‘Blood Sisters‘, the much-awaited Netflix original, premiered exclusively on the streaming platform globally, on Thursday. The project, which is Nigeria’s first series to be shown on Netflix, has continued to elicit different reactions.
Biyi Bandele, director of the project, recently featured on TheCable’s Twitter Space on the film titled “Blood Sisters: Nollywood’s New Gem”.
The UK-based Nigerian writer and filmmaker spoke on various aspects of the movie as well as the criticism trailing it in some quarters.
Are you tired of people associating you with ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’?
No, I’m very proud of that film. It was a miracle that it got made, and after it was made, all sorts of things tried to bury it. People attacked it until they saw it. But it’s going to be around long after I’m not here. I’ve done other things since then but I’m really proud of that film.
How did you get on the ‘Blood Sisters’ project?
I was actually in New York, doing a fellowship at NYU in 2020, to research a book I’m currently writing when I got a call from Mo Abudu. She produced ‘Fifty’, which I’d done with her many years ago. She’d phoned to find out if I’d be interested in directing another film, not Blood Sisters. The film was so important that I said yes to her offer. It was during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I suspended the research I was doing, suspended the writing of the book and I came home to work on the screenplay for that project. Then, while I was working on it, Netflix said they had to postpone it. So, I decided to stay home because I hadn’t stayed in Nigeria for a very long time.
While I was waiting, one Friday night, around 10 pm, Mo called me saying, ‘We’ve got this project called Blood Sisters, and we’re in pre-production, weeks away from shooting. We would like to offer you the project to direct. I need an answer from you tonight.’ I asked her for a brief summary which she gave me, and I liked what she said. Then, I decided to read the script.
They’d already cast. Usually, I’d be involved in every aspect – writing the screenplay, casting – I’d be involved in everything. Now, I could just go into this and test my skills as a filmmaker. It was an adventure. I just dived into it. I took a chance and it was really fun.
It was a star-studded cast! Did this make your work as a director harder?
For me, the most important thing is once I know I can get a performance out of an actor. Directing is a craft. It’s no different from carpentry or bricklaying. You piece things together bit by bit. There are right ways of doing it and rubbish ways of doing it.
The joy of working on ‘Blood Sisters’, with someone like Ramsey or Nancy or Ini or Deyemi or Kate or Uche was that they were all great actors. They were actors that you could direct. You could say let’s do this or that and they will do it even if they were not sure or didn’t completely agree with you. But once they saw that it worked, they went all the way with it.
I was in heaven, basically.
How were you able to get the emotions needed from the actors?
When I’m working with an actor on the story, I bring a combination of experiences that I’ve had in life, my knowledge of movies and writing, and how to move an audience. Then, I apply that to what I’m doing.
It involved a lot of conversations with my actors. Nancy and Ini were incredible. The way they worked together, there was no ego. They were not trying to outact each other… They were incredibly generous to each other. Sometimes, one of them would allow the other one to shine in a scene.
We were all working together as one. I had a great DP, crew, and producers. The right team came together at the right time.
The whole idea of filmmaking is storytelling. An integral aspect of which is the thematic component. Given the timing of this movie, what message does it hold for the Nigerian context?
The message is one that is dear to me. I remember once, many years ago, a friend I grew up with was talking about his wife. They were getting divorced. And he told me a story, very casually, about beating her up. That was the last time I spoke to him.
In episode 1 of ‘Blood Sisters’, I wanted Kola to be created on his own terms. I didn’t want the audience to think that this guy is an animal just yet until he does what he does. Because anyone who does that does not think of themselves as evil. I wanted him to just be himself and the audience would make up its mind. So, I was subtle but effectively building a case for the defense after the killing. It was important that I didn’t say, “Oh, he’s a bad guy”. That’s easy to do.
I hope people take from it messages that would enrich their lives. I’m not a preacher. You tell stories to raise a mirror to society and say look at yourself. And sometimes that’s more than enough. Sometimes seeing yourself in the mirror is a shock. And it makes you think.
Apart from domestic violence, we saw a dysfunctional family and the rot that stems from it. What do you think parents can learn from this?
We had a lot of conversations about how we were going to play the role of the scary matriarch. Her relationship with her favourite son, Kola, looks almost incestuous. The first time it happened, Kate and I had talked about it in detail but I hadn’t told Deyemi, the person playing Kola. And he was so startled. But I wanted to create this portrait of this family as so dysfunctional that everything that goes wrong with it is almost inevitable.
Again, I’m not a preacher. I don’t have answers to anything. For me, the important thing is that I create a very clear and plausible picture and the audience will take from it what it will. We do have an epidemic of violence, and a lot of that starts from home.
We have this habit of blaming everything on our leaders as if our leaders come from Mars. Our leaders are us… We create them. We behave exactly the way our leaders do. It’s to basically have these conversations with ourselves about how we interact with each other. That, for me, is what we tried to do in Blood Sisters.
Nollywood has received a lot of criticism about directing, scripting, casting, and even pictures. What do you think Blood Sisters did right that subsequent titles can emulate?
I can only speak for myself as a filmmaker. I believe very much in craft, and in learning your craft. I’ve been doing this all my life. I learnt my craft really well.
I have no desire to be a director of photography (DP) but I know how to work with DPs. I have no desire to be a costume designer but I work with them. The most important thing is knowing how to work with different aspects of your film crew, and knowing the right questions to ask them.
When you watch a film in Nigeria, you know if the director knows what they’re doing. There are a lot of people in the Nigerian film industry who are very powerful but haven’t spent the time to learn their craft. It’s as simple as that.
What influenced your choice of casting?
I was not a part of that. It was Mo and a group of other people. The only character I was involved in casting was Gabriel’s character. Gabriel was originally meant to play the journalist but the person meant to play the character Gabriel I ended up playing pulled out for personal reasons. I thought Gabriel would be great for the role and Mo agreed with me. So, we made a strong case with Netflix and they gave the go-ahead.
However, I molded the characters. For instance, Ramsey’s character had dialogue in the original script. But I thought it would be much more powerful if we threw the dialogue out. I sat down with Ramsey and had a long conversation. He didn’t agree with me at first, but we did a couple of scenes and he looked at me and nodded. He didn’t say anything but I knew what that nod meant.
The casting was great already. The cast is a very important tool when you’re making a film.
Ini is an incredible actress. She’s a method actor. The first time I met her when we had to read the script, I thought she was just trying too much. I was like, relax, take it easy. Later on, I realised she was just in character. The person I met was not Ini, it was the character she was playing.
What influenced the choice to go with Genoveva Umeh for the role of Timeyin?
Of all the characters in the film, her role was the one that worried me the most. I was not sure how I was going to work with whoever played that character. I wanted the character to be first outrageous but not so outrageous.
I wanted the audience to think, ‘I could run into this person in real life’, not just a character from a film. I actually gave Geneveve a couple of films to watch. She found them and she watched them.
We talked just so we could have the same reference. So, we used those films as a reference point. She’s a very talented actress.
How long did it take to put the whole project together?
Because we were shooting volumes 1 and 2, 3, and 4 simultaneously. It was the same crew and the same actors. There were days when I would wait for Keneth to shoot and I had to use the same crew and actors. Or the other way round.
It was very intense. It was many weeks. I really honestly don’t remember.
Did everything run smoothly on set all the time?
The thing about making a film is that if you’re not really passionate about what you’re doing, then there will be…. As a director, sometimes, you want to do so many things, and you need tools to achieve this. And you hear that producer say they don’t have the money. Sometimes, it becomes scary. That happens on every set.
Kudos to my first assistant director who was able to put everyone under control. We shot during the height of COVID-19 and Netflix insisted that we’re tested often. It was random. I was scared that I might test positive, because I knew that if I did, then everything would stop.
Sometimes, you’ll get to a location and you’ll be told that an actor in a scene has gone into isolation. So, it was pretty intense, it was not an easy shoot. When we did the last shoot, it felt like a relief.
Do you not think the excessive sex scenes can overshadow the main theme?
There is nothing aggravated in the film. Not the violence, not the sex, it’s just film. For me, pretty much every movie that I have made, and every TV series that I worked on were made for adult audiences. I don’t make movies for people under 12 or 13. I will someday but I haven’t yet. And I’ll do anything if I know that the story legitimately requires it.
I think there’s a level of laughable hypocrisy when you come from a country like Nigeria, which has about 200 million people. Why would you then censor the portrayal of sex on screen? It is pure hypocrisy.
When the story requires it, when it calls for it, you find a way of making it happen. And the truth about sex on screen is that it’s one of the most. I think on Netflix the show is for people over 16.
What was your fondest moment on set?
There were so many. There was a scene with the wild dogs. Initially, when we were casting those, photos of the dogs were sent to me, and I said they look like Ajebutter dogs, not wild. On the night when some wild dogs were brought to the set, they wanted to eat up a cow who was in a field near the set.
And the dogs’ handler had to restrain them. They treated him like he was one of them and he behaved like he was also.
So, when it came to directing the scenes, I could not direct the dogs. We did all sorts of stuff, we just sat and waited, and eventually, they started doing what we wanted them to do of their own volition. And we enjoyed watching it. It was a joy watching that.
Outside of that, it was just working with great actors, some of them are not stars. They were fantastic. When I’m working with actors and I get performances out of them, it gives me a lot of joy. So, every moment on set was a joy.
Working with Kate Henshaw, Deyemi was a great joy. Every scene was tough to achieve but as we did, it was great. Wale Ojo and Segun Arinze were also incredible.
Are there plans for a sequel?
I have no idea. Right now, I’m writing a book. A lot of the chapters are set in Lagos at the marina on Broad street between 1852 and 1890. The character is Samuel Ajayi Crowther.
Was it informed by something that happened?
The idea actually came from Temidayo, Mo Abudu’s daughter. But I wasn’t part of that. I was given the script and what I did with it was work with my actors on the dialogues. We adapted everything. It was important for me that my characters speak in a way people of that class speak in Lagos.
I don’t know where that idea came to Temidayo.
How has the collaboration between Netflix and Nollywood improved the Nigerian film industry?
I can say that in terms of quality, Netflix has influenced Nollywood. The budget has been better, I think that’s a key element.
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