Tunde Aladese, the award-winning Nigeria film actress and screenwriter, was behind MTV Shuga Alone Together, a recent programme highlighting the problems of coronavirus with the aim of flattening the Covid-19 curve.
The nightly show was based on the MTV Base series Shuga and backed by the United Nations, MTV Staying Alive Foundation, the World Health Organisation and other bodies. The series is set in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Cote D’Ivoire and the story is told through online conversations between the main characters. The show also went out via YouTube.
Metfilm School graduate Aladese spoke with Content Nigeria about the project, which debuted in April and was extended to 65 episodes, as well as her career to date and her tips on getting into the screen industry.
Do you remember how you fell in love with films and writing? Was there anything from your childhood that pushed you in this particular direction?
This is a difficult one because it’s never really just one thing. It’s the gradual growth of a lifelong romance. My love for writing started with prose, making sorry imitations of any book I enjoyed in order to somehow prolong the experience that the book had given me. Cinemas weren’t much of a thing in Nigeria at the time when I was growing up, but VCR was big business and watching movies was a big family pastime.
It’s hard to pick just one film because the exposure was constant and the genres were varied. It was the 1980s so there was a lot of that B-movie action, also a lot of the glam miniseries content, usually centred around a woman who succeeded against all odds. There was The Sound of Music, which my siblings and I could quote in its entirety. Arthouse came later, as options widened. I didn’t have a proper understanding of how films came to be for quite a while and a couple of appearances on kids’ variety shows were a surreal experience.
I guess the primary school drama club was my first proper sense of trying to create a narrative out of thin air and get other people to help bring it to life. But I can say that I fell in love with the film business, this idea of actors and directors and storytellers on screen after reading biographies of some old Hollywood movie stars between the ages of 10 and 13. That was when I began to understand the process of how all that came to the screen. The possibility of anything like that being a tangible and viable career plan, came much later.
When was it you decided that a career in the screen industry was for you?
The timing was fortunate for me. My first job after university led to an introduction between my boss and a producer who was about to make a radio drama series for the BBC in Nigeria. My boss showed him some ideas I had put down and I got invited to be part of a writers’ room – something I’d never heard of. I couldn’t believe someone paid me that much money – not a huge amount but at the time I was making almost nothing – to do something I’d been doing for fun all my life. I figured I could get used to this…
Success was not immediate but over the next couple of years, enough opportunities came my way that when an international cable company became interested in producing Nigerian series, I actually had a little experience under my belt and could pitch myself for some writing opportunities.
Why did you choose Metfilm School? What were you experiences there?
My first degree was in English Literature, from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. After almost 10 years working professionally as a screenwriter, mostly in television, I wanted new challenges and a wider canvas. I thought learning formally about all aspects of film production would help me with that.
Choosing Metfilm was a combination of timing, location – Berlin had been popping up a lot in my timeline in the months preceding – language, investigating their alumni and the things they had gone on to do since leaving the school. It’s a great way to study the European arthouse film aesthetic, which I was very interested in, without having to take the time to learn a whole new language. And because it’s an English-speaking school in a very European city, you get to study with students from a wide variety of countries from all over the world.
How did the MTV Shuga project come about?
I’m not going to deny that it’s a challenge. I just take it one block at a time, and fortunately I don’t have to do it all on my own. There’s a co-head writer and co-director who alternates blocks with me and of course, the Staying Alive Foundation team. I had worked on two previous seasons of the series, including one season as head writer and had therefore had some contact with some members of the team.
They reached out within the first couple of weeks of lockdown in Germany and told me about this idea they were throwing around, and asked whether it was something I would be interested in coming on board for. I’d been sitting home for two weeks, reading about everything going on all around the world, from news headlines to social media posts sharing people’s emotions, so I knew as soon as they asked that there was potential here. I didn’t imagine at the time that it would be 65 episodes!
What’s the response been like, from the audience and the industry?
To be honest, I don’t know. I usually try to stay away from comments because you get drawn in by the good stuff and then one negative comment and you might spend the rest of the day overthinking. I do understand that reactions and feedback from the first few episodes was quite exciting. It’s been challenging trying to find ways to maintain and increase the momentum and interest. But I did say I was looking for challenges, right?
What are your plans for the future?
I’m almost done with this season of MTV Shuga and there are a couple of things lined up for me to switch over to from next month. But nothing that I am at liberty to talk about right now.
What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in the screen industries?
Read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies. Figure out what you like, what excites and moves you and why. And then try to put it into your own work. Write, write, write. Even when you hate it, keep at it. I had a period of about six years from secondary school into university where, everything I wrote, I hated soon after. But that made me question why I hated it and what I needed to do differently.
The trick is to keep writing so that when an opportunity comes your way, you have something to show of your ability that will make them at least consider you. Don’t wait for someone to find you and make you a writer. And then, of course, seek out those opportunities.
I know this is a bit glib and it won’t work out for everyone, but it will for some. Oh, and I should mention this magic trick. The first time I went to a writers’ workshop, everyone there introduced themselves as a writer except me. I didn’t think I had the right to claim that about my hobby. The people present in the room made me say it, ‘I’m a writer.’ When I returned to my life, I started introducing myself that way. And people remembered. And the calls started coming.