Last fall, Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor had two films debut at festivals. 12 Years a Slave (earning him his nomination for Best Actor) and Biyi Bandele's Half of a Yellow Sun, which is beginning its theatrical run this week after having its New York debut last weekend at the New York African Film Festival. Also starring BAFTA-winner Thandie Newton (Crash), Anika Noni Rose, and Joseph Mawle, Half of a Yellow Sun tell the story of a generation living through the tumult of Nigeria’s independence and the ensuing Nigerian-Biafran War through the thorny romantic journeys of two sisters.
The feature directorial debut of playwright Biyi Bandele, the film is an adaptation of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Orange Prize-winning novel of the same name. The big-screen version focuses on the two sisters, Olanna (Newton) who is married to Odenigbo (Ejiofor), a revolutionary who fathers a child with another woman. Her twin sister Kainene (Rose), meanwhile, is in love with a British writer (Mawle) who has come to Nigeria to teach. The story takes place over 40 years ago set against the little-known Biafra conflict that nearly tore Nigeria apart beginning in the late '60s. Bandele was born during the war and remembers how the war's aftermath emotionally traumatized his family in the West African country. Years later, now living in London, he happened to meet Adichie and had the idea of turning her novel into a movie.
Nigeria's Nollywood film community is one of the world's largest, though Half of a Yellow Sun falls outside that system, but filming in Nigeria was important for both Bandele and Adichie. The result is a suspenseful example of modern Nigerian cinema, though official sanction has proven fleeting. Bandele spoke with FilmLinc Daily about making the film and why Adichie's novel gripped his imagination, both in terms of its characters and its importance in a historical context. But while he thought he had received the seal of approval from Nigeria's censors, a disappointing decision by officials there left the film in the lurch.
FilmLinc: I read that you had met Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote the novel Half of a Yellow Sun, in London and that encounter sparked your interest in the story…
Biyi Bandele: Yeah, in 2005 I met her at the British Library in London. I was working on a novel set in World War II at the time that was published in the U.S. called The King's Rifle… Chimamanda and I were at a literary event there and she told me she was also writing a book set during wartime, but this war was the Biafra War [in Nigeria], which took place from 1967-1970. After it was done, I read it and completely fell in love with it and immediately saw the possibility of a film. I sent a copy of the book to [producer] Andrea Calderwood, who did The Last King of Scotland. She read it and also loved it and then optioned the book. I told her I wanted to direct it, and she said, “Okay.” I had directed a lot of theater and short films. We thought it would take a few years, but it ended up taking many more years than that [to put together]. We finally ended up going into production in 2012. It has been a long journey.
FL: How did the adaptation process go? There are typically many changes that need to occur between a novel and a screenplay. The movie version focuses more on the point of view of the two sisters, though the novel is seen through the eyes of a servant, Ugwu.
BB: I told Chimamanda at the time that what blew me away about the novel at the time were Olanna and Kainene, the two sisters. I had never experienced two characters like these two women in movies before. I had seen movies showing the point of view of a servant before many times and I wasn't interested in doing that movie. I felt that I wanted to be faithful to the book though, but I was translating the language from one medium to the other. The novel as a form and cinema as a medium are mutually exclusive. They don't speak the same language. A novel like this, which is over 500 pages, could be made into a miniseries. You just start with page one. But cinema as a medium is closer to a short story. So if you're going to adapt a book, you [break it down] to its essence and that's what I've done.
There are those who want every single character and storyline, etc. There are those who do those kind of movies, but nobody goes to see them—aside from maybe one or two reviewers, but then the audience goes to sleep. I wanted to make a movie that people could watch without having read the book, and if you have read it, then you can still find the essence of the book in the movie. Chumumanda has seen the movie about 10 times. She wouldn't have gone to see it a second time if she had hated it.
FL: The movie is at its core a personal story of these two sisters and their lives against the backdrop of this unfolding civil war. The events going on around them, though, are not incidental, they're crucial to how the plot unfolds. You also bring in other elements including archival footage that puts a historical context to what is going on. How did you balance all of this?
BB: I had two choices. The first I rejected, which was to have a voiceover [giving historical context] with an explanation, but to me that was not cinema. I woke up one morning and realized I needed to get someone to help me collect newsreels from the period to see if that would work. Luckily it did. But for a long time I thought I'd have to use voiceover, but just hated the idea.
FL: On a personal level, the sisters are complex. They're certainly the protagonists, but they, along with Odenigbo, Olanna's mate, and others, are generally good people, but they definitely have their character flaws. They're not just easily digestible big-screen heroes.
BB: Yep, that for me was the attraction of the characters. I so much wanted that. I was working with an ensemble of great actors, but during the shoot I'd have long conversations about this. Anika [Noni Rose], who played Kainene, said that she wanted to endear her to the audience, but I said, “No, don't do that, please.” Chiwetel was also particular about the character he was playing. Sometimes before shooting a scene, he'd say, “What a guy… What a guy…” [Laughs] And I'd say, “Yes, that to me makes him human.” He has high ideals and wants to change the world, but he struggles with living up to his own standards in his private life. That's what makes for a character you can fall in love with. I didn't want to make a movie about perfect human beings, I wanted to make one with humans and their flaws. It's really what attracted me to the book.
FL: It's not too much of a spoiler to note here that with the onslaught of war, Olanna's mother offered her a way out and asked her to flee to London along with her father, but she decided to stay. They had the means to leave, but she decided to stick it out there. Was that strange given how the situation was deteriorating?
BB: You know, the readers of the book have the benefit of hindsight. I don't think Olanna could completely see it. She wasn't being heroic or fully understood what was coming. Some think she was heroic, but I think she thought it was just another coup and that the situation would just die out.
FL: You have terrific cast. How was it working with them and shooting in Nigeria? I read that was something you wanted.
BB: It was. It was something that Chimamanda wanted as well, but I also insisted that it be shot in Nigeria. Some of my producers wanted to shoot the film in South Africa. I love South Africa, I've been there many times, but it's not Nigeria. It's not West Africa. Working with Chiwetel, Thandie, Anika, and all the Nollywood stars was great. I was careful in casting and was lucky. It's a combination of science in a way and subjectivity. I was very hands-on when it came to casting. I don't understand directors who leave it to the casting director, I have to absolutely be there in the room. It's the bit in the production process that gives me the most sleepless nights. I know that if I get it wrong then there's going to be a lot of trouble. But I was lucky. Every single one of them were at the top of their game and they worked well together as a team.
FL: There were some challenges though, I heard. Some of you got sick during shooting…
BB: [Laughs] Yeah, we shot the second half in a town in a rain forest. It didn't have any portable water and I think we contracted some illness through the water. Members of my cast and crew caught typhoid and then I had it. Thandie had it along with 40 members of my crew. Some people also caught malaria. It was quite extraordinary, though, that not one member of my cast and crew left the shoot. I had a team made up of people from U.K., South Africa, U.S., India, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, and Poland. For every non-Nigerian member of my crew, we had three Nigerians, but everyone stayed. I'm really grateful.
FL: The film was supposed to open in Nigeria recently—how did that go?
BB: It had a premiere on April 9 and the general release was supposed to be on April 25, but the day before I received an e-mail from the Nigerian executive producer telling me that the censorship board had decided to withhold certification. So essentially we were being banned through the backdoor. We weren't officially banned, but you cannot exhibit a film that doesn't have a certificate, so it's essentially unable to be seen. This came as a surprise to me because the head of the censorship board had flown to the Toronto International Film Festival last year where the film had had its world premiere and she told us how much she loved the film and how it was a harbinger of things to come for Nollywood. So I don't know what changed in the last seven months. I haven't added or removed a single frame since then. It's the same movie, so I think it's very political and cynical. I'm really shocked. My producers are still talking to them in Nigeria.
FL: That is so unfortunate. I mean, just thinking historically, some of the divisions that occurred during the Biafran conflict in which this movie is set have echoes today.
BB: Oh yeah, the divisions were strong in 1967 just before the war started and they're still there today. The reason it is so divided is in part because of poverty but also because we never dealt with the root causes of that war. It just ended and we pretended that it never happened. It was never taught in history class growing up. The banning of my film is the most dramatic instance for our refusal to engage with our history. I lost a brother during the Biafran war. He never came back and his remains were never found. My mother secretly thought he might be alive. During my childhood she'd come back from the market and say that someone had run into him in a neighboring town. She kept hoping he'd walk in…
[Monterey Media is releasing Half of a Yellow Sun in the U.S.]