How Akin Omotoso Brings Empathy & Authenticity To Filmmaking

Nov 20, 2018 | Articles

by Dino-Ray Ramos | Deadline Hollywood

Filmmaker Akin Omotoso’s latest film Vaya first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 to critical praise and continued to make its rounds around the festival circuit and earned him the Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Director before landing at Ava DuVernay’s Array. The film is set for a screening tour and a simultaneous Netflix release today but none of this would have never happened because Omotoso initially wanted to be…a lawyer.

Omotoso tells Deadline with a laugh that while in school his guidance counselors said, “You like to argue a lot, so maybe you should be a lawyer, so I had this thing in my head that I was gonna be a lawyer.”

“When I look back now, I just feel like I would have been a very unhappy lawyer,” he admits.

Born in Nigeria, Omotoso moved to South Africa and despite having his eyes on a career as a lawyer, he ended up going to drama school and said, “Let me just see what happens here” and the rest fell into place.

His place a more artistically-driven field was written in the stars as his father is a writer, his late mom an architect and his sister is a writer. At one point he also wanted to be a novelist but he said he “never had the patience for the paper.”

“I start on page one, but then by the end, I’ve killed everybody I’ve killed all the characters so I never thought I could do it,” he laughs again.

He may not have been able to find a career as a novelist, but he discovered that he really liked telling stories while in drama school. He would go on to act but soon discovered filmmaking. He said, “as an actor, you’re telling just one part of the story” and he wanted to be a bigger part of the narrative. While at drama school he started to teach himself filmmaking. “For me, the two have always gone hand in hand,” he said.

Omotoso came up and is still inspired by a very specific time in black cinema during the late ’80s and early ’90s. He points out a long list of influences: Julie Dash’s Daughters of Dust, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ernest Dickerson’s Juice as well as the golden age of John Singleton films including Boyz n The Hood, Higher Learning, and Poetic Justice. He also gives shine to the burgeoning black cinema movement from the Sankofa Film and Video Collective and how the Nigerian Nollywood scene was beginning to flourish during his time in school.

“It’s that these range of influences that one has been privileged to not only watch and grow but also help me understand the kind of filmmaker I wanted to be,” he said.

He would borrow the school’s VHS camera and start shooting all these films while works from directors like Mira Nair would be in the back of his mind. “All these films were coming out at that time and all these filmmakers were really making these films quite independently and so those are my first influences.” The independent way of filmmaking would follow him to today with Vaya and his collaboration with DuVernay and Array. After seeing Middle of Nowhere, Omotoso says that he admired her work and the work Array is doing to bring films like his to the forefront.

As his fifth feature film, Vaya continues to bring Omotoso’s authentic and beautiful vision of South African narratives. Vaya tells three emotional intersecting stories of three young South Africans who journey away from their rural homes on a train bound for Johannesburg (or Jozi as many locals call it). The film was rooted in a TV series based on a book that Vaya co-writer and co-producer Robbie Thorpe worked on which chronicled the lives of people who lived on the streets and in the cracks of society. After the series was finished, Thorpe, along with others from the series set up the Homeless Writer’s Project where every Wednesday writers from the street found a place to write and have their stories validated.

“The group started out quite large and over the course of six years it was whittled down to four,” said Omotoso. “And those four guys — who also wrote the script — it’s their stories of coming to Joburg that ultimately is the film of Vaya.” And the four writers also appear in the film.

Marking the first feature film for many of the actors and cinematographer Kabelo Thathe (who breathtakingly captures the essence of South Africa), the triptych of a story follows earnest Zanele (played by standout Zimkhitha Nyoka), who has traveled to Johannesburg to take her cousin to her mother, a singer that doesn’t seem to have time for a daughter or her sister. We are also introduced to Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba) who connects with his cousin for a job that seems shady and the well-meaning and judicious Nkulu (Sibusiso Msimang) who runs into problems when he attempts to bring his recently deceased father’s remains home.

Global films that put the spotlight on countries with a history of poverty and corruption, tend to pass themselves off as “real” when in fact it is more exploitative. For Omotoso, who still calls South Africa home, he was conscious of it and wanted to make these stories real, organic and wasn’t out to make a “homeless film.” It was coming from a place from seeing what develops from these poignant stories based on the lives of real people from the Homeless Writer’s Project and South Africa, in all its beautiful authenticity, is the backdrop. Omotoso said they don’t water down the realness of Johannesburg, but at the same time they bring meaning to what its like to come to a new place and the origin story of how someone can become homeless or displaced.

There isn’t anything exploitative about Vaya, rather empathetic. Omotoso doesn’t demand you to feel sorry for the characters but opens the door for you to feel empathy for their experience.

“I think sometimes a lot of the films — the filmmakers can’t see themselves in it,” explains Omotoso. “Whereas I can see myself in all those characters. I have that empathy. So there’s no distance.”

An empathetic gaze is paramount to filming stories of characters like Zanele, Nhlanhla, and Nkulu. There have been many filmmakers that have attempted to tell stories of this ilk, but it has come off as exploitative or inauthentic. “For me, those kinds of filmmakers, that’s what I say is the difference: Is that you fully immerse yourself in the possibility of what these characters can be as opposed to, ‘Oh, this is my urban project’,” said Omotoso.

Stories like Vaya continue to add to the importance of global storytelling and how it connects us to other parts of the world through universal themes. Omotoso points out that Vaya is heavily embedded in the conversation about immigration, migration and the search for better opportunities. He said that he never thought that the film would come out at a time when immigration would be a hot-button topic all around the world.

“That’s resonant for me,” he said. “We need to put faces to people that we’re quick to dismiss. I would say, for me, story is important in that sense.”

He adds, “Next time you see someone on the street, maybe you’re not quick to judge. Maybe they’re story is equally as rich as yours. On the level that that’s a way in which I look at it.”

Omotoso has respect for DuVernay for creating platforms for films like his to be seen. As the 19th project on Array’s impressive slate of of independently-created films, Vaya will be available on Netflix and reach new audiences that wouldn’t see the film otherwise. “Someone like [DuVernay] had the vision to have this kind of platform because these stories are missing from the general lexicon.”

Vaya is just one type of film under Omotoso’s belt. He made the social thriller Man on Ground as well as a romantic comedy titled Tell Me Sweet Something. He is not staying in one lane when it comes to filmmaking but will tell different genres of stories through a different gaze that not many are used to. When he was an actor he realized that if no one writes the story you want to tell, it never will be told — which is why he said being an actor wasn’t enough. Omotoso said, with positive affirmation, “As the writer and the director, you can create the kind of imagery or the kind of dialogue that you want to see.”