Korede Azeez is a writer-director whose filmmaking journey started in 2018 when she joined BBC Media Action as an assistant technical producer. There, she worked as a sound recordist, camera operator, and video editor.
In 2018, she co-produced and directed her first short film, Tip of the Edge. Since then, Korede has made two other short films and a feature film, ‘It Blooms in June’.
Selected as one of six finalists of the Netflix-UNESCO “African Folktales, Reimagined” Short Film Competition, Korede believes Africa has a wealth of stories to tell and looks forward to sharing those stories with the world.
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place between Sokoto, Nigeria and Abuja, Nigeria, via email.
Uchenna: I’m so excited to be having this conversation with you. Just as I said in my short review of your film, I found Halima’s Choice a breath of fresh air and a new perspective with which we look at mythological and futuristic themes in Nollywood. There is so much I would want us to talk about, but before then I would like to know what it feels like to have your film stream on a global platform like Netflix.
Last year, you told Oris Aigbokhaevbolo from Guardian that getting the Netflix-UNESCO “African Folktales, Reimagined” Competition finalist mail left you frozen for 10 minutes. In your words: “I think I sat on the floor. I was at home. I must have sat there frozen for 10 minutes.” What did now seeing the fruition of that deal feel like?
Korede: In one word? Surreal. There’s really no other way to describe it.
Uchenna: Could you walk me through what the filming process was like? From when you were announced the winner to over a year later having it stream on Netflix, how much work went into the film?
Korede: A lot of work went into the film. While I was working on it, I couldn’t work on anything else. I started working on the script immediately I learned I was one of the finalists. I worked tirelessly with my mentor Jenna Bass, whose guidance was indispensable and helped me shape the story.
It was a tough process and probably the hardest thing I’d ever written, but it was worth it because I learned a lot. Even during pre-production, I was always tweaking the script, trying to make it better.
During pre-production, I worked with my crew virtually, communicating through visual decks to ensure we were all on the same page and to make sure I was getting my vision across.
Filming was fun, but there was also a lot of pressure, especially given the budget. I knew I couldn’t afford to mess up, not only because there was a lot of money on the line, but I couldn’t forget that I was the only one selected from the whole of West Africa.
I was lucky to have great collaborators in my crew and actors. They made it a lot easier to get the job done.
“A good story is a good story, whatever language it is in.“
Uchenna: Speaking of a good cast, I think you made a great choice. At the writing stage, did you already have actors in your head you thought would deliver the roles according to your vision, or was there an audition?
Korede: We had auditions and I’m glad that the casting worked out eventually because it was a tough process. Before we found our final cast, we spent weeks looking at actors in Abuja and throughout the North. I eventually found our cast through recommendations from filmmaker friends, followed by another online audition process.
Uchenna: Let’s talk about the title of your film. In earlier press mentions, it is called Adieu, Salut. Now, it is Halima’s Choice. Why the change?
Korede: Zabin Halima or Halima‘s Choice in English felt better than a French title and worked much better given how the story had shaped up.
Uchenna: Indeed, it does! Halima’s Choice is completely acted in Hausa, and I’m sure many would agree with me that that was one of the film’s selling points. My question is, what importance do you attach to language in your storytelling?
Korede: Language is very important because, for me, it must reflect the reality of the people whose story I’m trying to tell. It wouldn’t have made sense in English because that is just not how these people communicate. Picking the right language is a matter of authenticity and honesty.
Uchenna: I agree with you when you say that language is a matter of authenticity. Native stories as in Zabin Halima require a native language to properly convey those peculiar problems, but were you worried at any point that you’d be limiting your audience to only a particular region, and was then tempted to switch back to English?
Korede: A good story is a good story, whatever language it is in. A lot of people watched Indian movies even without subtitles back in the day and they enjoyed them. So, no, I was never worried that I would be limiting my audience simply because I choose a particular language.
Uchenna: You said in your Guardian interview that Halima’s Choice is a reimagination of the popular folktale about a girl who refused to marry the man her parents wanted for her, and ended up with a spirit who had taken other people’s body parts. As it is with most folktales and other aspects of folklore really, it can be difficult to tell the origin of a particular tale as you’d hear different versions according to where one is from, so what informed your decision to make it a Hausa story?
Korede: The original folktale is from Southern Nigeria, but arranged marriages are an issue in the north now. That was why I decided to set it in the north.
Uchenna: Your film resonated closely with me mostly because it echoes my thoughts on how Nollywood should explore African speculative ideas. There is a reservoir of untold stories; fantastic, weird, dark, magical ideas that can make for great films but somehow Nollywood hasn’t done much in that regard, and when such themes are explored, they are often done from a negative side (like how jazz is treated as evil) rather than dwell in their wonder. These are our stories. There are no better tellers than ourselves.
I recently interviewed Kanyinsola Olorunnisola, a Nigerian writer who is equally fascinated by how much we can broaden African storytelling if we engage these sorts of ideas especially when their “Africanness” is maintained, and for me Halima’s Choice is a testament to that. An unusual story about a Hausa girl taken by her excitement over an AI world and a cyborg. A Hausa story nonetheless, no matter its futurism and fantastical elements.
First, do you think it is important to tell speculative (fantasy, Sci-Fi, horror, etc.) stories using film? Is this something you are deliberate about? And second, why do you think Nollywood has not done much in that regard?
Korede: I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi and fantasy. They allow you to think far beyond what’s possible in everyday life. And I know I am not alone because I have been following the speculative fiction magazine, Omenana, for several years and Africa keeps sharing stories like these.
As much as I can, yes, I am very interested in telling more stories like these. I think these genres present us an avenue to think out of the box about solutions to our problems as a people. They can allow us to interrogate our deepest questions about ourselves without situating them in painful everyday realities.
In Nollywood, there have been attempts to tell genre stories and some have been really good. Perhaps we don’t have more because of budgetary constraints and a lack of skill sets required to execute these concepts on a similar level as the bigger industries like Hollywood. It could also be because filmmakers are not sure how receptive the markets will be to such ideas.
Uchenna: Interesting way to look at it. I think I have an idea of just how much goes into making such genre films. Last year, I listened to a group of indie filmmakers in Kaduna called The Critics, it was at the Kaduna Book & Arts Festival and their short SciFi-fantasy film, Ogun Ola about a super boy who is the half-son of the Yoruba god, Ogun, premiered at the festival. During the chat that followed, I was shocked at the ridiculous amount that went into making it as good as it was. And they had mentioned that even at that, the film was still very budgeted. What do you think the industry can do to be able to accommodate more genre films that are told well? Because there is an audience for it. I am one at least. (Laughs).
Korede: More money would be nice. But even with the resources we have, I believe there are ways we can make these genres work for us. It starts with the moneybags and the producers. It is only if they are really interested in these genres that they can get bigger. And, of course, I cannot undermine the need for the right skill sets to deliver on such projects.
Uchenna: I love how you reimagined this tale you retold. The usual story goes that the girl begins to regret her choice when she finds out it was a spirit she married. In your version, there is no regret, instead, there is even a heightened interest cuing Halima’s resolve at the end of the film. Could you talk about why you chose to tell it this way?
Korede: The original folktale was obviously a story parents told their kids to try and make them marry whoever it was they wanted them to marry. I disagreed with that. Yes, as Africans, we are big on children obeying their parents, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of the child’s sanity. This is not just about marriage. It is also about other things like career choices that parents often try to force down their children’s throats.
My re-imagination of the folktale started with a question, “do parents like these ever think about the consequences of forcing their children down a path they do not want?”
Uchenna: Beautiful. Especially because while the idea was to reimagine a folktale, you chose to do so by addressing a social issue. So, I guess I should ask here if you think art should always have a moralist thrust; a higher calling to speak to a people’s problem or as Achebe puts it be ‘in the service of man’. Or do you think art should be just art for art’s sake? Which of these maxims guides your storytelling?
Korede: I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with art for art’s sake. People want to be entertained, simple and short. However, it would be difficult for me to simply tell a story for the sake of telling that story. I have a lot I would like to say about life and the world and I think those thoughts will always seep into my storytelling. The stories I tell are in some way an extension of myself. I just can’t help that.
Uchenna: Let’s talk about Umar and Napata.
Gidanpula was once home for Halima until her father decided that she was going to marry a man she barely knows who is old enough to be her father, so she turns to this virtual world, Napata for the solace Gidanpula used to give. Do you think if Umar had not come into the scene, Halima would have discovered Napata anyway? It seemed like she was already taken by the world even before Umar led her to it. And was there a reason you chose to show Halima and Umar’s blooming love with restraint?
Korede: Halima was very curious, so yes, it is possible that she eventually would have discovered Napata somehow.
In a conservative community like that, the relationship between an unmarried male and an unmarried female is often just that – restrained.
Their relationship is a bit of a friendship and a bit of a teacher-student one. Yes, feelings might be brewing, but when Halima finds out that Umar is AI, she knows there can really be nothing between them. Curious and adventurous as she is, she still maintains the values of her community, in being cautious about the virtual world and everything associated with it.
Uchenna: Film is such a beautiful genre. It meets people at different ends. That’s why I see a film and it connects with me in one way, and another person sees the same film and it connects with them in an entirely different way. So, I’m curious to know what effect you want this film to have on the audience. What is it you want the audience to think as the credits roll?
Korede: I want people to think about how sometimes it’s not about the choice you make, but about the fact that you’re able to make that choice.
Uchenna: That is something to truly think about. Choice seemed to be a recurring idea that cuts across the major characters. They were all posed with choices to make if you really think about it. The obvious one being Halima but Umar too had a choice, to stay in hiding in Gidanpula forgetting his mission or revealing himself; there was Baba and Mama too who could’ve chosen to accept that Halima wasn’t interested in the man they had picked for her and face ridicule from the society or insist at the risk of their daughter’s happiness. But unlike the other characters, Halima’s choice was never on the table. She had to dig under and bring it to the table. Could you say more about writing ‘choice’ into the film and the differing approaches with which your characters made theirs? Do you think Halima eventually made her choice?
Korede: I wouldn’t necessarily say I was writing choice into the film. Rather, I was writing about choice.
Halima is the protagonist because the point of the story is to say that sometimes, it’s not about the choices that you make, but being able to make that choice. That is, having the freedom to make that choice. That is all some women desire because of how boxed in they feel. And when you’re pushed up against the wall like that, you lose some of your fear and may do the unexpected, something you didn’t even think was on the table before. Halima wanted to leave the village with Umar because she didn’t think she could face the dangerous, unpredictable world on her own. In the end, she did the one thing she was afraid of.
The other characters had choices to make because I was trying to say that we need to be fully aware of the consequences of our choices as we make them. I think life is just that, a series of choices we have to make. Every day, you decide whether you’re going to have a sugary drink or a glass of water. Over time, the results of your choices pile up and may determine how healthy or unhealthy you’re going to be.
Uchenna: Time really does tell us the results of our choices. Thanks for this exegesis.
What more should we expect from you? Anything in the works? A feature film maybe? I’m excited to see what’s next for you and I’m sure I’m not alone in this excitement. So, tease us, please.
Korede: I am working on a feature film at the moment, but it’s not sci-fi (smiles).
Uchenna: A feature film, yay! Best wishes on that. I can’t wait. Can you give us an exclusive? (Laughs). What is it about?
Korede: Lips sealed on this one for now. (Laughs).
Uchenna: Here I was already readying my pen to break the news, but this is still a good settlement. To conclude, I know this is cliché but it’s still very valid. If you were in a room filled with budding filmmakers, what is that one thing you’d say to them to help shape their careers?
Korede: Decide what you want to say and say it the best way you can.
This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, and a bookseller. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’Clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. In 2022, he was selected to attend the maiden Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in UAE and was shortlisted for the Ashoka Africa Changemaker Prize. He curates conversations for Africa in Dialogue, Isele Magazine and Book O’Clock Review.