CHIOMA ONYENWE: NOLLYWOOD’S NEW SHERLOCK HOLMES

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For two years, filmmaker Chioma Onyenwe investigated one of the biggest fraud cases in Nigeria. The result of that research is creatively packaged in a new podcast series. Vanessa Obioha explores the filmmaker’s new endeavour

Last year was going to be a time filmmaker Chioma Onyenwe travelled the most. Her itinerary was meticulously planned. Friends living in selected cities and countries were notified of her intended visit. Then the coronavirus pandemic happened and her travel dreams returned to a wishful state.

The Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) — where she serves as the artistic director — which would have provided her with an opportunity to mingle and connect with friends was also cancelled. She had to halt the city tour of her ‘August Meeting’ play as well. With nowhere to go, Onyenwe longed for the pre-COVID-19 era where the human touch was not a scarce commodity.

Depression nearly kicked in at the initial stage but somehow, she survived it. On the flip side, the shutdown availed her the opportunity to work on a true crime story she’s been working on for two years.

It is the famed story of the Japanese banker, Nelson Sakaguchi, who worked as a director at Brazil’s Banco Noroeste. Sakaguchi was supposedly defrauded by a group of Nigerians in the late 1990s of $242 million. The mastermind behind the advance fee fraud was Emmanuel Nwude; his accomplices included the late Christian Anajemba and his wife, Amaka. The fraud case is ranked the third largest in banking history and was one of the first few cases handled by the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) when it was established and headed by Nuhu Ribadu.

Telling such a story required Onyenwe to get her facts right. Like the famed fictional detective character, Sherlock Holmes, the founder of Raconteur Productions approached her project with clinical precision. Extensive research was carried out, court documents retrieved, calls made, visits paid including a trip to Nwude’s house whom she said opened the doors to his house without reservation. He was the only key subject whose voice was included in the final production.

“I couldn’t get Amaka to speak to me but everything we re-enacted was her statement from the case,” she explained.
The outcome of her research is a creatively packaged true-crime podcast series titled, ‘23419,’ a portmanteau of Nigeria’s dialling code +234 and fraud popularly known as 419 in local parlance.

“All rise!”
That’s the familiar court order that opens the series. The sounds and moods draw the listener in instantly. From the courtroom drama to the interviews, each dramatisation takes the listener on a journey into the lives of the Nwudes, Sagakuchis, and the Anajembas, and be warned, nothing is ever as it seems. About 12 voice actors from Nigeria, Brazil, the US, and India featured in the series. A team also worked with her to get the right sounds and graphics. Onyenwe served as the narrator. Her tone is semi-formal. There are some instances when she adopts a serious tone, particularly when she is reeling out facts. Other times, she assumes a playful tenor, injecting a good dosage of humour. For instance, in the third episode on Nwude, she opened by telling her audience that she really interviewed her subject, as if clearing all doubts.
A sense of her humour was noted when she described her work as creative nonfiction.

“I don’t want anybody to sue me,” she chuckled. Ninety per cent of the production was factual.
With just three episodes, each concentrated on the key subjects: Sakaguchi, Amaka Anajemba, and Nwude, ‘23419’ is a riveting tale that will keep you on the edge from start to finish. The narrative is creatively woven to entertain and educate the audience. It is an ideal project for television but Onyenwe settled for a podcast instead. It wasn’t intentional.

“Ideally, I would have loved to tell the story as a docu-series, whether re-enacted or true life. But my money was not complete,” she laughed. “To tell the story properly for television will require me to travel to Brazil. This was like a low-cost way to register the idea and have the story out because I have been working on the story for a while.”
Apart from the pecuniary challenges, Onyenwe who is known for her intriguing storylines and formats wanted to experiment with the sound medium.
“I also wanted to change the sound. I noticed we don’t really focus on sound in our films here so it was a good exercise for me to tell a story with only sound.”

Her experiment was not in vain. The feedback she received so far is laudatory. It reminded not a few of the good old days of radio dramas such as the popular, ‘Straight from the Heart’ drama, on Ray Power FM.
“It just shows that oral storytelling is our original format. It helps stories fly. I remember listening to quite a few growing up. And the first podcast I listened to was actually a true-crime story,” she explained.

In recent times, podcasting has become popular in Nigeria. Quite many individuals and media organisations are tapping into the audio medium to spread their message to a wider audience. More so, the global podcast market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 27.5 percent from 2020 to 2027 to reach $60.50 billion by 2027. Apple podcast is a leader in the market and as of December 2020, the platform hosted about 1.68 million podcasts.
‘23419’ is however available on Anchor.

Onyenwe’s new venture speaks volumes of her versatility. She is the first Nigerian filmmaker to produce a short web series titled, ‘Goddammit It’s Monday,’ in 2012. Her portfolio includes short films, TV series, feature-length films, and stage productions. She hinted on working on a new feature film, this time, a book adaptation. Last year, she was among a selected group of filmmakers that participated in Creative Producer Indaba. The graduate of Economics started her foray into the film industry in 2010, long before she met the convener of AFRIFF, Chioma Ude, but most people usually attribute her trajectory in the make-believe world to Ude.

“I have warned people to stop calling me small Chioma,” she said jokingly.
On a serious note, she delved into the film world due to the industry’s structure’s deficiency.
Detailing the way she approaches her story, Onyenwe disclosed that her story ideas can often be told through a particular medium.

“Take, for instance, the ‘August Meeting’ about the Aba Women Riot was an idea that could only be on stage. I couldn’t see it as anything else. When you are on stage it’s very urgent. It’s not subtle and I wanted that call-to-action. I wanted people to be annoyed. Remember it was the year that the #MeToo movement started. The idea that feminism is an oyibo thing got me thinking big we don’t know our history,” she paused before quickly adding that “maybe I also like history. I like researching and reading and feel we need to start teaching history more. What I do is research and present it in a palatable format for people to watch and make their research.”

For ‘23419’, she listened to a lot of true crime stories. It baffled her that there is a paucity of true crime stories in the film space, considering that Nigerians consume such stories with gusto.

“Most Nigerian women watch Discovery ID on DStv. There are many true crime stories out there. A good example is the Hushpuppi story. If we are not careful, Hollywood will write that story and tell it for us which ought not to be. We should be able to tell our stories and show that Nigerians are not only criminals.”
As the pandemic has affected film production and distribution as well as film festivals, Onyenwe is interested to see if one of the biggest global film festivals, Cannes will go online.

“People have to understand that film is just a by-product of film festivals. They are not the reason people go to festivals. People go to festivals to network primarily. The pandemic affected that a lot. Of course, there are many Zoom calls and sessions but you don’t really feel the connection with the person. It’s good there is an opportunity to have film festivals online, at least, one gets a wider audience and gets sales fast.”

In Onyenwe’s view, the storylines explored in Nollywood are okay but what is worrying is that they are not enough. She argued that there is a high demand for content and filmmakers need to tell more stories that are not limited and collaborate more with other African filmmakers.
Though her travel plans are yet to be revisited, Onyenwe is happy that she can share information and knowledge in the meantime, and that includes playing the Nollywood true crime detective.