Film Director Tomisin Adepeju Welcomes You Into a Room of Unheard Stories
Photographer: Christopher Fernandez
Words: Bethany Burgoyne
Twenty-Eight year old Tomisin Adepeju is at the forefront of a new wave of British filmmakers exploring topics that offer an insight into the generational shifts of the African Diaspora. Adepeju’s narratives are made up of honest, heart-felt, personal stories told from the perspective of British African characters. With five short films under his belt and a feature length in the making, RTF sits down with this talented artist to discuss how personal experiences contextualise many of the storylines he is wanting to tell.
Having grown up in Nigeria until the age of 12, Tomisin moved to London with his family where he continued his education. Known as the African Boy to his London peers at school, yet seen as British to his Nigerian neighbours, this conflict between identity is what plays out in many of his film’s narratives. “I see myself as a Nigerian man in Britain so the stories are personal to me. They convey something about the race of a black man and how it’s multi layered and diverse.” Tomisin expresses his frustration with the industry, explaining how “most films which try to relay a black narrative have a perspective that isn’t truthful”.
Writing his own scripts as well as directing them reflects the importance of content in Adepeju’s work, whilst thematically, posing an overriding question of how to live a life whilst staying respectful to family, faith, culture and oneself. The seriousness of Tomisin’s storylines are tickled with humour and the use of vibrant music, helping the audience to engage in Tomisin’s autobiographical world. We are drawn into the homes and cultural centres of people you know live on your street but whom you often never enter the front door of. And that door is what Adepeju wishes to not only build but push ajar within the industries mainstream channels. “You realise there’s a lack of diversity and although there’s a drive for more films by BAME artists, there’s little being done to support them.” The lack of support is perhaps what has led Tomisin into an almost entirely self-funded start to his career. That and his incredible passion for using his art to tell unheard stories.
The seriousness of Tomisin’s approach to his artform is reflected in his elegant personal style. Be it on set, at a meeting or going to church, Tomisin will always be seen looking smart in a suit and tie. When asked why, Tomisin explains how his smart attire reflects his professional etiquette “I dress this way out of respect for my actors”, as well being a tool to help his mindset. “When I was about 21, I felt quite down and defeated and so decided then and there that I was only going to wear suits. A style that would make me feel like I could take on anything. I think it acts as a uniform, it makes me feel comfortable and confident”. With an open fondness for the quintessentially old, Tomisin extends this nostalgic love to buying 1930s-50s suits; “they’re classic, timeless and never go out of style” from “great shops like Old Hats in Fulham”
An awareness of appearance could be a reaction to Adepeju’s teenage years of growing up questioning his own identity. It is film that Tomisin credits as having aided him at a young age. With an adolescent desperation to fit in and an awareness of having a strong Yoruba intonation, “I watched films to help change my accent” and out of this, grew a passion for the artform. An ode to his roots in Nigeria, two of Tomisin’s most critically acclaimed films are both narrated in Yoruba; ‘Omo Dada’ (The Good Son) and ‘Appreciation’. Both portray African Nigerians living in London, speaking their mother tongue language; it is a beautiful form of expression and respect to his country of origin, a place which Tomisin describes as feeling “loved and accepted.”
Digging deeper into Apedeju’s childhood brings back memories of watching Nigerian TV shows with his family, “They were really cheesy 30 mins shows, basic soap operas ...with really engaging narratives which were visually mesmerising. There’s nothing like it”. This dramatisation of the everyday can be seen influencing Tomisin’s storylines today, as is the direct attention he puts on individual performers. Working closely with his actors is said to be the most important part of his process as a director.
Creating stable and caring environments whilst onset reflects the strong relationships Adepeju builds with his creative team. It is a sign of mutual respect that Adepeju’s leading actors are recast in his short films, building potential characters for his future feature length.
In just 10 years, the size of Tomisin’s portfolio is impressive. He spent his late teens and early twenties making films for fun whilst studying Film Theory at University, “I experimented with style, genre and form...but I didn’t know what I wanted to say and I didn’t understand the craft of directing.” Studying the work of Spike Lee made a huge impression, “His films feature black characters in a world he knows so well, that conveyed his own views about race and love. As a young black man, they spoke to me greatly.” Adepeju sites Paul Thomas Anderson and Woody Allen as similar influences, describing their films as a projection of “their own views, their own interests of the world”. However, it is his Mother who Adepeju credits for helping get him to the point he is at today. It was through daily persistence that she encouraged him to continue his studies with an MA in Directing. “She asked me every day if I had applied for film school until finally, I did and it was the best thing I could have ever done.”
When asked why this was such a pivotal point in his life, Adepeju explains how he had to ask what the point of making a film was. His answer seems simple, that “to make a good film, you must first know yourself and your vision”. From there, Adepeju figured he wanted to tell stories that conveyed his narrative, “that are fiercely personal”. Equipped with raw memories, Adepeju uses his body of skills to tell stories that are “Nigerian characters in London, going through identity crisis's about faith, race, love and death”. Narratives dance between various familiar perspective; in ‘Omo Daada’ we witness the story of a son confessing a truth to his family for which there are drastic consequences. Where as ‘Appreciation’ introduces us to a mother whose role as a Pastor is challenged when struggling with grief and her own faith. The focus on religion is prominent in Tomisin’s work. When asked why, he explains,
Adepeju’s exploration of love, life, death and religion, can feel heart wrenching at times; discussing the fierce tension created in his films, the director says it is to make his viewer feel challenged. A side effect of wanting to show more complex narratives tends to be a more niche group of supporters; “There are people who will say your narratives aren’t important but you have to be bold and go for it. If you are fearlessly confident in your voice then people respond to what you’re trying to say.”
This determination can be seen in the way Tomisin has self-funded all of his short films to date. When asked why he didn’t seek funding he explains; “I don’t think many people want to fund these kinds of films. I have a deep need to tell stories that aren’t being made so I just had to do it.”. Despite the challenges, Tomisin has prevailed as an artist and found support in other forms.
Adepeju’s choice to stay away from sharing his content online has somehow kept this talented director’s work sacred. Promotion of his work has been through having made official selection for over 100 festivals, a staggering number that has generated substantial praise and recognition on the festival circuit. Achievements for his short film ‘The Right Choice, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, include its screening at the Oscar-Qualifying; Pan African Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival & HollyShorts Film Festival. Recent recognition for all of this hard work is joyfully reflected in his recent signing with United Agents.
A desire to represent communities, individuals and ways of thinking lay the foundations to Tomisin’s work. A passion to show the tales of men, women and families that are underrepresented in the mainstream today what making this director stand out. Having such a clear vision of the purpose of ones artform will dictate the future work of this talented artist. All in all, what makes Adepeju’s work so special is his way of telling these stories in a manner that is so universally touching. Through this, he seems to be helping an audience engage in narratives that are often mistold or worse, ignored.