Akin Omotoso

Akin-Omotoso
Image by Mlungisi Mlungwana
 By Mandi ‘Poefficient’ Vundla |

I take pleasure in calling out Akin’s surname: ‘Omotoso’. It sounds like a Nigerian delicacy.
The ‘so’ is pronounced ‘sho’ and the underlying rhythm and vowel repetition makes it all the more fun to recite: Omo-to-sho! I pronounce his name and surname in full just as we sink into our seats; he plays along by calling back my full name, only dragging the ‘M’, pronouncing it as ‘Mmmandisa!’ This serves as a warm ice-breaker and the first laugh emerges, our conversation begins. There is enough room in Victor Dlamini’s gallery to take in all of Akin stories.

The gallery lies in the belly of the Old Fort at the Constitution Hill, engulfed by the walls of the former prison now turned tourist site, sitting as a heavy reminder on a Braamfontein slope, of where this country has come from. The place is a maze of History and memory, held together by art pieces and exhibitions. We entered through Kotze Street and waited patiently outside the Gallery for Omotoso to finish another interview before we could have our turn with him. Omotoso is still known too many nostalgic viewers by his first television role on Generations as Khaya Motene. His energy is light and penetrable, he is easy going and inquiring. In-between the photo shoot, he fills the silence with polite questions asking about our team.

Omotoso was born in Ibadan, he spent the first two years of his life in Nigeria; four, moving between London and Barbados then back to Nigeria. His late mother was an architect of Barbadian decent and his father was a writer and lecturer in Ife. “I grew up in a creatively nourishing environment”

It’s no wonder that his father made him keep a journal that would later prove his memory faulty,
when people praised him for being a punctual person, he would respond by saying “It’s because I attended a military school”. To his surprise, when paging through an old journal, every entry read: “Woke up late, woke up late and woke up late.” – hahaha.

When Akin mentioned that he attended military school, I immediately thought ‘Army and bomb squad tactics’, but he was referring to the disciplined nature of the boarding school he went to.

After returning from boarding school upon completing his grade 12, his mother dropped a bombshell: “Your father found a job in South Africa. We’re moving!” Leaving behind his friends and the familiarity of a place known as home, in 1992, Omotoso moved with his family to Cape Town where his father taught at UWC. He admits that he was apprehensive about moving to a country he had known for its racism, but “my father had foresight, he knew South Africa would settle down.”

Before Akin could get into UCT, he had to complete his A-Levels which would qualify him to enroll for a diploma at UCT. Initially, he had his eye set on a Law Degree, because his guidance teacher advised that since he loved arguing, he would make a great lawyer. “I get annoyed as anybody over the injustices of the world but I would have been a frustrated lawyer.”  Akin studied drama instead which according to him, required more work than he’d anticipated.

While in varsity, he recalls seeing his favourite actors waiting tables because jobs in the industry were scarce, so he devised a back-up plan: directing.

“Drama school did two things for me: it taught me about acting as a craft and it allowed me to start thinking about becoming a director”

He remembers watching Generations for the first time in 1994 and what that represented a new society trying to define itself. While Akin may have had an opportunity to acquire a diploma in the performing arts, he still believes in alternative education, “there are other ways of learning, what is important is that you understand the craft and the discipline necessary to move it forward. The how and the why; your approach to the discipline, text and character.”

He emphasizes respect for the craft and encourages a good work ethic. Those are the valuable lessons he has come to treasure as an actor. As a director, it is the constant journey of learning that he appreciates most. In varsity, he used his camera to practice film-making on his classmates, they were his guinea pigs, “God bless them,” he chuckles, “they must have thought I was nuts!”

Actor-Spaces-Akin-Omotoso-Cover

Reflecting back on those years, a myriad of images flock back, “The whole experience was great!”
Akin played Basketball for the varsity team but had to throw in the towel because the tournaments coincided with his rehearsals, and drama demanded more of his time. He made peace with his decision very quickly but that didn’t stop him dashing out of his graduation ceremony before it was even over, with his diploma in hand, to make it on time to the Good Hope Centre, to watch Magic Johnson play, while still in his graduation suit. “There was no time to change! “He exclaims.

One can easily deduce from his excitement when relaying this story, just how far his love for Basketball really goes. Trading in the sport for his diploma payed of in third year, when he won the Fleur du Cap for most promising student in Sunjata, a play directed by Mark Fleishman. This affirmed his decision to become an actor, fading out any doubt he had about pursuing a drama career. The award laid a strong foundation, teaching him to “remove the ego, the story is key.” After graduating, Akin dodged the plight of being a starving artist. He featured in: ‘The Battle of the Black and the Dogs; A Winter’s Tale and The Guise’, following which, he auditioned for the role of Mcdonald, in Double Shift: a television series which was shot in Cape Town. He repurposed his pay-cheque from the series to make his first 17 min film ‘The Kiss of Milk’.

When Omotoso relocated to Johannesburg in 1998, he possessed the attitude of a self-starter and salesman, knocking door to door in an attempt to get production companies to endorse his film. An opportunity arose when a production company had a 5 min slot to fill on ‘Flux’, an arts program that aired on SABC3. When asked if he could work with 5 min Akin said: “Yes!” He then created his shortest film ever ‘Nightwalkers’ “starring the 1998 version of my good friends Rapulana Seiphemo and Tony Kgoroge,” –We laughed and my mind traveled out of the room for a second in an attempt to imagine what they looked like then.

Bewildered by how anyone could make sense of a film with only 5min I asked how he did it.
“It has to be conceptual” he says. Akin loves mythology but hadn’t dabbled a lot with it in his career. The film itself is centered on mythical creatures; the Nightwalkers, who prey on criminals on the verge of committing crimes to ensure that they fail and get caught.  Nightwalkers was a break through ‘Yes’, a nod that came with a small workable budget.

Omotoso’s work as an actor ran concurrently with his work as an aspiring film-maker, he made the transition from one set to another sound so simple and doable with the just the right dose of discipline.

He moved to Johannesburg in 1998 for the role of Blade in Isidingo, and while he was shooting on the soapie, on the side, he was producing his third film ‘The Caretakers ’followed by ‘God is African’ which was shot over 21 days while he played Khaya Motene on Generations.

“That was a real labor of love, It was a steep learning curve and before I made my next feature film I wanted to study more about directing as a craft”

So he worked around the clock, playing director by night and Khaya by day.
Puzzled as to when he found the time to learn his lines and prepare for Khaya, Akin responds
assertively with: “That’s what I mean about discipline in the craft, there’s a discipline that comes with ‘line learning’ but in order to direct, you have to be directing.

Akin spent four years on the Generations set. He gave up his role as Khaya for his ambition: to learn more about directing. He speaks warmly about the time he spent on Generations and remains thankful for the unwavering support Mfundi Vundla showed him throughout the years.
“The time I spent on Generations was so special” The conversation about his departure was amicable,
Mfundi was understanding and sometimes gave him time off to direct on Soul City.

“Yes! You can be on a number one show, but what it means is that directing will always come second.
You have to make a choice.”
and Omotoso made his. What he loves about directing is how it allows him to bring people together, “it creates room for potential collaboration” and permits him to get involved in the creative process and the over-all production.

Moving forth from Generations, Akin started T.O.M Pictures with Robbie Thorpe and Kgomotso Matsunyane who both worked for Curious Pictures at that time; now known as Quizzical Pictures.
T.O.M Pictures has a sparkling industry record, having produced the Emmy nominated comedy series Sorted and the award winning drama series A Place Called Home; Soul Buddyz; Soul City and Nomzamo
–Just to mention a few.

Under T.O.M Pictures, Omotoso gained more directing experience, when the production company closed down in 2009, Rififi Pictures was born: consisting of Robie Thorpe, Akin and Rethabile Mothobi, with the aim of exploring Film-Making.

Akin is very practical in how he applies himself to his work and is resilient in how he has maneuvered the industry. He knows what he wants and no matter how long it takes, once His mind is set, he executes.
“I look at the industry as a marathon, not a sprint.” ‘Stamina’ is what he packs into his industry survival kit,  but what happens when the stamina runs out? I ask. He responds by paraphrasing a quote by Thabo Mbeki, “When the price itself is of doubtful value, and the incline is steep, you have to push on.”

You can trust him to take it back to basketball to break it down further.
“In Basketball we call it the 4th ¼ (last-round), when you’re exhausted, but victory is close. You have to push on.” And he’s pushed alright, over the years Akin has moved up from working out of his own pocket to getting his films funded. He lends his view on how the Film Industry has progressed since he started making films, saying in 1999, when he was shooting the promo for God Is African, “the NFVF did not exist! The fact that there are more films being produced in the country is directly linked to the South African institutions supporting these films. The South African Government rebate has been instrumental to many films.” He highlights The DTI; NFVF; Gauteng film commission and the KZN film commission.
Although funding opportunities may have improved for the Film-Maker, as to whether you can get access to the money, he interjects – is a different story.

When I went fishing for the answer to whether the South African film industry has a sustainable market for local films, In his response, Akin is perplexed by how People have missed out on good films in the past years because of the stigma attached to local films; that for some reason, doesn’t apply to International Films. “It’s ok to pay R80 to watch a bad international film but God forbid you won’t pay the same amount to watch a good local film. People need to be more open and less myopic and film makers need to keep on trying to push the envelope”

Akin is optimistic about the future of the film industry in South Africa, he says it may not be at Hollywood level, but it is growing and the market is opening up. He references ‘Love is a Four Letter Word’ and how it reached about 14million at the box office and Kalushi, 3million. “The battle hasn’t been won but the strides have been made” Film making may be an exhausting process but Akin, values the ‘the figuring it out process’. Every film he has made began as an exploration of an idea, then manifested year by year.
“You can’t skip steps, you must lay it out on the floor to unpack it to see what it looks like”

‘Tell Me Sweet Something’ was inspired by the movie ‘Love Jones’. In 2010 Akin wanted to explore a love story; he applied for a grant from the African woman’s development foundation in Ghana to work with four actors in four weeks to develop a love story. He received the grant which allowed him to workshop four actors. After the workshop process, everyone went their separate ways while Omotoso and Robbie Thorpe spent time writing. The following year, the cast came back together and he added five more characters.

“Thomas, Thishiwe and Refeliwe’s characters came out of that rehearsal process. Thembi; Kagiso; Nomzamo and Maps only joined the cast a later stage.”

The movie was finally shot in 2014. His most recent film: Vaya, which took eight years to complete, came from the Homeless Writers Project that Harriet Perlman and Robbie Thorpe were running; with the aim of creating opportunities for homeless people to share their stories through film.

With all the films Akin has produced he still says there are more films to be made;
there are stories that he still wants to tell. Like what? I wonder, and he turns the rhetoric to me, asking: “how many African Literature books have been turned into movies?”

Curious on how big his movie collection is, Omotoso says he has a healthy collection. When I ask him to define a good film, the story-teller shares a moment he encountered; when Ghana was eliminated from the world cup in 2010, he was at the stadium with a friend and he remembers watching a man in tears, sobbing over the loss. His friend said  “If only people could cry like that over our films”  To Akin, a good film is one that has the ability to move and change you.

Speaking to Omotoso gave me hope for the future of our film industry and has encouraged me to keep supporting local!

PORTRAITS |AKIN OMOTOSO

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