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'VAYA' Filmmaker Akin Omotoso Shares The Theme Behind His Immigrant Story And Working With Ava DuVernay

The filmmaker talks about his experience of immigration in Africa, themes in VAYA and why its legacy will be a memorable one.

The inside of Ava DuVernay’s Los Angeles ARRAY production company headquarters feels like a bohemian oasis that serves as a beacon for untainted creativity. It’s a place where stories about brown and black people are safely created, archived, and honestly told through film.

Once in the main corridor light bulbs radiate the dimly lit living room space, as shabby chic furniture adorns the confines in the midst of wooden ceilings and walls. The sun shines through the front door, highlighting a small round crème colored table nestled between the couches; atop the table sits a stack of wooden and white coasters which bear the phrase, “Art Urges Voyages.” The three-line statement is a small vignette taken from American poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ poignant quote, “Art hurts. Art urges voyages - and it is easier to stay at home.”

Brook’s poetic prose is exactly the premise for one of ARRAY’s newly acquired films, VAYA (which is now on Netflix).  Nigerian filmmaker Akin Omotoso’s immigrant story follows three main characters moving from a small village to Johannesburg—each having a dream or mission to follow. The ending proves that staying home would’ve been much easier, but they all sacrificed everything in search of a better life.

Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka) is tasked to bring in a small child to the big city but finds that she could attempt to pursue her dreams of being a performer in Johannesburg. Nkulu (Sibusiso Msimang) is ordained by his family to get his deceased dad’s body but finds a dark scandal on the way. And Nhlanhla Xaba (Sihle Xaba) is drawn to the big opportunities the city seemingly promises until things take a turn for the worse. He trusts his cousin can help him get a better job, which sadly ends up being one laden with crime.

These three stories are based on the real-life tales of homeless people in Johannesburg. Omotoso crafted the film through their lens. VIBE recently chatted with Omotoso at the ARRAY headquarters where he spoke about the experience of immigration in Africa, the themes in VAYA and why its legacy will be a memorable one.

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VIBE: How is immigration like in Africa and how welcoming is the culture in the continent’s different cities to outsiders?
Akin Omotoso: Great question. There are multiple levels to it. People leave places of war to find better pastures and things like that. So there is a lot of cross migration. In my case, my dad is Nigerian and my late mother is from Barbados. We moved to South Africa in 1992 when I was seventeen—my dad got a job at a university when the apartheid was falling, so he moved us there. I wouldn’t say there is one way to migrate, there are different ways. I think in VAYA— specific to South Africa— because of the way the history is considering the gold mines and the dark tragedy of the apartheid, it meant that in order to get jobs you had to go to Johannesburg.

It was nicknamed the place of gold. People would leave home to go work at the mines for gold, and some would never come back home. Some came back home once in a while. So what you’re seeing in the film is the story of a country that was designed in a particular way so that people have to go work in the mines.

There is one character that has to go fetch his dad who worked in the mines that passed away. VAYA looks at South Africa’s particular social and emotional resonance; poems and songs have been written about men who go to work in the mines and have gotten lost.

What was it like when you moved to South Africa?
Well, you can imagine it’s 1992. We arrived in South Africa two weeks before that last whites-only referendum, and that referendum was that the then-president was asking the white minority whether they were going to co-sign on this new South Africa. The referendum was to say yes or no. With the benefit of hindsight, you arrive at a very pivotal point in that country’s history. And for me, it’s been an interesting journey watching the country grow—a new society trying to re-establish itself and what that challenge has been. When I was 17 all I really knew in terms of South Africa is obviously the racism, so to be going there was obviously an interesting experience—‘like what are we going to find when we get there.’

A lot of people forget that referendum, they had to ask ‘are we going to change the society or stick to this corrupt and brutal racist system.’ The apartheid was evil, so how do you reconstruct the society that’s been rooted in this kind of evil. As the country has made strides, there are still challenges. I’m one of those people that embraces the idea of a challenge how do you dismantle something that’s so ingrained and institutionalized to start to form the kind of multi-cultural society that is better for humanity.

Going back to VAYA, the stories of the three main characters in the film are based on real-life stories from homeless people. Why did you want to base this film on their experiences?
My company had done a TV series called A Place Called Home, which is based on a book called Finding Mr. Mandini, which was written in collective stories from people who lived on the streets. For us, it was an opportunity to look at the lives of people who live in the margins of society. You don’t always see that on television. For the most part, you always see the more aspirational, so at that time we were interested in exploring who else lives in Johannesburg with us. And after the TV series was over, we were approached by the community of writers.

When you live on the streets, life is transient. It started with the idea of ‘well let’s have a space and let’s talk about it.’ Then for people from the streets for those people it became a place of therapy. It became a place where your story is validated and over the years, the group shrunk to four guys who are also credited in writing it, and whose stories makeup what the film is based on.

Over six years it was really just allowed to cook and grow organically without too much pressure. It’s just this idea of exploring this interest that we had, what is our city and who are these characters in what aspect of the city.'

Something that really struck me was when Nwukul calls his mother and tells her that his dad has another family. I felt that moment was very detached because it seemed like she didn’t care, she just wanted him to return his body back to town. It seemed like that mattered more to her. What did you want to highlight by this?
The idea is that the man has gone to Johannesburg to fight for the family and dies. But you have to bring him back otherwise what will the neighbors say. People fall prey to those trappings of society we all have to appear far more together than we actually are—for me that’s what that moment represents. She doesn’t care. What she needs to happen is for his body to come back. It can’t be her fault, she has to blame someone else and that’s the pressure of society. That’s the reality of a lot of those experiences. I don’t think it's limited to South Africa I think it’s worldwide.

In terms of Zanelle's storyline, her relationship with the little girl she's traveling to Johannesburg with is very vague. Was that intentional?
The way we always imagined it was being about an opportunity. So someone in the village says, ‘the young girl has to go back to her mother.' Zanelle is an ambitious lady, so she says, 'if I’m hanging around here it’s a waste of my time. Johannesburg is where I need to go, so I’ll take her.'

I guess in the sense of the village community, she knows her as a family friend.  But the mission changes when she gets to Johannesburg. At first, she’s like, ‘I’m going to drop you off with your mom, and then I’m going to pursue what I actually want to do.' And in the process of pursuing that, she realizes there is something bigger than her and it’s this little girl.

The film, in general, doesn't have a happy ending. It feels like no one won at the end. Why is not having a happy ending important?
We do want everyone to watch the film though. (Laughs)  In this film, the idea was having gone through a coming of age. An origin story, the idea that life continues. When you leave the cinema and you see someone on the street, you might remember VAYA. And you might remember their story, and if you remember their story then maybe you be so quick to judge them and maybe you might just offer a smile. So I think that’s the idea. Let’s put an experience and an audience through what I think is a visceral and emotional experience so that we can free ourselves from some of the numbness when we walk outside and pretend certain individuals of our society are invisible.

How does it feel for you to work with Ava DuVernay?
It’s great. I’ve always been a fan of hers, and what’s she's trying to do with bringing stories all around the world. She's the perfect person to release this film, and we’re very happy that they responded to it when we shared it to them. This is the perfect partner because our goals have aligned and the urgency to keep these stories alive.

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