“Racism and sexism exist in the world of film” – Vaya Director Akin Omotoso (The VH Interview)

Akin Omotoso is making his mark in the film world with well received films like God is AfricanMan on Ground and the award winning romantic comedy Tell Me Sweet Something. His latest film, Vaya, has been selected alongside some of Hollywood’s greatest, for the Toronto International Film Festival. Based on real stories, Vaya weaves three separate plots that intersect in a gripping, edgy and deeply moving story about coming to the city and struggling to survive. It’s about strangers who never meet, but share a moment when all their lives explode and change forever.

We got the chance to speak with Akin Omotoso.

I hope that a random question is alright to begin with… It’s about the scene in Vaya where Nkulu slaughters the bull. Why is it important that he has not had sex in the last seven days? What on Earth could that have to do with his slaughtering of a bull?

The tradition of slaughtering a cow when someone dies is an offering to the ancestors. You are asking the ancestors to welcome the deceased and protect him/ her as they enter the afterlife. The cow’s meat is eaten at the funeral. In some cultures the skin of the cow is buried with the person to protect them as their spirit leaves the earth. There are different rituals and beliefs about how the cow must be slaughtered. Some of these pertain to the person who is chosen to kill the beast. That person must be pure, in every way, including sexually, as a sign of respect for the ancestors. Having sex ‘dirties’ the slaughterer and will anger the ancestors. The slaughterer must be physically strong in order to stab the cow once in the right place so it dies instantly. If the cow doesn’t, die instantly – this will bring bad luck. 

In terms of your progressing career, from the films you have acted in to your more recent work where you have written and directed; what is it like to be on the other side of the camera? And what was the transition like?

I went to Drama school at the University of Cape Town and while I was at school I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker. Directing film wasn’t part of the course but my parents bought me a camera and I directed my classmates in some projects. So from drama school I have always done both and I have been fortunate that for the last nineteen years I have been able to find that balance.

As an artist, when you have come against barriers—in any way—what have you done?

An old filmmaker told me filmmaking is a marathon and when you think of what a marathon runner has to do to prepare you get some idea of what is necessary for this industry. So the embrace of the patience, perseverance, and obstacles is something that comes with the industry and I accepted that early on.

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What is the first creative thing that you can remember doing?

I was six years old and had discovered my father’s typewriter and I bashed out a one page “novel” in a day. I don’t remember much but everyone died at the end of the page.

In Vaya you have woven together different lives inside one plot. What made you want to use this technique instead of following one of the stories in particular?

Because the guys on whom the film is based didn’t know each other at the time of the stories that are reflected in the film. The stories were not naturally connected, so we needed a technique to find a way to gather the stories together.

On a basic, day to day, creative, financing, and promotional level, do you think that racism still exists in popular film? Are things progressing? And where are we now?

Racism and sexism exist in the world of film, just like it does in society as a whole. The answer to your question depends on how one defines progress – there are brilliant black filmmakers out there making a name for themselves.  New technology has made it possible for more than just a few to make films. New platforms for distribution and for showcasing make it possible for such content to be seen. Of course there is a long way to go before the playing field has been leveled, but at least we are talking about it in a more constructive way, and at least structural imbalance does not stop determined people from doing what they love.

Your film is excellent at portraying the underworld antagonists as people who have accepted their roles as criminals. Do you think that it is a city like Johannesburg—or any city for that matter—that creates this type of mentality? How do you see it; is it personal choice? Why do people become monsters?

Criminality is not a ‘type of mentality’. It is a brutal consequence of poverty.  Poverty strips people of choices; choices that are both practical and moral.  This is especially true for migrants arriving new to a city like Johannesburg. When you have no money, no job, home or family to support you, it is very hard to be good.  Millions of people in South Africa have left rural communities and travelled to cities. They seek out family for support.  But for the poor and the jobless, the safety net of family is often illusive. The migrant labor system under apartheid has had catastrophic consequences for family and is a legacy that continues today.  Countless migrants find themselves trapped in places with limited opportunities for survival and abused by the very people whose protection they sought.  For the poor and the jobless the safety net of family is fast disappearing. When poverty leaves people with few options, how do we judge the moral choices people are forced to make?  

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If you could do anything in the film world, free of boundaries of any type, what film would you make?

There are so many stories to tell, so many based on books, I wouldn’t even know where to start.

What does it mean for you for Vaya to be selected at the 2016 International Toronto Film Festival?

It meant everything to be selected at TIFF. It’s one of the best festivals in the world. We had a great reception and from the moment I knew we were in the festival the smile never left my face. Still hasn’t.

The casting in Vaya found actors who embody the roles they are given well. What was the auditioning process like? Did you just ‘know’ who was perfect for each role instantly?

The casting was a lovely process. We worked with casting director Moonyneen Lee. The first thing we did was hold open auditions in Durban, and then held a series of auditions in Johannesburg. It was long but worth it in the end because everything came together right.

What does your vision of the future of film look like?

A world where multiple stories and multiple voices becomes the mainstream.

What is your message for anyone who wishes to act, write, or direct in the film industry?

Always remember it’s a marathon not a 100m dash and never give up.

What is the main project that you are currently working on?

In post-production on two projects – one is a tone poem called A Hotel Called Memory and the other is a documentary that looks at the history of South Africa but from the point of view of the wine industry called The Color of Wine.

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