Vanessa Obioha encounters the gentlemen Femi Odugbemi, Jahman Anikulapo and Makin Soyinka who conceived the iREP Documentary Film Festival and sought the truth behind the fabled story that iREP was born over glasses of wine
In the late 2000s, three habitués of film festivals from Nigeria always met at the Real Life Film Festival in Ghana. It was a festival curated by Awam Amkpa for the New York University’s Ghana Campus. These gentlemen were quite acquainted with one another. One is a filmmaker, another an actor and journalist; and the other a content producer. They were the only Nigerians present at the festival.
Each time they attended the film festival, they noticed the trickling audience and wondered why documentary films drew little or no attention. Even the students of the university evinced little interest in the festival. It was a thing of worry for the trio and as they waited for their delayed flight at the airport that fateful day in 2010, they pondered on it more. Why were Africans resistant to documentaries? By their estimation, documentary films spur development. It provides a platform where issues are processed beyond the news item and insight is received. More importantly, documentaries help humans define what they believe and seek what is possible. They couldn’t fathom why Africans were not interested in that form of filmmaking.
They were convinced that the burgeoning film industry needed to have a connection with the issues in the country and being that Nigeria boasts diversity in different spectrums, they only saw documentaries as the platform to plumb such critical topics.
At that impromptu meeting, the gentlemen Jahman Anikulapo, Femi Odugbemi, and Makin Soyinka conceived the iRepresent International Documentary Film Festival (iREP). The film festival is now a staple in the arts calendar.
iREP started at a time when documentaries were highly regarded as a medium of propaganda for the government and their agencies. Anikulapo pointed out in a phone conversation that few documentary filmmakers like C.Y. Okonkwo were the popular documentarians until a young Odugbemi who honed his filmmaking skills at Montana University in the United States came into the scene. Therefore, the key objective for the founders was to create awareness that will attract younger people to the art.
Gradually, iREP changed the warped perception and inspired many to try their hands on the craft. It became a rarefied gathering of arts and culture intellectuals, a training hub for young filmmakers and more importantly, a movement to promote and preserve the arts and culture.
On March 18, iREP would be marking its 10th anniversary, a historic landmark that the founders never envisioned.
“It’s amazing,” Femi Odugbemi tells this reporter, a bit nostalgic. We were having lunch at a restaurant in Victoria Island, Lagos. He brought out his phone and showed me a picture of the trio on their first edition. They were wearing branded iREP shirts.
“We were very young then.”
Indeed, they were very young and brimming with ideas that they didn’t foresee the huge responsibility of organizing a film festival.
“For the first edition,” Odugbemi recalls, “I went to Bolanle Austen-Peters because I had told my friends that we were going to have the festival immediately. Without her, there would be no iREP. We had no money, resources or venue. After telling her of our situation, she immediately jumped on the idea and gave us a hall for free for three days.”
After the maiden edition at Terra Kulture in 2011 that had over 70 attendees filling the 80-seating capacity hall, the gentlemen went on with their lives. One afternoon in February 2012, Odugbemi received a call from Austen-Peters. “She said to me: ‘We’re making bookings for the hall. Are you guys still doing that your documentary festival?’”
Odugbemi’s eyes became animated as he recounted this incident.
“I asked her which documentary because I had totally forgotten about it. She reminded me of the documentary film festival we had the previous year. The memory slowly came back to mind. I feigned knowledge and affirmed that plans were underway.”
Immediately Odugbemi got off the phone with Austen-Peters, he called his friends and reminded them of the festival. Makin urged the group to have the second edition.
“As I often tell people,” says Odugbemi, “if she hadn’t made that call, I don’t think we were keen on having another edition. It is a punishing thing to have that festival. It’s not easy. You have to watch tons of films across the world. I travel to many documentary festivals with my money to see how it’s done.”
“At times, we ask ourselves who came up with the foolish idea to have a documentary film festival,” Makin tells me over the phone. “We barely managed to have a first edition after scraping all the pennies and kobos in our pockets.”
What kept them going according to Anikulapo was their relentless pursuit of achieving that dream. “It is the fundamentals of iREP. We were not ready to give up on the vision which was to encourage young people to make documentary films.”
Each edition is heralded by the constant issue of funding but somehow the festival still holds.”iREP thrives a lot on voluntarism,” Anikulapo explained. “When we first started there were so many young people who worked with us and are still working with us.”
They include the Nollywood actress and filmmaker Kemi Akindoju, Lanre Olupona and Toyin Poju-Oyemade.
Odugbemi finds it amazing the way people throw their weight behind iREP. He has a long list of people who had supported their dream.
There is the famous documentarian Jihan El-Tahri who was invited to speak at the first edition.
“At the time we invited her to speak, we had not bought her flight ticket. We were trying to seal a deal with a local travel agent who was not forthcoming. She kept calling and asked if she should proceed to the airport. Makin assured her that she would get her ticket at the airport. It was at the last minute that the agent finally agreed.”
There were other outstanding individuals like Niyi Coker of Africa World Documentary Film Festival who secured a partnership for the founders that allowed them to screen films shown at the festival.
“Coker ends up paying our screening fees. He also foots his bill each time he attends the festival.”
Paul Ugor who lectures at Illinois University is another regular in the festival, so also is the American film scholar Jonathan Haynes. The former director of Goethe Institute Marc-Andre Schmachtel played a pivotal role by connecting them to festivals in Germany.
“The more I think about it,” Odugbemi said, his voice assuming a reflecting tone. “The more I realize that there’s something in the universe that convinces everyone that iREP is something that you give to, not take from. Because if you look at all our partners across the world, even the printers print for us almost at no profit. People simply recognize the sincerity of our vision. There is also Lolu Durojaiye of AV Edge Limited who supplies the projectors yearly to us at no cost.”
Over the years, iREP expanded to include a training workshop for young filmmakers. It also provides opportunities for young filmmakers to mingle with other international filmmakers at the festival.
The crowd has seen a significant increase. Last year, over 3000 participants from across the world gathered at Freedom Park to witness the festival.
“We had sustained a crowd of thousands in recent times,” Odugbemi points out. “The Freedom Park’s amphitheatre is full at our evening screenings. Even the area boys attend the festival. You can hardly find a place to sit. That crowd defeats the thought that Nigerians do not like serious things like documentaries.”
With the increased attendance and participation, it dawned on the founders that the festival was assuming a larger than life status.
“I don’t think we ever envisioned that iREP would be bigger than this,” says Makin. “It was quite interesting that after a certain edition, we saw some magical things. We got requests from global bodies and we wondered why they were taking us too seriously. Such incidents dawned on us that there is something really going on here.”
Odugbemi recalled that the first edition had only 10 Nigerian films. The rest were mostly his films. Today, that figure has multiplied.
“For this year’s entry,” said Anikulapo, “Over 100 films are from Nigerian filmmakers.” That number would further be trimmed to 20 that will be screened at the festival this year.
Last year, the opening film ‘Skin’ was from a Nollywood actress Beverly Naya who delved into the effects of colourism and how it fosters low self-esteem.
The trio agreed that the emergence of young documentary filmmakers is a success story of iREP.
“The fact that young people from different parts of Africa are now interested in documentary filmmaking is fulfilling,” states Anikulapo. “The greatest motivation is the subscription of young people. Watching their transformation, the manifestation of their growth, seeing them winning awards. Naturally, anything I do that young people subscribe to is a success because I know the role mentorship plays in that age. I was once in their shoes. At iREP, you see the young ones raising pertinent questions about films and the society they live in. It assures me that the future of documentary filmmaking is not bleak.”
To capture and sustain that young audience, Odugbemi revealed that they had to show a documentary for what it was.
“It is a form of filmmaking that could be interesting, comedic, dramatic; the approaches are many. It could be a thriller, an expose on the documentarian, about one’s life experiences. A documentary could be about wine, practically anything.”
Another testament of iREP is the ability of the founders to encourage other filmmakers like Tunde Kelani and Kunle Afolayan to also make documentaries.
“By doing so, we are telling the young ones that it is not a matter of choice to be either a documentary or a feature filmmaker. They can be both.”
He described the festival as a festival of youth, intelligence, and fun.
iREP was to a large extent modelled after the Real Life Film Festival. Though the latter no longer holds, its founder Amkpa serves as the chairman of the Board of the iREP Foundation. Another silent influencer of the festival is Theo
Lawson. He was co-opted as a director after the first edition and handles the technical part of the festival. He is also responsible for making Freedom Park, the home of the festival. For their 10th anniversary which will run till March 22, the organisers plan to host an evening at Terra Kulture where the journey began.One of the dreams of the founders is to have a dedicated documentary channel on the airwaves. The budget is out of their reach at the moment but they are hopeful it will come true soon.
iREP’s enduring relevance can be attributed to the character of the founders. Despite their different personalities and backgrounds, they maintain an enviable level of friendship that has stood the test of time. They are highly revered for their intellect as well as comical innuendos.
Makin calls himself the one who ensures he gets all the credit for doing nothing. Anikulapo described Odugbemi as the one whose laughter goes over the roof and claimed that they all turned him to a ‘rascal’ with their crazy ideas.
Odugbemi puts their endearing friendship more succinctly:
“We are uniquely suited to each other. We are good friends but our personalities work. By nature, I’m the idea guy. I’m the one that says we will do this without having the idea of how it will be done. I’m the one that will pick up the phone and by the time I finished talking to someone, they are already buying into the vision. Jahman is the detailed guy. He puts things in a clearer perspective. I really have a lot of respect for him. Maybe because he is a former editor, there is a way he puts questions to everything and by doing so, he gets the details of everything. It makes life easier when you have someone like him who has a versed experience in the arts and is committed to outcomes rather than heresies. I like that he brings to bear the power of journalism in managing the administration. I actually came to have a lot of respect for editors just by working with him. Getting to the facts is one thing, defining what the facts are used for is another thing. And making sure that everybody understands continuously what our vision is and how this vision doesn’t really need all the drama.”
He continues: “Makin is an amazing human being. I have never seen Makin upset. I don’t know that sort of temperament. That really makes life easy for us because we never get too intense about anything. It’s also the calmness that comes with the fact that we are not in this for the money, more or less as a public service to grow an industry which we also have benefited from. It is more about the young generation and what we are planting. Makin ensures that our meetings are devoid of any kind of competition for anything. There is no competition for prominence.
“Another thing I find interesting about Makin is that each time there is something to be done. He picks up his phone and does it right away. He doesn’t wait till tomorrow. I can’t tell you how many times Makin and Jahman have used their personal funds to get something done so that we could move forward. That’s the culture. I don’t know how many times I have spent outside my pockets. Or even Theo Lawson.”
A conversation about iREP is incomplete without the issue of wine. It is widely believed that the founders and wine are almost inseparable as it was over a glass of wine that the idea was born.
“Not a glass of wine,” Makin says, “several glasses of wine.” He is known as a wine connoisseur and usually supplies all the wine in their gathering.
But Odugbemi won’t readily attest to the assertion. “It’s scandalous to say that iREP was conceived over a glass of wine,” he says, feigning annoyance.
It was pointed out to him that his colleague already confirmed it. “There’s a minor distinction to it but a distinction nonetheless,” he laughs.
“We make a lot of jokes about having red wines. It makes everyone not take each other too seriously, keeps our relationship honest and sincere, ensures that our meetings are fun even if we are not paid and that people keep coming up with ideas.”