In Conversation with Izuchukwu Ojukwu (Part 2)
We present the concluding part of the interview with award-winning film director, cinematographer, scriptwriter and editor Izuchukwu Ojukwu, first published on Monday, January 8, 2017.
Why are you re-enacting Nigerian history, and in particular, the General Muritala Mohammed story?
Democracy in Nigeria is still young so it is easy to erase history and for people to look at today’s experiences without looking back. There is little to celebrate in our past. The 70s was a decisive decade to have effected a lot of changes and press the reset button to chart the way forward in this country. The Nigerian Civil War ended in 1970. The global oil boom happened in the 70s and it was in this decade we decided our fate. Whatever we are going through in this country now was decided in that decade. All the coup d’états were as a result of people wanting to change the order. Some were not interested in governance and just felt things were going in the wrong direction while others had vested interests. The Yar’Adua coup of 1974 was by a group of people and although Muritala was not even in the country at the time, he was invited to come to rule. We cannot divorce the army from our history and we had close to 3 dark decades of military rule so it is important to look at where we are today. During the era of oil boom in the 70s, we realised we had too much money. Dubai was not always this good and I learned that in 1979 or 1980 Nigeria gave them 9 million US dollars. Now we all want to go to Dubai. Our oil reserves were the third largest in the whole world in the 70s. We had everything to be the greatest Black nation in the world, we were strong economic giants. We missed all those opportunities in that decade. Every aspect of our economy has suffered as a result of all these missed opportunities. When we met with General Obasanjo, I reminded him of his operation Feed the Nation. At the time, I was in a workshop with Peter Enahoro where he asked NTA to do a TV series on agriculture because Obasanjo was highly interested in agriculture. The best place they figured to start and film from was Jos, and that was the birth of our much-loved Cock Crow At Dawn. We missed the agriculture opportunity and everything then became oil-centered. Now, we are in this recession because oil prices have collapsed. Sometimes I tell people that if I were God, I will destroy Nigeria. What excuse can we give in this country with so much human and natural resources? God blessed us with mineral and human resources at over 150 million people. We are highly intelligent. Someone mentioned the other day that all Nigeria needs is 1 percent of good governance. That is why I chose the 70s to tell the story and highlight some of the ills of the society. I wanted to tell not only the story about officers’ wives but also the other human story about the military. When I look at all they have done in Nigeria, it is easy to hate, which I did until 1998. On our way to location to film, we had an accident and it was the military that rescued and took care of us while we were recuperating.
How did you get the executive producers on board or were you just hired to direct?
I have previously collaborated with Adonai Productions owned by Adonijah Owiriwa and at a point, he asked about my next project. I told him I wanted to work with him on a historical film. It will be difficult to run a project like this solely as we planned to shoot on film. I had to, first of all, get some facilities from the Nigerian Film Corporation before getting from Kodak in Dubai. During the years of waiting for the army to approve the script, the Dubai Kodak office shut down and we lost that chance. We then had to go Germany, which is why production took a long time. There is a limit to which one can stretch investors and it got to a point where nothing was happening. Tonye Princewill came on board when we were in dire straits and though he did his part, we still found ourselves financially stuck so we had to apply to Project Act who came to our rescue.
The film has done well locally, as well as enjoyed rounds at international film festivals. What is the distribution plan and how will you safeguard it from pirates?
The film has been to 15 international film festivals so far and will even go to more. We want the international audience to see our story from our point of view. Keeping it from pirates is a Herculean task; it is like trying to get a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. We can only do our best. This film does not have a physical copy and neither of the 2 executive producers nor I have one. If it has to be previewed, it is shown from my system and all the materials playing anywhere in the world are encrypted. At times I had to offend people by safeguarding the film. Some people that have asked me for it ask if I feel they will pirate it. I tell them anything can happen. All these so-called pirates have people in different studios so I never give the film out no matter how close you are to me. At all the private screenings, the film played from my laptop. For the ones playing at the cinemas, I got a key for them to unlock and play only during that period. That is not to say it cannot be pirated and or that it can’t be cracked. As the song I learnt in primary school goes, “do your best and leave the rest!” We have sales agents in Hollywood handing our international distribution while we are handling Africa. ’76 has been a success story locally and internationally. Being able to draw in audiences is a sign you are in the right direction.
How will you recoup expenditure?
Thankfully we have recouped our expenditure. Before we went to the cinemas, some deals were already done. Cinema is just a stream of income for a good film.
You directed Amina in 2015, what inspired this and how did this come about?
Unlike ’76, which is my story and involved me in several aspects right from screenplay to producing, directing and post-production, Amina is different. I was only called to direct the movie. It is produced by Okey Ogunjiofor, the producer of the epoch-making Living in Bondage. When he called to tell me he wanted me to direct his movie, I knew I was in because anything he does is great. I looked at the script while I was still in Germany working on the postproduction of ’76 and saw that it came from a very unique angle. I have always wanted to be involved in a project like this. I love history and would love to make more historical films. When I told my wife about it, she said this project might kill me as I was still recovering from ’76, which shut down my life for 6 years. I told her it would not since I was not as deeply involved as I was for ’76 (laughs!). I got into the Amina producer’s head and saw that it was not difficult for me to align myself with his ideology because we have similar work ethics, subject matter and production style. And even though I had promised myself I was not going to work on any big project for a while, I could not resist this one. There have been films about African queens like Cleopatra so I was drawn to the project. Knowing that Ogunjiofor is cut out for excellence, I asked him if he was willing to go all the way because I knew the challenges involved in making this type of film. He told me going all the way is the value he stands for. Since I was not producing, it was easier for me to work on other aspects. Once I got confirmation of the cast and crew, we set the ball rolling. There is no reason why as Nigerians we should tell our stories differently and why international and national audiences should not sit back to enjoy the film. I also had to be sure the producer was ready to take the movie to the zenith. A teaser trailer was done 3 weeks into filming to give the cast and crew the scope of the movie to get them fired up. The film will be released soon and we are currently in postproduction in Canada.
What is your next project or are you taking a break?
(Laughs!) A break is impossible as I have a wife and child. I am working on two big collaborations and another project with Adonai Productions and Princewill Trust my ’76 people.
How do you relax?
I love nature so sometimes I just go to the beach to watch the waves and take in the environment. I also love to travel by road. I drive myself most of the time so I do some nature gazing. Anytime I am outside the country when I have to do interstate trips, I take trains or buses and these sights leave me refreshed. When I am in Jos, I embark on treks and go to hills like Shere to just soak in the peace and serenity of the scenery far from the hustle and bustle of life.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers and directors in Nigeria?
The world is not a bed of roses and the sooner this is realised, the better. Things won’t come to you on a platter of gold. Feel free to make mistakes. I have handled workshops and questions regarding how much money one can make as filmmakers and how they can be like Hollywood. Do not try to imitate Hollywood. The biggest mistake a filmmaker can make is to compete with and imitate Hollywood or outdo your other colleagues. Just be true to yourself and the work you are interpreting. Once you try to do this, money, fame, awards, not necessarily in this order will come. What is unique about each filmmaker is his or her individual interpretation. Nothing good comes easy. There will be challenges and things will get rough but it’s not the end of the world. At times I see people getting discouraged but one has to keep one’s head high. Someone who inspires me greatly is Yinka Edward, the award-winning cinematographer. Out of his peers in school, he seems to be the only one standing even though his journey has not been particularly smooth. There are sufficient elements for discouragement but set goals and focus lead to the final outcome.
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