From the News Department of NTA Kaduna to agency producer in different advertising companies, Femi Odugbemi has made defining contributions as content producer for television and film in Nigeria. Nseobong Okon-Ekong had an encounter with him on the sideline of the premiere of his current movie, Gidi Blues
The evening before the premiere of his latest feature film, Gidi Blues, at the Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos some of his friends who were in the thick of making sure the function went well brought up what they assumed was a nice plan to make movie director, Femi Odugbemi look the part. He allowed them to go through the motion of explaining how they had prepared different outfits that he would wear during diverse parts of the event. He was supposed to arrive and walk the red carpet in one. He would then change into another for the meet-and-greet period of mingling, before settling into the one in which he would see the movie in. Thanking them for their kindness, he made light of this very serious suggestion, insisting he would appear in what has become his signature shirt. The shirts have been made by the same tailor for eight years.
Interestingly, these shirts have a strong character and never cease to make an impression when he appears in them. So he has unwittingly made the tailor famous around the world. Everywhere he goes; at film festivals and other engagements, people want his shirt and the order goes back to this unassuming tailor in Lagos.
He wore one of the shirts, throughout the event at Federal Palace!
For one who went to the United State of America at an impressionable age of 15 to study Film Production at the Montana State University, it is surprising he turned a blind eye to the fancy loom that is so apparent in show business. For him, that would be allowing himself to focus on the part of show business that dwells on things that are irrelevant. He would later joke that it could be a part of Oke Igbo (his Ondo State root) in his DNA.
Beyond the yarn, Odugbemi’s shirt is a metaphor for his life. Like the shirt, the man has strenght of character that is easily recognisable. He is a man of strong convictions who is neither afraid nor ashamed to display his sincerity.
This is easily noticeable in the manner he tells his stories. His new work, Gidi Blues, which shows in cinemas across Nigeria from June 24, fulfills, at once, his admiration for Lagos and a desire to present the city in a deserving garb to the rest of the world. However, he also apportioned to himself the important objective of making fundamental statements that would evoke different emotions in the audience.
Odugbemi did not want to make just another film about Lagos. He sought to capture the essential vibe that gives Lagos its character. This uniqueness could be the open market in Idumota where the rich and the poor come looking for a bargain; you will see people park a Mercedes Benz and go into Idumota to negotiate to the last Naira with someone who they could dash the money to. Lagos demands you have to be on top of your game. You have to be quick. Anything can happen at any time. And it usually does. This is Odugbemi’s Lagos.
He deliberately navigated away from the often antiseptic portrayal of Lagos that tries to sanitise the environment, in a way that makes it lose its personality-with all the beautiful houses and state-of-the-art cars. While accepting that such scenarios exist, he argued that they are not real and do not essentially portray who we are.
Odugbemi’s Lagos love story is set in places like Makoko and Idumota. Without creating a pond of poverty, he still manages to present a romantic and interesting pictorial that is visually appealing and remains a true rendition of Lagos. It shows that the people in these spaces have pride. They have ambitions. They are human. They may not have money but they live.
Expectedly, Lagos has evolved from what it used to be in his childhood. Lagos has gone from being a city of five million to a city of 20 million people. The resources are stretched. The quality of life has changed. “There is also a difference in where we have gone. There is a consumptive atmosphere now. We used to be more neighbourly. We used to share more. We used to be each other’s keeper. If your child was misbehaving outside, your neighbour will beat him and bring him home. We need to recapture the essence of those days even though times have changed. The way to recapture it is to bring back those values that never change. The values of hard work, good neighbourliness, watching out for each other and the values of parents being hands on with their children.”
With Gidi Blues, part of his intention is to trigger a desire in film makers to be more authentic to the context of their stories by portraying characters who are affected by their environment. The clarion call from Odugbemi is that ‘we must appreciate the uniqueness in where we were born”. And he thinks movies can serve as a tool to remind us of our history and an appreciation for our culture. He went back to his childhood to illustrate how film can serve as a tool for cultural diplomacy. “I used to go to Super Cinema in Surulere. All we saw there were Chinese and Indian films. They were not in English. They weren’t even sub-titled. By the time I was getting ready to go to secondary school, I felt I had already known everything about India. I knew how they dressed. I knew what New Delhi looked like. I knew what the policemen looked like. The films marketed India. It was the same thing with America and China.”
As the Number Two film producing nation in the world, Odugbemi thinks Nigeria should not be looking for authentication and validation from foreign markets. Nigerian movies, he said, should be used to project the best out of the country to satisfy the yearning among foreign countries to learn more about Nigeria.
Coming at a time when his memory as a feature film director appears to be on the wane and he is better known for his work in the documentary genre, Odugbemi was unperturbed about this identity. “I don’t have a problem with being called a documentarian. Documentaries are powerful and very important. I am just a film maker, but I began in feature and short films. I only started making a lot of documentaries in the last five years. It is just that I have made a lot of them and they have done well. There is no film making culture that survives only on feature films or fiction. It is a combination of both. It is from documentary that big industries nurture their young film makers. It is how young people build, their creative signature. Documentaries cause them to think, to plan, to research issues they wish to address. It is a place where you have to be fastidious. Documentaries don’t start from answers. They start from questions.”
Addressing the concern that he has crossed over from the documentary to features, he said a closer study of Gidi Blues reveals his attempt to deal with a lot of issues. Although, entertainment is guaranteed, the film causes people to think. “Gidi Blues gives you the same issues that I would talk about normally (in a documentary), but it is entertaining. The subject matter is about love. I am using it to connect with young people. I am using it to have young people understand that you don’t have to wait until you have money before you can affect your environment. The lead character, Nkem is a young lady who is not relying on men for money. She is making her own way. She becomes an entrepreneur rather than looking for work. She is looking to employ people rather than being employed. She is ready to contribute to the economy by creating wealth. But you also have to understand that her wealth is meaningless if she cannot touch her environment. She understands that we cannot all wait for government. She understands what John F. Kennedy said, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” She goes to Makoko and starts to teach. She is a volunteer teacher.
She starts a book club. All these are metaphors for this young generation. To contribute to your environment, you can’t sit back and blame government all the time. I am hoping that message comes through. I have another character who smokes and drinks and gambles. He comes to bad end as well. We can make one million feature films and if they are all meaningless, we have no impact.”
Like many good films, Gidi Blues has multiple strands of narratives. Between Akin and his mother, regardless of what they are saying, there are several layers and levels to their relationship. The mother yearns for the boy to make something out of his life. The film addresses the issue of an increasing number of young men who at between 30 and 35 years still sleep on the couch and collect money from their parents. They are still waiting for work instead of being proactive. The movie also mirrors the frustration of parents who have paid so much money to train these children, but the children can’t bring up initiatives to create something.
“Right parenting means that you do not stop being a parent. You are a guide. Regardless of how the child is, you cannot just lose him. You shape that child as a contribution to the nation. When we give up, we are guaranteed that child is a failure. In the case of Akin, the mother never gave up. The point I am trying to make with that narrative is that this boy has been trained in England. He is an Economist, but he is waiting for the big job. The mother manages to get him into a space where between the mother and Nkem, he finds himself enough to go into Idumota and get his hands dirty, and work from the ground up and meet with women who are selling on the streets. He finds satisfaction. Not only does he now succeed in making money for himself, he contributes in a viable way to society. Also look at the character of the Area Boy, he changes the life of the guy. That is what is possible when we don’t give up. Unless you bring that culture of dignity in labour back, we can’t deal with corruption at the level that we are now. People are used to free money. We have to start to rebuild from the level of our young people.”
Gidi Blues also provided an avenue for a couple of interventions in the Nigerian movie industry that are important to Odugbemi. One, he ensured the film was populated by a good mix of experienced and new actors. He did this deliberately while looking out for ability to interpret a role and a cast of people who want to work together. In doing this, he was guided by the understanding that film making is collaborative. If this were true about people he already knew, he definitely took a chance with the fresh faces.
He explained his disposition. “I am not from the school of film makers where we all meet on the first day of the shoot. We had rehearsals. We had casting. We have been at this for almost six months. We did not conceive it in five days and shoot it in 10 days and call it a movie. It may have been a performance, but something is missing. What you create on Day One when actors come together is chemistry. I was looking for people not just to recite dialogue for me. I was looking for people to act. I wanted to be sure that the audience would look at the mother and the son and say they look like relatives. I wanted the narratives and the current that were under to be clear.
You could tell that Akin and his mother had been having this fight about marrying or not marrying for very long. You can see inflection of high and low in their interaction. That comes from careful casting. It comes also from having conversations where the actors are able to understand that there is a lot that you can gain from each other. Look at what we were able to get with Gideon (Okeke) acting with Bukky (Wright) who has done many films. We also wanted to make sure that Bukky would be generous and collaborative with Gideon because there is also an energy that Gideon brings that she too needs. You can see that they exchange energies. It took us a while to make sure that Gideon could say ‘Maami’ not with an Igbo accent, but like a Yoruba boy. That is how I grew up. You don’t call her by her name. You don’t call her mummy. You don’t call her mum. We are Nigerians. I wanted those cultural references to be in each of the characters.
“I look at pastors today. Some of them talk in real life like they are on the pulpit all the time. I also wanted to show that religion does not absolve you from responsibilities of life. Hypocrisy of religion is one of the reasons we are in this problem today. We cannot have as many Christians and Moslems and all these people who claim to be religious in their numbers and have a country like this unless all of us are not being truthful to each other. That is the essence of those characters. Their daughter exhibits many gifts and they are proud. But you can tell they don’t know this girl.”
Perhaps, out of the respect for Odugbemi, a couple of important seasoned actors took cameo roles. Their presence brought an assuredness to the film. Jahman Anikulapo was on the screen for 10 seconds. Toyin Osinaike was the boatman. Steve Ogundele was the doctor. Tina Mba also took a small part. The director explained why these big actors took cameo roles.
“It was also to tell these young people that an actor is an actor. You do not always have to be the leading man. If you find a script you like, it is better for you to say one line in it and be part of a great show than to have 200 pages of dialogue in a shitty film. I think our industry has to get to a place where we have to pass something on. We cannot keep complaining about the young people, if we are not willing to engage them. Musicians Aduke and Banky W also make a cameo.”
Giving a chance to promising professionals is a commitment Odugbemi stands by. Having been a beneficiary of similar gesture, he recalled that people like Jimi Odumosu, Tony Ogunlana, Yori Folarin and Ted Mukoro took him under their wings. One of his proudest discoveries in Gidi Blues is the Script Writer who he had very kind and encouraging words for. “It is very important that every matured artiste should create a path for another artiste. It is tough enough to be an artiste, to be a young artiste is very tough. Opportunities are few and far between. When you are excellent, when you are striving to be the best, you need opportunities more than you need money.
I was given opportunities. If they could look at me in those days and say we will let this guy try, I have a commitment to all the young artistes I think have potentials.”
Odugbemi has traversed the Nigerian creative space for 25 years. From working in the News Department of NTA Kaduna to stints as agency producer in different advertising companies. He finally set up shop, becoming his own boss at DVWorx Studios, a platform that enabled him serve as President of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria, between 2002 and 2006. Although, he created great commercials for the likes of Coca-Cola, Maggi and did major corporate documentaries, many see his defining work as the Irep Documentary Film Festival which he started six years ago.
“There were no documentaries. My own documentaries were travelling. I wanted a festival locally. We needed to grow the documentary culture. The young people needed to have a voice to say something about the African experience. We have done that for six years. I am head judge for the AMVCA. I have been head judge for the Ugandan film festival for three years. I am head adviser for Black Stars Film Festival in Ghana. I am part of the Documentary Network Africa. I was the founding producer of Tinsel. I do all kinds of research work for foundations.”