With its radiant cinematography and runway-ready costumes, Walé Oyéjidé’s Bravo Burkina! was certainly one of the most striking films at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. And for the multi-hyphenate filmmaker, this intentional beauty was by design, as he sought to show the story’s immigrant characters in the best light. Oyéjidé goes into detail about the motivations behind the film’s stunning visuals and the associated responsibility when depicting vulnerable people, during a recent interview for Awards Radar. Below is an edited version of that discussion.
Shane Slater: What inspired you to make this film?
Walé Oyéjidé: I’m particularly passionate about migration and immigration issues as a person who immigrated from, in my case, Nigeria to the US. So just the idea of stories that speak to anybody who’s an outsider to a place and has to deal with the the various travails and burdens of being the outsider, is at the core of all of my work. I’m a filmmaker but prior to that I was – and still am – a designer, I was a lawyer, a musician. The through line through all my work is the idea of speaking on behalf of, or speaking for an outsider to a place and kind of showing what it is that outsiders can contribute. What it is that they leave behind, the various sufferings they have. Which are oftentimes not considered by those who are, for lack of better term, locals or natives to a place.
SS: As you mentioned, you’re also a fashion designer and that definitely comes across in your visual storytelling. Do you think about your visuals or the story first in your filmmaking?
WO: I think it’s definitely story first, but I think that there is great power, as we all know, in the images. So for me, a lot of my work is very deliberate, very mission focused. I think about what it is I’m seeking to accomplish. In general, the overall mission for all of my work is seeking to encourage cultural acceptance. So again, seeking to provide and to encourage the understanding of anybody who comes somewhere. So when I think of the images, the reason the images have such a strong visual feel, is because the images are intended to intentionally evoke a beauty that seduces the eye, so that the viewer then connects with the persons in the story.
I think, for example, you and I might watch this film and because the protagonists look like us, we might instantly connect with them and relate with them, because they look like our brothers or aunties, our moms. Perhaps they look like us when we’re younger. My work seeks to engage with a very broad audience intentionally, without sacrificing the authenticity of our culture. But when we’re doing that, I find that it’s effective to speak in language and in terms that the world understands.
So for example, if you and I are sitting in a barbershop, we sit in the dancehall, we chat a certain kind of way. This is very insular, in a patois that maybe you and I understand. If we’re going to talk to the world, then we have to consider they’re not going to understand the patois, they’re not gonna know Bounty Killer or whoever it is.
So how do I communicate with them? I use images that are not sacrificing you and I, in a way that is accessible. So that’s a long way of saying the images are intentionally visually arresting and visually welcoming. So that if you are a person who thinks they don’t care about the subject, the image itself is so strong that you can’t help but continue to look. And the longer you look, the more that you love this individual.
SS: Could you speak more about those amazing costumes? I know there’s an advocacy element to them as well.
WO: That’s the cheat code of being a fashion designer. It’s like, I’m just reaching into the closet and pulling. But one thing really informs the other. So if we were having a conversation strictly about design, I would say to you, the stories really are the underlying issue. And the clothing is just a vehicle for the stories. So in this case, the clothing, the wardrobe, custome element, is really just one more tool within the toolbox for this previous point I’m making. But it’s really all about uplifting the persons in the story.
And specifically, you know, as Black men, we have a very known history of watching images of ourselves that don’t look like ourselves. Oftentimes, because they’re made by people who just don’t know us, or more importantly, don’t love us. Not in a negative way, but they just don’t love us in the way that I might love my uncle or my brother. That’s a different kind of relationship. I often am looking at an image and I can tell when the filmmaker does not love the person or just doesn’t know them. Because for me, if I take a picture of my mom, regardless of what she’s going through, even if she’s at her lowest point, my mom is gonna look dignified. Because that’s my mom, because I love my mom.
So when I see images of, whether it be Africans, Caribbean, Haitians and anybody who’s vulnerable across the globe, and they’ve gone through something terrible like war, famine, refugee diseases, and you show this horrible, harrowing image, you understand that the person who made this image is not thinking, what if that was my son? They’re thinking about, “Oh, this is the most powerful.” And it is powerful, but it’s affecting in a way that’s dehumanizing to the person. And then also, if you think about the audience, they recoil.
So what is really the point? So if, for example, you send me an image of a starving kid, what am I going to do with that emotion? I’m going to think, “This is horrible. I can’t fix this. I’m going to look away.” But if I show you a picture of a beautiful kid playing football with his family and I say, “By the way, this kid has no food tomorrow,” then it’s like, “Wait a second, I used to play football just like this kid.” Then, there are more steps that your brain and your heart take.
And so for me, that is just why there’s an intentional beauty in all of my work. Because when I think about what is the purpose, is the purpose is to connect the viewer to this person? What is the most effective way to do that? Do I show this kid drowning on a beach? What is it that he dreams of that maybe brought him to that beach? For me, that comes from a place of responsibility and a place a love. Because I love this kid, I’m going to show the best version of him. And then the story, the history, all that stuff can fall in. But when you see him, you’re going to see a person that you want to be.
And so, there’s intentional strategy of what happens when you make the outsider figure an aspirational figure? What happens when the immigrant is somebody who you think you hate, but you look at him and you’re like, “Damn, that suit is fly. I want to be this person.” So if you are a person who’s predisposed to be biased, you don’t know what to do with this. Which just creates an engagement, which is what I think is interesting about the work.
So that’s a super long way of saying, the images are hopefully beautiful. That’s not by accident. It’s actually an intentional strategy to seduce, because by seduction then we get to, hopefully, understanding and love. My particular gift is to make beautiful images. I’m less interested in making intentionally harrowing tragic images. That’s not to say I’m going to avoid those issues. But the way that I get there is through beauty.
SS: I read somewhere that you shot this in two weeks. Yet the film feels so expansive. How did you pull that off?
WO: Just madness! Really, it was 12 filming days, and not full days at that. But basically, it’s a very tiny crew. It’s interesting the way, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. But also the way that a thing is done informs the way that it appears. So for example, the camera movements, the way we have this handheld camera, is because that’s all we can carry. Because we’re a crew of six people who literally hopped on a plane and we do Italy first for like five days, get on a plane, go to Burkina Faso. So we’re crossing an ocean, and you can’t carry a whole bunch of equipment. So you know that the so called vulnerabilities also became the strength and also informed the voice of the film.
And so because it was made in such a very tiny time, it’s a very miniscule budget next to other films. The thing is, when a consumer watches anything, you don’t think about how much it cost, who was the team. You’re just looking at what’s in front of you, and you judge it based on what’s in front of you. But on the back end, it’s interesting too, from the perspective of the filmmakers and producers. Because you’re looking at guys who had actual millions of dollars, and we had very few zeros. But that doesn’t matter to the consumer. So the question then becomes, is it effective as a story? Is it emotionally doing what it’s designed to do? Otherwise, you’ve kind of wasted everybody’s time.
So our hope is that even though we had very little time, we managed to communicate something that feels, to your point, expansive. That at least communicates some sort of feeling. And it’s occurred to me in thinking about this film, that it’s very much more of a poem than a novel. It’s a feature film, but it’s a very tiny feature film, it’s 63 minutes. Most people are expecting these days, like a standard two and a half hours, which to me is horrible. It’s horrible because you’re inflicting, you’re battering me.
And so I think what happens when instead of communicating in very long, lengthy monologues that say, “Here’s my character’s motivations, and here are the various things that happens,” when it’s really more fleeting and it’s more like a poem, it’s more of a feeling. You can communicate just the sense of a place, of people. And the hope is that the viewer connects some dots emotionally, that they may not be connecting from like, “Okay, what next?” It’s not quite that kind of film.
The hope is that it is giving you something that you haven’t gotten. I think for me, what’s exciting about this project is, it’s the film that I’ve never seen before. Which in itself is rare. Whereas in this case, for better or worse, it is, I think, a fresh perspective on an age old and current topic. And it’s a fresh approach to people that we know well and just haven’t seen depicted in this particular way.
SS: This film just premiered at Sundance. How was it? Was there anything particularly memorable about the experience?
WO: I think it will take several weeks and months for me to process because just the act of playing your film numerous times over numerous days to many audiences is, first of all, it’s an amazing gift, an amazing privilege. But it’s also very logistically busy. You can imagine me doing this to hundreds of people every night. And so you just like next, next, next. But I think if nothing else, for any artist and filmmaker who gets that privilege, you get to see your work physically presented on a giant screen, which is amazing. Very rarely do we watch the things that we make at that scale. So that’s like, whoa! It feels real then.
But then also, the good thing about Sundance is they have, if one chooses, they get to have the designer, the star, the filmmaker to have a Q&A afterwards. So you speak with the audience and you talk about it just as you and I are doing now. And that is really great for me, because the hope of this work is that it is universal, despite the fact that it features people like myself. And and when you have the audience at Sundance, which for the most part is not black people, when you have an audience that doesn’t look primarily like the artist, it’s wonderful when that audience engages with the work. Particularly with a story like this.
There’s no English spoken in the film, by design. And it’s set in these places that are very far away from the US and very far away from the typical Sundance audience. And nevertheless, the audience engages with it and says, “This reminds me of the story of my family. This kid is just like me.”
And so you’re seeing that it is effective, which is really all anybody who tells a story or when you tell a joke, you hope that it hits. No matter what language, no matter how long, no matter how short, you hope that your thing was effective. And you know, a project like this is such a dreamy, magical story and it’s a bit like a painting. People look at it and they take different things. I tend to not try to explain too much, because I want to hear what does it mean to you.
And so it’s lovely when a project can bring about some level of dialogue, because now we’re both engaged, as opposed to me saying ABCD all the way to x. I think if nothing else, the hope is that this is a film that the images, or the story of the characters, stay with people for some time, and they think about it.