Tolulope (Tolu) Itegboje has lived most of his life in Lagos, Nigeria’s mad moving metropolis, in large part responsible for his outlook on humanity, storytelling, as well as his love for big cities. A series of adventures took him from Waco, TX where he studied Marketing at Baylor University to New York City, where he experimented with a career in advertising at Cliff Freeman and Partners. He moved to London in 2010 to study filmmaking at the London Film School, and directed the short film the Amazing Grace Church of God, a film about a pastor’s crisis of faith which taps into Nigeria’s religious fervour and fascination with men of God.
After working as a producer on several commercials and brand films, he directed Awon Boyz, a documentary which humanizes Lagos’ street boys (popularly referred to in derogatory context as Area Boys or Agberos). Awon Boyz is currently streaming on Netflix. Tolu’s vision is to champion African stories and films globally, he is currently working on his feature debut.
BY ELELWANI NETSHIFHIRE
This interview took place between an early summer morning in Johannesburg, South Africa and Lagos, Nigeria.
When our curator wrote to me about watching Awon Boyz on Netflix to later have a sit down with the director, I had no idea what I was saying yes to—and that is the thrill of it all. I will always make time to watch and talk about films that are worthy, so here we are today bringing yet another conversation with a filmmaker whose approach grasped my attention at first watch.
Elelwani: Tolulope, before we dive deep into your latest offering, Awon Boyz, currently showing on Netflix, I would like us to talk about your background as a film practitioner. I stumbled upon your earlier biography, so I understand you are a storyteller who is also equipped by London Film School?
Tolulope: Indeed, I completed my MA in Film there, it was two very interesting years, filled with the London eclectic experience. It was my first time there and I found it extremely different to where I am from in Nigeria or the small town where I studied my undergrad in the United States. The only downside about London and my overall experience is/ was the weather. It can be awfully cold, when I attended my brother’s Master’s graduation in New York, I knew I was done being a Londoner. So much that even though I could have made my graduation film in the UK, I decided to return home and make my film there.
Elelwani: Let’s digress a bit, your brother also studied in the US, I am seeing an interesting pattern here. Do you feel that studying abroad opens more opportunities for you when you return home? What other value do you reckon an international degree adds for you?
Tolulope: I think it is the sense of possibility because for me, one of the things and I noticed, especially after my undergraduate, was that it just made me believe that I could do anything I wanted to and it comes down to really simple things:
I did my secondary school in Nigeria and learning was difficult, you were often punished for having difficulty in learning. It was not necessarily the kind of place where if you did not understand something, you could approach your teacher; you were simply behind because you do not pay attention in class, the possibility of you needing further assistance was easily ruled out.
When I went to the U.S, for example, it was a lot easier, the professors were more welcoming. We did things in group settings, and when you go through some of these projects, just the mere fact that it is almost like somebody is giving you this responsibility to create this thing, it helps you wrap your mind around all the other ways in which you can organise and create stuff. That was the first thing that I got out of that experience.
“Everybody talks about the negative side but I was more interested in the other side, aspects of their humanity. What are their hopes? What are their fears? What are their aspirations? I do not think anybody necessarily wakes up and decides they want to be an area boy, so a set of circumstances must have led them there.“
Elelwani: I like what you have highlighted there, and I think maybe that’s what most people experience—a world full of possibilities.
Now speaking of Awon Boyz, I enjoyed the film. I felt like success was a metaphor in a way, which really worked for me. The opening introduced the documentary successfully, setting the tone of what this film is about. Knowing what you will be exploring from the word go kept me captivated. What inspired the birth of Awon Boyz?
Tolulope: Awon Boyz is about ‘area boys’, a very fascinating topic in Nigeria. It is one of those things where typically in Nigeria, when you hear people talk about them, you almost get a sense that you know what they are talking about. The topic of area boys is very ubiquitous in Nigeria, you go everywhere, and you find them around, and everybody has an area boy story and it tends to be negative. It is always, oh yes, they are thugs, they extorted me, harassed me, all of that stuff.
In the course of my work, after studying in London, I came back to Lagos and started freelancing as a filmmaker for a bit, then I got to a full time role as agency producer for an advertising company. Through that, I had this one music video shoot, a long time ago, we needed to film it in a particular area, although we did not anticipate to have any issues, we decided to pay for security to be on the safe side. While shooting, area boys just showed up and shut down our shoot for hours. Even the security, with their force and guns, could not do anything. They eventually told us that we had to pay the area boys off, which showed just how much power they had. That is when an initial idea was born: I thought of just shooting something in a music video approach; area boys just being cool, in shades doing their stuff, you know. However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there must be a story here. Everybody talks about the negative side but I was more interested in the other side, aspects of their humanity. What are their hopes? What are their fears? What are their aspirations? I do not think anybody necessarily wakes up and decides they want to be an area boy, so a set of circumstances must have led them there. So I decided to go for it, do some research to understand the context and the history of area boys in our society.
Elelwani: So your findings compelled you to do a full on documentary? Digging deep into their story is the best choice you made for this piece, well my opinion of course.
Tolulope: Yes. Lagos is the land of dreams, a beacon of economic prosperity. Like every big city, sometimes in very cruel ways, it also tends to frustrate those dreams. We are all coming here with the desire to be successful on some level; we want to get a job or maybe we want to get money. We want to be financially successful, and then take that success and raise families, live our best lives, etc. So within that context of Lagos, why everybody comes here, it is now very easy to explore the story about these guys who are doing, sometimes, what is the only thing they know, to survive within this context.
Elelwani: Again, we all have our own story and our stories matter, I believe in that and when I was watching Awon Boyz, I could not help but think that indeed someone had to do this because they are now visible, in a different light.
I think there’s a line in the documentary where one of the area boys aspires to be just like one of his friends who was once an area boy but has now migrated to Canada, no longer an area boy. Do you feel like, essentially, what area boys want to do is to leave that space and be better or it is to be better within the place they are in?
Tolulope: I think it is definitely a mixture of both. We asked area boys if they would leave if they were given the chance. There was one guy who said that if he could do it all over again, from birth, he would have liked to be born in America, to parents who took better interest in him. But I find that there is also a sense in which some people are comfortable with that existence. So it begs the question for me, that is one of the really important things that this documentary is about, not everybody will get the chance to leave.
You do not get to choose where you are born, so, that could very easily have been me or you. So the question then is, for all the people who are destined for that reality, what is the way forward for them? And I feel like the pain is very, unfair, to then sort of treat those people as deviants, or people that are ‘other’ than us and just leave them on the fringes. There has to be a way in which we can give them that sense of belonging in this shared existence that we have called Lagos, we have to give them that sense of belonging in the affairs that govern all of us. For example the government policies, etc, those things also affect them, their families. I feel like a lot of the disconnects that they often have, that have manifested in various ways, come down to a feeling of not belonging or not having any shared sense of participation in what is going on.
Elelwani: I like how you pointed out the idea of belonging. And also what you mentioned is that we do not choose where we are born. Basically, it could have been me and you.
As the person who made this documentary, do you think that parents who may want a better future for their child may fail because they cannot control what the child will get exposed to early in life? What are the odds of those born to and raised by area boys to thrive in that space? Can it happen?
Tolulope: I think it is possible. In a sense, it comes down to what priorities you place on some of these things. So for example, a lot of those guys recognise the value of education, some of them actually went to school. It was also surprising to find that a lot of them were well-spoken, the differences maybe that others did not finish school, some finished, and then a bunch of other circumstances led to them being on the streets. But I find that they all value education for their children, that they see it as a means for them to get out of this situation. It was also interesting to see within those same communities in which they live, that there are people who also live in those same communities, those same slums who have full time jobs, or doing things that can eventually get them out of those places.
There is a case to be made for growing up in that situation. As long as people have aspirations, the most important thing is exposure to other things, because being born and raised in the slums makes it hard to dream of a life outside of that space. But if you are born in the slums and you see the other side, you can be motivated to attain the life you desire.
Elelwani: But does exposure to ‘different’ suffice at the end of the day? Sometimes life is all about luck. You might have spoken about this in the beginning, what is the message you want the audience to take away from Awon Boyz?
Tolulope: It comes back to recognising that these people are very similar to you and that they are not the ‘other’. It is important, because in the context of this society and events altogether, we need a sense in which we need to coexist peacefully. And the only way that is going to happen is if, to be honest, I am understanding of the next person. Something happened last year, which at this point, I think everybody is familiar with, that is the #ENDSARS protests that happened against police brutality. The movement came to a head when there was the incident involving the Nigerian Army, firing at the protesters, and in the aftermath of all of that there was a lot of violence.
The government’s position on the incident was that it was caused by criminals who hijacked the protests and caused all the violence. Typically, what has always happened with the area boys is that during government elections or at very key moments, politicians sometimes also mobilise area boys to cause trouble. On this end, for a lot of people it was a situation where the government could easily have done what was right. I think for me, what is interesting is that, if we look at the interaction that the rest of us have had, as a society, with area boys, if the government was not involved, it will still be very easy for them to rise up again.
Elelwani: Area boys exist in slums because they are not seen by the government and the rest of society. What role can we all play in this?
Tolulope: I think everybody has a role to play. I definitely have a role to play. I think, for me, that is one of the reasons why the documentary became super, super important, because it raises the conversation. Everybody then asks themselves, what role can I play, you know, it can be a case of finding a skills acquisition programme, that some of these guys can enrol in, that also now gives them that sense of possibility. And I think that sense of possibility really is the most important thing, to be able to see, dream and imagine that the life that you want for yourself and your family is possible, even if you are not able to do normal things. There is a role that we all have to play. But first, see area boys, really see them and relate to them from a humane point of view.
Elelwani: I feel so too, that it is about seeing each other, them…the film also makes you feel that you could do something to help yet you also don’t know how but I’m sure as you’re mentioning now, starting the conversation of how can I contribute to make them pave their lives for the better, through engaging in whatever workshop/ skills training that those people can get up to, so that they also get somewhere, to a place they once imagined themselves. One of the guys in the documentary mentioned that he came to Lagos to be an artist, as talented as he is, it’s just not happening for him. He has ended up as an area boy as he needs money and it is so hard to get the amount of money that will alleviate his current status and elevate his work. It ties back to what the other guy mentioned, that the government was not doing anything to change the status of area boys. It feels like another case of governments all over Africa, really, there are so many similarities. For you to put that perspective in the documentary, obviously, as the director, it is not necessarily your opinion, but it feels that it is also something that you are confronting. So would you say that is your stand too? What do you think the role of the government can be at this point? What tangible support can area boys get from the government, if any?
Tolulope: The government’s role comes down to creating an enabling environment for everybody, not just some people, for everybody to co-exist and to be able to achieve their hopes and their dreams. A lot of it will come down to policies, to infrastructures, a whole lot of things. If you ask the guys, the general impression that you will get is that the government currently exists only to serve a subsection of the population, and that population does not include them. So I feel like the biggest thing that the government can do is to make decisions that change that impression.
Something happened last year. The community that we have, which is called Monkey Village in the documentary, does not exist that way anymore. At some point last year, I cannot remember if it was before the pandemic or during the pandemic, that community was bulldozed because they were living on somebody’s land and that the person needed to use it and wanted everybody gone. The truth is, you cannot do something like that without the backing of the government agencies that are in charge of such a sector. It happened anyway, in the middle of a very difficult year for everybody, particularly for those guys. So it is now a question of survival, where do they go? The biggest thing that the government can do is engage with these guys in a way that they understand the problems and the needs of these particular people as to being in a position that they always seem like they do not care, or that they are not sensitive.
Elelwani: What happened last year seems to be happening across Africa, I know in South Africa, there are cases where people were being forced out of their homes during a pandemic all in the name of gentrification, it is inhumane. People have no jobs, they are barely making ends meet yet you target them.
Tolulope: I find it interesting that it is not even just an African problem. In my travels I noticed that even really developed societies have the same problems, although they may manifest in a different way.
Elelwani: True that. In closing, what is the role of women in area boys’ lives? It felt like there is an erasure there, yet you see them seemingly portrayed as backdrops.
Tolulope: That is definitely something that has come up in some of the feedback about the film and was definitely a missed opportunity. I do not think these guys play active roles in the lives of women close to them. I believe this to be a function of either their way of life or to be honest their choice to just not be, not to talk of the fact that they essentially operate in a hypermasculine environment in a society that is deeply rooted and conditioned in patriarchy. Some either have strained relationships because the closest woman in their lives says a mother or sister did not necessarily approve of their way of life. Others are linked to the women in their lives by their children. I know it was part of the original questioning, but I do not think the answers they gave were particularly helpful and I remember we struggled to incorporate it with a lot of the other stuff. I think with the exception of Yobo, whose wife and daughter are portrayed in the film, it was hard to nail down the value these men place on women. They tend to talk more about their brotherhood and their children. And in hindsight, that is something we should have been more intentional about probing.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
‘Awon Boyz’ Credits:
Production Company: Zero Degrees Media Limited.
Executive Producer: Steve Babaeko.
Location Manager/Casting Coordinator: Kehinde Imoleayomini.
Script Editor: Omotayo Adeola.
Music Composer: IBK Spaceshipboi.
Editor: Chuka Ejorh.
Stills Photographer: Oluwamuyiwa “Logor” Adeyemi.