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Q&A: Femi Oyeniran

Actor, filmmaker and social activist Femi Oyeniran discusses his upcoming film and working with young offenders

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Image: Femi Oyeniran

How did you get into acting and filmmaking?

I auditioned for Kidulthood when I was 17 - they had an open audition at my college. After that the casting director introduced me to an agent and I've been an actor ever since. I started filmmaking in 2008 - I graduated from my law degree and decided to go into acting full time so I took a gap year. I didn't get any work so I started writing and directing.

Tell me about your latest film, Taking Stock, and your character Sponge.

Taking Stock is about a down-and-out young lady, Kate (Kelly Brook), who loses her job, her boyfriend and her electricity/gas on the same day. She decides to rob the shop she works at on the closing day. However, she needs the help of my character Sponge to break the security system. Sponge is fun. For me, he represents young Britain - he lost his job in IT and has spent the past few months in and out of job interviews to no avail. He has the hots for one of the girls that works at Kate's shop so he is always there.

What have been your greatest challenges in your work as an actor and filmmaker?

My greatest challenge as an actor has been consistently staying motivated and believing in my ability to 'make' it to the level that I envision in my head. I want to star in great work consistently and it's hard when I'm not doing this or working towards it. I want to work on things that challenge the world around me and more importantly, work that stands the test of time. I find it challenging when I'm not doing this. I also find it challenging when other actors get roles or go for auditions that I have not been given opportunities to even know about.

As a filmmaker, my main challenges are the same as every other filmmaker: raising money to make films, ensuring my film is properly distributed and making my investors their money back. My other challenges are trying to make sure I pick the right films that say something new about the world or touch on new ideas as well as being commercial.

You also run a web-based panel called Cut The Chat, a current affairs online panel show for young people. What are its aims and outcomes?

Cut the Chat is a platform for discussion of trivial as well as serious issues. At the heart of it is a need to create a platform for the male voice. We now do podcasts, which I think are really fun. Podcasts are the future. Check it out on iTunes and Soundcloud. It's really funny - the panel consists of myself, Ace (BBC 1xtra DJ), Littleman (comedian) and Damon (celebrity barber).
democracy is only valid when it represents the people

Alongside film, you've worked with young offenders institutions. What are your motivations for this work?

I really like working with young people at any stage of life. I have been a workshop leader in schools, colleges and universities. When I got the opportunity to teach film to young offenders, I couldn't turn it down. The young people challenged my perspective in that I was able to see the human side of these so-called 'criminals.' They also produced some great films that were used within the prison and showcased at events.

What drew you to working with young offenders specifically?

I was given the opportunity to work at a young offenders institution to do a Black History Month talk once. I was apprehensive but was surprised at the interest and enthusiasm of the prisoners I was working with. Later the staff member responsible for extra-curricular provisions asked me to join up with another filmmaker who was starting a weekly filmmaking workshop with the aim of training the prisoners to make films. I truly enjoyed working with the young people. That was what kept me doing it for the 18 months that we did.

You've given a TEDx Talk on democracy. Given last year's general election and upcoming Student Union elections at universities, why is it important that young people use their democratic voice?

People have died for the right to vote! I lived in Nigeria during a dictatorship; even though I was young, I remember people feeling stifled within the system. I think democracy, although sometimes flawed, is a system that we should be proud of, but it's only valid when it represents the people. If the people don't partake in democracy or our leaders have a limited mandate then they are not representative of the full scope of opinions and cannot truly claim to represent the people. The only way to influence society is to vote and hold our leaders to account.

Interview by Lucy Furneaux

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