Does Nigeria need a film city? – Onyeka Nwelue

I wrapped up shoot for my new film, Other Side of History, recently. It is set between 1954 and 1960. It is a biopic of Emeka Ojukwu, son of Sir Louis Ojukwu, who was the richest man in Igbo land. This story has nothing to do with the Biafran war. Infact, according to Frederick Forsyth in his book, Emeka, by 1958, when Emeka returned to Nigeria and was posted to Udi, he could not have a proper conversation in Igbo language. Then, I stumbled on an article by Uduma Kalu published in Vanguard in 2012. It was about the women Emeka married. They were about seven in number.

According to Professor Wole Soyinka, during my research, between 1953/1954, he and Emeka ‘vied’ for the same woman from a ‘popular Lagosian family.’

Who would have known that Obasanjo and Ojukwu were friends and drank together? That Gowon and Ojukwu were friends, ate from the same plate and partied together, before 1967? Who knew about the Ibadan Boys? JP Clark, Wole Soyinka, Chris Okigbo, Chukwuemeka Ike, Chinua Achebe? All meeting and eating bush meat together?

Who knew that Ojukwu invited ET Mensah to Nigeria? That Bobby Benson played his hit song, “Taxi Driver” in Enugu?

It took me years to come up with the narrative, did the screenplay with Odega Shawa and began to think of a location to shoot. We knew we could not afford building sets in Lagos. Our producer, Lorenzo Menakaya, began to look for a perfect location, which still boasts of a colonial ambience. Enugu was the result, but we needed to search further and we ended up in Nsukka. For a long time, we looked and locked down locations and props.

Nigerian filmmakers are used to telling current affairs. I was told biopics have no commercial value. But, what about educational and historical value? Of course, Kunle Afolayan goes back to the 60s and the 70s in his films, but for me, there was a need to revisit the past, into the 50s. Young people don’t have any idea how that era looked like. Nobody knows what Ojukwu was like before becoming a warlord. With a cast of look-alikes, I recreated an entire narrative that dredges up the memory of Philip Effiong and how loyal he had been to Emeka Ojukwu.

When I studied film in Noida, I saw a film city. There was a time we were told a film city was being built in Calabar. It never happened. Nigeria is a mirage. One of the executive producers of Other Side of History, Aboyeji Iyinoluwa of Future Africa, once shared his dream of resurrecting or building a film city. And this is important because during the processing of casting, we had to drop a lot of Lagos-based actors, because their demands were unimaginable. They want to fly to Enugu in business class to shoot a film. What we did, was to find good theatre practitioners in the East, knowing fully well that many of the Asaba-based actors are quite popular and famous. We were lucky enough to get Chiwetalu Agu, to deliver his lines as written without using his normal gibberish. Privileged to have Rachael Okonkwo (Nkoli Nwa Nsukka) to deliver effortlessly without being a stereotypical Nollywood actor. These people are incredibly talented. They just need to explore.

I understand when the Lagos actors look desperate to get roles and there are a few people, monopolizing the film industry in Lagos. Like India, Nigeria’s film industries need to be decentralised regionally, so not one person will have control over it. One of my executive producers, Maro Mishael Amos of 28Studios is based in Asaba. Infact, this whole collaborative effort to tell this story, was easy to fund, because according to Wole Soyinka, who has seen a few reels: “The story opens up the mind, instantly!”

When we eventually build a film city, we will need to have security sorted, because our British actors refused to fly to Enugu. We had to improvise to shoot their scenes in Lagos, which added more to the budget of the film in a strange but sublime way. And we can’t wait on any incompetent government to build a film city. Investors should look at what happened to Silicon Valley and go to Asaba and Enugu and set up film studios, which I am more than certain, will make a lot of money and bring development to the film sector. These studios also will develop these towns into tourist zones. It is not ideal to keep shooting films in a place like Lagos. It weakens every recent production I have seen and you have to patronize and tolerate miscreants and people who do not know what art is, almost begging them to actualise your dreams. You have to fund abuse in Lagos, to make a film and it is exorbitant.

Asaba and Enugu can be built by investors into film cities, by these men setting up proper studios for filming, editing, rehearsals and lodging, like I saw when I lived in Noida in India and when I visited MediaSet in Milan. We must try and get something right for once in Nigeria.

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