Some years back Nollywood films only boast of a handful of viewers at cinemas, no thanks to their appalling production. But today Nollywood is indeed upping the ante. Credit must be given to very skillful film directors and producers like Imoh Umoren, who are reinventing the industry and making Nigerian movies conform to higher standards. In this interview with Mary Ekah and Rebecca Ejifoma, Umoren talks about what he intends to achieve with his movies, and also shares the success story of his very recent and much talked about big screen project,’The Happyness Limited’
Can you tell us how people like you brought about the turnaround in Nollywood?
Initially, when Nollywood started, it was viewed by the intellectuals (middle class) as a thing that poor people do. But gradually, people started seeing the reward of being a filmmaker. When I made my first film in 2009, ‘Lemon Green’ everybody was startled and said things like ‘So, you are a director? That is cool!’
Between 2007 and 2009, was when the new generation of directors started emerging. From that coolness, people started accepting that Nollywood had come to stay and a big business. So, we had more investors investing in films because more viewers were also demanding more Nigerian content. That was how we evolved gradually. Although till date there are some people who say they can’t go to the cinemas to see a Nigerian production. But that percentage is coming down as the graphics and qualities of the films are getting better and the people doing it are becoming more professional. There are more people coming into it. Acceptability is increasing now and we are getting a higher percentage of viewership.
Besides these, what is the one magic fused into the graphics and soundtrack that has enhanced today’s Nollywood films as seen at the cinemas?
There has been more expertise now. I have to attribute that to television and commercials. From 2007 to 2010, there were a lot of franchised shows that came to Nigeria and these shows had to be met with a certain speck. What that did with TV revolution was that a lot of people working with the television learnt skills.
From working in TV and commercials, then that skill developed further when more people went overseas to study filmmaking and different aspects of film making then came back. A lot of the progress in films was also instigated by the TV revolution that happened in the late 2000s, which has transcended into films now. That has spurred more interest. But in reality, TV shows were part of the elements that really sparked the revolution. The reason was that more expertise was required. More people learnt under the foreign crew that came to Nigeria.
How many films have you produced?
I have produced four movies: Lemon Green in 2009, Have a Nice Day was a TV movie for Ebony Life in 2013 that was nominated for best cinematography in the MBCAs. My third movie was an environmental black and white film called Hard Times while the fourth is The Happyness Limited to premiere on Saturday, December 3.
What informed Happyness Limited?
The Happyness Limited is an allegory of life. It is a film about a man, Gregory Ojefua played by AMVCA winner, Tope Tedela who loses everything in a fire. He is trying to reclaim his life and he is scared. His badly burnt child needs a surgery and Gregory does all he can to raise money for her. He is seriously hampered, as people will not hire him because he is deformed. He eventually finds work as a party mascot for children. Hoping this was a ray of sunlight but his life takes another turn when he falls in love with his prostitute neighbour, Agnes (played by Kiki Omeili) and forms an unlikely bond with her daughter, Mandu (Played by Miriam Kayode).
In life, people try to bully you out of depression and sadness. If you walk around, looking sad, people may think there is something wrong with you. So, you must always have a smile on your face and it is supposed to show on the media, where everybody must appear to be successful and happy in order to set up the norms. The whole world as we live in almost requires that you must be fresh and nice. It is almost a demand. Even though I won’t call it a stigma; it’s a near stigma to people that are depressed. If you go to a family and say you are depressed, their response will be “Yon won’t be depressed in Jesus’ name.” Depression is not like those illnesses but like a trauma or anxiety.
People don’t listen; they just want you to have a happy face. That is what this film is about. The Happyness Limited took two and a half years to make, from scripting to filming. It was filmed on location in Lagos and Abeokuta with an intensive planning period of more than two years. The scripting process took multiple rewrites consistently over a year plus. The film had to be pushed back because of location problems but was eventually made in March 2016.
What actually instigated it was when I was in my car listening to the radio on a Christmas day. The presenters were receiving phone calls, laughing and all cheering. I mean this is a time you want to spend with your family. I felt saddened about it.
The message in the film is in multi-layer. The Happyness Limited is not just about a guy, who lost everything in a fire outbreak but tries to start all over and tries to overcome the obstacles, it is also guilt tripping on the Nigerian society. What do you do when you are face-to-face with poor, vulnerable persons? We talk about bomb blast in Maiduguri. What if one of your family members was blown into pieces, how do you react? Now, this is the story of a guy with scarred face.
He goes into the world, tries to look for a job. For the first time, people have to come with terms with the fact of his face. We say we are nice people, how do we react when such person seeks employment in your company? Do we accept or push it under the carpet? So, I try to simplify even though it has a complicated philosophical undertone. But when you watch it, you will realise that it is more than what we are trying to do.
There is also love and family life, too. The film is a tragedy. Nigerians love comedy; some people have questioned me why I chose tragedy rather than comedy. We have to face the truth. We can laugh and crack jokes. But sometimes, someone has to tell us the truth about reality on how to solve qualms. Hence, this film, like most of my films, is to reawaken consciousness to other societal issues.