By Obi Emelonye
Debonair and dedicated to a mission, Obi Emelonye represents a new hue on the canvas of Nigerian moviemakers. His focus is deep, enthralling and refreshing; so are his techniques and storylines. A man of few words but many parts, who shuttles between Lagos and London, Emelonye’s making as a moviemaker is enchanting as the movies he has worked on over the years. Ingenious with his indigenous film projects, he excites film lovers both home and abroad, Ferdinand Ekechukwu writes
The Making of a Moviemaker
By virtue of his dual citizenship and devotion to Nigeria’s thriving movie industry and love for country, Obi Emelonye shuttles between Lagos and London almost with certainty. A man now in his golden age, relocated to the United Kingdom, a few years after graduating from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. As a multiple award-winning director he has cautiously connected with his root and proudly maintained his Igbo Nigerian identity, occasionally speaking the language – without going unnoticed.
This reputation he acquired in 2014 following his exclusive acceptance speech in Igbo dialect when his film ‘Onye Ozi’ (The Messenger) won the category for Best Indigenous Film- Igbo at the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards. With that audacious move, Obi made a few friends and even received commendation from his non-Igbo-speaking friends.
His patriotic zest is such that he proclaims himself as a Nollywood filmmaker, even to the extent that he coined his production outfit by incorporating it The Nollywood Factory – considered the first to release a Nollywood film theatrically on UK screens in 2004, according to an online medium. Titled Echoes of War, the film became the springboard that launched the idea of premiering Nollywood films at UK cinemas.
Although mostly known for remarkable cinematic works including Last Flight to Abuja, his recent films have had commercial successes, as well as critical acclaim. Of recent, his latest film Oxford Gardens won the highly coveted Screen Nation awards in London.
To that also are the two African film awards it won last October in London and the highly respected Nollywood and African Film Critics’ Awards – NAFCA – in California where it won two awards, including best director, a tally that possibly impressed the most fastidious filmmaker.
Between 2011 and 2015, Obi enjoyed an incredibly tremendous success which saw him feature on CNN as the ‘Future of Nollywood’ in a series of interviews, and African Voices programme, though the last couple of years have seen his name off the lists of awards categories in Nigeria.
Obi alludes that in an industry with thousands of practitioners striving to improve their craft, it is unlikely that other practitioners sit quietly and watch only a few others cart away all the honours. He did acknowledge that the industry has become more competitive such that one needs to take a deep breath before hitting the scene.
Such breath it would seem Obi has taken just so to renew his vigour working on a biopic about IBB – the man that ruled Nigeria for eight years between 1985 and 1993. The work has taken seven years in the making. He believes that with what he has done in the last few years in the industry, a project of that magnitude and importance is not beyond him.
He had started writing the script based on information available in the public domain. But needed to have a personal perspective from the man himself about his own life and significantly, about his time in office. Quite challenging as the General maintained a regal silence since leaving office.
But he managed to get through to him after persistent inquiries and Obi was surprised that, for the first time since leaving office 24 years ago, ‘Maradona’ was willing to get into a detailed conversation about what happened in those many dramatic episodes in his public life involving Africa’s most populous black nation.
As Obi notes, the film has shaped up to be an intense and intimate portrait of the man and an unprecedented access to the corridors of power as the political pendulum swung one way to another in Nigeria, leading up to his controversial gesture of stepping aside.
In Obi’s view, every Nigerian and indeed every African should see the movie when it is finally released. He is really humbled and excited to be bestowed with the enviable honour of telling this important story. He hopes it restarts an era of home-grown biopics to immortalise memorable African leaders.
Renowned for the outstanding movies he has made, Obi is not restricted to any particular kind of genres. A look at his catalogue reveals a very broad range of themes: from the African spirituality of The Mirror Boy, to the brazen glamour and ambitious effort in Last Flight to Abuja, to the intelligent humour of ‘Onye Ozi’, and to the boxing theme of Oxford Gardens, lies a broad range of mixed genres.
What he considers first in any project is the nature of the story. Reason he chose IBB from all of the previous Nigerian rulers. IBB is perceived the most controversial Nigerian leader and was allegedly involved in a civil war, several coups, for and against, and topped it up with an intriguing and fascinating political drama of June 12.
Another factor Obi considers, aside from dramatic stories is how the story would blend with his production style which is often visually enthralling. Projects like ‘Badamasi’ and the Last Flight to Abuja, for instance, tick the boxes amply for him in this regard and such would get his interest any day. More so is budget consideration, the message and how the project will fit into the industry as it is right now.
As with most successful ventures that suffered initial setbacks, his was not different. Sometime in the year 2000, years after trying out his chance with top UK football clubs like Carlton Athletics and West Ham United, Obi returned home to invest in the Nigerian industry, with the hope of never going back. But that was not to be. He would struggle to make an impact on the movie entertainment scene. His unsavoury encounter with the then clannish marketers in Nollywood forced him back just one year after.
However, Obi gradually but strategically worked his way back home and into the Nigerian movie industry and ever since has remained a force to reckon with as a director, producer and screenwriter.
“I believe that there’s a season for everything,” he said as he narrated his experience. “When I returned in 2000, the Nollywood industry was still finding its feet, evolving from an entrepreneurial template. At that time, there was no artistic value in our films. It was bare narrative, one-dimensional and predictable stories that seldom veered from one or two themes- blood money and village stories. Coming from the UK with a taste for global cinema, I attempted to tell a different kind of story and tell it in a more artistic manner.
“I knew it was going to be hard to win over our impressionable audience that was used to the status quo and I was willing to be patient. But what became my most difficult challenge was the heartless insincerity among the marketers, who had the industry in a choke-hold at the time. Everyone I dealt with defrauded me and after several attempts of locking people’s shops in Idumota and arresting fraudulent people, I decided to retreat back to England in 2001. But with a pledge to return when the circumstances were different. It would take me nearly 10 years and The Mirror Boy became my comeback film in 2011.”
First and foremost a director, he has had the privilege of writing and producing most of his successful movies without any major external support or intervention fund of some sorts from other sources. He started with small, cheap films and used them to state his artistic case. He would later be supported by family and friends. The next stage was attracting the interest of corporate organisations like Trace TV, Africa Magic, Iroko TV and the likes in the form of sponsorship and co-productions. Now at this stage he has been nominated for the Bank of Industry (BOI) intervention fund.
Obi, having studied Theatre Arts knew so much about the stage craft but little about the screen. So, when he quit professional football and was studying law in the UK, he had already set up a theatre company and staged a few plays in London theatres.
The back-breaking work and the discouraging returns on investment forced him to see the screen, large or small as the future. He started working his way, formal and informal, into training for this new field.
The industries in Nigeria and in the UK are two worlds apart. On a comparative outlook with his understanding of both environments in terms of structures of chances and all, the UK film industry offers advances in both production and distribution of films. But the kind he describes as exclusive club that has near impossible entry points.
Conscientiously so at the initial stage of his career, the question arose for the filmmaker whether to either strive to break through the concrete ceiling of the UK film industry and waste the most productive part of his years or join a growing Nollywood phenomenon, with mind-boggling potential and help it find its way to global recognition.
He chose the latter and by so doing, opened up a window of fascinating opportunities for himself.
His tremendous run on the Nollywood scene stands Obi out as a filmmaker in a crowded film industry. But he would humbly admit of not being exceptionally different from the average Nigerian filmmaker. That what he has going for him is a slightly rounded worldview on account of his multidisciplinary education in the arts, law and humanities, plus his frequent travels and eclectic training. Add to that is his knack for choosing topical subject matter, an insatiable quest for perfection, a boldly optimistic ambition and uncommon appreciation of the power of promotion.
About the industry at the moment, the dotting father of three beautiful children acknowledged the gradual rise in the artistic merit and production value of Nollywood projects. He believes the scripts have risen from the predictable unilateral narratives to complex and engaging dramas with impeccable dialogue.
Adding that the quality of equipment used and technical advancements have seen the end of bad sound and ropy camera work and sound effects.
“The only thing that is missing to make the transformation complete is improving and consolidating distribution processes that would take advantage of the 180 million Nigerians to provide returns on film investment,” he pointed out.
In his honour is The Obi Emelonye Foundation, a self-sustaining initiative set up to mark his 50th birthday this year. Described as the 50-50 Legacy (with that of his twin brother who worked in Uganda as a human rights director for UN), the foundation is established to empowering young creative minds in the entertainment industry through mentorship, sponsorship, provision of access and support to fulfill their potential.
“I think there comes a time in a man’s life when his success is no longer measured in the number of zeros in his bank account, or even the number of cars he drives,” he stated. “Instead success is defined by the number of lives that one is able to touch. The aim is to grant young people access to the very top of the industry by supporting 50 projects over a five year period.”