Better known as businessman and politician, Tonye Princewill has nurtured an interest in the creative arts which he finally unveils with a big move into Nollywood. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports
Depending on where you stand, Tonye Princewill, prince of the Kalabari kingdom of Rivers State, is either a businessman or politician. Another independent opinion insists that he combines the two vocations well.
Rarely, would you hear his name mentioned in the creative circle. Yet, for years, he had used his vast wealth and robust influence to nurture and support many creative enterprises. That, however, is about to change forever with the close-to N100 million investment in a landmark movie on the events around the botched 1976 coup.
Without a doubt, ’76 is not Princewill’s first outlay to the performing arts. In his own right, he is somewhat an emerging patron of the arts-giving freely of his resources to support musicians, visual artists and movie makers.
Among his previous expenses on films is his involvement with ‘Nendi’, a movie directed by Izu Ojukwu, the award-winning director of ‘Mirror Boy’ and ‘Last Flight to Abuja’ who secured Princewill’s confidence to endow ’76.
Perhaps, his most definitive creative effort before ’76 was the self-produced documentary, ‘Man, Mentor, Maverick’, to mark his 44th birthday in 2013. This sustained interest in creative arts began at the University of Port Harcourt, an institution reputed for its outstanding department of literary and creative arts, where he studied Petroleum Engineering.
His acquaintanceship of some scholars in that department awakened a part of him previously eclipsed by the sciences.
Princewill whose father, King T. J. T. Princewill, was a Professor of Medical Microbiology before he became a monarch, may be yielding to the need to document the Nigerian and African story in ways that will capture global imagination.
As he reclined into the seat in the lounge of a hotel in the precinct of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, he insisted on a commonplace ritual among drinkers-clink glasses. Expectedly, the toast was the box office success of ’76, which is produced from the stables of Adonis Productions and Princewill’s Trust.
“Yes, there is a lot of money to be made from film production,” he admitted. “I am a hard-nosed businessman. I know where to draw the line, when it is charity. But this is business. I intend to make my money back. There are many streams of income in movie production. I am not just looking at returns from the box office. For instance, we are producing an album of the sound track from ’76. There will be other merchandise, as well. Someone saw a part of the movie, the other day and when he heard Nelly Uchendu’s ‘Love Nwantinti’, he was taken aback. He did not know that it was a song. He thought ‘Love Nwantinti’ was just a phrase.”
Equally as popular for his diverse philanthropic engagements, he has been known to raise funds and organise relief materials for Niger Delta communities ravaged by flood. Also placed on high pedestal in the public space is his enduring commitment to youth development, which apparently led to his one agenda-job creation-manifesto during his last quest to become governor of Rivers State.
While he does not deny the pecuniary motive, Princewill, who writes a weekly column in a national newspaper, sees the motion picture platform as another veritable tool to achieve some of his political objectives.
“Film is a powerful medium to influence opinion. The only reason I seek public office is to better the lot of the Nigerian, starting from my state. I do not need anything. God has blessed my family and I. It is a sad commentary when you have a governor or minister who makes material acquisitions like cars and houses a priority. How can that be the concern of a governor? Wherever we can deploy a medium like film to continue this conversation we should not shy away. These are the things that can assure a better Nigeria for us all.”
In ’76, there are layers of sub-themes revolving on hope, honesty, trust and undying commitment which run like strong under-currents to highlight the tragic end of the main characters. ’76 is a love story that challenges the myopia of ethnicity and bigotry. It brings to the fore the suffering and tenacity of the average Nigerian woman-mother and wife.
Inspired by episodes in the Nigerian military which overlaps national life, one of the most arduous tasks was the effort to secure a working relationship from the Nigerian Army.
“The fact that this movie survived three Chiefs of Army Staff is a commentary on how fluid things can be in the Nigerian terrain. And this is not even a period of military rule. Thank God that each one of them who took over sustained the interest. We carried them along from the beginning. They scrutinised the script and a supervisor was appointed to monitor what we were doing from the beginning to the end. That is how closely we worked.”
Princewill thinks ’76 is watershed of sorts in Nollywood, being the first time the Nigerian Army would encourage that level of involvement in a movie that comments on military history and an epoch in the Nigerian Army. Having opened the door, he is sure the imagination of other movie makers would be fired to follow the precedence of ’76.
“We are likely to see more ambitious feature films on some of the hitherto ‘sensitive’ episodes of our national life. People would begin to demand that certain information be declassified. Why haven’t we made a film on June 12, MKO Abiola and Abacha?”
To underscore his seriousness, Princewill has his eyes set on perhaps, the most potentially volatile and sensitive subject. He wants to make a film on the Boko Haram insurgency. To his mind, all he needs is to follow the successful template of ’76 by securing the understanding of relevant security agencies.
“We need to start telling our stories. Look at the number of stories spurn from the September 11 bombing of the World Trade Centre in America.”
Already, ’76 has created a buzz from mixed emotions generated at private viewing for corporate organisations. The movie is set for a tour of major film festivals in Cannes, France; London, Toronto, Canada and Cape Town in South Africa. It is listed as the closing film of the 2016 edition of the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) in November.
Public viewing of the movie would open the same month. Known for his stoic disposition, the film was able to bring out his soft side; making him cry all four times he watched the reel roll by. Laughing, as his audience’s eyes widened in astonishment, he said the thought of the amount of money spent on the film must have made him cry the fourth time.
’76 followed a painstaking process uncommon in Nollywood which thinks nothing of shooting a movie between four and 10 days. “It took seven years to make this movie. We were not in a hurry at all. We avoided all the errors possible because we set our mind on a global audience from the first day. For close to one year, we were pursuing approval from the authorities of the Nigerian Army. The movie was shot at Mokola Barracks in Ibadan and the story of how the actors were made to fit into the environment should be reserved for another day.
“At the end of the day, some of them had become so used to the character set in 1976 that it was difficult to bring them back to the present. Set designer, Pat Nebo, who also acted in the film did a marvelous job on set. You can see a One Naira note without it being copiously displayed. The table utensils, the walls, the cars were all set in 1976. This was not easy to achieve, but we did not settle for a substitute. For instance, it was difficult to get a 1976 Black Maria, but we persevered and finally we were able to get it.”
Princewill was optimistic that ’76 would resonate with the generation of Nigerians who witnessed the events, while retaining a magnetic pull on the younger generation. “The movie provides answers to some begging national questions. Many may be wondering how we got to where we are as a nation. Some of these issues are dispassionately dealt with in the movie.”
Shot over a seven-month period meant that its 200 member cast and crew bonded as a family. “We had two years of pre-production and seven months of shooting including eight months of trying to secure all necessary permission from the Nigerian Army. We shot the movie at the Mokola Barracks in Ibadan. A large part of the action took place there. Well, I am excited about the film. Some of the striking things that happened in the course of production were birthdays, weddings and passages.
“We shot on celluloid. This is not common. Izu Ojukwu shot without having a chance to view what he shot. He shot off instinct. To put it mildly, the movie is a miracle. Having people on set for between six and seven months meant that there would be birthdays. We had two weddings. The cast members involved had to go and get married and come back on set. Chidi Mokeme and Debo Oguns literarily got married on set. They are used to acting where they bond for a shorter period of time.
“In this case, they were together for over half of a year. You can see that bonding in the movie. You can see the chemistry. We had to send the script to Hollywood to get scriptwriters there to look it over. We felt that we wanted it to play to an international audience. I don’t want to over blow one character over another, Ramsey Nouah outdid himself. I can say the same for Rita Dominic.
“Chidi Mokeme has been a bit quiet. This movie is going to reestablish his presence and remind people who he is. Daniel K. Daniel acted wonderfully. Incidentally he won a big laurel at the recent AMVCA. Rita’s performance was out of this world. She genuinely rocked.”
This is one movie, Princewill bets, that will generate different emotions not only because it is based on reality, but also for its careful combination of acted scenes with real life footage and archival material.
“At the end of the movie when they are about to be executed at the Bar Beach in Lagos, we moved from a shot scene to a real life scene of when they are being executed. These were some tweaks done to give it more authenticity. We actually showed them being executed. We linked a shot scene that was acted to what actually happened. We delivered a smooth transition.”
’76 is the story of a young officer from the Middle Belt who gets into a romantic relationship with an O-level student from the South-eastern region. However, their relationship is strained by constant military postings. The soldier gets accused of being involved in the 1976 unsuccessful military coup and assassination of General Murtala Mohammed, and the heavily pregnant wife, gets entangled in an emotional dilemma.