“I had actually grown to a point that I believed and had self confidence that I could make the musical work. I had the confidence to add more layers to the characters like I saw in my head.
“I wanted to make a musical and it worked. I didn’t even do it on the scale I wanted because we had a budget but still, it worked. Nigerians like something new but for them to accept it, it has to be something really good. One, they accepted it (Obara’m) and two, they accepted seven original songs. Original songs they’ve never heard before. So, yes, I’m very, very proud of that,” Kasum says, happy with the results, ready to move on to his next film experiment.
“Also, at the time, I’d been thinking about loss and death a lot. Within the work that you create, your influences will always find ways to appear. It just made sense to use Obara’m, the art, as a form of therapy to discuss and kind of talk about death.”
Film has given him so many chances and it’s his way of connecting with people. “Anita, I'm not going to lie to you, making films, I love it so much. I’m not going to lie. It’s not cliche. I love it. I love it so much. Especially when I find a story that excites me. That’s the only thing I’ll do . I’ll just be dreaming about it. I’ll find ways to make it better. I’ll be obsessed about it. I’ll go and look for money for it.
“I feel like films should be like big hugs and I want the audience to feel when they see my films,” he says reflecting on his film journey.
(Film as a filmmaker’s happy place. Created with Midjourney’s AI bot)
“I had some dark moments growing up and no, this is not a sob story. In one of those moments, I went to get films. You know, Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey type. I got a Carrey collection, Will Ferrell and those films made me happy. I was just so excited. That’s why I made a lot of comedies at the start of my career because I wanted to make those types of films for people too. I just wanted to make films that would make them happy.
“And I feel like I know first-hand the power of films in our audiences’ lives. I know it first hand, so, I do not take the job for granted at all,” Kasum adds.
(Film: a window within a window. Created with Midjourney’s AI bot)
For someone who is in love with film this much, how does he marry the business of it with the art?
“See, there’s a certain archetype that Nigerian filmmakers want. Like there’s this point you should be shooting originals, and there are certain ways that you should market your films as big blockbusters. People want to kind of position themselves as Industry giants, but the truth is I’m not actually interested in any of that. I don’t market my films as aggressively as I should.
“I know what films do to people. So it’s never just to always think about money first. But for the business of film, I’m still figuring it out. I’ve been lucky that I understand it to a point that there is no loss. Our films have been profitable at Film Trybe (his production company),” Kasum explains.
We circle back to Obara’m as I am particularly curious about the casting of The Cavemen. He walks me through the process and the story offers a peek into the sweet bromance between him and Dare Olaitan, the filmmaker behind Ile Owo .
“When I had the idea for the film and I went to Dare, the first thing he said was ‘imagine if they were singing Igbo songs and you got the cavemen’ and I immediately thought it was brilliant. When we started looking for The Cavemen, it was mission impossible. It took like three months for us to cast them but he (Olaitan) didn’t give up. He just kept chasing them. We finally cast them and that was when I looked at my friend, and I was like ‘thank you man! This was a really good decision’.”
Kasum goes on to gush about his friendship with Olaitan. “I’m not going to say we understand why we are friends with each other. We are just friends and one thing I know is that we truly trust each other. And when you trust someone, that person definitely bounces off you, and in ways that you cannot explain. It was never planned. We are just fully hundred percent comfortable in each other’s spaces, and we respect each other’s gifts and opinions.
“I respect his gift. I respect his stories. We don’t know what the future holds. Whether one day we’ll fight. But for now, it’s a very good relationship and we’re enjoying it.”
With his collaboration with Olaitan, there are even more projects in the pipeline. Kasum wants to make a dark series that is a combination of the themes from some of the stuff he has already done. Already, people wonder if he is making too many films and so, I ask him. “It's because I enjoy making films,” he answers. “If you give me a film, I’ll make it but I’ve grown to the point that I understand that Kayode cannot make every film.
“I’m learning. I see people that say that in their careers, they only want to make great films, and I’m like okay, that’s perfect. That’s a good, great dream. I want that for you. Amen! But luckily for me, I don’t have that type of career. I’ve made some really shit films, and I’ve made some really great films. But one thing that will remain the same is that I’m enjoying every single moment of it. I love making films, and that’s my spirit.”
Earlier, while we were settling into the call, Kasum asked me “Anita, why do you do the things you do for Nollywood? Why do you write about film?” And for the next six minutes, I ran through an exposition detailing my journey in this business but all the while, as I answered, I found myself asking the same question internally, to be sure I was answering appropriately.
Later, as we prepared to end the call, a lengthy conversation that would become a 24-page transcription, I began to ask myself “What if my big dreams for the growth of the Nigerian film ecosystem do not happen? How have I prepared for failure? What really keeps me going? What keeps Kayode Kasum’s dreams alive?”
The answer to this question is the soul of Kasum’s work. He speaks and an eruption of positivity fills the room, not because he is the most eloquent of people but because he is a man aware of his limitations and even more aware of the power of his dreams and the importance of constant learning.
“I’m still learning film, and don’t try to preach because I don’t see myself as a master filmmaker. I feel that as you make more films it all gets better. I’m writing my own story,” Kasum adds. “Yes, other great filmmakers have opened doors for me to make these types of decisions but I like the fact that I’m figuring it out. I’m understanding my audience — the people that I make films for. I’m getting to understand them and I’m making more beautiful films for them.”
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