John Ogunmuyiwa’s fledgling career as a filmmaker and photographer has gone from strength to strength.
His 2018 award-winning directorial debut Wilson was just the tip of the iceberg. The last year alone has seen Ogunmuyiwa’s photographs of Afro-grime artists Pa Salieu plastered all over London and his latest short film, Mandem feature at this year’s London Film Festival. Mandem is the fascinating story of a day in the life of two drug dealers and challenges assumptions of what it means to be from this world.
We spoke to Ogunmuyiwa to find a bit more about the film’s core themes and his creative process.
Please introduce yourself?
I’m John Ogunmuyiwa, I write stories, create films, and take pictures. I’d also say that I’m an observationalist. I like observing the mundane elements of life and blowing them up to the fullest.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now?
Riding a wave. I feel like I’ve been on a wave for a while and I’m just trying to ride it out and see where it takes me. More energy. That’s what I’m on right now.
The perception of filmmaking tends to be that it is an expensive craft to get into. How did you get started?
“You have one job”, that’s a perfect way, to sum up, my entry into filmmaking. I always liked taking pictures and once my parents picked up on it, I pretty much became the family photographer. I managed to convince them to buy a DSLR when I was around 13, by telling them that it could be used for family gatherings. It wasn’t until college that I was able to save up for my own camera. I ordered it off of eBay from Japan because it was cheaper, even though the settings weren’t in English. It served me really well for a while.
Most of it was just me hanging out with my friend and experimenting with different things. I’d watch Kung Fu films and music videos and try to recreate them in my own way. We found resourceful ways of getting a hold of software that was a bit out of our price range. It went from Photoshop to After Effects and then we just kept learning more. In the last few years, I’ve worked on projects and been around big cameras that I’ve had to learn how to operate. It’s an ongoing process.
There is a lot of fetishism of ‘hood culture’ in film, Mandem was a refreshing change. Do you think that it is essential to be from the culture when writing these types of stories?
It’s really important to have an understanding of the culture that you’re depicting because it helps you to create characters with nuance. The last thing that you want to do is write surface level storylines that perpetuate stereotypes. As Black people, we’re not given the allowance to be multi-faceted. It’s always the case of running with the misinformed perception they have of us.
I went to a predominantly Black college and you’d see groups of boys messing around and people say things like “I bet they’re planning to hurt someone”. If they got closer they would realise that the story is really different and the boys were probably talking about buying a Capri-Sun. It’s the same with film. “I’m going to make a film about those Black boys from across the street, I don’t know them and I haven’t spoken to them, but I’ve got an idea”. That’s not enough. Just like I couldn’t tell you about Sandra from Cornwall and her life without actually talking to her.
That speaks to the wider point of diversity. You need to have different authors in the room so that you can get different perspectives. It’s so far from your world and Wikipedia isn’t going to cut it. Like Top Boy was written by an Irish guy, and it’s really cool, I’m sure he did all of the research, but the Black experience isn’t always about trauma and the stakes aren’t always that high. I really like shows like Atlanta because they show the everyday-ness of our lives. It’s important to make sure that there’s representation throughout the process too. Stevie Basaula and Bradley Banton who played the lead roles in Mandem were essential in making sure that the story felt authentic. I’d write the dialogue for them to read and we’d sit down and bounce ideas off of each other because they were from the same world.
There are a lot of inside jokes and references in the film that the typical London Film Festival audience might not understand. Were you conscious of this when making the film?
I put subtitles in because of the use of slang, but the film is not made for everyone – “if you get it, you get it”. If you want to understand something you’ll make the effort. I watch foreign-language films and anime and I don’t speak the languages, but I invest in the story. I really enjoy throwing myself into different worlds and I think that our world is just as special. London’s got its own unique vibe, especially South London, which is where I’m from.
It’s alright not to understand everything. My DP [director of photography] is from Catalonia and he didn’t understand all of the slang, but he got the essence. It’s about the feeling. It’s about trying to capture the authenticity and for it to sound real, the jokes need to be real, the speech needs to be real and that might mean that not everyone will understand every single detail, but it’s about seeing the bigger picture. I’m not trying to go massive, I’m trying to go niche. But you should still like it, I hope.
In a previous interview, you spoke about needing to get people to trust you when securing backing for your projects. You’re two films in now, how have you been able to navigate these obstacles?
With Mandem I lucked out a bit because of the NFTS diverse Director’s scheme. Their support meant that accessing funding, crew, and quality equipment wasn’t an issue. I don’t have a big catalogue of work and people ask a lot of questions to see if they can trust you. I always make sure that I’ve got an answer ready. I navigate these obstacles by being confident in my ideas and projecting that feeling onto the people I’m talking to. When people hear that you have a plan they’re a lot more confident especially when there’s money involved. I also try to be as self-contained as possible so that I’m not reliant on other people to greenlight my ideas. I work in advertising so I’ve got a lot of friends who do different things. If I need music for a project I’ll normally reach out to one of the artists I know. Constantly adding to my toolbox helps too! If there’s something I don’t know, I’ll read a book or watch YouTube videos. Nerdwriter, Royal Ocean Society, there’s so much out there!
What do you feel like your role as a creative is during difficult times like these?
A lot of things have gone on this year and sometimes the attention they receive can feel like a fad. It’s cool to care about something when it’s the topic of the month. Everyone was talking about Black Lives Matter and then it just went back to normal. I didn’t manage to get out to the protests, but I’d like to think that I can contribute through the work that I do. I try to embody it, it’s a belief system. I was recently shooting a film and the crew wasn’t as diverse as I would want it to be. I always look around the rooms I’m in and think what’s missing in terms of diversity and try to use my role to rectify it. With my previous short-film, Wilson, Michael Akinsulire was the lead and with Mandem it’s Stevie Basaula and Bradley Banton. I’ve got family living in Nigeria and they’re living on the ground where the #EndSARS movement is happening. The family WhatsApp group hasn’t stopped going off since. I’m always thinking about how my cousins are dealing with it all. My role is to tell stories and shine a light on what life really looks like.
Mandem has gotten a lot of praise for its seldom seen exploration of Black male sexuality. Was there ever a hesitation in telling this story?
It’s really interesting that a lot of people have the opinion that Mandem is a film about sexuality. I guess it is, but in a weird way, it isn’t. The whole point of it is that their sexuality isn’t the only signifier of their identity. If the two characters were heterosexual, we wouldn’t assume that was the whole premise of the film. The idea came about through a conversation with friends. We thought that it would be cool to tell a story about two drug dealers, but what if their relationship wasn’t what we thought it was? Relationship is really just another word for friendship, people in relationships are friends. I wanted to explore the idea a bit further.
It was more of an excitement than a hesitation. I was eager to see the response of the audience when we put it out. Shout out to Million Youth Media it’s an amazing platform that introduces a lot of young people to short films. There’s not much moderation of their comments and their audience isn’t politically correct. There was a lot of discussion in the comment section and for the most part, it was positive, there were some derogatory remarks but none of them went unchallenged by other viewers. I think that we’re beginning to move beyond the point of sexuality being a topic. There will never be hesitation on my end to tell stories about Black people, I like seeing our faces and lives on screen in all of its forms.
Your Instagram has loads of pictures of your travels. What has your experience been of ‘travelling while Black’?
I love travelling and I’ve been fortunate enough to go to quite a few places. A few years ago, I and some friends went on a three-month trip to South America. The pace of life was so different out there and the people all said “good morning”, not like London at all. What we see in the world and the systems we live in would have us believe otherwise but people like us [Black people]. They like our style, culture and energy. We approach the unknown by either being curious or fearful and hostile. I think more times than not people are curious, especially outside of Europe. When we went to Japan my friends and I were invited into people’s homes for dinner. The only bad experience we had was in Munich. Me and my guys couldn’t get into a bar and at first, we thought that it was because the World Cup was on and then we found out that it was because we’re Black. It was very demoralising but it hasn’t put me off though. Being Black should not mean that the world is off-limits to us, the world is for everyone. Travelling isn’t something that I ever did with the intention of improving my art, but I guess inherently it would have a positive effect by enriching my perspective.
How do you hope that your work will be looked at in years to come?
Timeless and thought-provoking. I like to make work that makes you not know how to feel and challenges your perception. I hope that what I leave behind will resonate and vibrate at different frequencies. You’ll either agree with it, disagree with it, like it, or hate it, but you’ll always feel something. It should always start a conversation.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
- A book you have to have in your collection? – Gonna cheat and name three for different reasons. – Blitzkrieg Bank by Jonathan Ogunmuyiwa my dad – Not the easiest of reads and there aren’t many copies, but for me, it feels like a summation of my dad’s dreams and creative aspirations. He put his hard work into actually writing and actually getting it published. Don’t Call Me Urban! Tale of Grime by Simon Wheatley – Grime was what I was listening to growing up. This book is a collection of photos that really capture a point in time that I actually have a reference for. The Sellout by Paul Beatty – A dark satirical tale of a black man who wants to bring back slavery – the nuances are so real.
- A film / TV show that you will watch whenever it’s on repeatedly? – It’s weird, I don’t watch many things over and over again but on my list are, The Wire, Gundam Wing (anime), and Harry Potter.
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? – $truggling Arti$t from Leland Aleem Fakir. It’s an unknown project, but the track Mental Struggles and this project as a whole project is something that fully resonates with me.
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you? – I went to a few stage shows when I was young – but the first concert I went to that I really remember and still feel to this day was Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA)’ at O2 Brixton Academy. At that time the music, message, perspective was so mad – at that age, the rawness resonated. The concert was crazy. It was Odd Future’s first time in London. People lost shoes (not me), they were at the front begging for water like animals in a cage and Odd Future were crowd surfing. I’ll never forget it.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? – Sad – I worry for the London night club and bar scene, it was already on the rocks and COVID-19 hasn’t helped. I would be sad to see a new Costa or Pret in place of a shutdown bar. Mad – I bought a camera on eBay and it broke after only using it 3 times, but the guy won’t refund me. Glad – I finished the first part of a new project I’m working on.