The People and Ideas of Bellagio/

Akin Omotoso

Bellagio Residency: April 2022

Project: “Waiting For An Angel”

Akin Omotoso is a film director, writer, producer and actor whose award-winning directorial credits include “Man On Ground,” “Tell Me Sweet Something,” and “Vaya.” He spent his time at Bellagio in April 2022 working on a new television series about the unlikely relationship between a poet, a member of the military and his lover, examining the role of artists in times of oppression – specifically the brutal military regime in 1990s Nigeria. Omotoso’s Sci Fi TV Series “The Brave Ones” is on Netflix and his critically acclaimed film “Rise” is on Disney+.

Akin Omotoso’s Legacy as an African Filmmaker in His First 50 Years

Akin Omotoso didn’t always know he wanted to be a creator, but being born into a family of renowned writers and storytellers made the creative spirit a mainstay in his household. He remembers waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of clacking keys on a typewriter as his father, Kole Omotoso, a famous Nigerian novelist, crafted his latest work. “It was a very seductive sound,” Akin recalls as his instincts kicked in to join his family’s ranks of writers. 

He found collaborators in his brother and sister, and they teamed up to craft stories that emulated the creativity they saw flowing through the house. “A lot of my dad’s friends were some of the greatest writers, and they would come to the house and tell these amazing stories,” he remembers. He recalls when Wole Soyinka, whom he has called “Uncle Wole” since childhood, won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature and came to visit. Akin his siblings quickly wrote a short play celebrating the Nobel win to perform for him. From this early age, Akin followed in his family’s footsteps to become a storyteller. 

When he was 17, Akin’s family left Nigeria and moved to South Africa. There, he enrolled at the University of Cape Town to study drama, where he discovered that he enjoyed acting, but even more so, he had a passion for directing. Akin recalls entering this world of artistry during a pivotal moment for South Africa: the transition from the National Party government’s apartheid system to the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela. 

“It was a new society,” Akin remembers, “all of the suppressions around art fell away.” This transformative time in South Africa’s history was also the turning point for young creatives like Akin to reimagine their culture. “We were all suddenly like, what’s this new South Africa going to look like? What’s it going to sound like? I was at the cusp of that,” he reflects. 

Akin started his filmmaking career borrowing the drama school’s VHS camera to make short films with his classmates as they pursued acting studies together. Without a traditional film school available in South Africa, Akin charted his own course. “I read a ton of books,” he reports. “Anything I could get at the library about film, I read.” 

To advance his filmmaking career, Akin used acting gigs to subsidize his films. “My first acting job paid for my first professional short film,” he says, remembering his earliest projects. Inspired by the cultural transformation that unfolded before his eyes in the late ’90s in South Africa, Akin wrote his first feature-length film, God Is African, which premiered in 2003. The film is semi-autobiographical as it follows a Nigerian student who is dealing with moving to South Africa at the dawn of the new government. Step by step, Akin established himself as a leading storyteller in the new South Africa, using his films to reflect the darker parts of society and exposing systems of oppression to inspire change. 

Akin went on to tell more African stories across genres and formats, including directing Man On Ground, a social thriller, and Tell Me Sweet Nothing, a romantic comedy film about an aspiring writer who owns a bookstore in the heart of Johannesburg. When looking for new projects, Akin says he’s always pursuing that “one, great story.” When people approach him for new film opportunities, Akin says, “Just tell me the story…and the minute they do, I know if I want to do it or not.” 

Over the years, he has perfected this instinctive ability to sniff out a good story, but he says he’s not focused on just one subject. “You don’t want to be one-dimensional,” he says, and his collection of work is anything but. His most recent film, Rise, is the true story of the Antetokounmpo Family, Charles and Veronica and their sons Giannis, Thanasis, Kostas, Alex and Francis. The film tells the extraordinary story of the family from selling trinkets on the streets of Greece to emigrating to the U.S., and how Giannis, Thanasis and Kostas went on to become NBA stars. He says this film also shows how his personal interests influence his art. “My other passion besides filmmaking is basketball, and this was a story I always wanted to tell because it was a story about more than basketball. It was an inspirational story of life.”

In April 2022, Akin arrived in Bellagio to develop a new project – a limited-series adaptation of Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, which examines the role of artists during times of oppression, especially in the context of the brutal military regime in Nigeria that occurred in the 1990s. Since then, the project has been put on hold due to shifting priorities in the film and television industries. Akin is not discouraged, however, because he believes “stories are born when they need to be born.” He is patient, he says, because he knows the right people will come along to support this story. “The right people need to be in charge to understand the power of these stories,” he shares. 

Akin has seen this cycle work out before; his film VAYA, which he screened for his cohort at Bellagio, came at just the right time when attitudes in the film industry were ready to receive it. This independent drama calls on real accounts to tell the story of three young South Africans who leave their rural homes to pursue new opportunities in Johannesburg, but are met with great difficulty as they try to survive in the city. This film won Akin the Africa Movie Academy’s award for Best Director and was picked up by renowned filmmaker Ava DuVernay for distribution. Many of Akin’s works, this film included, play an important role in advancing society’s understanding of oppression. 

Akin looks forward to the day he can share Waiting for an Angel with the Bellagio network and the cohort members who contributed to the project during his residency. When it comes to film, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he resolves. Akin turns 50 this year, and is spending intentional time reflecting on his career journey so far. Akin features these reflections on his Instagram and invites his community to share their own thoughts on these films.

  • There’s not a day that goes by that I do not reflect on my time at Bellagio. Having the space to think and workshop ideas with brilliant people from across disciplines was exactly what I needed for the next phase of my career. As I turn 50 this year, I caught up with the Rockefeller Foundation to reflect on my journey. Thanks for reading.
    A Note from Akin