Filmmaker/director par excellence, Remi Vaughan-Richards says she enjoys using drama as a tool to convey entertaining, as well as educative messages. She started out abroad in 1990, where she worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood then came back to Nigeria when she thought, “it was time to tell our stories.” She recently picked up an AMVCA award for Best Documentary for her six year labour of love, Faaji Agba–a documentary that explores highlife music in Nigeria. Well known for her versatility, Remi Vaughan-Richards shot, directed, produced and edited it.
Who is Remi Vaughan-Richards?
Remi Vaughan-Richards hmmm, who am I? Well, I am a filmmaker. I started out at the Royal College of Art, where I studied Textile Design. As soon as I left, I moved into the sci-fi and fantasy costume department, then to the art department as a storyboard artist for the BBC among others… In 1999, I finally became a fully-fledged director/filmmaker… Directing is in my blood!
You started your career in 1990, working on films like Judge Dredd (Sylvester Stallone) and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (Tom Cruise). How was that experience?
It was an incredible experience working at the top end of the film world… It helped me to see how things should be done and the craft behind filmmaking. I spent a lot of time back then on set, studying the master directors and getting to know all the main people in each department while constantly asking questions. It has proved an invaluable time for me as a director, learning stuff you will never learn at film school because it is hands on.
Since 2005, you have been working between Nigeria and the UK. Why did you come back to work in Nigeria?
I came back for a couple of reasons; I felt I had to come back to look after my parents’ legacy, their house and what they both represented in the context of Lagos. Then of course, as a filmmaker I was a bit tired of seeing stories about Nigeria and Africa, which always pander towards the Western perception of Africa… It was time to tell our stories.
How has that experience been for you? Is interesting a word for it?
No, it has been very rewarding but frustrating at the same time. To be honest, it can be hard because the dedication is not there; people tend to set their standards low and it can be very difficult to realize one’s vision. I end up doing the script, the directing and the editing myself because I am sure of what I am going to get. Many times, I pay people to write and give them a good outline of what I expect… But what I get despite my many notes is substandard. It’s the same with editing; you pay someone to do it, then end up having to do it yourself. So you don’t get paid for it because you have paid someone else to do it… The word therefore, is creative frustration… So when you come across the good people, you hang onto them!
It is also frustrating to see filmmakers making wannabe American stories… America is the master at telling their stories. In addition, the support here for the industry is lacking…I could go on but let me stop here.
How would you describe cinematography standards in Nigeria, and how far are we from reaching world standards?
I think on that level we are generally obsessed with the latest camera and technology, forgetting that the story is what should come first. Cinematography has a long way to go because it is more than merely lighting the set, the cinematographer has to understand the story and help it with his or her skill. Thriving in a male-dominated industry must not have come easy, how have you been able to make and maintain a niche for yourself? I worked in a male-dominated industry in the UK, where I was mostly the only female and in some instances, the only person of colour. So it is a piece of pie here; I am very hands-on and very physical, there is little the guys can do physically that I can’t. My 15 years of capoeira has helped me too, though I guess I am still a tomboy. I grew up in a home in which there was no division of labour between the sexes.
You are the Creative Director of Singing Tree Films, a company that provides production services. Why did you start a production company?
I started SingingTree Films so that I could work on projects with institutions like the Ford Foundation. I love the work I do that involves using drama as a tool to convey messages— stories that educate and bring up issues, so one is entertained, yet walks away with something to think about.
Your company provides serious content, shedding light on Africa’s ordeals, including diseases. Do you feel personally affected by these documentaries?
I guess I went ahead of myself ….I get totally immersed in the documentaries I do. I feel very privileged that the people I cover, trust and allow me to tell their stories. It is important one does not abuse that privilege and tells a balanced story.
How effective are they in passing the message across?
Very! Especially when it comes to drama… I never start a project without doing extensive research on the target audience and on the subject. When the script is done and taken around the communities, I embark on more research to see what the reaction was and how it impacted on the audience. So far, so good!
What are some of your most memorable projects?
Well, I just finished rounding up a 6-year old passion project called Faaji Agba, a documentary on the history, music and culture of Lagos from the 1940s to 2015, through the lives of a group of Yoruba master musicians including Fatai Rolling Dollar, which Kunle Tejuoso of Jazzhole Records brought together to form the Faaji Agba Collective… It was a very emotional and personal journey, and an insight into them as people, as well as their perspective of Lagos. The other project is a feature drama for the Ford Foundation called Unspoken, on the issue of young girls between 11 and 15 ending up pregnant and the impact on them. One character is an 11- year old northern child bride and the other, a 13-year old from the south. Both their stories collide in a hospital in Lagos.