Ema Edosio-Deelen: Charting a New Path in Nollywood

Ema Edosio-Deelen

Nothing could stop young talented filmmaker and cinematographer, Ema Edosio-Deelen, from making a film that she believes depicts the true Nigerian story, even if it means sacrificing all, writes Vanessa Obioha

Ema Edosio-Deelen was not expecting the loud applause that greeted her movie, ‘Kasala’, at the Lights Camera Africa Film Festival. It felt surreal to her. She kept muttering, “Oh my God!” when called to the stage for a questions-and-answers session with the audience. If she expected the ovation to quiet down due to her apparent surprise, she was mistaken. The screams and claps kept increasing until the audience had their fill.

When she finally composed herself, she regaled the audience on how she made the delightful gritty movie about four young boys in the ghetto who went on a jolly ride and ended up in a series of trouble after their car had a crash. From how she found the characters to how she shot the movie with one camera for 13 days in a ghetto area in Surulere.

The accolades were the same the following week at the Netherlands Embassy in Lagos where she hosted a few journalists. Sitting behind her guests at the living room stacked with furniture and shelves of books, Ema as she is fondly called will often time chuckle at whatever the character was saying on the screen. ”It brings back memories,” she tells THISDAY.

Ema’s overwhelming disposition is no acting. Indeed she never imagined that the Nigerian audience will accept the movie the way they did after being told by cinemas that the movie was too arty for Nigerians. By arty, they meant that it has no commercial value.

Undeterred by their short-sightedness, she took the film to film festivals within and outside the continent where the applause began.

“The reception was amazing. They have never seen Africa this way before. The narrative in the West is that children have big bellies with flies surrounding them. But here, they saw young and tenacious boys. There is something that happened in Paris when this movie was screened,” she enthuses. “An elderly lady waited for me after the screening to thank me for bringing this world to her. They were very curious about Nigeria, the streets, the strength, the fight; it was something that was foreign to them.”

By the time the local cinemas saw the good reviews about her film from the international scenes, they opened their doors to her. Kasala finally had its theatrical release on October 12.

The recently married Ema knew she wanted to make a film that was fresh and unconventional from Nollywood’s mostly glamorous offerings. The inspiration first hit her after watching Abba Makama’s ‘Green, White, Green’ film.

Ema adds: “I watched Green White Green and I was blown away. I left the hall saying I want to make something different. Abba’s film sort of gave me a validation and the ability to leave the ego-chamber of what Nollywood is to make something different.” Her passion was stirred more by her days in British Broadcasting Corporation where she worked as a video journalist.

“I worked as a video journalist for BBC and we went into communities and see people with pride. It is very different from the narrative people pushed out there that people in slums suffer. But I found out that they are people with pride and that they have built a coping mechanism and they are truly happy. I remember a man at Makoko who said to me that this is their VGC. They were born here and will die here. I wanted to bring the lives of these people on the screen.”

But the kind of film Ema wanted to make usually does not attract sponsors or funds. She knocked on many doors and was constantly shown the way out. Frustrated, she decided to empty her pockets and bank accounts to make the film.

“I said to myself I was going to use everything available and the skills that I have built over the years to make the movie. I couldn’t afford to pay cinematographers, editors; I literally shot, produced, edited and directed this film to make it happen. The film is self-funded with support from my friends,” Ema reveals to THISDAY.

‘Kasala’ which means trouble in local slang depicts the word in different shades throughout the movie. The story revolves around TJ, a young lad who fancies himself a music star and detests the meat selling business of his uncle Taju whom he lives with. Eager to live up to his nickname Starboy, he stole his uncle’s car and went on a rendezvous with his friends Effiong also known as the Hustler; Chikodi aka Effiko and Abraham who is nicknamed ‘Ode’ for his apparent lack of talent.

Their afternoon romp ended in an accident that saw the boys deploying all manner of schemes to fix the car before dusk.

These characters are her trump card. Fresh and charming, the boys bring to life the youthful exuberance of teenage boys which are often dotted by mischief and a peculiar bond of friendship.

“I think the amazing actors brought the swag. We got on set and they were living their lives. Some people would ask me if there was a script but I think the boys were living their experiences and they put in their all in the script,” Ema explains. “Yes they improvised but I ensured that they didn’t go overboard. I felt like the actors should breathe, the camera should be able to live as well. I didn’t want to use known actors. I wanted to work with young and new actors. There is something about the youths which Nollywood is yet to get; they can be very passionate, flexible and unafraid. These are the kind of people I wanted to work with and they came to me.”

Another highlight of the movie was the use of pidgin language throughout the film as Ema says, “I couldn’t imagine them speaking English language. Pidgin is one of the unifying tools we have in Nigeria.”

The pidgin spoken in the film was absolutely authentic. At the core of Kasala is a celebration of friendship which to Ema is part of the Nigerian identity. She said it was her own way of paying tribute to Lagos.

“I think the movie really depicts how Lagos is. There is one kasala and everybody moves on. It is a tribute to Lagos. In order to survive in Nigeria, you have to struggle. It is a constant struggle. Everything goes against you from electricity to many things. And again it shows the tenacity of Nigerians. It goes against the lazy young Nigerians narrative when you see young boys fighting to survive, to make an ends meet, even if society has in some ways failed them,” says Ema. “It is showing the inner lives of Lagos and people from the slums. Lagos is a diverse state but despite the tribal differences, we always find a common ground. In Ojo where I grew up, the Isoko were surrounded by the Igbo. Of course, there is the daily squabble but we always come back together to share a drink and chat and we move on like a family. That to me is the story of Lagos and Nigeria. With our diverse heritage, we still find a common ground.”

Shooting the film in the ghetto also came with its challenges. She admits: “When we got there, the ‘area boys’ will see us and me with the small camera and make comments like ‘who are these small children?’ They didn’t expect money from us so they let us be. One person opens up his home and the others followed. They took us in like children and they opened up their streets and neighbourhoods to us. I actually went back there and did a small premiere for them after production. It was beautiful seeing their reactions. I could see they haven’t seen themselves on the screen before. You will hear them say to one another ‘Ah! see Iya Bisi’. It was an amazing experience.”

To fully put her stamp on this project, Ema who stumbled on filmmaking after graduating from the university with a Computer Science degree had one of the popular music artiste IBK Spaceshipboi produce eight Afrobeat soundtracks for the movie.

“One of my fears was that the film wasn’t going to be shown to Nigerians even if it has been travelling round the world,” Ema admits, adding, “I am very happy that people get to watch this film and they loved and I’m able to get the real Nigerian reaction to the film. I feel much fulfilled that I proved that if you have a dream you go for it. I have seen that there are many Nollywood directors who are afraid to step out. If you dream it and fight for it, you will be fulfilled.”

However, like Kunle Afolayan who came out with the idea of New Nollywood, Ema and some of her colleagues are also pushing for a new narrative in the industry.

Pointing out her conviction, she states: “I strongly believe that there is a shift happening in Nollywood because there are filmmakers like us who are deciding to go against the norms to make stories that matter and affect Nigerians. The reception in Nigeria shows the hunger for this kind of stories and I am determined to make these kinds of stories. I am more connected to this people than the bourgeois and the fatty houses. I think one of the things that is missing in most Nollywood films today is that sense of pride, friendship and tenacity. Yes, we live in Lekki but most of the middle class people came from humble backgrounds and they want to reminisce. This is why I believe there is a shift coming to Nollywood.”