Celebrities BFI London FF 2019 Women Directors: Meet Aoife O’Kelly...

BFI London FF 2019 Women Directors: Meet Aoife O’Kelly – “Walking with Shadows”


Aoife O’Kelly has worked in several aspects of television and film production for nearly a decade.  She has made two short films, including “Fish” in 2015, and “Lula” in 2016, which won Best Student Short Film at the London Short Film Festival. “Walking with Shadows” is the writer-director’s first feature.

“Walking with Shadows” will premiere at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival on October 9.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

AO: Adrian Njoko (Ozzy Agu) has the dream life — a successful career, a beautiful and intelligent wife, and a loving child. But all is not what it seems and when the past catches up with him he must face up to both himself and society to salvage the carefully cultivated life that is crumbling before his eyes.

This film is really about feeling like an outsider, being different, and wanting to be accepted by the ones you love. Adrian is bullied by his brothers, ostracized by his father, and is rejected by peers, for trying to be himself.

This can put one in a desperate situation to do anything to please others and have an “easy life.” We see the lengths one man will go to hide his true nature, but one can only pretend to be someone else for so long.  As Adrian puts it, “The past cannot stay hidden forever.”

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AO: I was actually introduced to the story through Funmi Iyanda, who runs the production company Oya Media. She optioned the book “Walking with Shadows” from Jude Dibia many years ago, and has worked on getting the project off the ground since.

Upon seeing my previous short film “Lula” she sent me Jude’s novel to read. I found it touched me deeply for its sensitive portrayal of a man struggling with his identity, and being in a desperate situation as everything in his life falls apart.

I felt it was rare to see men portrayed in such an emotional and gentle way, and rare to see the topic of homosexuality being dealt with not as a loud statement, but as a subtle element that is part of this man’s character.

I think many of us struggle to accept ourselves and fear the repercussions and opinions of others. This is a feeling that really does unite us no matter where you come from. I was immediately open to collaborating with Funmi on the project

Funmi and I both believed this was an important story to tell in particular, as it reveals the complexities of a situation which happens frequently in Nigeria and around the world. We wanted to bring humanity to this very difficult situation, and explore the impact that being forced to hide your sexuality can have on yourself and others.

This is particularly relevant in countries where homosexuality is illegal or still strongly opposed. It becomes ingrained in the culture of the society to feel like this subject is taboo and to punish those who dare embrace their true identities.

Being from Ireland, I am familiar with the history of oppression towards members of the LGBTQ+ community, with homosexuality being illegal until 1993. Adrian’s story could have been that of any man or woman in Ireland only a few decades ago.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

AO: I would love the film to connect with people in some way that might be personal to them. Adrian’s journey for self-acceptance is relatable. His struggle is tough and deeply internal.

The same could be said for his wife, Ada (Zainab Balogun), who is tormented by this revelation and fights her own battle. And that is the takeaway in many ways —  everyone is fighting their own battle and hopefully this film opens that idea up a bit more — to being empathetic and tolerant towards what that experience might be like.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AO: Time and money is always what we seem to battle against in making films, but to speak on the creative side I think one of the biggest challenges was trying to make sure the heart of the story remained true to the original novel, as well as conveying an authentic sense of Nigerian culture and environment in the film.

Working with the actors to convey these moments of quietness and pain while doing a very intense 36-day shoot is also definitely challenging!

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

AO: The film is funded by London production company Oya Media, run by Funmi Iyanda, along with TIERs — The Initiative for Equal Rights — in Nigeria, headed by Olumide Makanjuola.

“Walking with Shadows” has been a long-term passion project for both these producers and they have been working incredibly hard to develop this film and raise the funding over the last number of years to get it to the finish line.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

AO: I grew up surrounded by the arts. My mother was very encouraging of taking music lessons and making art from a young age. I also loved to write and make short stories and plays.

I had a huge obsession with watching films on top of this, to the point of recording hundreds of VHS tapes and making my own “Blockbusters” in my childhood living room, complete with color-coded movie indexes!

Films became quite escapist for me, so I think there just came a point where I realized I could combine my love of art, music, and story into one and create something that brings you to another world. Film had its hooks in me from that point and I’ve been working my way towards the directing chair since.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

AO: Best: Make a film that you want to see, you cannot anticipate how someone else will react. But if you care about the story and it speaks to you, it will find its audience.

Worst: I can’t really say. I spend so much time trying to remember all the good advice that the bad stuff doesn’t have room to sink in!

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

AO: Try not to let the stats and the fact that we’re “female directors” get into your head too much. You are a director and you have every right to tell the stories you want to tell.

I would also say direct with kindness, understanding, and in a collaborative manner. It’s not weakness to look for advice and hear other opinions. That will always get the best results from your crew! That goes for male directors, too.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

AO: There are quite a few, but I think one of the most wonderful, audacious films directed by a woman has to be “American Psycho” by Mary Harron. I think she really paved the way for women in making genre films and made this incredible character piece that’s wrapped in a blanket of satire and horror.

I also loved “Chevalier” by Athina Rachel Tsangari, another offbeat comedy, about male friendship. I guess men directed by women is an intriguing subject matter for me!

W&H: What differences have you noticed in the industry since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?

AO: I think as I’m just beginning to find my place as a director in the industry, which can be intimidating in quite a male-dominated field, it really feels like there is so much active support right now to see women succeed in filmmaking, in all the various roles we can take on.

It’s great to see more schemes, more funding, and more conversations around supporting women and it is starting to feel like a safer space where you are no longer afraid to call out any behavior that makes you uncomfortable, and you know there are now people who will listen if you need particular support. It gives me optimism for the future of film and television.

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