In Conversation With... Joan Iyiola

Joan Iyiola is a British-Nigerian actress, producer and writer. Her latest film, Dolapo is Fine was recently long listed for the BAFTA British Short Film award won the HBO Short Film Award. Joan is the Co-Founder of both Apatan Productions (a film and television production company) and The Mono Box, which is a training hub and support network for theatre talent. In this interview, Joan and Clare talk about how a career in theatre can set the foundations for film, as well as how Dolapo Is Fine went from a concept to a teen character we can all empathise with.

Clare - Miss En Scene: First of all, can you tell us about your company, Apatan Productions? As Co-Founder, what are your hopes and dreams for it?

Joan: Apatan Productions was set up in 2018 with myself and co-founder Joseph Bell. Hope and humour is a key part of our mission at Apatan Productions, and we hope to showcase counter narratives on screen.

C: You've had an incredible career in theatre and working with the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). What made you move into film, and how did your background in theatre prepare you for the film world?

J: I suppose as an artist, the mediums don’t feel wholly different to me. The presentation of the work may exist in a particular format but it is all storytelling. I think my roots in theatre have greatly supported and spoken to the acting that I have done on screen, and now the work that I am doing as a filmmaker. My theatre background has given me a depth of character development, taught me the benefit of collaboration, and given me the tools for creation. I am so grateful for it.


C: For anyone - particularly women and girls - wanting to get into acting or film, what advice would you give them?

J: We need your stories! I encourage you to find the best way of expressing yourself, and remember that you never have to do it alone, a community of like-minded artists is available. Devour what is out there as it is part of our training, read, listen and watch everything, because in that you will find where your preferences as an artist lie. Start before you are ready, there is never a ‘right’ time to begin. Check out The Mono Box! It is a company that I co-founded to support and nurture emerging and professional artists in theatre and film.

C: The next few questions are about your film, Dọlápọ̀ Is Fine. You are one of the writers of the film, which is currently available to stream on Netflix. Can you tell me a bit about the background of this short film and the other people who worked on it with you?

J: A few years back, I had read a short story called “Sunita” on BBC Radio 3 written by co-writer Chibundu Onuzo. We met and became collaborators, and adapted the story for screen as we felt that this was a narrative that we had yet to see on screen, and we related to so many aspects of Dolapo’s story. We wanted to show a middle-class Black girl within a boarding school environment, and tell a celebratory story, sprinkled with some Black girl magic. We were awarded a fund from Bumble’s Female Film Force, which was set up by Amy Dowd and Elisabeth Hopper. When we found out that we were on the shortlist, we had to prepare for a pitch day to a group of leading female filmmakers including Jane Featherstone and Phoebe Fox. The fund was in its second year and we, along with four other European female filmmaker teams, were awarded £20,000 each. We knew that we wanted a black female director and we began a nationwide search and met so many brilliant directors of colour. When we met Ethosheia Hylton and heard her vision for the piece we were so excited, and she joined our team.

C: As well as writing the short, you are also one of the producers and one of the cast members. What are some of the benefits of having multiple roles in a film and how do you balance them?

J: This project allowed me to write, produce and act, and with that I saw filmmaking from all angles, which was a wonderful insight to gain. I knew that I wanted to tell this story and realised that as an artist I should take on the role(s) required by the project. I hadn’t initially intended on playing Daisy in the film, but writing the screenplay aided my understanding of who she was, and offered a depth to my acting that I hadn’t experienced before. This feels like a new chapter and I welcome the learning that is to come.

C: What is the premise of Dolapo is Fine and what are you hoping that people take away from it?

J: Dolapo is Fine is about a young black woman is ready to leave her British boarding school and enter the working world and she faces pressure to change her name and her natural hairstyle. We hope that the tone of this film reaches our audience, a positive tale centring a young black woman’s experience through a British boarding school. It is a story of empowerment and hopefully encourages the viewer to show their authentic selves, and find self-love and self-acceptance in who they are.

C: The film's lead character, Dolapo, encounters advice and pressure to change who she is. How much is the character's journey based on your own experiences as a British-Nigerian woman?

J: The film isn’t specifically based on my own experiences, but there are so many moments in the film that resonate. When Imogen goes to touch Dolapo’s hair? I’ve been there so many times that my reflexes are as fast as a superhero’s. Being the only black person in a white space and the microaggressions that follow. Navigating intergenerational relationships. Buying my first wig and wondering where the hair is coming from. We definitely, all recognise those tumultuous teen years and how cacophonous the pressures around us feel. There is specificity in Dolapo's experience that brokers themes that are universal.

C: You play Daisy, a straight-talking mentor who deems Dolapo's hair and name unsuitable for work. Why did she feel the need to change and suppress her identity?

J: Daisy’s experience is different to Dolapo’s in our film and that is why I was so excited to play her on screen. To see how two black women navigate a world that has tried to stop them from expressing who they are, is so rarely seen on the screen, and felt useful to explore. Daisy was the only black alumni from Dolapo's school, and is the only black person in her working environment in the City. She had to assimilate in the workplace as there was no other way of succeeding. She has also paved the way for Dolapo, who can now see that there is another way to exist.

Click to enlarge and scroll through the images in the gallery below:

C: Your film has been nominated for and won some prestigious awards, with the most recent being that it's been added to the BAFTA longlist for British Short Film. What does it mean to you for the film to be recognised in this way?

J: What an amazing ride we are on with this film! This is the first film that I have made, and to have received this recognition is humbling. We make films in the hope that it reaches a wide range of people, from the festivals and streaming platforms that have celebrated this film have enabled this to happen. We are humbled by the response.

C: Finally, what does 2021 hold for you? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects that you're excited about?

J: I have a few TV series that I am developing at the moment, but I am unable to speak much about them at the moment. There is work to be done, but I am excited!


You can follow Joan on Instagram and watch Dolapo is Fine on Netflix now! In the meantime, here's the trailer:

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