The weeks leading up to a world premiere are typically a time of celebration and anticipation for the filmmakers, particularly when that premiere is taking place at the Toronto Film Festival. But for the team behind “Elesin Oba, The King’s Horseman,” which is produced by Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife Films and Netflix and will screen in the festival’s Special Presentations section, there will be a long shadow cast across the red carpet on opening night.
Just weeks ahead of the film’s world premiere on Sept. 10, director Biyi Bandele died in Lagos, Nigeria. His sudden, tragic passing on the eve of what would have been his crowning achievement as a filmmaker sent shockwaves through the film community, particularly in Africa and across the diaspora.
When the news broke, TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey paid tribute to the director, writing in a Twitter post: “Biyi Bandele was doing something so rare in world cinema: large-scale adaptations of African literature meant for the whole world.” Executive producer Abudu described his passing as a “huge loss to all of us.”
“Biyi worked with such ease in the way and manner that he went about directing,” she told Variety. “We will miss that…and how he was able to understand the Yoruba culture, our traditions, those nuances that are truly Nigerian.”
“Elesin Oba, The King’s Horseman,” said Abudu, was the film the late director was most passionate about. Based on real-life events in Nigeria in 1943, it’s set in the Oyo Empire, in which the king’s horseman must commit ritual suicide to follow the deceased royal into the afterlife. His intentions, however, are derailed by sexual desire, leading to a deadly clash with the British authorities and forcing his spirit to roam the earth, spelling doom for the land and its people.
The film is based on the stage play “Death and the King’s Horseman,” which was written by Wole Soyinka, and is the first of the Nigerian Nobel Laureate’s works to be made into a feature film.
Abudu acquired the rights to the play a decade ago but “spent the last 10 years trying to produce it, mainly due to the cost of production,” she said. It was only when Netflix came on board that she felt it possible to achieve the scale and scope the production demanded.
Bandele, who directed the EbonyLife feature film “Fifty” and co-directed the company’s Netflix series “Blood Sisters,” shared her vision of staying faithful to both Yoruba tradition and Soyinka’s acclaimed play. It’s the passion of those convictions that Abudu says will be sorely missed.
“He has left a huge legacy behind, based on his written work, based on the films he’s directed,” she said. “‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ is such an important piece of IP for us in Nigeria, for literature, for those who love the arts, for many people. It’s the first time that this is being made into a feature film. It’s a real legacy that Biyi was able to write the adaptation, and it’s a real legacy that he was able to direct this work.”
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