Obi Emelonye is a Nigerian filmmaker known for directing award-winning films such as ‘Last Flight to Abuja’, ‘The Mirror Boy’, ‘Onye Ozi, and Heart 2 Heart, which he produced via Zoom. In this interview, he talks about hurdles in joining UK’s most exclusive Directors’ Guild and forces working against release of film on Babangida. He also talks about his latest film, Black Mail and what it means for Africans. TONY OKUYEME writes
Will you say African filmmakers outside the continent are beginning to cultivate new interests in the quest for new audiences?
I will say that every filmmaker tells a story from his substratum, according to his influences. People are better positioned to tell impactful stories emanating from where they are located. It is not by choice that someone in the village or in Lagos or in America will tell stories reflecting where he exists.
I have been living in Europe for over 25 years, and over time I have imbibed a bit of the European spirit, but that has not diluted my African-ness; it however has enriched who I am as an African, and that is reflected in my works.
If I tell a story of an African in Europe, I will do so in a manner it will be palatable to audiences around the world. So it is natural that our stories will always be coloured by our transnational experiences outside of Nigeria.
I think it enriches; we cannot always tell stories about people in the forests with clothes around their chests. We have to tell stories that are aspirational, stories that connect us to the world especially now that the world is a global village. I have four films on Netflix and people are watching from Russia, Slovenia, China and other locations. What we have is the African connection with a global attitude; African characters in a cosmopolitan world.
Perhaps part of this global attitude is being a member of Directors UK like you recently did. How did that happen?
Directors UK is guild of UK directors. It is more like an exclusive club of the top filmmakers in the country; and while it is not a big deal to become a member of this guild for the average UK citizen, there is a difference when you are a resident or a black citizen making films, because it is doubly difficult. The criteria for membership are the things you are not given any opportunity whatsoever to attain.
In other words, they are asking you for an experience you have not been given the opportunity to even try to have. That makes it an impossible quest. It is one of those institutionally discriminatory organisations that create fences that make the guild egalitarian, thereby excluding a large chunk of the population. I was able to tick their boxes because I stepped out of the box to create an audience for my films, which not only get released in Africa but also in cinemas in UK.
And I have my works in major film festivals around the world. The moral of the story is that what makes you mainstream is not that you have a film, but the kind of audience you have built. Honestly, I am not very sure what their prerequisites are, but for me, it is additional recognition, and the benefits are enormous. From access to the industry’s process to the contacts, I believe in the long run, I will be better off as a film maker.
It is a title I cherish, and would encourage other African filmmakers to become members so our voice in this exclusive group would be heard in a way we can collectively defend our rights in the creative space.
You have just completed a new film, ‘Black Mail’. What is the story behind this film?
‘Black Mail’, the pun intended, is a story that emerged from an email I got sometime in May 2020. I got an email that said that my computer had been compromised and that they had been watching me for the past 90 days; and even quoted my password and other private stuffs. I knew I had nothing incriminating, so I shared it with my wife and we just concluded that the guys were phishing. We assumed it would go away if I don’t reply them. But that night, I was also disturbed. Although I had done nothing bad, I was worried. That was when I began to imagine how someone who is guilty would feel under similar circumstances. I started the research that night. I checked the police website to know what their advisory is under such circumstances, and actually watched two films in this line and noticed there was a gap to be filled here from an African perspective. So I started writing the script.
‘Black Mail’ is reputed to be heavily loaded with white cast, save for O.C Ukeje?
Describing the film as an all-white cast is not something I want to do with a sense of pride. What I will say is that I owe it to my people to tell their stories, from an African point of view as an African. Although my leading characters in the film are black, it portrays the way we live when we are surrounded by people who are not Africans. The film has Russians, Britons, Chinese and people from West Indies, supporting the lead actor, O C Ukeje. I will call it the story of a black man surrounded by whites.
‘Badamasi’ is one of the most anticipated films in Nollywood and has two nominations in African Movie Academy Awards 2020. When will your fans see the film?
I knew when I took on the character of General Babangida, who is very controversial, well-loved and well-hated, for a film, that it would open a Pandora box of political, ethnic and historical sentiments. I think I underestimated the extent to which the problem would exist. So I have come to find out that you could be very objective in telling a story and still not please the world. It becomes more complex, when those people you did not please are in positions of influence because you will struggle to get your voice heard. We had planned a distribution in the cinemas last year, but because of the grumblings from the dark corners of the country, the team and I decided to withdraw the film from that kind of release for a less confrontational one, which the streaming services offer. While a number of them are interested in the film, they are seeking assurances that their involvement will not get them in the bad books of anybody. We are trying to provide such assurances and as soon as that is done, ‘Badamasi’, will be released. The truth of the matter is that nothing can be hidden under the sun. Whatever is stopping the release of the film will not be here forever. I implore my supporters to be patient, and I assure them that when it is finally released, it will be a historical and political event that will shake the system. I am sure that its success will open a new vista in the journey of biography filmmaking in Nigeria, which I think is needed in the industry. Like my father, Linus Emelonye used to say, ‘God’s time is the best’.
So what informed the choice of O.C Ukeje for the leading role in ‘Black Mail’?
I cast with my head, not my heart. I believe that once you cast right, you make the job easier because you would have round pegs in round holes. As I was writing the script, I thought of actors that would fit into the role.
I did a shortlist and outlined their pros and cons, articulating what made them suitable. O C Ukeje, came tops. He is an exceptional actor, celebrated in Nigeria and now that he is a ‘Diasporan’; his latest work, ‘Shine Your Eyes’, did well at Berlinale this year. Another film of his has just been released on Netflix. He has the pedigree and the scarcity, because you do not want your leading man to be everywhere. You want him known but scarce.
His looks and the way he portrays a kind of mien below his age are exceptional for this character. He is an African actor but not the typical Nollywood actor in the melodramatic, histrionic sense that we are famous for. He is a perfect candidate and this would be the first time, he would be getting involved in combats and fisticuffs in a film. He really enjoyed the support of the international actors he worked with. I am proud of the cast and I know the audience will salivate for ‘Black Mail’ soon.