In Netflix original film Òlòturé, a journalist in Lagos goes undercover as a prostitute to expose human trafficking and finds a world of exploited women and ruthless violence. Australian cinematographer Malcolm J McLean discusses the decisions, challenges and journey that had him gamble on a more vérité style for the project.
By Audrey van Ryn, with Shan Bartley
Òlòtūré, an EbonyLife Production, is not for everyone. The subject matter of human trafficking in Nigeria is gut wrenching and deep dives into a grimy, dangerous world. While human trafficking is not new, the social spotlighting of the #metoo movement and Black Lives Matter places Òlòtūré front and centre of our ‘must watch’ zeitgeist.
The film follows a young woman, an undercover journalist, who infiltrates the world of prostitution, sex slavery and trafficking in Lagos. It is loosely based on a real story. It has been described in these words: heavy, gritty, unflinching, grotesque, harsh, and ghastly, as well as achingly honest with detached brutality. The cinematography has been noted as impressive with no distracting glamour. Not bad for a movie released on Netflix on October 2, 2020.
Cinematographer Malcolm Mclean is very proud of his movie. He says there has been much buzz about it on social media, especially in Nigeria. The film has reached number 1 in parts of Africa, and was number 10 streamed worldwide in the second week of October. 10 million people worldwide have now watched it.
Mo Abudu, executive producer, had set out to highlight the plight of girls trafficked in Nigeria so that the issue would be talked about throughout the world. Her view is that if the movie can shock people out of their apathy towards trafficking, then the film will have served its purpose.
How did a cinematographer from Australia, based in London, get involved in a movie about prostitution and trafficking in Lagos? McLean explains that Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, is not new for him. Òlòtūré is his fifth Nigerian film, and fourth with EbonyLife and Abudu. For Abudu, and for director Kenneth Gyang, it was a passion project, and McLean says he has always had a huge interest in films about and by women as well as about womens’ issues, and that he also saw this film as an opportunity to “do some good at the same time.”
What was McLean’s experience like, filming such a sensitive subject matter in Nigeria? As he explains, ‘Nollywood’ is a big deal, especially for Africa, but it tends to deal with comedy and safer subjects. “On this film, the producers, writer, director and actors were very willing to try new things and break through social barriers and taboos to get this story out there,” says the cinematographer.
However, the budget was small, and the film was shot over only twenty-one days. McLean says that having a smaller crew and budget worked to his advantage, as he wanted to shoot it in vérité style and give Òlòtūré a documentary feel. “Right from the get-go,” he said, “I realised we could either go traditional or go with a vérité style using small cameras in close. I wanted to put the audience front and centre in the middle of the action, a little like an immersive theatre experience.” He first proposed this idea to Heidi Uys, the producer, explaining that using smaller hand-held cameras would allow him to be the ‘third person’ in the room and get the cameras in very close and into unusual positions.
Kenneth Gyang, the director, immediately liked the idea. Being from a documentary making background, he knew where McLean was coming from. They talked the idea through with Abudu, who agreed with the approach. McLean says, “By shooting with two small cameras in very close, at times the audience become the ‘4th prostitute’ in the room, hopefully investing them in the world of our girls.”
The film opens with an ambitious seven-minute single take, reminiscent of that Copacabana tracking shot from Goodfellas (1990, cinematography by Michael Ballhaus ASC). “The scene starts with prostitutes outside in the street going into a club, dancing, and then going with a client. From the get-go, the camera is with the girls trailing along with them. You can almost feel the handbag on your own shoulder. The camera takes the girls into the nightclub and is in close as punters arrive and the girls argue. The camera puts you right in the middle of the action,” explains McLean.
The opening scene was roughed out on the first day and shot the next night, over nineteen takes. “It took time,” says McLean. “I had to ‘dance’ with the actors. I shot on autofocus, so I had to learn how to get the camera to focus where I wanted the audience to focus on. After some tests, I learned to set the autofocus weighted so just by flicking the camera to right or left, and then panning over slightly, I could have the focus fall to where I wanted it.”
Filming on a small camera gives a very immediate way of storytelling. McLean says that being able to shoot a whole scene in one shot while being so closely related to the actors was “very refreshing.” He would love to bring this vérité style to more films because it engages the audience more. He wants to use this style for one of his own projects he is currently working on.
The cinematographer’s favourite sequence in the film, apart from the opening scene, is when a pimp catches up with our hero and assaults her on the bonnet of his car. He says that originally the actress had quite a few lines in this particular scene. “But I suggested to the director that perhaps it would have more power and terror if she did not manage to get anything out and that the pimp just attacks her. I also wanted it done in one shot so that the audience was completely involved in the assault. I really like it for shock value.”
The film crew shot in many different parts of Lagos over three weeks in very real situations. Using small cameras enabled them to shoot very fast, whether it was a close-up scene, in a car or nightclub, or out on the street at night. The cameras also meant that the crew did not attract attention while filming in real-life red-light areas.
McLean’s camera team was small. There was Idowu Adedapo, an operator who had worked with him on a previous film, two camera assistants / focus pullers and a trainee. McLean operated A-camera with Adedapo on B-camera. The crew’s entire camera kit fitted into two camera bags. The focus pullers set up the cameras and made sure the camera operators’ batteries were available and charged. They were not needed to pull focus, as most of the shooting was actually done on auto focus. “I think they all found the style a little baffling,” laughs McLean. This adds to the films vérité and documentary feel.
In hindsight McLean might have used a follow focus, but when shooting, the small follow focus units did not work very well on the small cameras. In the end, he didn’t mind that the focus sometimes fell out, as he finds it visually interesting and it certainly adds to the feel and look of Òlòtūré.
Most locations were the real thing, but the main house where the girls lived was completely designed inside by Victor Akpan, the film’s production designer. It was an old colonial rule station master’s house and completely derelict. They had to dig three inches of dirt off the floors. McLean really appreciated the efforts that Akpan and his team went to.
All of the interior scenes were shot on the first floor. The house was completely ringed by windows with shutters. McLean describes how he shot 2500 ISO and opened and closed shutters for the day scenes, letting the light drift through the house horizontally. “It is a beautiful look. I only had four 12-inch LEDs the entire time for any modelling or edge,” says McLean.
“At night, I asked the production designer to ring the house outside with industrial street bulbs. I told him to surprise me with the colour.” McLean wanted the night scenes to use a similar style of lighting to the day scenes, with the ambient outside light filtering through the house. He said that Akpan produced some lamps with a green hue. The designer then bought plastic baskets of different colours and put them over the bulbs outside to act as home-made shades. The cinematographer loved it.
Akpan’s other ‘big build’ was the border crossing, says McLean. “We ordered up as many trucks as he could afford and we shuffled what we had around for the different angles so that the queue looked much larger than what we actually had available,” explains McLean.
McLean acknowledges that the subject matter could be very sensitive. Regarding the nude, semi-nude and violent scenes, he says, “We checked with the actresses if they were comfortable, and if they wanted to stop. Uys was at every shoot day, as was Temidayo Abudu, another producer. We had closed sets and the actresses always knew that all they had to do was raise a hand, or say ‘Stop,’ and we’d close it down, without a second thought.”
The cinematographer observes that Òlòtūré is a very ‘female centric’ film and says that the women working on the film formed strong bonds with each other. He imagines they had good experiences while working on the film. He does comment that the actors were very brave in all of the violent and nude scenes, especially during one forest scene. “That scene was difficult because culturally, voodoo is very intimidating.” Nigeria is a religious society and Nigerian actresses just don’t take off their clothes. For the forest scene, body doubles were used for all the leading actors. “Even so,” says McLean, “it was still a terrifying scene for all of the actresses involved, and they were very game and very professional. With the violence, nudity and voodoo, we asked a lot of the actresses.” He said it helped that the director was always alert to potential issues with the cast. He describes Kenneth Gyang as having “a lovely quiet manner about him” and says his concern for the cast always shone through.
McLean says he was lucky to be able to colour the film before the editing was finished and to have full decision on the look of Òlòtūré. Due to some upcoming festival deadlines, the grading of the film was left to the cinematographer and Ross Baker at Halo Post in London, and they managed the work within seven days. McLean sent back daily frame grabs to Abudu, Gyang and Uys, who were happy with what was being achieved.
Has McLean been back to Nigeria again since 2018? He says he hopes to get back there soon. He has some practical advice for anyone considering filming in an African country like Nigeria. He cautions that filmmakers need to consider the limitations of what’s available with regard to crew, equipment and attitude.
“You need to understand that things may be less efficient and that you sometimes need to be patient. You really need to learn about the cultural differences of the people both between you and them and between them themselves,” says McLean. There are different religions to consider and different tribal histories. He recommends that anyone who is going to shoot in Africa reads up about the history and the people of a particular country or region.
The cinematographer says he always packs a comprehensive first aid kit along with his light meters when working in Africa. For the more dangerous areas or when out in the countryside, he tends to carry a small satellite tracker. He adds the useful tip that linen shirts and trousers are recommended wear, as linen wicks away moisture in humid countries and helps keep one cool. And a good hat is a must!
Nigeria aside, what McLean would really like to do is shoot in Australia again. He started out as a gaffer on Flying Doctors a long time back, and, while he has been many different places recently and filmed in most corners of the world, he has rarely shot in Australia. He is very keen to do some Australia-centric projects.
Malcolm J McLean is an award-winning Australian cinematographer based in London.
Audrey van Ryn is a writer based in New Zealand.
Shan Bartley is a film buff and writer, specialising in media and PR.