From Notebooks to Netflix: Azeez Korede, the Nigerian Filmmaker Reimagining African Folktales

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Nigerian filmmaker, Azeez Korede is transforming the landscape of African storytelling by infusing traditional folktales with innovative technology, capturing the hearts and imaginations of audiences worldwide.

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Azeez Korede, a visionary Nigerian filmmaker, posing for a photo. Photo Courtesy: Azeez Korede

Dorcas Bello and Seth Onyango, bird story agency

"I started writing fiction stories at the age of ten. And even though I didn't continue, it was enough to help me understand I loved storytelling," says Azeez Korede, whose evocative short film, "Halima's Choice," launched on Netflix in March, after earning her a well-deserved place among the six victorious filmmakers of the groundbreaking 'African Folktales, Reimagined' competition.

Despite thwarted ambitions to study theatre arts at university and a subsequent career in mass communication, Korede never gave up on her early storytelling ambitions, which began with stories penned in a personal notebook. And her subsequent career, it turned out, provided a solid foundation for filmmaking.

Her experiences have left her with a deep-seated belief that everyone should have the opportunity to tell their own stories.

"Muslims should tell their stories themselves, women should tell their stories themselves, likewise Africans themselves," she asserted, with the added observation that the true reflection of people's experiences can only be crafted by those who have lived them.

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Halima's Choice poster. Photo Courtesy: Azeez Korede

Korede's folktale, "Halima's Choice," emerged from a desire to reimagine a beloved story from her youth and at the same time, infuse mystic elements with artificial intelligence.

"African stories have always had their background on mystic beings and fantasies and so I only asked myself, 'What if those mystic stories were artificial intelligence?'" she explained.

Set in a timeless rural Fulani environment, Korede masterfully intertwines the familiar and the fantastic, enthralling the viewer.

Korede believes that a growing hunger for new narratives has turned the spotlight on African content a rich environment for new stories.

"I am tired of Hollywood; I am tired of the same stories repeated over and over again. And maybe, some other people are too. That is why it feels like African stories might be the next big thing."

She referenced the phenomenal success of the movie "Black Panther," which cast Africa in a refreshing if imagined light.

"Stories like Black Panther opened the world's eyes to the abounding stories in Africa, even though it was Americanised," she said.

However, African stories told by outsiders lack resonance, she believes.

"Looking at criticisms that emerged after the release of Woman King, it is so obvious that Hollywood is interested in African stories but is not telling it well because it is not their story."

Instead, she suggests that African filmmakers leverage collaborations like "African Folktales, Reimagined", to collaborate more and ensure that big-budget films can be realised.

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Azeez Korede and other filmmakers at the premiere of African Folktales in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo Courtesy : Azeez Korede

"The truth is Africans don't have the capacity to produce big blockbuster movies. However, if they leverage on Pan-African collaborations, this can be achieved."

The arrival of the big streamers on the continent has spurred renewed interest and investment in filmmaking across the continent. Netflix, for example, now has both a "Made in Africa" and a "Nollywood" category in its offering and the streaming giant recently told Semafor that it had spent US$175 million and created 12,000 jobs in Africa since 2016.

The streamer cited enabling policy frameworks, flexible regulatory mandates and ease of doing business on the continent as key drivers.

Nigerian film critic Wilfred Okiche, however, warns that the Netflix "opportunity" should be handled with care.

"For independent Nollywood filmmakers, the Netflix relationship is a lifeline to an industry badly in need of structural uplift, having hit something of a plateau with both video and theatrical, its two primary distribution models," Okiche argues.

Streamers Netflix, Showmax (Africa's "own" streamer), Disney, and Amazon have all been studying consumer habits on the continent to appeal to its one billion-plus audience.

Netflix has about 2.6 million subscribers in Africa and wants to grow to 5 million by 2025. The number of people watching movies on the platform is said to be much higher when factoring in family sharing by its premium subscribers.

Netflix's chief rival, MultiChoice's Showmax, has invested heavily in original African content and is now seeing the results of that effort, with African content accounting for 40 per cent of its viewing.

MultiChoice is Africa's largest pay-TV group, available in 50 African countries. Its streaming service launched in 2015 and is available in 46 African countries, as well as in Britain and France, where it targets the African diaspora.

In April last year, the streaming service said it would double its investment in creating movies and shows set in its biggest markets of Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

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Azeez Korede and the team shooting the void scene in Abuja, Nigeria. Photo Courtesy: Azeez Korede

Netflix's "Made By Africans, Watched by the World" campaign points to its own ambitions.

On that premise, in 2018, the streamer acquired rights to Lionheart, a Nigerian movie by renowned actress Genevieve Nnaji, an unprecedented move that stirred the continent's film industry.

In 2019, the platform also released the South African series, Shadow, which reportedly attracted enough eyeballs worldwide for the streamer to take on more African content, including Queen Sono, billed as "Africa's first original Netflix series".

The "African Folktales, Reimagined" series is another step in the streamer's ambitions for Africa.

"First they came for our resources, and now our stories, which is not a bad thing," Korede muses.

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