’76, THE MAKING OF A CLASSIC
Adonijah Owiriwah is a mechanical engineering graduate of the Yaba College of Technology who works with Schlumberger. He is also a filmmaker and actor and one of the executive producers of 76. The award-winning period movie directed by Izu Ojukwu based on true events. Owiriwa believes in telling our Nigerian stories properly to a global audience.
You are an engineer but are also in the world of entertainment. Can you tell us about your journey?
Engineers are also interested in entertainment (laughs!). This has always been a field of interest to me so I started an entertainment company, Adonis Production named after my first son. It comprised of a band and we hired musical equipment and promoted in-house artistes. The company is now fully dedicated to films.
How did you get to partner with Prince Tonye Princewill as executive producers of the film 76?
Our first meeting was a fortuitous one. In 2007, he had emerged on the political landscape of Rivers State and his quest to become governor generated a huge followership, particularly among the youth. As one of his admirers, I became his friend on Facebook. When he lost in the elections, I was unhappy and left a message on his page. A friend of mine inadvertently facilitated our meeting when he invited my band to perform at an event where Princewill Would be present. At a point, I walked past him but then he stopped me to ask if we had met before. I said we had not and he introduced himself saying he must have seen my face before. He called my name and I was in shock! We struck a chord and chatted later that evening about our passion for entertainment and orphanage homes. That was how we started and since then, he has been fully involved in all my projects. Our first movie project was Nnenda, which is about orphanages and the neglect of orphans, especially in Africa. It was released in 2008 and shed light on the plight of those vulnerable and often neglected members of the society. The film created a hunger for a sequel but instead of going that route, we decided to engage the public through another art form – a singing competition themed Melody Shelters. Participation was strictly for all registered orphanages in Nigeria, and the show was presented in form of a choral. We did not imagine the project would require us visiting every registered orphanage in all the states of the federation. We wrote to them to create awareness as it was novel, and then split the country into three zones –north, west and south, for the purpose of the contest. The grand finale was in Port Harcourt in 2012 with a star prize of N10 million. Four years later, it is still the first and only singing contest of its kind. Princewill has also bought into Adonis Productions and co-owns it. We are working together on other projects that will soon come as we have managed to synergise effectively on the entertainment front.
Tonye Prinewill and Adonijah Owiriwa at TIFF 2016
Can you enlighten us about your role in the movie and the project in general?
I had multiple roles but they all played out well finally. I was involved in the different stages of the project from conception to script writing, and participated in script conferences – both home and abroad in order to tell the story the way it ought to be. From the pre-production stage where decisions were taken about materials to use and how to source for them, to post production for the feel and final look of the film. As an executive producer, I also had to raise the necessary funds for the movie. It was a most challenging project and we made a lot of daring moves. Princewill, Ojukwu and I had discussions about the movie early on. We had seen Hollywood productions telling African stories like Hotel Rwanda, Sometime in April, Last King of Scotland and Long Walk to Freedom and we felt it was not right as no one can tell a story better than its people. If the story is yours, take ownership! We are very passionate about it so we embarked on this journey 7 years ago and decided to tell the 76 story ourselves at a level the international cinema world would appreciate. We also shot on film as opposed to the digital format prevalent in Nigeria now. The Hubert Ogundes used this format in the early film era of the 60s, 70s, and 80s but due to expensive costs it was discontinued. We wanted the film to have that feel and to create that exact nostalgia so that when people who lived in the 70s watch the movie at cinemas, they will be transported to that period. Pre-production lasted for about two years because we were trying to get the archival materials for real life footage vignettes, period props, the cast and crew, military garb and vehicles. We worked with the military to get the weaponry and vehicles used at the time. In Ibadan where the film was shot for six months, we rented some empty duplexes to give them the 70s look. The art director Pat Nebo worked with us to get the period props like the electronics, gramophones, dial phones, black-and-white television sets, as well as worked with the costumier to ensure the clothing and accessories were right. I am happy and grateful to have worked with a dedicated team of professionals who were undaunted by difficulties because at different stages, the challenges seemed insurmountable. Shooting the in the heat of the Boko Haram insurrection in 2012 was tasking and although the authorities of the Nigeria Army had granted us permission, we had to answer questions everyday from different quarters that probed our mission in the barracks at Ibadan.
You also acted in the movie. Was it to save extra costs and what was the experience like on the set?
(Laughs!) Not exactly as I also act and have featured in some Nigerian movies. I have huge respect for Izu Ojukwu who directed the film because when I decided to go into movies, he came highly recommended by a cousin of mine who had worked with him. My cousin said that he does not cut corners and attends to only serious minded people who strive for excellence. I met Ojukwu in 2006; we have been friends since then and worked on the Nnenda film. After reading the 76 script, I wanted a particular role and auditioned for it but the he said I could not play the role, I was upset and thought he must be out of his mind as I was one of the funders. I insisted I wanted the role but he put his foot down saying I could not interpret it and that it did not go with my personality. He asked me to audition for another role, which seemed to have been made for me judging from the accolades I received at the audition. He told me I would interpret this role perfectly. I was at work when production started so I took a month-long vacation to come on the set. We spent that period learning military parade! There were soldiers assigned to drill us every morning and the colonel who supervised said he did not want us to be like military men in the film but to be military men. He showed no mercy and we were not treated like civilians. Unfortunately, when principal photography was to start, I had to return to work. For 4 months, I flew from Port Harcourt every Friday, to Lagos and as soon as I landed, I took the first taxi to Ibadan. There were times I arrived Ibadan at 9:00pm! As an executive producer, I was also sourcing for funds. It was taking more than we bargained for, and I still had meetings with Ojukwu, and rehearse my lines. On Saturdays and Sundays, the only scenes I was present in were filmed. Then first thing on Monday morning, before 6:00am, I would leave Ibadan to catch the first flight to Port Harcourt. For four months, my car was parked at the airport every weekend so that I could drive straight to work. It was gruelling but I was so grateful for my family’s support.
Can you tell us about your character?
I played Captain V.M. Ajayi, the officer who investigated the coup and indicted the people involved. It was a self-discovery role as it took me back to secondary school when I captained the debate team and served as social prefect despite being a science student.
Adonijah on set
Has your work as an engineer been helpful on this and other projects?
Yes it has. I believe in excellence in execution whether it is a first time or not. These are qualities my training as an engineer working for a multinational company have imbibed in me; I apply this to all spheres of my life. The insistence on high quality and global standards which engineering confers has shaped the way my production company approaches its work in Nollywood. For instance, since completing the film and holding the first private screening in February 2016, we have returned to Munich, Germany where we did the post-production twice. After the first private screening, we listened to criticisms as we did not make this film for ourselves but for the audience. Finally, we had to send the film again to international film festival owners and pleaded with big festival film directors to critique it because we wanted to meet up with those international standards. We learnt the American audience, does not like melodrama but prefers action thrillers so we reworked the film. The newer version met with international approval because it earned us our world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival 2016 (TIFF) in September and European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival 2016 in October. Though we were invited, we had to turn down Durban Film Festival because TIFF will not screen a film that has been screened at a smaller film festival, especially if one wants a world release. Some filmmakers may not want to do all we did because it is a difficult route with huge costs, but for me, what is worth doing is worth doing well.
With the cast at BFI London Fillm festival in 2016
Do you have any memorable scenes in the movie?
I was born on the eve of 1976 and so grew up in the 70s and 80s when Nigerians did not need visas to travel anywhere in the world and the Nigerian naira was stronger than Great Britain’s pound. The scene dear to my heart is the one where a character offers British pounds as payment for her cab fare since that was the only currency she had. The driver refused it asking for naira or its exact equivalent. I wonder where we lost the plot and if we can ever return to those times.
What other plans are in place for the distribution of the movie as everyone cannot go to the cinemas?
Keep your eyes peeled and ears to the ground, the plans will unfurl!
June 17, 2019
June 13, 2019