Wings goes behind the scenes during the filming of Half Of A Yellow Sun. Set for release in 2013, the first international production of this scale to be shot in Nigeria could set a new standard for the country’s film industry
Words Tolu Ogunlesi
“It sat here for five years, unused,” says set designer Andrew McAlpine. He’s taking us on a tour of Tinapa Film Studio, where the film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun, the novel that earned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie an Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007, is being filmed. The studio was opened in April 2007 as part of the Tinapa Free Zone & Resort, located just outside Calabar.
One story has it that Donald Duke, then Governor of Cross River State was inspired to build the studio when he found out how much Nigerians were spending to shoot in South Africa. Upon completion the studio promptly went into hibernation, as Tinapa struggled to attract the crowds of merchants, tourists, shoppers and filmmakers it was built for.
Until Half of a Yellow Sun came along.
In spite of the lengthy spell of disuse McAlpine is clearly impressed by the structure. “The architecture is pretty impressive,” he says.
There’s a lot more that impresses him about Calabar.
“It’s amazing what you can find in Calabar,” he says. “There’s quite a rich culture of craftspeople still.”
The crew, mostly from abroad, arrived in Nigeria at the beginning of April 2012, and spent three weeks building the set.
Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Sixties Nigeria, and so there’s a lot of emphasis on recreating the atmosphere of that era. “Authenticity”, “detail” and “from the period” are the buzzwords around here.
“You’ve got to remember, it’s fifty years ago, the colours were different back then,” says McAlpine.
The cars too, were different. A light blue 1963-model Triumph, bought at auction in England, has been shipped in. It runs, and is used by Odenigbo, one of the lead characters. “We had to make a number plate for it,” says McAlpine.
Props Master, Deryck Blake (Total Recall, X-Men), tells us he got “four [local] gentlemen in their eighties” to make the shields that the mobile police officers use. Most interesting was the fact that those craftsmen actually made shields for the police in the 1960s. “They made them very quickly; they knew exactly what to do,” Blake says.
McAlpine shows us a props store, laden with lanterns, rusted bicycles, old telephone boxes, portmanteaus, umbrellas, baby frocks and woven police shields. He lingers on a pile of “incredible fabrics” – “We can’t get this in London, so we have to send it there.” Even though the movie is set in Nigeria, the filming is split between Nigeria and the UK; part of the funding is from the British Film Institute.
Using locals as extras, crowd scenes were shot in Creek Town, 10 miles Northwest of Calabar, and one of Nigeria’s oldest settlements, dating back to the 15th century. Director Biyi Bandele says the town provided “incredible footage.”
Half of a Yellow Sun covers the years preceding and during the Nigerian Civil War (alternatively known as the Biafran War), which pitted Nigeria’s Federal Government against the Southeastern part of Nigeria, which, propelled by murderous tension amongst Nigeria’s major ethnic groups, had broken away to form the Republic of Biafra.
The novel’s main characters are University Professor Odenigbo, Olanna, his English-educated Nigerian girlfriend, Kainene, her twin sister, Ugwu, Odenigbo’s teenage houseboy, and Richard, Kainene’s English boyfriend.
The scene being shot during our visit is set in Odenigbo’s house, on January 15, 1966, the day Nigeria’s post-independence parliamentary government was toppled by a military coup led by 29-year-old Major Kaduna Nzeogwu. Odenigbo is hosting a bunch of friends at home. In that charged atmosphere there’s not much else to discuss, beyond politics. “If we had more men like Major Nzeogwu in this country we would not be where we are today,” one of the guests says.
As I watch take after take of this short scene, I marvel at the amount of patience anyone who hangs around film sets is required to possess.
“On average [we shoot] three and half minutes of screen-time per [eleven-hour] day,” says Director of Photography John de Borman (current President of the British Society of Cinematographers, and whose credits include The Full Monty and An Education).
Here in Calabar is gathered a star-studded cast, comprising Britons and Nigerians: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots, American Gangster, 2012, Salt); Thandie Newton (Mission: Impossible II, Crash, The Pursuit of Happyness), Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, For Colored Girls); Joseph Mawle (Women in Love, Game of Thrones); John Boyega (Attack the Block); Nigerian singer and actress Onyeka Onwenu, and Nollywood stars Genevieve Nnaji (described by Oprah Winfrey as Africa’s Julia Roberts) and Zack Orji.
The scale of the operation looks staggering to me. Odenigbo and Olanna’s houses have been built full-scale within it. McAlpine shows us Odenigbo’s first. We enter through the kitchen, where stockfish, garri, beans and fruits sit on the table.
“From the kitchen [Odenigbo] can see all the action in the [sitting room], and overhear,” says McAlpine.
Olanna’s house is a pretty affair, luxurious in comparison to Odenigbo’s. Olanna’s got a bathtub, rigged so that the water actually runs.
McAlpine points out the contrasts between the ambience in there and the “earth colours” of Odenigbo’s apartment. And both are designed with a theme of unobstructed sight in mind ““ the idea is that from one part of both apartments one is able to see clearly into the other parts. “You’re seeing through and through and through,” says McAlpine, which I take as a hint at one of the movie’s underlying themes.
I find the costumes mind-blowing. Costume designer Jo Katsaras (her work on The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency earned her a 2009 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Costumes for a Series) tells us the story of how she acquired six thousand pieces of vintage clothing from an Indian trader in Johannesburg, years ago, long before seeing the movie script. Those clothes have now come in handy.
“In my research, Africa in the Sixties was very western,” she says.
She adds that much of the vintage stuff is now contemporary again. “I mean, you could wear that today,” she says, pointing to a multicoloured sleeveless maxi dress. She takes us from section to section: men’s clothes, women’s clothes, shoes, hats; everything painstakingly sorted by size.
“Everything’s thought out and pre-planned,” Katsaras says. “Nothing happens by chance.” She shows us detailed notes – “costume breakdowns” – that set out what every actor will be wearing, per scene.
And then there’s the vodka. But no, it’s not a perk. “We’ve spent a huge amount on vodka and we haven’t been drinking it.”
The vodka, she says, does a great job deodorising the costumes and keeping them fresh. Many of the costumes have been specially ‘aged’ to reflect the fact that they’re worn by refugees.
“Everything will look as if you’re in the heart of a Biafran refugee camp,” says McAlpine.
After Calabar the cast moved back to England, to complete filming. The film is currently in post-production. McAlpine says CGI will be used to “extend” the filmed refugee camps.
This is Director Biyi Bandele’s debut full-length feature film. He wrote the screenplay as well. He tells me that the only difference between shooting a 6-minute movie and a 2-hour movie is to do with “logistics” – otherwise “it’s exactly the same thing, really.”
Half of a Yellow Sun’s Producers are Andrea Calderwood and Gail Egan, producers of the Academy Award-winning The Last King of Scotland and The Constant Gardener respectively. Nigerians Muhtar Bakare (publisher of the Nigerian edition of Half of a Yellow Sun) and Yewande Sadiku are the Executive Producers. A press statement touts the film as “the first international production of this scale to be made by UK/Nigerian producers.” The bulk of the budget is reportedly being funded locally.
Scheduled for release in 2013, Half of a Yellow Sun will no doubt bring a dark chapter of Nigerian history alive to an audience likely to be larger than the hundreds of thousands the novel has reached around the world.
“It’s the first atrocity that was actually covered on television, and viewed around the world,” says McAlpine. “It’s a very significant part of history.”
This may well turn out to be a significant moment for Tinapa Studio as well; a giant leap in its bid to become, in the words of the promoters, “the prime location in Nigeria and indeed the West African Region”, for filmmaking.