Through The Lens Of John Ogunmuyiwa: South London’s Man Of Many Moments (Interview)

‘Mandem’ Director John Ogunmuyiwa opens up about his creative process, views on the depiction of Black culture in media and offers an insightful analysis on the life of Sandra from Cornwall.

From the moment that we enter the world and are freed from the trappings of our umbilical chord, there is an innate desire to escape from and alter our reality. We adopt personas, indulge in filters and board planes, all in an attempt to remove ourselves from the monotony of everyday life. The pursuit of the spectacular is something that we have all submitted ourselves to at one time or another and some of us are able to achieve it more than others, but for the most part we exist in the moments in between. With nothing but a camera in hand, Photographer-Director John Ogunmuyiwa is proving that there is magic in the ordinary if you’re able to look at it from the right angle...

In an attempt to break the ice and get the formalities out of the way I asked how he was doing and rather than the usual “I’m fine, thanks for asking” response, the answer that came back was more honest and telling than one would expect from a first conversation. “Riding the wave. I feel like I’ve been on a wave for a bit and I’m kind of just trying to ride it out and see what’s coming and trying to surf, literally kalabunga man, trying to surf. Riding a wave… more energy”. And some wave it has been!

The last few months have been a celebratory tour de force of John’s latest film ‘Mandem’. The film featured at the London Film Festival in late 2020 and has been receiving widespread acclaim from critics and viewers ever since. It follows a run-of-the-mill day in the life of Ty (played by Bradley Banton) and Malcolm (played by Stevie Basaula), two drug dealers from South London with a friendship that has more than meets the eye. In line with the theme of the last 12 months, contact time has been scarce. The usual press runs and industry events that would have led to a chance encounter didn’t happen so we traded voice notes instead.

The name John Ogunmuyiwa or ‘John OGunz’ as he also known as, is attached to two successful short films (“Mandem” and “Wilson”), but also a carefully constructed Instagram page which is both pleasing on the eye and thought provoking. Whilst his Twitter account acts as an open conversation between himself and the many admirers of his work. He never misses an opportunity to retweet or respond to praise from fans – this very interview came about from a tweet I sent his way. With that being said, it would be easy to assume that the bulk of his time is spent on social media, but that would be to misunderstand John. If you ask him about his relationship with social media he won’t hesitate to tell you that he enjoys taking extended breaks from the platform; sometimes going weeks at a time or longer without logging on. He makes a conscious effort to do this so that he can unwind and collect his thoughts, or as he puts it, “spending time on the proverbial mountain top”.

His natural charisma and sense of style resembles that of someone who would be suited for a life in front of the camera rather than behind it. I asked him if he’d ever considered it and what it was that drew him to photography and directing. He let out an embarrassed chuckle, as if to say that the thought of being on-screen had never crossed his mind before. “I like documenting things. I’m an observationalist. Naturally I feel more comfortable putting stories together than I do being at the centre of them.”

“I like portraits where I can control stuff, but I also like playing the role of the fly on the wall. Say for example, if you were doing something or if I’m filming a music video, I like coming in and just finding the vibe. You guys go through the motions and I’ll just snap away and find and capture the moments. There’s something magical and really interesting about the regular and the mundane and trying to blow that up. That’s a theme that I’m really passionate about getting across in my work.

It wasn’t always billboards and video shoots though. Everyone starts somewhere and for John it was right at home under the employment of his family (unpaid of course). He started his journey messing around with cameras he would find lying around the house as a kid and taking pictures of family members. Once his parents realised that he had a knack for taking good pictures he became the unofficial family photographer. “I’ve always taken pictures. I used to take them at birthday parties, gatherings and just a lot of random shots around the house. As you’ll know, in an African household as soon as you’re old enough to take the family photos that’s your job, so I’ve been doing that for nearly my whole life.”

Although his interest in photography was apparent from an early age, finances limited his access to the equipment needed to explore his passion further. Fortunately, he was able to convince his parents to buy a DSLR camera for the house by reassuring them that it would be for the ‘good of the family’. It wasn’t until his college years where he truly hit his stride. He credits a conversation with a science teacher for pointing him in the direction of the camera he needed to take his hobby to the next level. “He recommended a Nikon D60 for me as a beginner camera. When I got to college there was this camera called the Canon 560D and it was around £400. It shot film and you could record in HD. I remember saving up and selling my old camera to make up the difference and then ordering it from a someone in Japan because it was cheaper. None of the instructions came in English, but deciphering it was part of the fun! It served me for a long time.”

When enrolling for college John had originally selected three A-Levels – Math, Computing and Media. It wasn’t until he became aware that there was an opportunity to study a fourth A-Level that he decided to choose film. He would soon realise that math and computing weren’t for him and start to hone in on the film; spending much of his spare time experimenting with filmmaking.

“Most of it was just me hanging out with my friends and experimenting with different things. I’d watch Kung Fu films and music videos and think I’m going to try and recreate and interpret that in my own way. Let’s just say we found ‘resourceful ways’ of getting ahold of software that was a bit out of our price range. It went from Photoshop to After Effects to Premiere Pro and then we just kept learning more and more. I’m still learning now to be honest”.

A picture with John and one of the many cameras he has accumulated over the years – he estimates that he has around 20 in his collection.

The observations that John would make about the perception of youth culture and Black youths specifically, would form the basis of the stories that he would look to tell with his films. He says that the story depicted in “Mandem” wasn’t a reflection of his own life experience, but the understanding of the story was something he had a full grasp of as a result of growing up in a certain environment. He was keen to stress that all filmmakers had an obligation to familiarise themselves with their source material.

“I think it’s really important to have a real understanding of the culture that you’re depicting because it helps you to create characters with nuance. The last thing that you want to do is surface level characters and storylines that cement stereotypes and archetypes.

As Black people were not necessarily given an allowance to be multi-faceted, it’s always the case of running with the perception they have of us, which is so misinformed. I went to a predominantly Black college and you’d see groups of boys making noise and messing around and the reaction from people walking across the street would be “they’re dangerous, I bet they’re planning to hurt someone”. If they got closer they would realise that the story is really different than what they assumed. The boys were actually only talking about football or getting a Capri-Sun from the corner shop.”

Stevie Basaula and Bradley Banton who played the lead characters in ‘Mandem’ were also essential in helping to craft the authentic dialogue in the script. John is known for collaborating with his onscreen talent and encouraging their input.

“In film terms it’s the same. You can’t just wake up one day and say ‘I’m going to make a film about those Black boys from across the street, I don’t know them and I haven’t spoken to them, but I’ve got an idea’. That’s not enough, we’re multidimensional people. I couldn’t tell you about, let’s say Sandra from Cornwall. I couldn’t tell you anything about what she eats, what she does for fun or who she is as a person without actually sitting down and talking to her. Even then I still would never have walked a day in her shoes.”

The Black experience being one that is disproportionately full of more pain and distress than most isn’t something that is lost on John. As a Black man of Nigerian descent he is very much in tune with what is happening in the world and we discussed the importance of the #EndSARS movement as well as Black Lives Matters at length. When I asked him if there was a reason that this wasn’t at the focus of a lot of his work (especially seeing as he was so emotionally invested and in tune with the struggle) his reasoning was remarkably insightful. In fact it caused me to question the type of narratives that I had come to expect when watching stories that featured people that looked like me. It also reinforced the importance of broadening our scope when it comes to Black media and representation as a whole. “The Black experience isn’t always about trauma and the stakes aren’t always that high. I like shows like Top Boy and they really capture that aspect of growing up where we come from. I’m from Croydon, South London and I’ve seen a lot of that, but I’ve also seen and lived differently too. I’m sure that goes the same for many other Black people too, and just people in general. That’s why I really like shows like Atlanta and High Maintenance because they show the mundane and everyday-ness of our lives. These are the moments that I want to bring to a more screens. I’m not trying to go big, I’m trying to be niche.”

If the question was posed to any filmmaker about if they aspired to be looked at in the same light as Spike Lee or John Singleton they would answer yes quicker than you could get through Spike’s last name. If you were then to ask them if they were willing to dedicate the countless hours needed to perfect their craft to that standard, you would probably hear crickets in the room… but again, John is different to most filmmakers. Throughout all of his growth and success, at heart he’s still the wide-eyed, excitable teenager from his college days recreating music videos with his friends. The hunger to learn more never has never left him.

I asked him what his learning process consisted of and in his usual relaxed tone he responded, “Loads of stuff. I use YouTube a lot. I was just watching this video on Aaron Sorkin where he talked about tips for writing. I also draw a lot of inspiration from a book that my Dad wrote ‘Blitzkrieg Bank’. It’s not the easiest of reads and there aren’t many copies, but for me, it feels like a summation of my dad’s dreams and his determination in getting his book published. It’s a major accomplishment and it fills me with pride whenever I look at the cover and see his name on it.” However, it didn’t stop there. That was just the tip of the iceberg. He then took a moment to collect his thoughts and with the cadence of a rapper he began to reel off an impressive array of books, websites and YouTube channels that he’d buried himself in to better understand his craft. I was blown away by the amount of things that he had seen and his willingness to recommend them all, even though he had no relationship with any of the creators and gained nothing by promoting their work. “I watch channels like Behind The Curtain, Lessons From The Screenplay, Wise Crack, Nerdwriter, Royal Ocean Film Society, Patrick H Willems sometimes. these are just people who breakdown films and some are more craft based. Sometimes they’re breaking down a film, sometimes it’s an exploration of different directors and their methods, sometimes it’s about how to capture movement with cameras with. I watch all of these things and read some books which I think will be helpful. I think understanding processes and intentions helps.”

He had spoken at such length about those who he was a fan of, you would almost forget that he himself was a creator of so much great work. For that reason, I decided to draw the focus back to him one last time and ask him how he wanted his own work to be looked at in years to come. After collecting his thoughts, he dug out another insightful answer, the kind that I had come to expect from him during our conversation.

“Timeless and thought-provoking. I like to make work that makes you not know how to feel and challenges your perception. I hope that what I leave behind will resonate and vibrate at different frequencies. You’ll either agree with it, disagree with it, like it, or hate it, but you’ll always feel something. It should always start a conversation.”

I would like to give a massive thank you to John for allowing me to have the honour of interviewing him. This was the first interview that I ever did and for someone who has achieved so much at a young age, he carries himself with such class and humility. If you haven’t already seen his film “Mandem” check it out below and also be sure to follow him on Instagram and Twitter to see what he’s got coming next!

Mandem debuted on the ‘MYM: Million Youth Media’ YouTube Channel in April 2020.