Laurence Ani offers glimpses of a soon-to-be-shot movie by enigmatic director, Didi Cheeka
Here’s dialogue from a coming movie: “Among our people was a great queen - Amina. A warrior queen. She led an army of thousands and took a man for the night wherever she camped. The next morning she had him killed, so he would not live to tell what it was like with the queen... She was feared - physically and morally - because she violated tradition.” You wonder if the intention of the writer of these lines is to violate [Nigeria’s movie] tradition.
“I set out deliberately to destroy the notion of what constitutes Nigerian movies and how they are made,’ replies Didi Cheeka, one of Nigeria’s emerging most original, certainly eccentric filmmakers. “I guess, in doing this, I’m also out to destroy, deliberately, the notion of what a Nigerian audience is or is not yet ready for cinematically. My goal is to make a film that moves the audience through powerful characters, an original and topical plotline, enough indignation, enough compassion [to hold them,] and an extraordinarily original visual style. I’ve always thought of the Nigerian audience as part of world film audience – what attracts them is not the same as what worked in the past. I have set out, not to tell a ‘Nigerian story’ to a ‘Nigerian audience,’ but rather to tell a human story, a well-told story. It is this that connects a film with an audience – a compelling story, about compelling characters, told in a compelling way.”
A gung ho crew is already in attack formation. No prisoners. “I’m rounding up the usual suspects! There will be only a few newcomers to break in.” Like Gozi Ochonogor of UK based UM–1, who is in talks with the filmmaker to come up with a whole set of wardrobe that defines the incarnate of the warrior queen – sans cavalry – in the series of situations she finds herself in. In other words, how will she dress to kill? Didi sees Malian model/actress Youma Diakite in the lead. Really, this is the challenge: Youma, judging from her sexy wallpapers, seems more comfortable undressed than dressed. “When a man is drunk,” Didi says, as if trying to justify his choice, “there is something he sees in a woman. In Youma, even when you are not drunk, you see that something.”
Italy-based casting agency, Malcolm X Casting has been contracted – the agency demanded and got exclusive European rights – to cast Ms Diakite in “the African role of the decade.” Diakite was born in Mali but her family decided to immigrate to France when she was seven. She got her primary and secondary education in Paris. When she was 18 she was ‘discovered’ by Benetton’s talent scout and became a professional model. At 22 she moved to Milan, Italy and started her acting career. “I’ve traveled all over the world,” Youma says, “but Africa has a special place in my heart.” Youma’s character is described as: “dark, turbulent, wild, less easily lovable (for it takes courage to love a girl like her), few who meet her ever fail to notice the suppressed sexuality that rises in her like a tide. The field includes US-based Nigerian actor and “directress,” Esosa Edosomwan described in character as “somewhat lighter, more tender, more easily lovable, more feminine – from a common male conception of that term.”
In Silence is a grim story of a woman’s revenge. I ask Didi if he objects to the film being likened to cult-classic, I Spit on Your Grave. “There will be blood,” he says, sidestepping the question. “There will be tears – a certain harshness, a certain absence of sentimentality. There will be no glossing over the screams, the torment, the grim encounters, no ‘switching off’ the camera – for to do that is to not bear testimony. Unflinchingly, almost cruelly, this film will capture these moments of pain, of tragedy, of beauty. The tone is at once bitter and poetic, violent, and tender.”
These tortured, driven images in Didi’s head is being painted by ace German photographer, Thomas Plenert, whose “startlingly beautiful photography” Didi first encountered in Jens Wenkel’s documentary Lagos – Notes of a City. “It was a case of love at first sight. As soon as I saw his brushstrokes I knew I wanted him to paint my movie. So I asked my friend Marc-Andre of Goethe-Institut Lagos as go-between. I also wanted a photographer who’s not going to be intimidated by the daily outpourings of negativity from this corner of the continent in the international press.”
Having got a German cinematographer, the next thing was to look for a German co-production partner to ease the funding. “I had started out wanting a Nigerian-South African-DRC collaboration, that is me, Steven Markovitz and Djo Munga, but Steven was already busy with Djo on their new Sino-African project, as well as Wanuri Kahui’s. So, one evening in Durban, outside the Hotel Bel Aire at the Beachfront Steven suggested focusing on Germany for a potential co-pro partner since a German photographer is already down on this. And that’s what I did.”
The choice was Juergen Seidler of Scripthouse, one of the three partners of the Babylon International Programme where in Silence was originally developed. But it is not possible to access German public money without a sales agent or distributor. “I was already talking with UK-based John Akomfrah’s Smoking Dogs Films. I had a Deal Memo from Smoking Dogs, so, while still discussing how to modify aspects of the Memo I slipped in a Clause that part of the deal is for Smoking Dogs to provide an international sales/ distribution person.”
So, having locked down post production funding – well, not really locked down – all is set to go? “We’ve wrapped up Lagos’ audition, so in a few days we should be in Jos doing casting, location and all that. I’m so just impressed with some of the actors I got. We were going to look for the male outside the country, we were thinking of Michael Obiora; then along came this boy and I knew I’ve found Izzi. Just like that. It was not exactly an opening night performance, what I got, but he has the looks. There was this feminine side to him, a beautiful fragility, and, it seemed to me, a fear to be vulnerable. So I’m swapping gender roles. You know the old Western, the rugged cowboy and his girl? I’m going to do the opposite here.”
Sometimes, like right now, the relationship between the director and his producer is not the best it could be. And that’s putting it mildly. With principal photography just around the corner, director and producer seem not to be on speaking terms. “You need your Carlo Ponti,” Didi says. “I’m not going to tell you how to look for that person, you just have to. You need that somebody who believes so much in you to put up with all your tantrums. And God, I have got tantrums. People ask me all the time how I can co-direct a movie with someone else, meaning the guy I usually work with. We simply know how to put up with each other’s tantrums, otherwise, considering the things that’s happened between us we won’t be talking to each other.
The thing about temperament is that it sets the limits, you know exactly how far to push a person, you know where to back off. Still, you need to break a person in. You can’t have a mustang running around, wild, untamed.”
In a way Didi himself is like one of the doomed outcasts he loves saluting with his films, and it’s a demanding role: pursued relentlessly by forces beyond his control, maybe the tortured, driven images in his head. Or the need to break in a wild mustang. There is no mainstream Nigerian director who can play this “role”. Take for instance the score: “I had wanted Abdullah Ibrahim [Dollar Brand] to score this film for me. ‘Didi, if you can get Abdullah Ibrahim, Marc-Andre told me, I’ll do anything for you on this project.’ So, ok, still trying to get the artist formerly known as Dollar Brand. It would be good if I can get Nneka or Asa doing vocals. I had wanted to go into the studio beforehand and come out with an original motion picture soundtrack, but the one I tried to get to do this has taken a walk. But then, it’s a struggle, it’s just a struggle.”
Filmmaking is evolving at an unprecedented speed. All aspects of production, financing and distribution are changing daily. And Didi thinks he is on the crest of this new wave. There has never been a better time to be a filmmaker. “We have everything we need to get this movie made now. And what we don’t yet have but need – well that will find us. We have committed to making this film. And I mean really committed to making this film. All other arrangements will be made on the wings.”
So, here’s the pitch: a young woman takes part in a mixed-tribe street performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a tribally-divided Nigerian city, in a desperate desire to end the killings in the street. She is driven to madness by the betrayals and brutality of her family, her community, and the world outside. A re-encounter with her stage lover resurrects her murdered innocence and illusions, and catapults her into the most desperate of all desire – vengeance.