From a mere interest in founding an entertainment outfit, that comprised of a band, hired musical equipment and promoted in-house artistes, as well, Adonijah Owiriwa, a mechanical engineer with a Port Harcourt-based international company has launched fully into movie production with the groundbreaking film, ’76. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports

On the day he was born, Providence played a joke on Adonijah Owiriwa. Born on the last day of 1975, just one day shy of 1976-a year that would become momentous in his emerging career as a film maker, the Divine Order has positioned him to participate in a national historical narrative of immense impact.

To be sure, Owiriwa had always been busy, but his days became more filled with activities with the roles of a father and husband added to his very demanding schedule as a Mechanical Engineer with a Port Harcourt-based multi-national company. However, it all the more hectic as his passion for entertainment became more engaging. From a mere interest, he promoted an entertainment outfit, which comprised of a band, hired musical equipment and promoted in-house artistes. The company, Adonis Production, took its name from his first son, Adonis, who was born about the time he set up shop. It is now fully dedicated to movies.

While this was happening, another scenario was developing that would chart a different course for Qwiriwa’s life forever. A young Turk, Prince Tonye Princewill, had emerged on the political landscape of Rivers State. His quest to become governor generated a huge followership and interest, particularly among the youths. Owiriwa was one of his teeming admirers. Both men were friends on Facebook. This was in 2007. The following year, Barack Obama, an African-American and a dark horse in American politics, became president of the United States of America. It was the kind of monumental change Owiriwa and Princewill desired but could not achieve in Rivers State. In a fit of melancholy, he left a message on the Facebook page of the gubernatorial aspirant that prepositioned Princewill as Governor of Rivers State if the conditions were right. He had not yet met Princewill in person.

The opportunity for formal introduction was created by a mutual friend. Owiriwa’s band engaged guests and Princewill was an invitee. He recalled walking past the governorship candidate. But Princewill’s keen sense attracted him.
‘Hello young man, have I met you before?’

I said, ‘no,I don’t think we’ve met’.
And then he introduced himself ‘I’m Tonye Princewill ‘
“I was like wow! Prior to that, he mentioned he must have seen this face before. I said ‘really’? He said ‘yes’, then he mentioned my name. We just struck a chord. We were together that evening; talking about our passion in entertainment and orphanage homes. That’s how we started. Since then, every project that I have done, he’s been 100 percent a part and parcel of it.

He recalled with a longing their first movie project, ‘Nnenda’, a film about orphanages and the neglect of orphans, especially in Africa. It was released in 2008. It brought a certain kind of awareness on these unfortunate members of the society. If nothing, ‘Nnenda’ created a hunger for a sequel. Instead of continuing on the movie format, Owiriwa and his collaborator decided to engage their different publics through another art form – a singing contest themed ‘Melody Shelters’.

It was strictly for all the registered orphanages in Nigeria. It was presented in the form of a chorale. At the onset, they did not imagine the work would demand that they visit every registered orphanage across the country; state-by-state. It involved writing to all of them to create the awareness because it was something they hadn’t done before. Then country was split into three zones: North, West and South for the purpose of the contest. The grand finale was in Port Harcourt in 2012. The star prize was N10 million. Four years after, it is still the first and only singing contest of its kind.

Also on Owiriwa’s production credit is science fiction movie, ‘Kajola’, which he collaborated with Niyi Akinmolayan.
Although, Adonis was originally Owiriwa’s, Princewill has bought into it and they co-own it today. The relationship between the two men has progressed from entertainment into other. He readily disclosed. “We are working together on other fronts that are going to come to limelight soon. I think we have synergised properly and effectively on this entertainment front.”

In his relationship with Princewill, so far; he finds him to be straight-forward and practical. “Tonye is the kind of man who says it exactly the way it is. I mean he is not the average Nigerian politician.” But he argued that it’s the other persons that are not politicians. He describes them as ‘politricians’. He really wants to help, wants to make a difference, and is ready to make the sacrifices that it takes to make a difference.”

An apparent and copious evidence of their collaboration is on the soon-to-be-premiered movie ’76 which is about 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. The film which is set in the ‘70s was shot in Ibadan, Oyo State.

Although, the project is only coming out at this time, it was in the works for seven years, keeping Owiriwa busy at different stages of the project; from the conception, scriptwriting, script conferences – both home and abroad to the direct story; the whole pre-production stage where decisions were taken on what materials to use and how to source for them. As one who shares the role of executive producer with Princewill, it is their responsibility to provide necessary funds.

Production of ‘76 has been the most challenging project yet for Owiriwa. “We made a lot of daring moves. Tonye is really a practical person. I came up with this idea alongside Izu Ojukwu, the director. We sat together and were like; we have all these Hollywood people telling the African story through movies – Hotel Rwanda, Sometime in April, Last King of Scotland and Long Walk to Freedom. They are African stories but told by Hollywood. We don’t think it’s right because nobody can tell your story like you. If the story is yours then you should take ownership. We are very passionate about it so we embarked on this journey seven years ago. We decided to tell the ‘76 story ourselves and tell it at a level that Hollywood would appreciate. We decided to shoot on film against all odds.

In this part of the world, who wants to shoot on film with all the hassles that accompany shooting on film? We wanted that film feel, we wanted to create that exact nostalgic feeling so that when people that lived in the 70s see this film in cinemas, they will feel like they were actually in the 70s watching this film. Pre-production lasted for like two years, trying to get the materials, the different kinds of props, the cast, get uniforms, walk with the military to get the rifles, the guns; because everything you see in this movie, are no longer in use today-the boots, the rifles, the vehicles and all that.

We had their description and then source for them. We went to Ibadan to rent a couple of empty duplexes so that we could pimp them to ‘76 from the scratch. We took care of the paintings on the wall. The paintings that they used then were not these glossy paintings that we see today. Even the colours are not these predominant colours in houses today; then the furniture, the electronics, the gramophones, the dial phones, the black and white television, the executive one that had legs to stand on with wooden doors; we had to get all that. Those days men used to wear high-heeled shoes. The art director, Pat Nebo, had to manufacture them. A lot of work went into pre-production before we finally got on set.”

Looking back at the nightmare that followed the production of ’76, Owiriwa is happy that he worked with a dedicated team of professionals who were undaunted by difficulties. At different stages, the challenges appeared insurmountable. Shooting a movie like ’76 in the heat of the Boko Haram insurrection in 2012 was tasking. Although the authorities of the Nigeria Army had granted them permission, everyday, they had to answer questions from different quarters who probed their mission in the barracks at Ibadan. “We got all the support we needed from the army because we followed due process.”

Another person who has earned huge respect from Owiriwa is the director the movie, Izu Ojukwu. Since their first meeting, he has worked with him on every project. He narrated the story behind their relationship. “When I decided to go into movies, one of my cousins, Wisdom Uzoma Ikedum, who had worked with Ojukwu recommended him. I was told that he does not cut corners; that he only attends to serious minded clients who strive for excellence. Izu and I met in 2006 and we’ve been friends since. Two years later we released ‘Nnenda’.

For the first time, Owiriwa auditioned for a role and this is where his respect for Ojukwu went up. “When I read the script, I thought I will be able to pick up, I auditioned for it and the director told me ‘sorry sir, I don’t think you can play this role’. I was like ‘you must be out of your mind, this is my money, I want this role’. And he was like ‘sorry sir, this is not how it works, you cannot interpret this role. I will suggest you audition for this other role.’ I told him I have been reading about this role and he was like ‘I’m talking to you now, your personality, I think you should audition for this role’. I auditioned and at the end everyone was clapping and he was like ‘I told you, this is the role you should audition for, I think you are going to do it well’.

So I took up that role. As at the time we got on set, I was still working. I took a month vacation to come on set. We spent that one month learning military parade. There were soldiers assigned to drill us, every morning. The colonel who supervised this project was like ‘I don’t want you guys to be like military people in the movie, I want you to be military people in the movie’. Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to roll camera, I had to get back to work. So, for four months, I left Port Harcourt every Friday, flew down to Lagos and as soon as I land, I take the very first taxi to Ibadan. There were times I got to Ibadan at 9:00pm. And remember I’m the executive producer so I was also sourcing for funds. It was taking far more funds than we bargained for.

I will have a meeting with the director of the movie and still go over my lines. So for Saturdays and Sundays, Izu will only shoot scenes that had me in them. Only characters that interacted with me in the movie will shoot Saturdays and Sundays. Then first thing on Monday morning, before 6:00am, I will leave Ibadan to catch the first flight to Port Harcourt. Most often, I park my car at the airport so that I could drive straight to work. I did this every weekend for four months.”
Fortunately, his wife and children live abroad. Notwithstanding, he had a lot of commendation for his wife who was very supportive.

Owiriwa played Captain Ajayi, the officer who investigated the coup and indicted the people that were involved. The role was a kind of self discovery for him and took him back to his days in secondary school when he captained the school’s debate team and served as social prefect despite being a science student. But he does not regret that he went on to become an engineer. If anything, he thinks the insistence on high quality and global standard which engineering confers has shaped the way Adonis Production approaches its work in Nollywood.

“I believe in getting it done the first time and every time. I believe in excellence in execution. And these are qualities that my training as an engineer working for a multi-national company actually imbibed in me that I’m applying. For instance, when we finished ‘76, we did the first private screening in February, and since February, we have gone back to Munich where we did the post-production twice. After the first private screening, we listened to criticisms. We didn’t make this film for ourselves, we made it for our audience. The director and the producers sat down again and decided to carry out further editing. Finally, we had to send the movie again to international film festival owners, pleaded with big festival film directors to critique it because we want to meet up with that international standard. We learnt that in the American market, they don’t like melo-drama. They prefer the action, thriller.

We had to go back again to tighten the film and when they saw it, they all went ‘wow’ and that exactly earned us our world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is one of the biggest film festivals in the world. We go to Toronto in September and in October, BFI. The London International Film Festival has also invited us. Directly after that, there is Dubai International Film Festival in December. We had to turn down Durban. They invited us when they saw the movie but because Toronto will not screen your film if it’s been screened in a smaller film festival, especially when you want to do a world release. A couple of filmmakers may not want to do all of that because it is a very difficult route. It’s a lot of money. Some will easily give up and postpone to the next project. But if it’s worth doing for me, I think it’s worth doing well.”