Akin Omo­toso: From ac­tor to film­maker

Ver­sa­tile, cre­ative and ooz­ing tal­ent – Akin Omo­toso is mak­ing his mark in the movie busi­ness


HE’S been an ac­tor, writer, pro­ducer and di­rec­tor, and if you ask him which dis­ci­pline he loves the most, he wouldn’t be able to choose. Be­cause for him they all boil down to one thing – telling a story. That’s what he re­ally loves.

Akin Omo­toso is good at it too. The ­ro­man­tic com­edy Tell Me Sweet Some­thing, which he co-wrote and directed, raked in more than R2 mil­lion at the box of­fice and won the award for best nar­ra­tive fea­ture at the Black­S­tar Film Fes­ti­val in Philadel­phia in the US last year.

His new­est film, Vaya, which tells the story of three strangers try­ing to make their way in Jo­han­nes­burg, was the only South African film to be se­lected for the 2016 Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in Canada.

The movie is set to hit South African screens some­time this year. It’s based on the real-life sto­ries of peo­ple liv­ing on the streets – some of whom ap­pear in the film – and ex­plores the harsh re­al­i­ties of life when you’re not in con­trol of your own des­tiny, the 42-year-old film­maker says.

The three strangers find them­selves on the same train bound for Jo­han­nes­burg and ar­rive full of hope and plans, un­pre­pared for life in the un­fa­mil­iar city.

Akin knows what it’s like to ar­rive in a new place and try to make your way there – he was born and grew up in Nige­ria, and moved to South Africa with his fam­ily at the age of 17.

His fa­ther, writer and aca­demic Kole Omo­toso, had ac­cepted a job in the English depart­ment at the Univer­sity of the Western Cape and so the fam­ily moved to Cape Town.

Akin com­pleted his last year of school at elite boys’ school Bish­ops and went on to study drama at the Univer­sity of Cape Town. While his strug­gles weren’t the same as the char­ac­ters in Vaya, the themes of new places, ex­pec­ta­tions and fears struck a chord.

He’s also al­ways had a strong so­cial con­science and Vaya gave him the op­por­tu­nity to train his lens on what poverty means for so­ci­ety.

“Poverty strips peo­ple of choices – choices that are both prac­ti­cal and moral,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

“When you have no money, no job, home or fam­ily to sup­port you, it’s very hard to be good. When poverty leaves peo­ple with few op­tions, how do we judge the moral choices peo­ple are forced to make?”

ALTHOUGH he’d al­ways wanted to be a lawyer, the cre­ative streak that runs in his fam­ily won out – which is why he chose to study drama.

Be­sides his writer dad, who’s most fa­mil­iar as the Yebo Gogo guy in the Vodacom ad­verts, sis­ter Ye­wande Omo­toso is an ac­claimed writer too and his late mother was an ­ar­chi­tect.

“Cre­ativ­ity was en­cour­aged – we were sur­rounded by it,” Akin says. “There was a very artis­tic feel in the house. My mom was con­stantly draw­ing stuff and we of­ten went on site with her. With my dad ­be­ing a writer, there were al­ways books around the house.

“I’ve al­ways liked telling sto­ries.

“When I was younger I would write sto­ries on my dad’s type­writer. But think­ing about it as a ca­reer hap­pened only when I was in drama school – that’s when it started to crys­tallise. “Some of my friends say now it was ob­vi­ous but it was never that ob­vi­ous to me.” He never saw act­ing as his des­tiny. “I thought I’d get to law later. Yes, I stud­ied drama but it wasn’t like, ‘ This is go­ing to be it.’ But I did feel that if I ap­plied my mind prop­erly it could work.” He tried out var­i­ous things while at drama school and re­alised he was in­ter­ested not only in act­ing but in di­rect­ing as well. It was a good thing too be­cause a lot of the ac­tors he knew didn’t have enough work. “I’d go to a res­tau­rant and see them wait­ing ta­bles so I was like, ‘ You bet­ter find some­thing else to do.’ And that’s when I started to teach my­self to di­rect,” he says. In the two decades he’s been in the in­dus­try Akin has been suc­cess­ful on both sides of the cam­era. “I never stopped one to do the other – they’ve had to find a way to co­ex­ist.” Af­ter plenty of stage and some TV work in Cape Town he moved to Jo­han­nes­burg when he bagged a role in the soapie Isidingo in 1998. He used the money he made from his act­ing jobs to makeKiss of his Milk. first pro­fes­sional short film, “On the days I wasn’t shoot­ing Isidingo I was ped­dling this 17-minute film and be­cause of that I was asked to do an­other short film, The Night­walk­ers,” he says. “there ThoseHe movedas shorta di­rec­tor.”from films Isidin­go­helped meto Gen­era-get out tions,all the in while which jug­glinghe played di­rect­ing Khaya and Motene, act­ing. “I wrote and directed the fea­ture film God is African in 2000, the same year I landed the role in Gen­er­a­tions,” he says. “I would be on the Gen­er­a­tions set from 6 am to 6 pm then I’d go to the God is ­African set and we’d wrap at about 4 am. I’d sleep for two hours then have to go back on set. “I al­ways joke that the first cou­ple of times view­ers saw Khaya on Gen­er­a­tions he was prob­a­bly frown­ing be­cause I was tired.” AF­TER four years with the soapie, Akin left to fo­cus on pro­duc­ing and di­rect­ing for TV, start­ing a pro­duc­tion com­pany with part­ner ­Rob­bie Thorpe. To­day it’s called Rififi Pictures and they have ­an­other part­ner, Retha­bile Mothobi.

Be­sides di­rec­to­rial tri­umphs such as his 2011 film Man on Ground, a hard- hit­ting drama about xeno­pho­bia, he’s also had plenty of act­ing high­lights, in­clud­ing roles in Blood Di­a­mond along­side Leonardo DiCaprio, Lord of War along­side Ni­co­las Cage and most re­cently Queen of Katwe with Os­car win­ner Lupita Ny­ong’o.

“It was great and I learnt a lot from watch­ing and talk­ing to each of them,” he says of work­ing with the A-list stars. “They were all very open and gra­cious and made my ex­pe­ri­ences on those sets mem­o­rable.”

This year marks his 20th year in the busi­ness and he’s thrilled with what he’s achieved. “I knew that I would just have to work hard and that nothing is promised. Ev­ery­thing I’ve done, both on my own and with my com­pany, I’ve worked hard for – ev­ery inch of it,” he says.

Find­ing fund­ing for his films is a con­stant chal­lenge but it’s been worth it. In Novem­ber, Vaya won the spe­cial jury award for out­stand­ing film at the African In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in La­gos, Nige­ria.

“Over 20 years I’ve seen peo­ple come and go, peo­ple crash and burn. You see a lot of that. I’ve al­ways been for­tu­nate to have a good sup­port struc­ture around me to pull me back from the dark­ness, as it were.”

But he has no re­grets be­cause if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that he’s a sto­ry­teller at heart. “I think,” he adds with a laugh, “I would have been a very frus­trated lawyer!”


MAIN PIC­TURE: Akin Omo­toso once dreamed of be­com­ing a lawyer. FAR LEFT: He comes from a cre­ative fam­ily – his dad is Kole Omo­toso (CIR­CLE), whom many re­mem­ber from Vodacom ads. LEFT: Akin with ­Ni­co­las Cage in the film Lord of War. ABOVE: Here he is...

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