The hitmaker Burna Boy’s film on environmental degradation in his hometown of Port Harcourt gave a searing depiction of the repercussion of years-long oil bunkering and gas flaring, its concept touching on the heavy floods that ravaged homes and displaced citizens into the million. The 16-minute documentary, based on a track from his ‘Love, Damini’ album, bore a story of survival told by victims and locals with minimal narrative interference from the project’s cinematographers.
Among those involved in the film is Simpa Samson, its director of photography, whose work as an international documentary filmmaker has largely focused on conflict, global development, health, and human rights issues. In an interview with TheCable’s Stephen Kenechi, Samson discusses how getting to film a Burna Boy project on Port Harcourt’s black soot crisis further iterated his ideals about the change-seeking goals of telling the African story.
Stephen Kenechi: How did you come to be involved in the film?
Simpa Samson: Asurf Oluseyi, the director, is someone whose work in content creation and film I admire. There was a project we were to jointly work on. I was in contention for DoP; I and Muhammed Attah from Lagos. There was one other person. The fixer and I couldn’t reach an agreement, so it was taken off my hand. Asurf reassured me that we would get something else to work together on. He later hit me up, saying there’s a Port Harcourt project for which he would still like me to come in as the director of photography, the DoP. He sent a treatment on the shoot.
But I discovered that the pictures in them were from a project I did for Bloomberg on black soot in Port Harcourt.
He said it was the only documentary that closely addresses the story he was trying to tell. I told him I was the one who shot and directed it; he was shocked. That was how I got on board. As soon as I landed, he picked me up from the airport and we drove to Bayelsa. The damaged roads and houses under water were filmed on that first day.
Prior to that, I had done three to four different Port Harcourt shoots. I’d seen the problem there. I empathized with them as much as I could. But this project was unlike others where we didn’t need to go to the people for them to share their stories raw; those projects where we had to shape the narrative using prepared questions. Burna Boy’s ‘Whiskey’ film was a run-and-gun style of documentary. Asurf knows his stuff; we were in sync. Despite him being the director, he gave me some creative leeway. We complemented each other. I’m happy it turned out how it did.
Stephen Kenechi: As DoP, to what extent did your input shape the project? How was this received on release?
Simpa Samson: I’d been in situations where I worked as both DP and director, but I had a director for ‘Whiskey’. We talked closely because I was the one operating the camera. If he says, “I want this”, he knows you can work your way around achieving optimal lighting, texture, and exposure. There were moments during the project when I had to shoot alone while he did something else. In those moments, I had to take full creative control and leverage my knowledge of being a DoP and director. After each filming, I gave him a card to back up and then got his feedback.
Stephen Kenechi: Having carved out something of a niche for yourself, conflict & issues of social relevance, you must travel a lot. What’s your process like from ideation to the shoot itself, and then post-production?
Simpa Samson: From the get-go, niching wasn’t intentional. I started out doing feature news but found I easily got bored. I filmed wedding documentaries for a bit and left to film corporate videos with Kassim Braimah. He taught me to shoot. I got bored again and an opportunity came for me to work as a video journalist which I picked and got to work with many international networks. I got bored again and realised, if I kept doing that, there’d be no way for me to be creative. Filming news is straightforward. There’s a strict timeframe of two minutes, more or less.
I wanted more, so I stuck to shooting weddings but this was difficult because I hadn’t done it in a while. During the COVID lockdowns, documentary opportunities came because people shooting all over the world couldn’t travel to Nigeria. They sought out local hands, but people didn’t want to film in Maiduguri because they saw it as a war zone.
I have fixers who give me intel on the security situation. We get a security clearance, going only go to the safe zones. If anything happens, then it would be a coincidence. I also do a lot of training for hostile environments, where you learn what to do if abducted. Niching happened on the journey to discovering myself as a documentary filmmaker.
Stephen Kenechi: What project would you consider your most ambitious at this point?
Simpa Samson: There are two; one is out there for viewing and the other is still in post-production. The first is for Vice and the Second is for Aljazeera. The one that tops it all was when I spent about three weeks filming hunters in Yola. Hunters going after Boko Haram. We had to follow the female hunter, Queen Aisha, who was helping hunt insurgents in the region. We spent days in the forest and had to deal with an actual gun battle. It was so real and crazy, like scenes in the movies where soldiers go for a night assault. It was excellent and everyone gave their all.
The second is a project I DP-ed and directed for Aljazeera about a couple that found love doing research on bats in Calabar. We spent days filming at their office in Benin. We climbed the mountain for six hours in Calabar. We were drenched in the rain that started while we climbed. We passed the night on the mountain and spent another two hours walking to a bat cave. It was one of the craziest things I did in 2022. All in all, every project I do is sear to me.
Stephen Kenechi: Filming in conflict zones and the safety risks involved must be terrifying, isn’t it?
Simpa Samson: We have had to meet with bandits in Kaduna while trying to interview them on a project. I was scared to the bones because, after giving us access, we got there and they started brandishing all sorts of weapons.
Stephen Kenechi: In hindsight, what was that lightbulb moment for you diving into documentaries?
Simpa Samson: I’ve always loved filmmaking, doing drama in church as a kid. But in 2012 after university, before NYSC, and during a strike, I took a year off and went to Lagos to pursue an acting career but had no luck. Someone advised me to do something behind the scene that keeps me around actors, so I get to land a role when one comes. I got frustrated, left Lagos, and went to do my service year. Thereafter, almost all the jobs I looked for were in media, despite having studied Business Administration. I went to media houses in Abuja to seek out internship positions.
I met currently known names, to whom people now compare me, but none of them gave me a chance. It was around that time I begged Kassim Braimah. Even he didn’t initially take me seriously. I attempted a short film with the little money I had but it failed. I took a job in Abuja as a special assistant for media and entertainment based on the hope that we were building a TV station. After months, I discovered the CEO wasn’t serious because he comes up with a different idea for every plan we propose. I left and got my first camera with some cash I begged my mum for.
I looked for people I could tag along with and started filming wedding videos. The intrigue 0f telling people’s stories and the kind of smile that comes to their faces when they see the finished product is one thing that inspires me. The lightbulb moment for me in journalism was in realising how something that little could help actual people. For the documentaries, it was when I filmed for Vice and discovered that my work could compare with what foreigners did if they came here. People discovered there was someone here who could do the same work and started trusting me.
Stephen Kenechi: How did the Kassim Braimah tutelage pan out?
Simpa Samson: He’s among those who greatly impacted my career. I tell him that the reason I’m here is because of how much he pushed me. When no one was taking me in as a production intern in Abuja, he did. I became good at interning but not shooting. He would push me and tell me I needed to get better. He would say to me, “if young handle filmmaking as a pastime, it’ll handle you as a pastime too.” At the time, I wasn’t sure if I could make a living out of filmmaking. I thought I could do it for a while and later look for government work that pays up to ₦200,000.
I later had a rethink. If Kassim can make a living from it, then let me see how seriously I can take filmmaking and how far I’ll go. I get a lot of messages from young filmmakers who visit my site or social media pages and want to collaborate. They fail to understand it’s a process. There was a time when no one trusted me to do jack but, now, I’ve done work for almost all the majors. Taking filmmaking as an all-or-nothing is something I got from Kassim.
There was a time he complained seriously about my framing; it was one thing he couldn’t really explain to me even after one year of trying. I had to learn it myself on a different project and found that creativity comes with learning from others and trying new things. Kassim greatly influenced me. In his Yawa series, I was among one the first that started with him. He brought me in as an intern. I’ve been there, even until now. We’d talk until 3 am and I would ask why he was not yet asleep. He would tell me things like, “dude, we’re hustling, man. No time to sleep.”
Stephen Kenechi: How profitable has it all been for you?
Simpa Samson: I live an okay life. I can afford my needs, care for my family, and have good equipment for work.
Stephen Kenechi: Examining the past and prospecting, what innovations are you looking to bring to your work?
Simpa Samson: I try to get the best camera and sound equipment that other filmmakers from the UK, the US, and other parts of the world use. So I’m definitely not short of upgrading to the currently accepted gear for the job.
Also, I watch other people’s work. I have documentary filmmakers around the world that I look up to. I constantly speak to them and watch their latest work. When I see a particular thing I like, I try to deploy it in my next project.
Based on these, I’ve filmed all around Africa, including Ghana, Cameroon, Niger Republic, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. I’ve worked with clients such as Vice News, CNN Africa Voices, BBC Documentary, Aljazeera, Bloomberg Quicktake, Russia Today, Ruptly, Africanews, Euronews, WaterBear, and RedFish Media. I’ve also done projects with international aid organisations such as the UN, UNOCHA, UNICEF Geneva, and Save the Children UK.
I have my own personal documentary project that I’m working on, titled ‘Our Missing Men’. It’s still in production.
Stephen Kenechi: What thoughts have you had about how creatives like yourself can better tell the African story?
Simpa Samson: It’s to immerse ourselves in the African culture when on projects. We need to research as much as we can to be able to tell a more authentic story, better than non-Africans will if they came to Nigeria to tell it.
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