While there are many reasons for an artist to strike out with their feature directorial debut, Farming’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje had one that was extremely personal and expressly his own. “The genesis was literally trying to sleep at night,” the actor-turned-director told Deadline in Toronto, where his film premiered. “I couldn’t sleep without writing 10 to 20 pages, and by the end of two weeks, I had a 500-page manuscript.”
Produced by Michael London, the film’s title is deceiving. It refers not to any kind of agricultural work, but rather, to a little-known 1960s social experiment, which saw Nigerian children ‘farmed out’ by their parents to white British families, in hopes of providing them with better lives. Well-intentioned as the act may have been in some cases, it inevitably sent many Nigerian youths down a path of destruction and self-loathing, creating a feeling of existing everywhere and nowhere all at once, with no legitimate roots. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Snowfall‘s Damson Idris, Farming captures the director’s own experience with farming, a roller coaster ride that saw Akinnuoye-Agabje torn up inside, eventually joining a white skinhead gang in pursuit of some kind of belonging and even making an attempt on his own life—an attempt which proved a low point, as well as a turning point for the artist.
As an actor known for projects including Oz, Lost and Suicide Squad, Akinnuoye-Agabaje shared his intensely personal script with producers he would meet over the years. One producer, Tom Fontana, encouraged the artist to take his script to the Sundance Labs, which he eventually did, workshopping the project from written, directorial and producing perspectives. “[The material is] autobiographical, so what I gleaned from that process was this objective perspective on a very subjective story. Some of the mentors, they were brutal. They take it apart and may give you very blunt suggestions, and you take or leave what you feel is truer to the essence of the story,” the director explained. “But it was very useful for me just to take a step back and look at it as a story because I’m telling a personal story, but in a medium of entertainment.”
For the UK actors who got involved with Farming, the entire ‘farming’ phenomenon was a totally new discovery, a profound, flawed experiment lost to history. “I learned everything through the movie, and then I found out how many people were actually affected by it and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a brilliant story to tell,'” Idris told Deadline, appearing with Beckinsale, Mbatha-Raw and his director.
“I read the script and I told one of my friends, who is of Nigerian descent, too. He was like, ‘Oh yeah, that happened to me for six months.’ This is a guy that is one of my best friends, and we’d never talked about it in the 15 years that we’d known each other,” Mbatha-Raw added. “So for me, it’s fascinating. He didn’t have as extreme an experience as Adewale did, and it was very brief, but I think there’s so many people that have been through this, these experiences, and I think it will be interesting when the film comes out that it’s a way for people to talk about their experience.”
In the end, for the film’s stars, Adewale’s story of courage before significant adversity was profound, one that deserved a place in the spotlight of the cinema screen. “It’s about, even when someone’s on a self-destructive path and they’re looking for their sense of identity and belonging, they could always overcome no matter what the world throws at them,” Idris reflected. “This man is proof of that.”
For more from our conversation, take a look above.