The Nigerian Turning Arts, Storytelling into Major Exports

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Savvy. Sensational. Serene. Shrewd. That’s Funa Maduka. But, she’s more. She was only four years old when her parents moved to Maryland, USA. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Arts from the University of Cornell where she studied History in 2004 but had barely left the university walls when she received a training programme offer from Goldman Sachs. She was later recruited to work with the Clinton Foundation. It was her encounter with Amy Gross, then-editor of the Oprah Magazine that changed the story of her life. Maduka until recently was the Director, International Original Films at the global streaming giant, Netflix. The challenging role, writes Vanessa Obioha

has prepared the young executive for the next chapter of her life

Her first name does not give away her ethnicity. Is she Nigerian? If yes, what part of the country does she hail from? These are some of the questions that swirl in the minds of anyone meeting Funa Maduka for the first time. Whether the young executive takes delight in the curiosity her first name triggers or not, she is however not tight-lipped about her provenance. An indigene of Anambra state, Funa is an uncommon variation of the Igbo name ‘Ifunanya’ which means love. The popular diminutives of Ifunanya are ‘Ify’ or ‘Ifu’, but her parents wanted an unconventional name for their daughter. So, they specifically created the hypocorism ‘Funa’.
This penchant for exceptional personality would later continue into Maduka’s adult life.

She was only four years old when her parents moved to Maryland, USA. At a very young age, her grandmother who recently passed away instilled in her the importance of education, particularly for girls. Thus, Maduka’s educational background boasts many qualifications from some of the most renowned institutions in the world. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Arts from the University of Cornell where she studied History in 2004. She had barely left the university walls when she received a training program offer from Goldman Sachs, the American multinational investment bank and financial services company. As tempting as the offer was, Maduka didn’t immediately join the firm. In an interview with Harvard Business School where she later studied, she revealed that she was indecisive for a while before a mentor encouraged her to take the challenge.

That leap of faith she said was one of the best decisions she made as it prepared her to work for non-profit organisations such as The Clinton Foundation’s HIV/AIDS Caribbean program. She was recruited as an Assistant in the Foundation and found herself responsible for advising ministries on nine islands when her director fell ill. While working with the Foundation, she stumbled on Amy Gross who was the editor of the Oprah Magazine at the time. That encounter brought another exceptional offer to Maduka. In September 2006, she became the coordinator of extracurricular and student life at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Henley on Klip, South Africa, rapidly rising to become Dean of Students and Director of Leadership for the Academy within her four years tenure in the organisation.

With the experience garnered during those years, Maduka returned to the classroom again. First, she took an Intensive French Language Programme in the Université Paris-Sorbonne. That same year (2010), she studied at the Harvard Business School for her Master of Business Administration (MBA). She worked as a Summer Associate for McKinsey and Company during this period and by 2013 was the Manager of Participant Media in Beverly Hills, California.

All of these prepared her for her next big challenge. Until August 2, Maduka occupied a top managerial role in the global streaming giant company, Netflix where she served as the Director, International Original Films. During her tenure in the organisation, she oversaw and worked with the world’s top global and emerging filmmakers. She joined the company in 2014 and has remained at the frontline of the company’s global expansion, managing the launch of the film offering across 100+ countries till her departure. Her film acquisitions brought Netflix its first film nominations at both the Golden Globes(Houda Benyamina’s Divines) and the Academy Awards (Ildiko Enyedi’s On Body And Soul).
Recently, she was invited by the Academy Awards to join their voting pool as an Executive. For the young and vibrant executive, it was a great honour.

“When you work hard you’re often so laser-focused on the task. It’s great to look up and know that people see it and celebrate your efforts,” she said, adding that the entertainment industry has become increasingly global, “and that growth means having more voices at the table and that very much includes African voices.”
Maduka’s foray into the film industry was inspired by her love for films. She admitted that from a young age, she evinced a peculiar interest in film, particularly after watching ‘Water’ by Deepa Mehta.

“That film made me a disciple. The film ended and I actually got down on my knees, tears streaming down my face, and prayed to God that I might impact others in the way that film impacted me.”
So far, she’s been achieving that. Her first major project was a short film titled ‘Waiting for Hassana’. The film attempts to capture the heartbreaking plight of the abducted Chibok girls in 2014. Maduka made history with that film. It was the first Nigerian documentary to premiere on an international film festival.
“It was a very proud moment to see the film world premiere at the Sundance international film festival and then go on to screen at over 50 top tier festivals around the world. It showed me that we are just scratching the surface when it comes to the potential that our stories hold.”

She also shares assistant producer credits on some of Nollywood films such as the Biyi Bandele’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, and recently served as a producer in a French film ‘I’m Not an Easy Man’ which is available on Netflix.
“The film was originally a short film which I came across on YouTube. It was a different way to look at the feminist argument – a way I felt even the most resistant man could accept. The film follows a man who wakes up in a world completely run by women – it contains a powerful message cleverly wrapped in humor and some biting sarcasm. I contacted the director and immediately asked her if she was planning to do a full length feature – and the rest is history,” she explained.

Beyond European, Maduka also pushed for more African films on the streaming platform. Netflix had last year announced its plans to order original series from Africa as part of its international expansion. The 2018 South African ‘Catching Feelings’ marked the first African original film for the company, followed by Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart’ and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’, both released this year.

Having traversed the global film industry, Maduka emphasized that It is important African storytellers tap into universal themes and make them uniquely their own. This she said requires them to pay more attention to their script as the global film landscape is always evolving.

“I think in the rush to be the next big thing, it’s easy to forget that doing the hard, sometimes isolating work of writing (and re-writing) can save a lot of headaches down the road.”
Her notion stems from the singular misconception about Nollywood as the second highest exporter of films in the world.
“Nigeria exports many films a year, I believe the output is the second highest in the world. Yet, the majority of those films are lower quality productions when compared to the international standard. Those films have a ready and robust audience for sure, but it also creates a misconception that this is all there is. Some of the new international voices I’m most excited about are Nigerian – so you have to encourage people to take a deeper second look.”

However, she hopes that Nollywood will embrace the next generation of filmmakers who are rising and be more inclusive of a diversity of stories and storytelling styles. “This will require creativity and risk-taking, as it’s not just for short term business anymore but about expanding the craft for bigger, long-term gains,” she added.
Looking back at her career trajectory, Maduka whose typical day is like a whirlwind — she is mostly at the airport, catching flights to meet filmmakers while reading scripts and making notes — believes that her previous leadership and strategic experiences in different organizations share a similar theme.

“I’ve been very blessed to have different opportunities but interestingly enough, the common theme across all of them has been international. I’ve always worked in different cultures and/or in a role that requires me to bridge cultures. A lot of what I did at Netflix was introduce audiences to films from cultures different from their own.”
One of Maduka’s dreams include working for the public sector, though she is unsure if it will be through an elected office. Nevertheless, it hasn’t deterred her from seeking partnerships with African governments to create programs to promote and support artists within the country.

“I know there are a ton of higher priority policy issues to address, but art and storytelling are one of our biggest exports and also worthy of our time and investment. I had a great meeting with the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, last December about this and his administration is looking into it seriously, so why can’t we?”
Notwithstanding, a major priority of hers is education at all levels. While her job at Netflix didn’t avail her as much time to teach, Maduka who only revealed her departure from the company in an email to external partners, may perhaps take time to pursue her dream to educate young girls, just like her grandmother did.