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A Cinematographer’s Point of View

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May 23, (THEWILL) – Long before a shoot begins at locations, long before rehearsals, one professional would have been consulted compulsorily by either the director or producer of a film, documentary or whatever project is at hand. He/ she is the cameraman/ camerawoman better known in the industry as cinematographer.

They don’t get much media traction like actors or directors. They don’t get to be talked about in the front pages in blockbuster films. Who remembers the cinematographer of Titanic? But we all know of Leonardo de Caprio and Kate Winslet, the hero and heroine, and the director James Cameron. And yet, without the cinematographer a director or producer can hardly see a film through from start to finish.

So, it was something of a surprise when more than half a dozen magazines in Europe and America devoted pages to the work of a Nigerian Kagho Idhebor named in the credit of King of Boys: The Return of King as cinematographer. A political thriller, King of Boys is a star-studded film with the likes of Sola Sobowale, Demola Adedoyin, Osas Ajibade, Sani Muazu, Toni Tones, among others. Kemi Adetiba directed the film.

Kagho was shooting an ES (Establishing Shot) in a market when someone called saying Adetiba wanted him to be cinematographer of King of Boys. He accepted the offer after which the script was sent to him. But more important, Kagho chose a particular type of lens for the shoot: a Cooke Optics lens. It was a wise decision. Years after release of King of Boys in 2018, the makers of the lens profiled Kagho and syndicated the story in more than half a dozen news outlets in Europe and Ameria including British Cinematography magazine.

Kagho is not unfamiliar with BC though. He has been reading the magazine for years, browsing copies and copies of the publication devoted entirely to cinematography. But he has never been featured in one, never in his wildest imagination hoped to be written about in a magazine he read frequently. For him, “It is an unbelievable exposure that just came unannounced and unsolicited. That is a big sign that I am doing the right thing, I am in the right profession.”

Beyond its publicity mileage for Kagho, the publication in BC and others is another classic case of outsiders discovering and celebrating talents unknown and uncelebrated by their own. Therefore, meeting and speaking with the cinematographer was only a matter of time after senior journalist, filmmaker and documentarian, Tam Fiofori, introduced Kagho to THEWILL. (This newspaper has the privilege of interviewing the cinematographer first among Nigerian newspapers and magazines.)

THEWILL met Kagho in the afternoon of Tuesday May 16 at a branch of 1960 hotel bookending Obokun Close Off Johnson Street, Ikeja. Far from the human and vehicular traffic in central Ikeja, 1960 seemed ideal for such an interview. The Garden Bar, also, seemed just perfect: there is a full length portrait of Fela somewhere, three or so stylized paintings of voluptuous female dancers. The potted palms and flowers fringing the entrance completed the ambience of a real garden.

It was against this backdrop and semi-silence that Kagho’s journey to filmmaking unfolded. The road to cinematography began right from home in Warri where he lived for many years with his father, Caesar Kagho, mother and three brothers.

“I was much interested in music and acting,” Kagho told THEWILL “My father tricked me into filmmaking because he saw that I loved music and I loved art.” Father himself was an entertainment journalist with the Nigerian Observer in Benin. “I don’t know what he saw. He just sent me to the school because I didn’t see myself as a filmmaker. I never even envisioned that I would be a filmmaker. I thought I was going to be a musician or probably read Theatre arts because I was involved in acting activities in church and in school.”

Whatever reason Caesar Kagho had, it has turned out well for his second and middle son out of his three all-male children. Father not only persuaded him to study film, he made sure he never schooled in any institution down south because of the raging cult related crimes among young people, particularly in the combustible coastal city in Delta state.

Kagho was 19 or 20 when he finished a diploma certificate programme at Nigerian Film Institute Jos. Again, his father stepped in. He thought his son was too young to begin a professional career as a filmmaker. So, he advised him son to continue his studies in the same institution. That was how he re-enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in the same discipline.

At first, Kagho majored in directing, hoping to become a director once he finished. Somehow, he turned to cinematography. “My first love was in directing. I started directing before I started handling the camera. I remember when I was about graduating I asked myself what would I say I have learnt? What can I say I would be able to do in the industry as a professional? I saw that I loved directing and then directed two films and the whole feedback was encouraging.”

Popular Nigerian filmmaker Kenneth Gyang (Blood Sisters 2022) saw the films Kagho directed. He was much impressed. He sent a message to the director-to-be. Gyang was living upstairs in the same building with Kagho at NFI. “If you continue like this,” Kagho recalls Gyang saying, “you will be one of the best filmmakers we have around.”

Two incidents later redirected his steps from directing to cinematography, as he told THEWILL. “One day I went to the girl’s hostel and I saw how my friends were running around, jumping fences with cameras shooting and it challenged me and I thought I liked that. That’s why I went into cinematography.”

The other occasion was when a facilitator, Tam Fiofori, visited the school to talk about documentary filmmaking. In the process, Tam said something that encouraged Kagho to take up filming more seriously. “He said as a cameraman you must be aware of your environment, you must be aware of life, you must be observant, your eyes should be like the camera and you must be dogged and rugged.”

Kagho was in his twenties at the time and with his street cred from Warri, he naturally felt he could go anywhere with a camera on his shoulders, be it a ghetto in the Niger Delta or in Lagos. “These were the things going through my mind. I was a rugged man, I was because of my background growing up in Warri I had street cred which has actually helped me in navigating life’s path, shooting in the streets in Lagos, having my way around. There is no dangerous place in Lagos I can’t shoot. I used that street cred to shoot a documentary which is called Awon Boys. I was able to shoot it because of my growing up in Warri, my understanding of the Area Boys in the street are just the regular people like me. It just depends on how you relate with them. Those were the things that Fiofori opened my eyes to, the first spark that I had after I fell in love with the camera, that a cameraman is not just any other kind of person, a cameraman is a special kind of man who documents history and for you to be able to document history, you must be aware of life, you must be aware of your surroundings, everything must be a story to you.”

By the time he was done three years later, anyone would have imagined the chap to take his place among the professionals. Not quite. By his own admission, Kagho put aside his certificates and came to Lagos mostly as PA and camera assistant to people like DJ T, Tunde Kelani, Yinka Edwards “busy studying these people.”

Of course, none of them knew he was a graduate of NFI. It was a deliberate decision Kagho took himself. “I kept all my certificates aside realizing that the industry is a different ball game. Academic is one thing while practical and experience is another thing. I needed that practical and experience and because of my understanding how the industry is and how people can be a little bit threatened about you coming from the Film School into the industry, I didn’t let anyone know I had a film school background. I came into the industry fresh as a cameraman who wanted to learn. Because of that, I had a lot of opportunities, people carried me along, people showed me a lot of things I didn’t know and I learnt a lot.”

Of course, Adetiba of King of Boys will readily agree that Kagho did learn some things in his years of practical lessons. It has been said that while scouting for a cinematographer, she considered Kagho as first choice. King of Boys is currently streaming on Netflix thanks to the professionalism of the cinematographer. Witness, for instance, the syndicated profiles sponsored by Cooke Optics, makers of the lens which Kagho chose to shoot with.

Along with his love for a favoured working equipment, Kagho is also inspired by the works of two Hungarian cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs because, for him, “cinematography is basically not about beautiful pictures, it is about communicating an idea, it is about how a cinematographer brings his own philosophy into his works. Why I love their works is how they bring in their philosophy, how they try to make their cinematography speak in terms of emotion, to transfer that emotion on screen rather than just entertaining you with beautiful visuals.

But his favourite remains Haskell Wexler, an American cinematographer, director and film producer. Wexler, Kagho said, “is my favourite cameraman on earth. He is not only a cinematographer but a documentary director and that was what drew me to him. His documentaries show the need to fight for the right of the people. He has gone through different trenches, different processes in order to use his work to preach – he fought for the industry, fought for better working time for the crew, fought for better finance. So, apart from his work as a cinematographer which is very good, his philosophy really encouraged me a lot and that is me personally. I am not for the whole pristine beautiful cinematography but I am all for cinematography that sends a message, that has a soul, that has some sort of voice and emotion. That is the kind of work I’ll like to do, the kind of filmmaker I will like to be.”

It goes without saying that Kagho read about his heroes in BC and some such other publications on cinematography for as he admitted: “I will say most of the greatest lessons I have learnt as a cameraman is from my personal experience, research and close study of American magazines and other resources online. Basically, those were the things that actually equipped me as a cameraman.”

And then a life-changing incident happened. Kagho was working as a camera assistant for a film called The Meeting. The DOP happened to a Welshman called Jim Bishop. “He came to Nigeria to work and I said I will like to work with him.” Because of distance, it just didn’t work. But Bishop advised the ambitious chap to apply for a One Day Fine Film workshop holding in Nairobi, Kenya. He did and was selected. They spent two weeks studying intense cinematography.

Recalling of the workshop, Kagh insists it was during the workshop he “realised that this is a profession, you have to have a style. You have to be unique to be a cinematographer. That was what I learnt from that workshop.”

Prior to the time spent in the East African country, Kagho had met Bolaji Akran who had seen a job he had done for a friend nduka Onyeka. “Immediately I walked up to his house and opened the door, the first thing he said was “hmmm, you look like a cinematographer. I didn’t know why he said that but it opened a new window in my mind. When I was leaving his house that day, he gave me a book called Cinematography and that was the book that changed my life. That was the book that made me see that cinematography is a profession, it is a calling than just being a cameraman. That book was a life changer. It profiled the great cinematographers around the world. It prompted me to start researching about other cinematographers. I now saw their process, styles…But during those times, it didn’t really make sense until I went to One Fine Day Film. One Fine Day Film was where all those studies about cinematography came into context where I had a chance to see practically how cinematographers present themselves, how a cinematographer should have his own style, how a cinematographer should have his own eyes…That’s where my journey started. See where I am today.”