Bolanle Austen-Peters is the founder of Terra Kulture and Bolanle Austen-Peters Production, two outfits that have consistently promoted Nigerian arts and culture for over 13 years. Bolanle is also a UK trained lawyer and an alumnus of the University of Lagos. She is also responsible for great theatre musicals such as Carol-the Musicals, Wakaa – the musicals and a host of others. Recently Mrs. Austen-Peters co-produced a movie titled 93Days, a true-life account of what happened in the First Consultant Hospital Obalende and Lagos during the Ebola Virus crisis. NEWTON-RAY UKWUOMA had a chat with her during the week and brings the excerpts.
You are hardly known as the daughter of Chief Afe Babalola (SAN).
[Cuts in] Well, because I am married. If I was single you would have known by my surname. But there is really no basis to talk about that.
Though you are a trained lawyer, you also are the founder of Terra Kulture, a theatre art company. You once told a reporter that it was to celebrate the Nigerian culture and to tell the best stories. Beyond that, what did you see ahead of you?
I had seen Fela on Broadway, the musical. And I was challenged by it. This was a Nigerian story being done by foreigners and sold back to us. That challenged me. I said to myself, ‘If there is anything we can do best, we can dance, we can sing’. The content of the musical was also Nigeria. That was how I started. In addition, I realised that we have very few entertainment that caters for families. We had music for 18-year-olds to 38 years; we had jazz night; but very little events for families to be entertained. Then I realised that theatre was the missing link in Nigeria. That was why I incorporated theatre. And having run theatre for over seven years, we decided to revamp the whole theatre space and make it more relevant to present day pop culture. We realised that music was the missing link apart from technology. And then musical was added.
This should be the natural thinking process of someone who read Theatre Arts, not Law at university. How did you close the gap?
Honestly I have no idea. I think the fact that I had Terra Kulture, which was promoting visual art at the time made it easy to think ahead. We have an auction house, a 2KMG Auction House. We have a book store, where we promote Nigerian literature; a restaurant, where we serve all Nigerian cuisines. Having had all of these forms of art in place, the next phase was obviously theatre. And we started very tentatively. There was no grand plan. If you are serious about any business you want to make it better and bigger. We saw that there was a gap. We also saw that theatre attendance was waning, people weren’t coming. I felt that there was something missing in our performances. That was why we added the musicals. And since we revamped it and changed the look and feel, we have seen that clearly that we were probably not producing what people wanted to see before that time.
Clearly I am still trying to understand how and where the love for theatre and art came into the law profession; was it from dad or mum?
No. I worked with the United Nations in different parts of the world-Geneva, Namibia, Ethiopia and various places. I got back to Nigeria because I was married and wanted to relocate. I studied International Law in the university. My type of Law was not relevant here. So I told myself that I wanted to do something I liked and enjoyed. Literature, music, history were the things I really liked. They were probably innate to me. So I started Terra (Kulture). It grew gradually. It is an art environment. When you open your mind you realise that you have a lot more embedded in you that you didn’t realise. Because I had given myself the opportunity and freedom to express myself, I began to come up with the crazy ideas. I guess it was always there [my love for the art]. I am sure there are a lot of closet artist(e)s in banks, hospitals and all the different sectors. Most of the people that come near me are engineers, doctors, whose first love is art; be it theatre, performances or singing. But because these profession were more lucrative than the theatre art, they had to study them.
Until recently in Nigeria, art in general was not considered a lucrative. And with the dearth of schools for artistry and other opportunities to grow creative artist(e)s, what would you have to say about the future of budding creative artist(e)s?
The truth is I don’t think there is much we can do for now. As long as the industry cannot sustain people’s lifestyle, not many people would encourage their children to go into them. However, if those of us that have been able to brave it are able to change the landscape and make sure that the industry becomes much more viable, it will impact on the future generation. For instance, people were not making money from music ten years ago. Look at what it is today. Actors, six years or so ago, were not better paid. Things have changed. Just imagine what will happen in the next 10 years with theatre. Things are going to change. It is just that the present media people would have to bear the brunt of getting the industry moving. I believe that once it starts, it will be very difficult for us to slow down.
Having got to the stage you are in the industry and in retrospect, what message would have for people who are art enthusiasts in hiding?
Passion is important. If you are passionate enough, it will feed you. It is just that the industry right now is so slow; so in the beginning it will be tough. But if you can weather the storm and deal with your passion as you would any other profession you will come out smiling. See it as a business. Artist(e)s often get into the mind-set that because they are creatives they do not have to be business minded. Your creativity is your skill, is what you’re selling. As the doctor sells his medical skills, you are selling your artistry. And for as long as we rate ourselves cheaply people will also pay cheaply. For a young person who is coming into the industry, the first thing to do is to be extremely passionate and seek excellence. If you become the best in what you do people will recognise you over time. It’s just that it is not as easy as in other professions.
You recently ventured into a national cum history movie production on Ebola Virus in Lagos. Tell us about that.
We did the Ebola movie because we wanted to add value. I didn’t want to do just any movie.
Was it your first movie?
Yes. However, I have co-produced a smaller movie called, “No Good Turn.” This is the first feature film I have done and in partnership with two other gentlemen, Steve Gukas and Dotun Olakunri. It was an interesting journey because first, obviously I learnt the art of movie making; second, we told a story that needed to be told. I felt that if we did not tell that story, foreigners, as usual, could come and tell of the brave and courageous people who fought against the Ebola virus to save all of us. For me it was very important that the story was documented for posterity. Unfortunately, some of them (those who were directly involved during the Ebola virus crisis) have departed us. One of the lessons I have learnt, because I love history, is to learn from the past. It is very important that we document things. 93 Days (the title of the movie on Ebola) is of educational and historical significance. That is why I feel in some ways we have added a lot of value. We have been accepted at the Toronto Film Festival. We have also been accepted at the Chicago Film Festival. It is clear that the movie has had some mileage.
A movie that attempts to tell the story of Nigeria’s encounter with Ebola virus would bring some nostalgic feelings. Do you think 93 Days captures the collective feelings and ordeal of the experience with Ebola in Lagos?
I don’t think one movie can do that. But what we tried to do was to give people a sense of the true story of what happened at First Consultant Hospital Obalende. The movie was based on a true story, though there were some dramatic effects in there. Bottom line is that we got the story from First Consultant Hospital, from the doctors that survived and from colleagues, families of those who died. It was a very fascinating and difficult journey even to tell the story. We had to be very sensitive of handling it. The Lagos State Government did a tremendous job to support the movie. They were also celebrated as well as the Federal Government. They are the one who fought with the brave doctors and nurses.
You said you were sensitive in handling the story. I would like you to throw some light on that.
We had to be sensitive of the way we portrayed a story of that magnitude. We had to be cautious of the fact that some people actually did pay the price. We were not doing the movie for the sake of the movie. We had to represent the story in the most delicate and respectable manner possible.
Some believe that the government was not well represented inthe movie. What do you have to say about that?
I don’t think so. I think both governments were very well represented. I think that people would always have their views. If you are to listen to everyone in this world you will get nothing done. My dad tells me something. He would say, “There are many views in the worlds as there are people.” If we are over 6 billion people on the planet, I expect about the same number of views. What I tend to do these days is to mind my own view. Otherwise you will get so confused with other views that you get nothing done. The important thing is that we did what we had to do.
Beside finances, what were the other challenges you encountered while shooting the movie?
Movie making is not easy, finance like you said is one. Other challenges would be just getting on with the movie.
It took how many days to get the scripts and shoot the movie including editing?
Close to a year and half.
There were also foreign cast in the movie, how were you able to get them to play in a Nigerian movie?
We sent the scripts to them. We wanted to depict the movie in the best light possible. We sent the script to people who were interested. Some declined. Some said they would like to be part of it. Danny Glover,Temi Ridge and many others.
I want to congratulate you for a job well done. I was at the screening. In terms of production, sound, acting and editing, 93 Days came out nicely. We saw the likes of Bimbo Akintola taking up a very challenging role, and bringing it home professionally. To what extent did you go in getting the production to that quality?
In spite of some of its imperfections, we did not rely on one person. Our directors did a fantastic job. It was, however, a collaborative effort between the script writer and the director. The casting was incredible. We made sure we got the right people to play the roles. We were very careful not to cut cost during both the production and post-production. The costume, the music, sound and the camera, we all agreed we wanted the best.
What make is the camera?
We used an Alexa camera to shoot the film. We also ensured that the costume was appropriate. At the editing stage, we had four people doing the job. We took care of almost everything.
How were you able to source funds?
Sponsorship. We were able to get the money we needed not only because Terra Kulture is a brand, the story also spoke for itself. It was easy for us to talk to sponsors to buy into the initiative.
Not many women would follow their passion the way you have. Was there something or someone in your growing that helped prepare you for today’s world?
Yes. My mum. I used to be fearful growing up. One day she asked why I was fearful. And she said, “You need to read the bible. You have to cast away fear.” Fear is probably one of the most dangerous emotions because it holds you down. You always think of the negatives and not the positive. I remember I used to read the scripture a lot about fear. “God has not given you the spirit of fear,but of love and sound mind”. “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me”. I mediated on the scriptures that allowed me to be who I am supposed to be. Although, it wasn’t significant to me reading the scriptures then, getting to a certain level in life, I realised there is actually nothing to fear.