The initial reaction was a sense of euphoria. Then, there was belief and hope. In the end, it was smithereens of dashed hope. Yet, for Chineze Anyaene there is light at the end of the dark tunnel. Her lifelong dream is to see a Nigerian film contend in the most prestigious film award in the world, the Oscars (Academy Awards). That dream came true in September when the Nigeria Oscar Selection Committee (NOSC), announced that Genevieve Nnaji’s ‘Lionheart’ movie was submitted for possible 2020 Oscar nomination. Vanessa Obioha sits down with Anyaene to discuss what happened next
This is it. Chineze Anyaene tells herself as she walks into the office of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in the United States. Nothing can go wrong, she assures herself as she clutches her bag containing a copy of the film. She has met every quality control required by the Academy with her film ‘Ije’ which is already enjoying critical acclaim, not only for its technical brilliance but also for bringing together two screen rivals at the time Genevieve Nnaji and Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde together in one production. The story is woven around the two actors who played sisters in the film.
With the number of awards the film has bagged since its release, the young film director feels she is almost close to her lifelong dream to have a Nigerian film contend in the most prestigious film award in the world, the Oscars as the Academy Awards is popularly known.
Her initial plan was to go through the distribution channels in Hollywood. When that failed, she opted to submit the film directly in the foreign film category.
Sitting in front of the female executive who will attend to her with folded hands, she enthusiastically tells her she wants to submit her film for the Oscars.
The woman smiles at her sweetly and says: “Do Nigerians make movies? Does your country have a committee to represent them? You cannot walk in here and submit a film, it must come through a committee.”
The unexpected barrage of questions slowly and painfully turns her confident grin into gloom. “I cried like a baby in front of this lady,” she says of this disappointing moment in 2010.
“I was like, ‘what kind of comment is that?’ What was most frustrating was that she gave an example of South Africa that has been submitting films before 2010 and we were just coming then to make submissions. The way I cried showed how disappointed I was because I felt the founding fathers should have done something.”
The tears were not the only emotion that the woman’s response evoked. It also provoked Anyaene to take up the challenge. Her immediate goal was to have a Nigerian film listed in the Oscars. It didn’t matter if it was hers or not.
“From 2010 to 2012, I kept pursuing the Academy, trying to set up a Nigeria Oscar Selection Committee (NOSC). It was finally approved in September 2012 but we couldn’t submit for the 2013 awards. We were however told that we could submit the following year. We officially launched the committee in 2014. It has been frustrating from the beginning. The committee members stood with me throughout, filing document after document, carrying out research after research for two years. At a point, they asked me what I was pursuing as it seemed we were not making headway. I told them I didn’t know what it was but I didn’t want any filmmaker to cry the way I cried,” she says, tapping a manicured finger on the polished dining table for emphasis.
She continues: “I think knowledge is power. I think a lot of them didn’t even dream that far but we are allowed to dream, right? Well, I dreamt that far for my first film. Nobody was dreaming that far because they were content with the money they were making at the time. The Asaba filmmakers were making more money than we are today. There were studios where satisfied Igbo men were doing their own businesses. They didn’t think of the future or that they could compete on that level. It was business for them. For me, it was all about professionalism; it was a career. It is achieving your milestone; it is like being a SAN, being a senator. For me, that was what I was pursuing at the time.”
For a moment, observers felt that the NOSC was a tall dream for the Enugu state indigene to achieve as nothing seemed to be happening. In fact, not a few assumed that the lady went under the radar after her 2010 historic movie ‘Ije’. She vehemently denies it.
“It’s not true, I’ve been working. After ‘Ije’, I ventured into distribution for a while. The industry was going through this transition from DVD to the cinema. At the time I did ‘Ije’, there were just five cinemas. I was trying to figure out the distribution part of the industry. I did a couple of scripts that didn’t go well. I’ve been working, can’t you see like even right now? I will still work until the industry is at a standard or the level in which I want to operate.”
After launching the committee in 2014, Anyaene found herself in another conundrum, filmmakers were not interested in her cause. Often times she wrote to them, asking them to submit their films for review. They ignored her. She worried that she may not be able to submit a film before the committee is dissolved by the Academy as the lifespan was only five years. By the time she reapplied in February this year, she was shocked to find that four other selection committees from Nigeria have applied. The discovery excited her that others were following her trail and now understand the importance of Nigerian films to contest in the Oscars.
Despite not being able to find a suitable Nigerian film to submit for the 2014 awards, she finally achieved that dream last September after a five-year hiatus. Of all the selection committees from Nigeria that approached the Academy for a working relationship, hers was approved to submit a film in September.
Due to the short notice, the newly appointed members of the committee which include Mildred Okwo, Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Ngozi Okafor, Charles Novia, Abba Makama, Bruce Ayonote, Ramsey Nouah, Chioma Ude, Shaibu Husseini, Adetokunbo ‘DJ Tee’ Odubawo and CJ Obasi had less than three weeks to select a Nigerian film that will be submitted to represent Nigeria in the 2020 Oscars. A call for entry was immediately made and by October 2, the committee announced that Genevieve Nnaji’s 2018 Netflix movie ‘Lionheart’ has been selected as the Nigerian film to be submitted to the Academy for possible nomination in the International Feature Film category of the 2020 Academy Awards.
The news was greeted with mixed reactions. On one hand, there was fanfare that a Nigerian film was finally submitted to the Oscars, a historic feat for filmmakers and the nation as well. However, it sparked controversy on why ‘Lionheart’ was the preferred film for the eligible period between 0ctober 1 2018 and September 30, 2019. A critical section are rooting for Kemi Adetiba’s ‘King of Boys’.
“It is funny when ‘King of Boys’ came up because if you check the votes, it didn’t even come close to the other films. We received 14 films and then we had to cut it down to six films. We had ‘King of Boys’, ‘Mokalik’, ‘Delivery Boy’, ‘Up North’, ‘Lionheart’ and ‘Kasala’. They were the six-strong films we came up with after the whole vetting. I understand that people think ‘King of Boys’ should make the cut but this is not a viewers’ choice award. There is a difference between making a film and making a movie. If you check the Oscar history in years, it has never been about the most popular films; it is always about the technicalities and those that meet basic requirements.
“For us, it was about viewing these films from different spheres: editing, cinematography, sound. Every member of the committee vetted the film from their point of view. I understand when those controversies come up, but the Nigerian audience needs to be educated. This is our World Cup. All the same, we are competing with 93 countries. If a film wins, it is not Genevieve’s film, it is Nigeria’s film. It is Nollywood. I like the controversy because it generated some kind of awareness for the work of the committee both locally and internationally,” she says.
When the issue was brought up about her closeness to actress and filmmaker, Genevieve Nnaji as a blight on the choice of ‘Lionheart’, she dismisses it with a wave of the hand.
“I haven’t spoken to Genevieve in the past four years. I only called her to congratulate her after her film was selected. Whatever we had with ‘Ije’ was simply business.”
Notwithstanding the recent disqualification of the film by the Academy for failing to meet the language standard to compete in the selected category, Anyaene’s determination to actualize her dream is commendable. It’s still a long way, but she is steadily inching closer. The disqualification like the submission is generating concerns and questions about what really should be considered an international feature film. But Anyaene is not dwelling on the mistakes, she has taken it in good strides and with a renewed determination to check all boxes before submitting any film to the Oscars.
An Oscar win for Nigeria, according to the filmmaker who honed her skills at the New York Film Academy, will mean different things for the Nigerian filmmaking industry. First, it will inspire filmmakers to be more professional and the competition will be stiffer. It will also change the perception of aspiring filmmakers who have little faith in Nollywood and as such work in isolation.
Whether Nigeria eventually wins an Oscar or not, what is more exciting for Anyaene is that subsequent submissions will not be limited to the International Film Feature category.
“Do you know that if you get picked as a country selection, you can also submit to other categories? What this means is that if you couldn’t get in through Hollywood, you could through your country,” she points out elatedly.
The submission is not the only exciting news about the film industry for Anyaene who is making plans to relocate to Lagos from Abuja (she misses the creative energy of Lagos). She is impressed by the recent cinematic productions, particularly in the areas of technical specifications and editing. An area of the industry she, however, thinks needs elevation is scriptwriting.
“A film is as good as its script. We lack good scriptwriters in the industry today. We need to have more scriptwriting workshops because that is when we can even talk about the Nigerian narrative. The story is very important. It doesn’t matter if you shoot with a phone camera. As long as you have a good story, the film will be successful. Again, the screenplay is always the same irrespective of the period.
“It has a technique: the eight sequences, the three-act structure, the character, it is the same thing, but we lack that in the Nigerian setting. Part of the reason for this dearth I believe is poor remuneration. Nigeria filmmakers need to understand that your scriptwriter is very important to you because they make you look good in the eyes of the audience. They bring out that story that can engage an audience. If you think of the old Nollywood, you can relate to the stories because they follow the basic three-act structure. Unfortunately, that is lacking in the industry today.”
To a large extent, Anyaene believes that Nollywood has a comparative advantage over Hollywood and Bollywood in the type of stories it tells. She argues that stories about our history will place more limelight on the film industry because of its freshness. She suggests that filmmakers should explore our history and start telling the true Nigerian story.
At the moment, the happily married filmmaker is toying with the idea of making a film on the role of the Red Cross Society in the infamous Nigerian Civil War.
“I’m more interested in setting a story around a historic event than a figure,” she says.
Another story that is compelling to her is the infamous 2014 Chibok girls’ abduction. It is a story she will love to explore in the future. For now, she is biding her time for her next big project.
“Art should not be rushed because as a filmmaker you are judged by your last film. My family helps me to find balance and keep things in focus. It’s the yin to my yang,” she says with a wink.