shado caught up with documentary filmmaker Oluwaseun Babalola to talk more about her aims, process, motivations and, in particular, how she use her film series ṢOJU as a platform for self-narration in order to challenge the stereotypes associated with the African continent.
My name is Oluwaseun Babalola, people call me ‘Seun for short. I’m a born and raised New York-er, 1st generation American, born to Sierra Leonean and Nigerian parents. I’m a documentary filmmaker, my recent projects focus on young Africans and African identity: What does it mean to be an African right now on the continent? How is this interpreted once you’re in the diaspora? How are we using these identities to progress as a people (if at all)? These are questions I often ask myself, and I’ve travelled and filmed across 10 countries so far to find an answer. I’m also an entrepreneur, I’m passionate about initiatives that create access and resources for creative African women on the continent.
Can you tell us a bit more about your aims for ‘SOJU’ and how the project has developed since its inception?
OB: I was raised with an intense pride of where I’m from, but growing up in Brooklyn, you realise there are so many misconceptions about Africa that you end up internalising it a bit and I lost a sense of self. As I got older, my pride came back. The idea for ṢOJU started when I was in college. At the time, I had never visited Africa, my family never went on vacation or went back home or anything, but I was constantly surrounded by the books, the languages, the music and the imagery due to my parents and extended family. I knew that there was a lot to see and a lot to offer, more than what we get in every day mainstream media. When I finally began to film ṢOJU, which means “represent” in Yoruba, the whole idea was to show that Africa is cool. That faded quickly. It’s evolved past that, into a platform that I’d like to become a mainstay in terms of African content. I’d like it to be a virtual and physical community full of dialogue, support, and opportunity for Africa’s youth and an outlet for the continent’s creativity.
What is your vision for the project and has this changed since starting, in response to the conversations with people on the ground?
OB: My vision for the project has always been the same. The vision for ṢOJU is to have a highly visual, entertaining, approachable look at modern-day Africa and the alternative scenes that were born out of our political, social, or economic history. In exploring these communities and the people that drive them, we look at how our history has led us to where we are. We can also get an honest take from the people who are shifting dialogues and using their identity to push their communities forward. My goal is to change our approach of how we film and engage with Africa. Let’s show it to be vibrant, let’s hear from the communities themselves. Conversations I’ve had validated the need for platforms such as ṢOJU, I’ve been shown a lot of support at screenings and events. The series as it is online is introductory, it’s scratching the surface of the things I’d love to do with a fully fleshed out television show, and there are tons of people in Africa who are doing the WORK. I’d love to give that support back in any way I can.
What do you hope the audience will gain from your series and who is the series targeted at?
OB: The series is targeted to Africans everywhere. First and foremost, I want it to be a space for celebration, representation, and reflection. Black people, in some shape or form, have been taught to be ashamed of our African history, and we shouldn’t be. Where we come from isn’t shameful. Every country in the world has issues, what matters is what we do with these problems, and the approach we’re taking to solve them. A Nigerian friend said something to me recently, he said, “If you take care of your own house, there’s no way the neighbours will not know.” We need to excel and take care of ourselves first, which is why I’m hoping African audiences hop on. I’m sure later on western audiences will be intrigued enough to learn more. Hopefully, they can learn a lot, but its really a space for us, for Africans, to collaborate, teach, learn, and grow.
What have been the reactions from different audiences?
OB: Reactions to ṢOJU are super positive, more than what I could have hoped for. Everyone I come across is extremely supportive and encouraging, and it’s been a big motivator for me to keep going with this project. There have been some people, both in the states and in Africa, who were lukewarm about it when I told them the idea, but once they saw it, attitudes changed. Audiences who don’t come from an African background are split between being extremely excited and riveted or they don’t understand its relevance. That’s fine, because if you don’t get it, then it’s not for you. I welcome critique either way. Not everyone is going to love what I’m doing, but I’m very happy that majority of people do.
In your opinion, how has a lack of positive representation in western media and film contributed to problematic misconceptions of Africa – and what are the main misconceptions you are hoping to challenge?
OB: It’s so layered! We can look at it from so many viewpoints. If we look at it from the western news perspective, much of the time, Africa is referred to in the headlines as one country. “Prince William goes to Africa,” “a plane crashes in Africa,” etc. That lack of specificity narrows your scope. Then you see this “country” Africa as war-torn, dangerous, and corrupt, so subconsciously (or consciously) you start to see Africans that way. That leads to fear, and it also leads to a lack of respect for it’s people. I’ve seen it lead to an indifference when it comes to learning more because what’s more to learn, right? If you’re of African descent, have never been to Africa, and this is the attitude from the majority, then how are these perceptions, the indifference, the images of yourself…how is that going to make you feel? You wont feel proud, you wont want to visit, and it can cause you to bury that part of yourself. When we look at other things such as movies, magazines, television, its more of the same.
I want us to be unabashed, unfiltered, and unapologetic with our existence. It’s the same approach I take when creating content. Africa needs to be shown in it’s full light, meaning the thousands of cultures, ethnic groups, languages, the beauty and the issues. Something as simple as referencing the expansiveness of it, because it is a massive continent, can affect perception. It affects sense of self, it affects tourism, it can affect politics and it can affect how the world reacts to Africans and the African experience. If Africa isn’t respected in global mediums, how are Africans globally going to be respected? This is why it’s important to have a reference point that is the African voice, so we won’t be searching for validation from others.
One of your big emphasises seems not only to be positive representation but also self narration – this a something that we are extremely committed to at shado. Why is so important to be offering people a platform to share their own stories and to be in control of their own authorship and what do you hope this will add to mainstream discussions?
OB: There’s an element of empowerment when you can speak for yourself. When you’re in a marginalized community, you either have a lot of people speaking on your behalf, often without asking, or conversely, the majority doesn’t want to hear your voice at all. Its powerful to have someone say, “This is my experience, I’m sharing this with you.” Its equally as powerful to have someone listen to that experience. There’s no better feeling than to feel seen and to feel heard. We can all sometimes feel like we’re living in our heads, but we’d all be surprised that we have more in common than we think, and being able to relate to one another by hearing these first person perspectives is really valuable.
How have your own experiences and identity, alongside life growing up in the US, influenced your work?
OB: The reason I go after certain topics in my work is completely based on my experiences and my identity, not only growing up in the states in an immigrant family, but navigating all spaces as an African Black woman. I’m also a very passionate person when it comes to the rights of womxn and LGBTQ communities. Promoting positivity, pointing out hypocrisies and injustices that surround me, those things are a big motivator in my work, along with my culture.
As a young female film-maker, have you come up against any challenges?
OB: Of course. There are always going to be a lot of challenges, but the one I come across the most is being taken seriously. I don’t wake up everyday expecting my existence to be political, but by being myself, I challenge expectations of what society asks me to be (physically, mentally, emotionally, professionally) as a Black woman, and that in itself is political. I’m learning to embrace that. People tend to have an idea in their minds of what a filmmaker, a boss, or anyone steering a ship, looks like and if you don’t fit into any of their ideas or expectations, they look at you crazy. I no longer let it bother me, because sooner or later, those same people realize that I take my work and the approach to my work seriously, and they start to as well.
Who are your biggest influences/inspirations at the moment who are challenging narratives and offering new perspectives through the medium of film?
OB: Travel shows had always been an inspiration of mine, the biggest one being Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown. In terms of contemporary inspirations, in the words of Issa Rae, “I’m rooting for everybody Black.” There are so many Black writers, directors, etc, that are creating honest, relatable, skilful work. I can’t wait to see Numa Perrier’s Jezebel, I love the style of Terence Nance, Ava Duvernay has been doing a lot for distribution of works from the diaspora with her distribution company Array. All of these people and more are tackling topics of Black sexuality, femininity, masculinity, fear, love, and all things that make up life, and it’s great that these are becoming more and more accessible to the rest of us. Every time we step forward, it opens the door for everyone else to come forward as well.
You talk about ‘bridging the gap between the African diaspora’ – could you expand on what you mean by this?
Colonialism and white supremacy really did a number on the world, and the African diaspora is no exception. You can find us across the globe, and due to very effective separation, erasure, and destroying of our monuments and artefacts, we don’t know a lot about ourselves, our history, or each other. Forget learning it in school, you really have to take it upon yourself as Black person to dig for your own history, even on the African continent.
If you put four black people in a room, a Brazilian, a Jamaican, a Nigerian, and an American from the south, there would be language differences and cultural variations, but the truth is, those four people have an underlying thread that connects all of them, Africa. That gap that we often have in acknowledging this truth is the one I’d like to bridge. Whether you are Black British, Black American, Afro-Latino or South African, these are all valid Black experiences, and it sounds cliché but we can accomplish a lot more working together and learning from each other than we can being apart.
There seems to be more being done by different people to challenge stereotypes through the arts: what are you most excited by, both in your own work and the work being done around you?
OB: I’m so excited to finally see a variety of culture on television. We have a ways to go, because access and funding can still be an issue for people of colour to have when trying to tell our stories, but we are so much further along than we realise. 10 years ago, I could not see a television show or films like Us or Pose, but I love that I have the options to see those now. I’m also really excited for the future of ṢOJU. I have so many plans and I can’t wait to make a production that is wholly African and launch it into the world. I want this to be a fully developed series, and I plan on doing a lot more work to make it easier for African women to train and collaborate in film. If anyone wants to collaborate, hit me up! It’s a really cool time to experiment and express yourself in media. I’m ready to take full advantage of it.