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The Last Tree: 'I didn't want to tell a minor story... I wanted it to feel like an odyssey'

The Last Tree tells the semi-autobiographical story of a British Nigerian child who moves to London after being fostered in the countryside. Laura Harding meets director and writer Shola Amoo, who based the film partly on his own life, and star Sam Adewunmi, who was moved by its message

Coming of age: Sam Adewunmi as Femi
Coming of age: Sam Adewunmi as Femi
Tai Golding and Gbemisola Ikumelo
Writer and director Shola Amoo

By Laura Harding

When the filmmaker Shola Amoo sat down to write a script loosely based on his own experiences as a foster child, he had something epic in mind.

He didn't want to tell a "minor" story about his experiences as a British Nigerian, who was fostered in a rural community before moving to London.

He wanted it to be as big as it felt to him and the other British Nigerians he interviewed who had similar experiences.

"I felt like there had been a dearth of these type of stories and these types of narrative so it was really important to me to explore it and give it a kind of operatic scale," he says.

What Amoo has crafted is The Last Tree, a semi-autobiographical story of young Femi, a British child of Nigerian heritage who was fostered in rural Lincolnshire before moving to inner London to live with his birth mother.

As he grows into a teenager, Femi struggles with the culture and values of his new environment, both on the streets of inner London and at home with his Nigerian mother.

"Sometimes I feel like when you do get a narrative depicting certain minority communities, it almost feels minority in scale, it feels minor," Amoo says.

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"You don't get an odyssey, like I feel The Last Tree is.

"That was really important to me; an epic scope. Even though it's a very specific story, in that specificity it has such universal themes and it works on quite an operatic scale."

Amoo, who made his feature-length debut with A Moving Image in 2016, was himself fostered to a rural place when he was a child and later moved to south London.

"I also interviewed other British Nigerians who were fostered," he adds, "and amalgamated everyone's story into one story.

"I mixed a bit of their story with mine, so that was the genesis of the film: a wanting to explore fostering and identity.

"There are many adoption narratives and fostering is very specific because it's a temporary thing.

"There is a kind of displacement that one can feel from moving from one space to another and then moving into the familial home, where your blood ties are, and feeling quite adrift from that.

"There is a very different narrative to the adoption narrative, where you're kind of yearning for that sense of family."

For actor Sam Adewunmi, who plays a teenage Femi and who is himself the child of a Nigerian immigrant mother, the story was all too relatable.

"I just felt I knew who Femi was and I understood his journey and his challenges that he was going to face and that he was facing. I knew many people who had also experienced part of his story.

"I grew up in London myself so the journey that he goes through, of finding himself and working out who he is in all the different spaces that he goes in, were so true and so honest to what it's like being a young man in London.

"It's a British Nigerian story, which I don't think gets as much light or recognition, and it's also a story about adoption, that we don't really hear about, a young kid being displaced and trying to find himself in new spaces.

"I was born here, my mum was born and raised in Nigeria, came here and then had me and she has got her ideas of what life is and culture is and tradition and being raised, in her home. I understand that side of things but I'm a Londoner as well, so there is this dual nationality."

Amoo nods.

"It's a foundation for tension," Amoo agrees. "Femi and his mother have these blood ties but are coming from completely different worlds and it goes completely against the grain of what one would consider to be the maternal relationship."

Indeed Femi's journey, from a white rural community to a council flat in a diverse area of south London, challenges every sense of his identity and a string of bad choices take him far from his childhood in Lincolnshire.

He is recruited by a local hustler and starts smoking weed. Eventually a teacher confronts him about the disastrous path he is on.

"There is a fragility to the coming of age process," the director says.

"He's seen the various paths he can take and there are people who represent a certain lifestyle in each path, and it's a film that is from a single perspective so you really feel the weight of every decision that he makes.

"We talk about these kids that can get into situations - it's really that easy, it's really one decision, especially if you're in a particular environment, you really can be one decision away from that.

"It's kind of like a tightrope you're on and I don't think enough is given to kids in inner city environments who are in this pressure cooker and are making these big decisions.

"I think they are demonised rather than recognising that certain people present certain options and sometimes they get the right one and sometimes they don't.

"You see this young black boy in a variety of different environments and each one poses its unique challenge and questions and contributes to his growth."

Amoo hopes his film will encourage members of the audience to question their own perceptions, ideas and biases.

"The character's breakthrough is an understanding of all the different identities that have contributed to his life.

"He does feel like he finally has the resources to engage with what may come next because of an understanding of his past and who he is. There is the classic thing of knowing thyself and that is what I would like the audiences to take away, that you can uphold all of these different identities that make a person, and not to be as judgey. There are different facets to people."

The Last Tree is released in cinemas on September 27

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