FEAT:HER Filmmaker and Producer Oluwaseun Babalola, Creator of SOJU Docuseries
Is a Sierra Leonean-Nigerian- American filmmaker. She founded DO Global Productions, a video production company specializing in documentaries. Her focus is to create and collaborate on projects across the globe, while providing positive representation for people of color.
She is also a co-founder of BIAYA consulting, a consulting firm that bridges resource and knowledge gaps for African entrepreneurs in emerging industries.
Interview by: Daisy Stackpole
DS: Hi Oluwaseun! We are so excited to get a chance to speak with you and learn more about your work! Can you give a brief introduction of who you are and what you do?
OB: Hello! My name is Oluwaseun Babalola, I’m a filmmaker of Nigerian and Sierra Leonean descent. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and my work in documentary focuses on identity and culture. I’ve traveled to Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Botswana, Spain, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Ghana to showcase a slice of life in those countries, from a young African perspective.
DS: How did you get interested in filmmaking? Were you encouraged to pursue filmmaking and did you have any mentors or role models that worked in film?
OB: I was always interested in film. When I was younger, I entertained myself by performing memorized lines from movies or recreating music videos. Eventually, I started writing my own stories, taking photos with disposable cameras, or making my own short films using my dad’s video camera. With more confidence after college, I started pursuing it as a career. My mom was supportive of it, my dad was ambivalent probably because he didn’t see how I could make a living. I didn’t have any guidance in terms of mentors, so it was a “learn as you go” situation.
DS: You have released a fantastic docuseries, SOJU, can you walk me through that a bit? Specifically, what was the inspiration for creating this series, and what was the process like from finding the subjects you wanted to highlight to filming across Africa?
OB: I'm glad you think it was fantastic! To be real, I was exhausted from trying to find a production job. I knew I had the skills and the experience, but I was faced with walls. I thought to myself, OK, since you’re painfully unemployed, be productive. I had an idea that could be a calling card for me but also create the type of content that I wanted to exist. I had this idea since college of a cool travel show that showed the positive side of Africa, and so I decided that would be my first directing project. That was the first iteration. I later found a job, saved money and shot it. The show began to evolve from there, it became less of a “let me show the outside world why Africa is cool” to “let me remind Africans of how amazing we are, and let’s teach each other to build community.” I look for people I find interesting. I try to find people who are very strong in their beliefs despite resistance. I read a lot of articles and I pay attention. I don’t see the people I reach out to as “subjects” per se because I seek people who I’d actually want to learn from and who I’d like to support in their journey.
DS: You’ve mentioned that one of your goals for this series is to redefine the way Africa is depicted in media representations. How has the response been to the series, both in Africa and abroad?
OB: Response to the series has been really positive. In the states, explaining the concept to people doesn’t work, they have to see it. I explain the concept, and I get a puzzled smile and nod. Once people see the actual piece they get excited, the reaction is “I never knew that existed!” A friend texted me that she was listening to holiday music in the car, and it was a U2 song with Bono singing that nothing grows in Africa, and there are no lights, so we don’t know it’s Christmas. It followed with her telling me that she now sees that SOJU is necessary. I just laughed. It’s a funny juxtaposition between the portrayal and the reality.
With Africans in Africa, it’s been great to hear the excitement, and that matters the most to me because it’s made for us. I’d like to do us proud. There are some people who ask “why did you leave America to do this?” but why wouldn’t I? It’s impossible to get everyone to like what you do 100% across the board, but I’m happy to say the response is very supportive.
DS: Growing up, how did you see Africa depicted in media? Did that depiction have any effect on you, and if it did, how did you remedy that? How did you define Africa for yourself?
OB: When watching television growing up, Africa was always presented in a negative light. If you were watching comedies, it was about how backwards we are. If it’s a drama, you need to save us. If it’s a thriller, you’re lost in the jungle and we’re coming to kill you. In my home, I was surrounded by positive media, but when you’re out in the world, that mentality can be insidious. I don’t think any of it caused a conscious effort to erase myself, instead it caused me to be more “in your face” with my identity. I’m still learning who Africa is. I haven’t visited everywhere and I’m always surprised by it. I think it’s a continent with brilliant, hardworking people that have an innate cool, resourcefulness, and sense of humor. We have faced a lot of setbacks due to colonialism, greed, and war, yet we are still here. Africa has a lot of natural resources, but its strength is in its cultures and people.
DS: What’s next for you? Are you working on any projects currently, and do you have any aspirations to delve into narrative filmmaking at any point? Do you have an overarching goal in your work?
OB: I just concluded organizing and hosting the inaugural UNICON in Lagos, Nigeria. It was a 2-day event that consisted of a summit to expose the business opportunities that are held within the comics, animation and gaming industries in Nigeria, and a convention that exhibited the content. We also held panels to inform content creators of ways to protect and monetize their work.
I’m also looking to develop ṢOJU into a television series, and I began writing my first narrative film, which is exciting. My overarching goal for my work is to create quality content that can make you question what you think you know. Sounds like a lofty goal when stated that way, but I’m sticking to it.
DS: Your work seems to fit within a genre I love a great deal, Afrofuturism. What is your relationship to Afrofuturism and do you categorize your own work as being a part of this cannon?
OB: I love the genre. It’s rare that black people are allowed to be seen in the future. We’re never included amidst all of the tech and the flying cars. Our evolution is never addressed.
To me, Afrofuturism always has an aspect of fantasy. I don’t feel as if I’m painting a picture that doesn’t exist, but I am showing you the reality of now to discuss how we can get to that imagined future.
DS: Do you think that mainstream films like Black Panther have helped to improve the image of Africa? What do you think it will take for the perception of Africa to evolve positively?
OB: I would like to think so. I think it opened doors to let in variety when it comes to black content. I’m worried that people may get too attached to “Wakanda” and not look into the real countries in Africa, but let’s enjoy it. I think in order for the perception of Africa to evolve positively we need to include Africans. There are too many productions in general about Africa that never has one African on set.
DS: Who are some of the artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers who influence your work?
OB: I’m really inspired by fresh takes on old traditions or anyone daring to be different. It gives me confidence to do the same. I like Spike Jonze and Pedro Almodovar. Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl was an inspiration when I was younger. Music is also the source of a lot of my ideas. I have a soundtrack of life that is all over the place. Some favorites these days are Burna Boy and Mr. Eazi. I listen to a lot of Kaytranada, Quadron, James Blake, pretty much anything that has a good vibe. It depends on my mood.
DS: You have done such a wonderful job of highlighting the vibrant underground of Africa. Are there any contemporaries you’d like to shout out?
OB: Richard Briandt from Codetrain in Ghana is doing great stuff with training web developers. I really enjoy the work of Khadjiah Farah and Neema-Jodie, photographers doing work in Kenya/East Africa. There’s also Iman Djionne, a filmmaker from Senegal. There are many talented young people doing influential work.
“There’s always space to grow and I’m really excited to see the next evolution of ṢOJU.”