Biyi Bandele speaks during the production MTV Shuga episode 4 Television series in Lagos on April 13, 2015Image source, Getty Images

Nigerian writer Molara Wood pays tribute to author and filmmaker Biyi Bandele, whose film premiered in Canada weeks after his death.

Bandele’s final film is an adaptation of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s play, Death and the King’s Horseman.

It explores real-life events in the 1940s Oyo Kingdom in West Africa, in which the king’s horseman was required by tradition to die by ritual suicide and follow the Alaafin (ruler of Oyo) into the afterlife.

Bandele, in a tragic twist, did not live to see the release of perhaps his most triumphant film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, a month after the director’s death at the age of just 54. He was buried in Nigeria’s main city, Lagos, on Friday.

Bandele’s daughter, Temi, was in the Canadian city for the bittersweet showcase of the film, described by Variety magazine as “a passion project” for the director.

Paying tribute on Twitter, TIFF’s chief executive officer Cameron Bailey said: “Biyi Bandele was doing something so rare in world cinema: large-scale adaptations of African literature meant for the whole world.”

An artist of many parts, Bandele, who lived in London, was a significant figure in the UK literary scene, and was also known for his achievements of the past decade in the Nigerian movie industry.

For several decades, he blazed his own path in a career marked by artistic virtuosity and reinvention.

“I am first and foremost a writer,” said Bandele, a prodigious talent who made his mark as a playwright, novelist, screenwriter, photographer and director.

Image source, Courtesy of TIFF

Image caption,

Bandele’s final film is the first cinematic adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s acclaimed 1975 stage play

His death in Lagos, Nigeria, on 7 August came not long after Netflix released the original limited series, Blood Sisters, which he co-directed, while he also had a new novel in the works.

News of his passing came in a Facebook post signed by his daughter, Temi, who described the death as “unexpected,” and praised her father as “a storyteller to his bones, with an unblinking perspective, singular voice and wisdom, which spoke boldly through all of his art”.

The news sent shockwaves through the African writing community, and among the literati in London.

Bandele arrived in London in 1990 as winner of the International Student Playscript Competition. He was 22, until then a student of Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria.

Among 100 African writers who paid tribute in the online journal Brittle Paper was Nigerian author Richard Ali, who lauded Bandele’s best-known book, Burma Boy, as “one of the finest novels about WW2 that shows the peculiar experience of [African] soldiers”.

In a post on Instagram, Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo wrote: “He was very much part of our arts community here in the UK and Nigeria. I always had huge respect for his prolific, super-talented and fearless creativity.”

Bandele’s agent Jessica Craig recalled her early encounter with Burma Boy: “I was fascinated by the historical importance and authenticity, having never before known about Nigerian soldiers fighting in WWII for the British army.”

She wondered why the book “is not cherished as a classic of British and African literature”. Based on the war experience of Bandele’s father, the novel was the first to explore the role of African soldiers in the Burma Campaign, which saw Allied forces defeat Japanese troops.

A worthy successor of the great Nigerian playwrights, including Soyinka and Femi Osofisan, Bandele was a precocious forerunner to the country’s current literary stars.

He was a bridge between generations of Nigerian writing, literary genres and art forms, as well as African and Black British writing.

Molara Wood

Molara Wood

Bandele had an imaginative childhood, spent listening to his mother’s stories of gods and spirits – fantastical elements that would later infuse his work”

As fascinating as any character he ever created, the author was born Biyi Bandele-Thomas in 1967 in Nigeria’s Kaduna state – in Kafanchan – a railway town that sounds like something from a fable.

“I left when I was about 15, but it’s defined every single aspect of my life,” he said of his birthplace.

It was an imaginative childhood, spent listening to his mother’s stories of gods and spirits – fantastical elements that would later infuse his work.

Visiting the local library with his father, he was drawn to a book about bicycles – the most common mode of transport in Kafanchan at the time.

The young Bandele became an avid reader, deciding by the age of seven that he wanted to tell stories.

He had his first short story published in a regional newspaper at the age of 12. He had written the first draft of what became his debut novel – The Man Who Came in From the Back of Beyond – by the time he was 14. The manuscript came with him to Britain after he won the playscript competition for Rain.

He published two more novels by the end of the 1990s, and styled his name, simply, as Biyi Bandele.

He wrote about a dozen plays, including Brixton Stories, Oronooko, and Marching for Fausa.

Over the span of a decade, he worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Talawa Theatre Company, and the Bush Theatre.

His stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart opened at the Royal Court Theatre in June 1997.

Danny Boyle directed Bandele’s first screenplay – Not Even God Is Wise Enough – about a day in the life of a Nigerian living in London.

His 1999 novel, The Street, is set in Brixton in south London, where he lived. He was a perceptive chronicler of the Black experience in Britain.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Bandele made a film out of fellow Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous novel

With Boyle’s encouragement, Bandele went into filmmaking, adapting and directing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, starring Thandiwe Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anika Noni Rose.

Beset with difficulties, the film nonetheless came together, shot on location in Nigeria, thanks to the doggedness of its director.

The new Soyinka adaptation is remarkable for Bandele’s bold decision to return to the original Yoruba of the historical episode depicted. It is the first Yoruba language feature programmed at TIFF.

A notable feature of Bandele’s Kafanchan childhood was a bar owned by his family, where he observed colourful, marginal characters up close, including sex workers and pickpockets.

“The most important thing that taught me was never to generalise about people, so that if you find prostitutes in my work, or you find thieves, they are first of all human before they are a type,” he told the BBC in 1998.

Central to his work was the desire “to have ordinary people reinvent their lives”.

Little wonder his photographs of ordinary people on Lagos Island have won plaudits for their warmth and the dignifying eye of his camera.

Bandele’s unpublished novel, Yoruba Boy Running, based on the life of the first African Anglican bishop of West Africa, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, was picked up by publisher Hamish Hamilton before the author’s death.

The novel, along with his larger body of works, should be a fitting epitaph for the uniquely gifted talent that was Biyi Bandele.

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