‘We’re Ready for the World’ – Steve Ayorinde

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A few weeks after the curtains came down on this year’s Toronto International Film Festival featuring Lagos, Nigeria in the event’s City to City program, we had a chat with Lagos State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Steve Ayorinde, one of the key delegates from Nigeria at the global event. 

In this exclusive interview with USAfrica Journal, Ayorinde, shared his thoughts on Lagos’ historic outing at TIFF, the state of the arts, culture and entertainment industry in Nigeria, the Lagos brand; and of course, the forthcoming grand finale of “Lagos @ 50 celebrations slated for May.

This year, Lagos was featured in the City to City programme of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).  This was the first time that an African city was featured in that segment of the festival; what do you make of such move by TIFF?

The attention on Lagos and Lagos filmmakers simply showed how much Nollywood has grown over the years and how Lagos as the birthplace and home of Nollywood is important on the global cultural and entertainment landscape. TIFF is the biggest film festival in North America and one of the biggest four in the whole world and choosing Lagos as the very first to be celebrated in Africa is a huge recognition indeed.

From the perspective of someone steeped in the arts, and also as the prime spokesperson for Lagos State, what was it like seeing films from Lagos, Nigeria on the big screen, side by side with many others from around the world?

It was a wonderful moment indeed. I recall that 10 years ago when Toronto first welcomed Nollywood to the festival, there were only two films – one by Tunde Kelani’s (Abeni) and the other by Faruk Lasaki. The Nigerian Film Corporation had a stand at the festival, but the NFC Managing Director, Mr. Afolabi Adesanya, was the only government official that came. Others did not get visas. I was the only Nigerian journalist at the festival that year. That was when the romance between TIFF and Nollywood started. But ten years down the line with attention on Lagos, it was a wonderful experience seeing eight films from Lagos and more than a 100 delegates – filmmakers, journalists and senior government officials as well as bank officials and festival organizers from Lagos were in attendance projecting Lagos State and drawing attention to the energy and creativity that abound in Lagos.

It was by far the biggest global attention on Nigerian cinema ever and a recognition of Lagos as the home to one of the biggest cinema industries in the world.

Apparently, you had the opportunity to see many film presentations from different parts of the world, including the eight films from Lagos at the festival, what is your assessment of the Nigerian film industry thus far?

I think Nollywood has come of age. And this is the fact that TIFF wanted to show the world world through the diversity in Nollywood. All the eight films presented showed how far Nollywood has developed. Two films stood out in terms of technical accomplishment – Izu Ojukwu’s ’76 and Steve Gukas’ 93 Days. Two of the films were shot by women – Okafor’s Law by Omoni Oboli and Kemi Adetiba’a Wedding Party. Five of the eight films had women as producers and there were two or three first-time directors…all exhibiting different areas of focus and competence; all having something to display about Lagos as a creative hub. People talk about New Nollywood or the New Nigerian Cinema, but for me I think what’s important is that there is a renaissance that has continued in the industry and filmmakers are more alive to their responsibilities as creative professionals, businessmen and as ambassadors in an industry that has succeeded in showing how important it is as a hub.

I’m convinced that we may not be where we would love to be, but we have since left where we used to be as far as Nollywood is concerned.

In a nutshell, what is your take-away from this year’s TIFF?

Nollywood has succeeded in catching the attention of the global cinema community and Lagos as the birthplace of Nollywood was recognized and applauded as an important component and partner in progress with this celebrated film industry.

Artistic Director of the TIFF, Cameron Bailey who curated the City to City segment of the festival, said early this year that “the new cinema of Lagos is bold, exciting, and ready to take its place on the international stage.”  Conversely, is Lagos ready to welcome the world; especially considering that the state according to Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, plans to showcase to the world the unique achievements, culture, heritage and the tourism potentials of Lagos at the grand finale of the Lagos @ 50 celebrations next year?

Yes, Cameron was in Lagos in June and had a joint press conference with me at the government house to announce the choice of Lagos as the city in focus at this year’s TIFF. It was a film festival undoubtedly, but the recognition it gave to Lagos and the platform it provided for the state align with the vision of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode to use arts, culture and entertainment to market Lagos as a destination. The Governor is an art enthusiast that firmly believes that no state or country can fully achieve its full potential if its creative industry is not adequately supported and exposed. This is why the Governor gave his full backing to the participation at TIFF. Lagos State supported the production of one of the films at TIFF – 93 Days, which beautifully tells the story of the resilience of doctors and Lagos State officials in combating the Ebola scourge of 2014. Lagos State had a stand at the festival to serve as base for participants and platform to market the state. We co-hosted a reception/party for the films in focus and supported the participation of several industry professionals and journalists.

I notice that lately Lagos is featuring rather prominently in international arts, culture and entertainment events around the world.  You were in London, England recently during the Notting Hill Carnival, and you just returned from Canada; are these coincidences or conscious efforts on the part of Lagos State to market itself to the world?   Are there specific messages that the state is trying to put across to the international community by participating in these events?

There is a deliberate strategy in how Lagos is being promoted and marketed as a destination. The first one year of the Ambode administration was devoted to getting the continuity agenda right and building on the excellence template of the successive administration in Lagos State. There were no international campaigns or awards being received in that first year. The governor and his team simply devoted themselves to ideas and strategy implementation, working for Lagos and sowing the seeds of progress. But this is the second year of the administration.

The seeds of progress have grown and we felt it was high time that we started projecting Lagos State as a brand to the global audiences, subtly but strategically.

In the first year, we conceived the concept of One Lagos as the master brand for the tourism initiative in Lagos State. The second year now has introduced the slogan to drive that initiative to the world – which is the Love Lagos concept. That was the basis for the campaign in London in August and the Toronto International Film Festival came and was properly harnessed as a time that Lagos had become ripe for global promotion. There will be an added layer to this in 2017 when Lagos State will be celebrating its 50th anniversary as a state. By that time, the campaign would have become ripe for a full-blown brand campaign that will showcase Lagos as the culture, entertainment and commercial hub in Africa and a pride to the black race being the home to the largest concentration of black people anywhere in the world.

How will Lagos State’s presence at such reputable global events impact the development of arts, culture and entertainment back home?  

Arts, culture and entertainment like sports do not function in a cocoon and as such any state or country that will get it right as culture and entertainment hub must get the ‘home and away’ functionality very well. This is what we believe in Lagos State. We will identify few specific global platforms that are best suitable to serve the purpose of brand awareness for Lagos state and seek to utilize such platforms appropriately. But more importantly is the need to market Lagos as a destination hub where the world should visit. This is why Lagos is interested in the two biggest award platforms in Africa for music and film – the All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA) and the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) because they bring the world to the state; this is why Lagos is seeking to build a new convention center and turn Badagry into a destination for tourists; this is why we are building a Lagos Smart City in Ibeju Lekki and encouraging the completion of Eko Atlantic City; this is why we are keen about the Badagry Deep Sea Port and the Ibeju Lekki Airport as well as the Fourth Mainland Bridge. This is why we are investing in top-notch security to ensure Ciara can come and dance on the streets of Lagos and Jermaine Jackson can rock a jazz concert in Ikeja while Mark Zuckerberg can jog on Lagos island without any security personnel and move with ease from Lagos Island to the Mainland to jaw-jaw with Nollywood celebrities and young entrepreneurs in the ICT Industry.

Lagos will go to the world as a conscious global player but it will even do more in opening its large arms to welcome the world as the fifth largest economy in Africa.

So, in the past one month or so, Lagos has had great outings in U.K. and Canada; is Lagos coming to America anytime soon?

Lagos is already in America. [Recently], the governor of Lagos State, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, was honored with the Best Performing Governor Award by the UK-based African Leadership Magazine on the sidelines of the United Nations Assembly in New York. The governor was with President Muhammadu Buhari at a UN function in New York so the award was picked on his behalf by a delegation from the state cabinet. That honor was a pointer to the readiness of the state to bring its brand awareness campaign to the US. But we are aware that America is very big and there are different hubs that hold different promises unlike other countries where everything is concentrated in the capital city. I think America certainly holds a great promise for the Lagos brand awareness campaign towards the Lagos@50 celebration next year and a West and East coast brand awareness campaign/road show may be a possibility whenever it is activated.