In Conversation with Izuchukwu Ojukwu (Part 1)
Izuchukwu Ojukwu is an award-winning film director, cinematographer, scriptwriter and editor who educated himself in the trade through voracious reading and experimental work. He is credited for several films including the 5 that launched the acting careers of the winners of the Amstel Box Office (AMBO) reality TV show such as Azizat, O.C Ukeje, Wale Ojo, Ebere Bayray Macquizu and Ivie Okunjaye. His period movie ’76 based on true events around the failed coup d’état, received 14 nominations and 5 awards at the 2017 Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCA), as well as 8 nominations at the 2017 African Movie Academy Awards (AMMA). At the fifth edition of Nollywood Week Paris, ’76 won the Prix du Public (Audience Choice) awards. His new film Amina about the warrior Queen Amina of Zazzau is set for release soon.
Who is Izu Ojukwu and can you tell us about your journey into film?
I like to call myself a mythmaker. I make myths for a living and people believe them (laughs!). I was born, grew up and schooled in Jos. I got into the film industry straight from high school—St. John’s College. While at school, because I could draw and paint, I made some money from my work. My father observed I was industrious and encouraged me. I became independent from an early age. I never collected money from him and could fend for myself with the proceeds from my work. I would collect photos from his friends and paint their portraits. They usually paid above my regular fees to encourage me. I also painted murals in houses, offices and made cards with eggshells and feathers during festive seasons. I sold these with a friend of mine and the proceeds made the season quite jolly (laughs!). My obsession with photography and film made me want to be a director of photography. I had a friend who graduated from the theatre arts department at the University of Jos but even though he had a book or two on cameras, they were not enough for me. I also visited the national and state libraries in Jos and there were no books available then. So as a teenager, when the National Film Institute (NFI) Jos was established in 1995, I went to the library to look for books on film production. On my way out after picking them up, I was asked for my student identification card, to which I replied I did not have. I was then asked how I got in. I responded that it was a Federal Government establishment and I should be able to so. This episode became a big issue and I was taken to the office of the institute’s director—Dr. Hyginus Ekwuazi. He asked me what the matter was and told him I wanted books on filmmaking I could not find anywhere else. Dr Ekwuazi then asked me to register and enrol as a student since NFI was a film school. I told him I could not afford it because, at the time, things fell apart in my family and coming from a rather large one, my tertiary education had to be put on hold. He offered to get me a scholarship but I told him I still could not afford it, as the scholarship would not cover every expense. More importantly, I could not afford to spend the entire day in school since I had to fend for my family and myself. Observing my passion and stubbornness, he decided he would give me a book weekly which I would summarise before he lent me another one. This went on for a while and years later, I was invited to the institute as a resource person even though I had no formal training. When I eventually applied for a course at the NFI, I was asked if I wanted to teach or learn. I told them I was interested in the latter as I still had so much to learn. They did not consider me teachable but would rather have me as a resource person. I eventually went to film school in the United States. As a matter of fact, my first invitation as a resource person for film was to Vassar College in New York.
What set you on the path to becoming a film director?
I’m the fourth child of a large polygamous family of 20 children. Growing up, we usually ate dinners in the open on hot days, setting up the dining table for all the children to sit around and eat. When my mother cooked, it seemed as though she was cooking for a party because several times, other relatives would come around thereby often increasing the number to 30 children. It occurred to me that I could entertain them so I made puppets and masks of different animals based on some of the folktales my mother who is also a great storyteller told us. Little did I know I was setting the tone for a future career as a film director because, from the stories she told, I would tell my siblings to act as different animals based on my perception of their character and temperament. I would tell them—‘you walk from here to there, you laugh now, no, you stay here and do not move an inch!’ This was done on several nights for some years in the 80s. Also, during this time, we grew up on Indian and Chinese films showing at the cinemas. Sometimes I would ‘borrow’ money and dash off to the cinema to see a movie. I remember stealing my stepmother’s 20 naira, not even realising it was torn in half. I rushed to the cinema to see a Chinese film that had been highly advertised. On getting there, I presented the money but the ticket master noticed it was torn. Meanwhile, the film had already started playing. While thinking about what to do, I had a bright idea of exchanging the money with a beggar because all I needed was just 1 naira. I ran down the street, folded the money and gave it to an old female beggar asking her to give me just 1 naira. She saw through my deception and started shouting ‘barawo!’, which means thief in Hausa. I took to my heels feeling so bad about the whole incidence. I went back to the cinema another day and became friends with the operator. I ran errands for him and most times, he allowed me to watch the movies from the projection room. A friend of mine and I began to unravel the mystery behind the projector and I managed to construct one. The operator began giving me 15mm short Indian films and with my newly made projector and I projected these films in my father’s garage. They played very well though they were without sound. This led to the start of my film business (laughs!). I would gather the children even from the streets and collect 1 naira from them to watch the films in my makeshift ‘cinema hall’. As children, they were not interested in the story as such but loved to see moving images. I tried to add sound but did not understand that it had a different reel. I got a cassette player, loosened it and tried to run the film on the play head but it did not work. In 1988, there was a sports festival in Jos and I attended some events. On one of the days, I ran into a cameraman from the Plateau Television and automatically lost interest in the game I came to watch but started following him about. Actually, I imposed myself on him as his assistant (laughs!). He taught me how to change batteries. I was looking for an opportunity to look into his camera lens but he never even allowed me close to it. I just stared at the camera and figured out that if my projector was successful, I should be able to construct a camera as well. I got a convex lens from the ECWA laboratory, film and halogen bulbs, mirrors and sprockets to put the motor cap on. I was able to make it work through simple physics and experimenting. The fact I could see through the viewfinder was satisfying and I did not stop here but created my tripod. I got a big ‘Omo’ carton, sliced through and covered it with a big polythene bag. I also fixed antennae unto this my contraption. I would put one of my younger brothers in front of it and tell him to cast the news. This was fulfilling for me and propelled me towards filmmaking.
Can you tell us about some experiences with your earlier films?
My first film to go to the market was Moment of Bitterness—an Igbo film, in 1996. The transition to English films had not begun then. I put all my savings together and started the project but ran out of cash so it was stalled and there seemed no way forward. Some of the actors in the movie said they could help me out with some of their contacts and show solidarity by accompanying me to speak with them to raise funds. We were able to continue and finish it. The film was submitted to the THEMA awards, then organised by Fame magazine. It received 4 nominations and won in the Best Supporting Actor category. Pete Edochie was nominated in that category as well.
In 1997, I shot and directed a film with Indians titled A Home Too far. That was Ali Nuhu’s first film. I cast him because he could also speak Hindi. A friend of mine brought him over to me as they used to hang around the Parafa and New Era cinemas in Jos together. It was to be an all-Indian cast but I wanted to have a Nigerian in it, there was no Hausa film then. The story was about an Indian child who got missing in Nigeria so it required an ambassador’s role in the film. I was fortunate to have an award-winning Indian actor who had lived in Germany all his life and won awards there, play the Indian ambassador to Nigeria. When I got in touch with the Indians I wanted to work with, they told me their ‘big papa’ was visiting so that is how this Germany-based actor got the role in the film. There was also a filmmaker from Egypt who was in town and I was excited he would get to see my film. We premiered A Home Too far at the New Era cinema in Jos when film premieres were not common. This was the same cinema I usually went to watch Indian and Chinese films from the projector room. Unfortunately, my friend was no longer there so he could not see my work. After the premiere, the Egyptian requested to see the director of the film and when I met him, he said he felt he was looking at the Steven Spielberg of Nigeria. My friends started calling me that but I rejected it. I respect Spielberg and would love to explore like he has done, but I am me and not anyone else. Prior to this, I had never looked at film credits but after this episode, I began to. I also decided to read about this Hollywood director I had been likened to. I asked Fred Chagu who was a director with Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and winner of NAFEST 1989 if he had any books on Steven Spielberg. He did, which he gave to me. In 1998, I shot a film—Eva The River of Mystery, which had some funny animation in it. There were no computers then, so everything was raw. It starred Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Olu Jacobs, Francis Duru and others.
You were one of the filmmakers featured in an international documentary about Nollywood. How did that happen?
Some people came to Nigeria from the United States to do a documentary on Nigerian filmmakers and I was on their list. It seemed they were following my work, as well as some other directors. They contacted me when they arrived and I informed them I was working on a project. The head of the team said he had seen one of my films in New York. The director of photography for Crimson Tide and a professor at the Vassar College were part of this team. This was in the early 2000s. I think what attracted them was a film Line of Duty, which I shot in 2003. It depicted a realistic scene of a high-speedboat chase on the high sea. The middleman between this team and I sent me an email trail between him and the visiting team, which showed they were Hollywood style filmmakers. While I was speaking with them, the professor said I could not have done all I claimed because I talked about constructing a projector, which worked with the camera. He asked if I could reconstruct the projector I did over 15 years ago, and I wondered if I could remember. He said this was going to make my story credible if I could. We all travelled to Jos and my father’s garage was still there. I tried to remember the process and told them I had to see if the ECWA laboratory where I got some of the materials from was still in existence. As God would have it, it was. Looking at the lab brought back memories and as I walked into the building, the materials I usually requested for started coming back to me. I got the 2 lenses, bought halogen lamps like those used for motorcycles and then, the whole process came back fully to me. I was wired and then I started constructing the projector in front of their cameras, before their eyes. At some point it became very real to them but there was no film to try out so they had to lobby to get 16mm film from the Film Corporation so that the experiment could be completed. I projected this from my father’s garage and they were convinced. When the head of the team was leaving, he embraced me in tears because unknown to me, they had gone to Dr. Ekwuazi secretly to interview him and found me to be exactly what he told them. He also mentioned at the final farewell that he just left the presence of a genius. The scene in Line of Duty was perceived as basic Hollywood stuff but they wanted to find out how I did it. They said that scene would require about 6 months of preparation, 3 weeks of shooting, multi-cameras and several equipments. I laughed within me and I told them what they saw was done in an hour, with one camera and 2 speedboats. Again I was asked to prove it so that they could document it because they found it impossible. We hired 2 speedboats to recreate the scene; I prayed and hit the high sea. I had choreographed specific areas, handled the camera myself and it was done in an hour. I played the rushes on Betacam from beginning to the end without interruption for the international film team. They observed that all the shots I did were done in one single shot/take. This was how I got my invitation as a resource person to Vassar College New York in 2002 to teach guerrilla filmmaking (laughs!). How to make something out of nothing was the bottom-line. Low budget, not much equipment but a world-class outcome. The documentary is titled Welcome to Nollywood and was directed by Jaime Meltzer.
Congratulations on your 2017 nominations and awards for ’76! How will these impact the film and your brand?
Thank you! Sometimes our works are validated through awards, which are like a pat on the back. Most people that may not have seen the movie get curious and try to see it. It extends the lifespan of the film and whether or not it wins awards, I am still grateful. Some people asked me if I entered the film for the Oscars and I replied I don’t make films for awards or competitions or to outdo anyone. I work on subjects very close to my heart and film is a medium of expression for me. I tell stories of people the world needs to hear. I am a projector of whatever they are trying to communicate and that is where my satisfaction lies. I am happy if I am able to do this in a way that when I assemble the investors, they would be happy with the final outcome. I do not believe that the ultimate goal of every film is to make back the money. I don’t make films strictly for commercial purposes. For every film one makes, there must be a genuine reason for the production. Making films that affect lives is my primary aim, financial returns are secondary. I am not saying you shouldn’t make money but the message you want to pass across is key. When you have the different factors at the back of your mind, you strike a balance between creativity and commercial viability so that you are not overtly creative while leaving the essence. You also have to be careful when working with investors, as they will want their money back. The audience can get confused about your message. I remember seeing an interview with Steven Spielberg where he talked about visual metaphors. I love using these metaphors in my work but I try to use them carefully. You cannot have a visual metaphor in the name of art that viewers cannot decipher. This is an exercise in futility. The interviewer asked Spielberg to talk about one of the visual metaphors used in his films, as he did not understand it. Spielberg mentioned that it means the visual metaphor did not serve its purpose. If I were receiving government funding, I will prefer to make art films. However, money is also important to stay in business and to encourage investors.
Izu Ojukwu and Adonijah Owiriwah with the Best Director and Best Film AMVCA 2017 award trophies
How did you assemble your cast and crew for ’76?
Because I had previously worked with some of the cast and crew, it was not difficult assembling them. They are consummate artists and have in the past, met my basic requirements. One formula I use is that if you are too commercial, I won’t work with you. The cast and crew selected wouldn’t have stayed on the set for 6 months if it were just for money. They were passionate but if their goals and desires did not align with our vision, it wouldn’t have worked. There was no special amount paid to them to stay on the set for that duration. They made many sacrifices; some lost other deals and offers because they chose to stick with us. Several weddings happened on the set too (laughs!), the soundman left the set to get married and returned. Debo who played the role of Memry’s husband also got married and returned. They just took a few days off and then went back to work, as they were enthusiastic and wanted the best. How much can one ever pay these people? Even when I felt I had taken so much out of them and wanted to cut corners, they disagreed and instead chose to go the long haul. It is difficult to sustain that interest. There are people I would love to continuously work with. I am glad they are happy that all their efforts and sacrifices were worth it. If one’s desire is to influence, money will always come. If the desire is just to go in and make money, the content will be watery.
’76 is not an everyday project. Generations to come will find it relevant. Apart from talent and resources, the life of a project is of paramount importance to me. No director will want to work with an actor or technician who spends the entire day in unnecessary arguments. If I am offered a job, I know my worth as a director; I know Yinka Edward’s worth as a cinematographer and Pat Nebo’s as an art director. If all three of us are engaged in a project, maybe no film will be made due to our fees, but all of that was left aside as we accepted the financial and technical constraints. We want to take our movie industry to a point where we can receive something commensurate with what has been put it into it.
Rita Dominic with her Best Actress AMVCA award trophy for ’76
Your art director and one of the executive producers starred in the movie. Was this pre-planned?
(Laughs!) Adonijah has a passion for acting and has starred in a previous production I directed. He did not just get his role but earned it. He told me he wanted to act in the movie and I replied that he had to earn it because being the executive producer does not give an automatic pass. For months, he made several efforts and sacrifices travelling back and forth from Port Harcourt to Ibadan for the auditions and rehearsals every weekend because he also has a full-time job. He performed excellently in the role he was given because he understood what had to be done. He has an AMAA 2017 Best Supporting Actor nomination to show for it. Pat Nebo replaced someone who was proving to be difficult. I tried to make it work but it soon became apparent that the actor was not about to relent so I looked around the set and realised Nebo has the looks for the role. I approached him and asked if he could play the role, gave him the brief and asked him to join the military training, which all the actors had to do. He was quite happy.
Was there any particular reason for shooting on film and not digital, what was your artistic vision?
When we started working in 2009, we wanted to shoot on film. Sadly, in Nigeria, we have little respect for history. In schools, history has been removed as a subject. A visit to the television authority to source historical materials is often a waste of time. Some of our past productions on film are ruined beyond repair or missing. We decided irrespective of the challenges that lay ahead to shoot on film. We encountered some difficulties but did not lose our heads and kept on pushing. At some point, we ran out of funds and then ACT Nollywood came to our rescue. I have always wanted to make a historical film and even though filming this genre can be achieved using digital, shooting on film has a feel. It gives the movie an original look. I know that some of the organisers of international festivals are usually happy to see movies from Nigeria and Africa shot on film, even with the advent of the Arri Alexa, which is film digitized. Same camera but the look of the 16mm we shot is unique. No matter how you try to fake it, the real thing is what it is. Our joy is that in 20 to 100 years, the movie will still be available and part of the collective of historical movies shot on film.
April 14, 2021
March 25, 2021