Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha enter the world of an ace film maker who continues to sturn with hit productions that features compelling story line

There is very little about the documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, director, photographer, arts and culture enthusiast, Femi Odugbemi that is not in the public space. And that is because he does not fish in unfamiliar waters. He is committed to one thing only: Film! Everything else is ancillary.

It is easy to focus on Odugbemi’s work; to take each one as they come. However, that effort demands serious concentration to play catch-up, for as unassuming as he appears, Odugbemi is restless. His agile spirit is forever thinking up new schemes and projects. Whatever you knew of him yesterday may not be relevant today. The only thing you may be sure of is that his venture will always be tied to the magic of initiating a discourse through the sight and sound medium of television or film.

For instance, to launch his intriguing hit TV series, Battleground, he went through the motion of introducing a new company, Zuri 24 Media. His success with production of successful drama on television attained an enviable feat with Tinsel. Following that mark of distinction, not many imagined he could reach into the recesses of his creative mind to come up with another winning television drama. With Battleground, however, Odugbemi does not only seek to surpass himself, the most enduring impression that is being conveyed is how the team has been able to deliver a world class production daily, depending entirely on resources and talent obtained in Nigeria.
Battleground is what may be called the Nigerian dream!

It’s making is like a fairytale. Every week day, a bus filled with the crew and cast takes off from Maryland Bus-stop in Lagos mainland at 5am heading for the Lekki Phase 1 location. The personnel find their way to the location. But lateness is not tolerated, for whatever reason. Breakfast is served at 7am. Shooting begins at 8am and goes on till late afternoon. There is lunch break. Everything moves like clockwork. There are no distractions. All possible hiccups have been anticipated and taken care of (to a large extent). The Battleground set must be one of the few places where things work seamlessly in Nigeria. The unlikely story of Battleground begins from acquisition of the property in Lekki Phase 1. “It was an abandoned house. The former occupants did not take good care of it. But it was what we were looking for. We needed to do a lot of work to transform it to what you see now.”

This is where the amazing craftsmanship of his team was deployed. As the artisans and professionals went to work, an adorable masterpiece, fitting the description was invented in every space; whether it was the bedroom, living room, study or the courtyard. Even he could not believe the extent of renovation that was carried out in such a short time.

The ingenuity of the professionals on the Battleground set is futher showcased with the creation of an ‘artificial’ island and a golf course.

More astounding is the fact that every costume used on the set of Battleground is made right there!
The impeccable lifestyle in Battleground is too good to be true, therefore, some viewers forget that it is make-believe and strongly desire to live in the Battleground.

But this is not an entirely new phenomenon. It is not uncommon to see fans go extra mile or do the weirdest things to have an encounter with their favourite celebrity. Take a look at the US rapper Eminem whose number one fan Stan ended up killing himself simply because Eminem didn’t reply his mails on time. Back home, we’ve seen fans present portraits of their famous artistes to them on different occasions or move past security guards to hug their idols. None of these however can match the unwavering loyalty of Africa Magic’s Battleground fans. The intriguing TV series produced by Femi Odugbemi has acquired a larger-than-life status since its debut last May.

These fans come from diverse backgrounds to converege on social media platforms. On Twitter and Facebook, they share their views on the gripping tale, post updates as well as create funny moments with memes.

However, they proved their unflappable devotion to the series when they organised a party to celebrate the 100th episode of Battleground recently. DStv and Africa Magic had earlier scheduled a live screening of the episode at the Battleground towering mansion where most of the scenes are shot. Some selected celebrities, journalists and fans were invited to share in the historic moment with the cast and crew.

Feeling left out of the fun, the uninvited fans had their own party in Lagos with the former Governor of Cross River State Donald Duke in attendance. That’s what you call real fandom. They partied, took selfies and generally had a good time networking. All were in agreement that they definitely had a good reason to celebrate the soapie which compelling storyline had kept them glued to their TVs.

Arguably, Battleground redefined the TV culture in more ways than one. The compelling story line and clinical precision given to the production are good testament to the dexterity of the man at the helms of the production, Femi Odugbemi. The son of a cocoa farmer from Ondo State, Odugbemi is famous for excellent productions like Gidi Blues, Oriki documentary, and another Africa Magic production, Tinsel. Paying extra attention to his craft and raising the standards of his vocation have set him apart from his contemporaries.

This demand for professionalism is meticulously displayed at conspicous vantage positions round the location. They are mainly instructions (or reminders) to the cast and crew, imploring them to be businesslike.

Odugbemi says it’s intentional. “We shoot everyday. An episode a day for next week. The call-time is 6am. We’ve made adequate provisions for them to make it easier for them. There is a caterer who brings variety of delicacies for them so that they can have breakfast before shooting. They don’t have to worry about clothes because we make the costumes here. There is an in-house costumier who makes all the attires. We also have the salon where they all get prepped up. So everything is here.”

“Most of them live nearby and drive their own cars,” he continues, “So they easily get here on time but for those who don’t, we have a bus at Maryland that picks them up. We did all these because we don’t want to encourage excuses that may tamper with production. Things should be done properly and professionally.”

Indeed, this was clearly seen at the location in Lekki. Cameramen and members of the cast were already on ground to shoot a scene, while the costumier spun the wheel tirelessly upstairs, making cuts and patterns on fabrics. The make-up artist was not idle either as she applied finishing touches to the face of one of the actors to get the desired look for her character. In another section of the big compound there were scriptwriters who barely looked up from a huge sheaf of papers. Everyone carried on their duties in a very dedicated manner.

Working with such reliable individuals makes his work easier. The Creative Director Mike-Steve Adeleye who oversees the various creative departments and ensures that the script is coherently executed from pre-production to post-production. There is also the Series Producer Mayowa Oluyeba, a towering figure described by Odugbemi as the one who keeps everyone on their feet. His duties include budget monitoring, and ensuring the creative department deliverables meet their timelines.
So far, consistency is the major challenge they have faced. Adeleye put it this way.

“It’s easier to do something that stands out in short films because you are only tested for a short period, but features are longer so you need to be more consistent in your craft. That demand is even longer on a TV show because you’ve got all sorts of stuff to deal with. You got actors, characters with acts that are constantly evolving, not just from Point A to B, but you got this graph that kind of scintillates. It goes up and down. It just can’t be random because you have audiences following these characters and it is important that you don’t get to a point where people say ‘this character wouldn’t do this’. It has to get this systematic feel so that when you get there, your audience has journeyed with that character so when the character evolves and changes, it makes sense, it’s not just a sudden jump. Tracking that on a series, with the performances, their costumes, looks, how they interpret their roles is not random, it’s very specific challenge.”

Oluyeba concurred by adding, “You can’t just change anything. Even if you are shooting a wedding scene that is supposed to take one day and you shot it for three days, when you are coming back to continue on the third day, you must build the area to pick up from what you shot the previous day; everything must tally-up to the weather condition.”

Interestingly, this particular location known as the Bhadmus mansion is an intriguing part of the drama. It is a sprawling edifice in the heart of Lekki and the 18th location Odugbemi stumbled on.

“It was an abandoned building. I like to tell the story because somewhere in between I think that God is really great. We looked at about 17 other houses but we never found one that was good enough. Sometimes we found one but it was either the house was not affordable or suitable.”

Apparently, a few changes were necessary so he called his close friend and famous architect Theo Lawson to make a few adjustments to the landscape. A golf lawn, a royal pavilion, artificial trees, even a small boat house close to the lagoon was created at the backyard.

Inside, rooms were magically transformed. Chandeliers, beds, upholstery, libraries all locally made created the right setting and mood for each scene. The logo of the drama, an emboldened letter B facing each other is crested on one of the walls outside. Odugbemi says the logo shows the flip side of the human nature. His explanation is simple. No one is perfect.

Undeniably, the compelling storyline of Battleground has earned it its growing fame. It tells the story of the Bhadmus family and its patriarch Chief Kolade Bhadmus (Gbenga Titiloye), a man whose desire for power, fame and wealth leads to dire consequences to his family and business

“This is a very uncomplicated story,” says Odugbemi. “I like it because we have stories that people know but don’t talk about. A lot of stories in Battleground are reality based. There is an underground of stories in our culture. The idea that a chief or rich man has a remote family somewhere, maybe strange to foreigners but not to us. We’ve seen it at many burial ceremonies. That he would go as far as to fake a heart attack in order not to pay his debt to the General is part of the folklore of our communities. There are lots of rich people in Nigeria whose wealth cannot be explained. Even if you can explain it, you cannot do what he did to acquire it. Then effectively there are reflections in our story of a society that actually needs to examine itself, its values and views of money. You know we say in Nigeria that money is not everything, younger people these days will tell you let me have it first.
All those phrases like ‘get rich or die trying’ or the popular Yoruba saying that ‘there is a certain dirt at the bottom of the barrel of wealth’. You will find at the end of the day that not all that glitters is gold are undertones in our story. And the impact of it on family and society itself may be the unspoken lessons that our audience are taking from Battleground.”

Odugbemi, however, attributes the success of the drama to his ensemble. There are about 70 crew members and 36 cast members.

“I like the fact that we are very breezy, fast-paced, we ride on the wings of some extremely talented persons. In all honesty, if there is something to boast about, I think it is the fact that we have gathered a group of incredibly talented people. We are lucky to work with people who are big but they take a small role and pay attention to it. For instance, Joke Silva is playing Mama Egba. It’s actually a small part but you can’t tell from the enthusiasm she brings to it. Bikiya Graham Douglas has given one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen and you see her bring pure magic to her character, Hadiza. People knew Shaffy Bello from Tinsel. She was the girl in Seyi Sodimu’s ‘Love Me Jeje’ but she is such a magical performer. Gbenga Titiloye has worked in quite a few films and was in Ghana and had come home to take over the role of Chief Kolade in a way that I can’t imagine. Francis Onwochei is a big boy taking the big part of Chief Ige, the politician.

“Then there is the young crew; a lot of fantastic young people. We have made a departure from the usual M-net show will have foreign crew. When I did Tinsel, we had that because we were starting for the first time. We paid our price by learning from South African shows. What Tinsel did was to create a clique of very young people in Nigeria whose core expertise is television production; and not Nollywood. Take for instance, Chike from The Voice Nigeria Season One, he is a big discovery for us. I find him to be a more fantastic actor than a singer while Nonso Bassey from that same competition brings this raw sex appeal that you can’t ignore. They come here everyday and they kill it (as the younger people say).”

Over the years, Odugbemi has adopted the unique style of merging two generations in his productions.
“I find it to be the only way we can pay back. I like that melding. The older ones are doing something I find quite fascinating. They are actually helping the younger ones to find their way. On the other hand, the younger ones look at the older people and learn.”