Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Biyi Bandele: Making movies to tell Africa's real stories

March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Biyi Bandele is a celebrated Nigerian playwright-turned-filmmaker
  • Recently directed Oscar nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor in "Half of a Yellow Sun"
  • He sits down with CNN to discuss his remarkable journey from Nigeria to the UK

Editor's note: African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

London, England (CNN) -- A young boy sits in his bedroom staring up at the poster of Bruce Lee hanging on the wall. Like most kids in Kafanchan, a small town in the heart of Nigeria, he is a big fan of the martial arts supremo, frequenting the local cinema which almost exclusively shows Hong Kong karate movies or Bollywood films.

Other times the young boy immerses himself in a world of literature reading work from acclaimed writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Charles Dickens. And while outwardly he may still appear to be a child, the die has been cast.

"I knew I wanted to be a writer from when I was six," Biyi Bandele tells CNN. "My dad took me to the local library, I was five or six and I just fell in love with the books."

Some three decades later and Bandele has become a celebrated novelist and playwright who most recently moved behind the camera to try his hand at directing.

Bandele inspired by Brixton upbringing
Nigerian soap-opera tackles HIV

A task he seems well suited for after receiving critical acclaim for his directorial feature film debut, "Half of a Yellow Sun," based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's much-loved novel of the same name and starring Hollywood stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton.

"What really particularly attracted me to 'Half of a Yellow Sun' was that ... there were these characters -- middle, upper-middle-class characters, educated characters, Nigerian characters -- who I suppose had been seen in quite a few novels set in Africa, written by Africans, but they had never been seen in any movie set in Africa," says Bandele. "I felt it was a great opportunity to bring these people to the big screen," he adds.

"I was really fed up of going to the cinema and watching a movie about Africa and all you saw were them as victims without any say over their own destiny," explains Bandele. "They just seemed to live this passive existence but that was redeemed only by gifts from NGOs.

"I felt like I could do a better job than [others] had and so I decided that I had to take the plunge and direct."

From writer to director

Talented and ambitious, Bandele left Nigeria at 22 after studying drama at Obafemi Awolowo University with two novels he'd written in his luggage.

"I then started directing theater because I think subconsciously, I was preparing to get into film ... I kept thinking I can do this, I can do this better.
Biyi Bandele on becoming a director

"I actually came [to London] because I'd been invited to a theater festival ... within weeks, I had a publisher, not just in the UK but in Italy and in France and in Germany," he recalls. "Then I got offered a job to be the literary editor of a weekly Nigerian newspaper in London so I had actually come with absolutely no intention of staying."

Shortly after his arrival to the UK, his work was published and he received his first commission from the Royal Court Theatre where he was catapulted into arts.

Just three years later -- his career flourishing in playhouses up and down the country -- Bandele wrote a screenplay which was picked up by the BBC, who attached a young up and coming director to it. His name was Danny Boyle.

"Working with Danny was a game changer," recalls Bandele. "I wasn't that interested at the time in actually directing anything but I watched Danny ... it was a joy working with him," he adds.

"I then started directing theater because I think, subconsciously, I was preparing to get into film ... I kept thinking I can do this, I can do this better."

Behind the camera

It was Bandele's empathy for storytelling -- a trait he has held all his life -- that spurred him to take "Half of a Yellow Sun" and begin a six-year production process from adaptation to the big screen.

Upon completion of his debut film, Bandele was approached by MTV's Staying Alive Foundation to direct "Shuga," a popular TV series aimed at educating viewers on HIV/AIDS.

Set in Lagos, the eight-part series follows a group of young people trying to live normal lives as HIV/AIDS becomes more prevalent in their world. Bandele says this was a project he simply couldn't say no to.

"There's a culture of complete denial and I felt it was important for us to do the series to get people talking.
Biyi Bandele on HIV/AIDS in Nigeria

"Nigeria has, depending on which authorities you listen to, between 3.4 million and 4.3 million people suffering from HIV/AIDS," says the director. "But when you go to Nigeria and talk to anyone about this epidemic, people will tell you, 'We don't have a problem' -- there's a culture of complete denial and I felt it was important for us to do the series to get people talking," he adds.

"We also knew from the TV-watching habits of Nigerians, the likelihood was that this 15-year-old kid was watching it and so was their parent and probably their grandparents ... you'd have several generations actually having this conversation and that's exactly what happened."

For Bandele, this is what it all comes down to -- telling stories that matter whether it is on stage or screen.

"I like telling stories but if telling stories actually has a positive effect on how people live their lives, the better."

READ THIS: How Mariah Carey transformed this woman's life

READ THIS: 'Come back to Africa!' says tech innovator

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
October 7, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Starting a business is never easy, but in Tanzania, the obstacles for women can be particularly fierce.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
Through a variety of exhibitions including one signed off by the artist himself, Nigeria is presenting J.D. Okhai Ojeikere to the world one last time.
September 8, 2014 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
Neurosurgeon Kachinga Sichizya talks about caring for newborns and mothers from underprivileged backgrounds.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1508 GMT (2308 HKT)
Mulatu Astake may be the father of a musical genre: Ethio-jazz. But when he talks about the art form, he tends to focus on its scientific merits.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 0953 GMT (1753 HKT)
Daniel
Kenyan funny man Daniel "Churchill" Ndambuki chooses five emerging comics from the continent to keep an eye on -- they are going to be big!
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
African contemporary art is thriving, says author Chibundu Onuzo.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT)
Photographer Ernest Cole made it his life mission to capture the injustice of apartheid in South Africa.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1239 GMT (2039 HKT)
Mulenga Kapwepwe
Mulenga Kapwepwe has single-handedly created an explosion of arts in Zambia.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
In the largely male-dominated world of the motorsport, South African superbike racer Janine Davies is an anomaly.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT)
Nelson Mandela
Adrian Steirn and the 21 ICONS team have captured intimate portraits of some of South Africa's most celebrated. Here he reveals the story behind the photographs.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 0926 GMT (1726 HKT)
Explore a series of artistic street portraits designed to pay tribute to the people of the Sudanese capital.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1557 GMT (2357 HKT)
A growing list of popular African authors have been steadily picking up steam --and fans -- across the globe over the last several years.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1835 GMT (0235 HKT)
South Africa Music Legends stamps
Artist Hendrik Gericke puts a spotlight on iconic musical legends from South Africa in these incredible monochrome illustrations.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT