by Tchidi Jacobs
Heading for the Oscars!
Obi Emelonye with his son
If we all lived a hundred years from now, and had the sacred privilege of walking through the museum of history; if some how we strode into a section displaying the names of the Nollywood film makers that made a difference by raising the bar of quality and making Nollywood movies attractive to the rest of the world in our generation, the name Obi Emelonye would boldly be etched in gold. He was born in Port Harcourt Nigeria just when the drums of the civil war were sounding its beginning, little did the Emelonye family know that they had given birth to a genius. This brash persona is so full of humour and leaves with everyone he comes in touch, a contagious feeling of exuberance. Obi owes his huge success to his wife who stood by him when he abandoned his law career to pursue his true love in film making. Today, that decision has paid off with the multiple awards winning movie “the mirror boy” renown to be the first ever African movie to premiere in a London cinema. In this interview, he recalls the journey so far.
You've become a very big name in movie production both locally and internationally, but let’s take a minute to meet the home man, the Obi Emelonye who is a husband and father.
I am just an ordinary guy who refused to give up the face of disheartening challenges; who remained true to his art and bided his time. A simple positive guy who loves his family (nuclear /wider) and has a contagious enjoyment of life that is reflected in everything he does. That would be me.
Where were you born?
I was born in Port Harcourt just before the Biafran civil war as a part of a pair of twins. My parents are from Umuma Isiaku in south Ideato LGA of Imo state.
What was growing up like?
I come from a fairly large but closely knit family. My Dad was an advertising executive and I think my creative impetus comes from him (bless his soul) and my mum is a retired school teacher. I would say my twin brother Uche and our immediate younger brother Mezie and I grew up as exemplary kids in our neighborhood. We excelled academically; we were morally sound and exceptional in sports. The leadership qualities that have stood me in good stead in my career now comes from running organisation that we created from nothing in the 80’s, including football clubs and a musical group.
Looking back, I can really say that I had an almost perfect childhood. I grew up a ‘textbook child’ and my mum has a lot to do with the very amiable side of this rather brash persona that I have developed.
You were about to be enrolled as a solicitor of the supreme court of England (an honor most people would give anything to have) but you pulled out in the final stages. That must have been a defining moment in your life. What was going on in your mind?
In 2007, just before I reached a huge milestone in my age, I had to make a call on how I wanted my life to go. Before now, since my arrival in the UK, I had joggled two parallel careers; law and film. In fact I had to suspend my Law school exams to shoot Echoes of War which was one of my iconic productions before The Mirror Boy. I had taken up law because I felt I needed another career while I built up my reputation as a film maker’ a career that would allow me the time and resources to practice my art and one that had transferable skills. Law served that purpose but at some point, I had to bite the bullet, having earned the right to do so through years of dedication and training. Today, after a fairly rough start, I can say that I am a very happy and contented man who is doing what I love and loving what I do. Not many people, particularly those living abroad, can say that. I am indeed blessed.
Did your wife support your decision?
I am the luckiest man as regards my wife. She is beautiful, kind, supportive, caring and a great mother. It was not about how much I brought home but how happy I was. She bought into my vision and long-term plan. And now that it is all coming together, let no man, or indeed woman begrudge her. She deserves huge credit for her belief in and dedication to me. I owe everything I have achieved to her.
Okay let’s come to the big one. Your globally renowned movie “The Mirror Boy” - Break through artiste, Monaco film festival 2011, winner best young actor, African movie academy awards 2011, and now, two prestigious awards screen nation film awards ! That’s as good as it gets! Did you ever imagine it would become the huge success it has become today when you first put your hand on paper to scribble the first lines?
I started writing The Mirror Boy in 2005 when I would say that I was at the lowest ebb in my life...and how ironic the film now represents my biggest success story so far. It is one of those stories that emanated from the soul and as soon as I told the story to a few of my colleagues, I knew I had something special. The script kept me awake at night for several weeks but the writing was already on the wall that this one was going to be special. It was a blessed project from the onset. After being messed around by the UK Film Council, I ran into Akin Salami of OHTV who provided the bulk of the finance to make the film. Then the president of Gambia supported us to shoot it in Banjul. As soon as our trailer was put online, my life changed. CNN contacted me for an interview in November last year and the project never looked back from there. Like you mentioned my mantelpiece is filling up with awards and I am grateful to God for blessing me and this project.
What inspired the story line?
At first, I wanted to tell a Nollywood story from the point of view of a young person instead of the usual adult perspective.
Secondly, I watched my 8 year old son grapple with his dual nationality (British and Nigerian) and wanted to explore the disconnect between children born in the diaspora and we born in Africa with this story of a London boy who gets taken to Africa and goes missing on his second day.
Has the movie influenced your son in any way?
My son is still fascinated by the story of the film. In fact he would have played the London boy if only he could get time off school. But he is not suffering identity crisis of the type that the film explores and he goes often to Africa and does not suffer from Afri-phobia.
Did you have any challenges with picking the cast?
The biggest challenge in casting was finding the 12 year old boy to carry the film. We conducted several auditions and were no close to finding him; until Edward Kagutuzi was presented to us. He was 19 at the time but looked 11 or so and he was in first year at uni.
That has turned out to be a master class in casting as he has gone on to win Best Young Actor at the Africa Movie Academy Awards 2011.
Casting the rest of the leading cast was easy. Genevieve is one of the best actresses of her time. As for Osita Iheme, he is a well known Nollywood stalwart. The rest of the cast came from Gambian who lacked experience but compensated for that with sheer talent and Endeavour.
Is there something unique or significant about Gambia that made it the ideal location for the movie?
The Gambia provided a great location for The Mirror Boy, as almost every African country would have done; great people, great colour and vibrancy. The film was originally meant to be shot in Obudu Ranch Cross River state but the Gambian president, Sheikh Professor A JJ Jammeh provided the best conducive environment that I have enjoyed as a filmmaker. That for me was the magic of Gambia.
Are you going to be shooting in more African countries in the future?
I am already in preproduction for a new film to be shot in Kenya next summer with a huge American star. Collaboration is the key and the more people that show ownership of the film, the better.
How would you describe your approach to film making?
My approach to filmmaking is multi-disciplinary. I have a broad-based knowledge of all the factors and stages of production. With every humility, I can write, act, design set and costume, direct and edit. I don’t have to do them all in one production but that knowledge helps me direct whoever is doing the roles better and helps my holistic view of the entire project. It is my opinion that every director should be an editor or at least understand editing. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Nollywood.
Obi at the Monaco film festival
With little support from the government, the Nollywood film industry has grown from a self-financed institution to the world’s second largest movie producer. However, one problem it’s still grappling with is piracy. Do you have any suggestions as to what can be done to curb this counter-productive trend?
I am going to surprise you and say that the biggest problem to the industry is not piracy. Firstly, we have grown to number 2 in the world based on quantity and that is commendable for a self-funded industry without government support. The challenge now is to rise up the quality ladder from our 150th position.
To do that, we have to grapple with the biggest problem of the industry which is distribution network or lack of it. There is where the government comes in; to provide the environment to better distribution of films beyond Alaba, Idumota and Onitsha. Once that is done, the void which piracy presently fills will disappear and it will become like it is in the rest of the world; a parasite which will not get away but which only scratches the surface of our industry.
In this regard, the proliferation of cinemas is a welcome development. If Nigerian films like The Mirror Boy, Lje and Tango with me are making million in the cinemas, it may signal the involvement of the corporate world in the industry and that would be the final catalyst for excellence in the sector that has suffered as a very informal business right from the start.
The mirror boy is said by many in international movie business to be the Nollywood movie that can finally match the industry’s new found status. Would you say that the future of Nollywood has arrived?
The Mirror Boy is consolidating the gains that the industry has recorded with films like Ije, The Figurine, Anchor Baby and Tango with me etc. Without the achievements of these great films, The Mirror Boy may have just disappeared in the DVD market. While these have been huge hits back home, The Mirror Boy has opened more international doors for Nigerian films. It was the first to have a commercial run in Odeon Cinema in the UK and following its success, Anchor Baby has now had a great run too. Very soon, no week will pass with cinemas across the world scheduling Nigerian films. The future indeed has arrived but more films of quality and substance are needed to sustain the momentum, and better the achievements of The Mirror Boy.
You’ve had a very busy year, how do you unwind?
I like driving and football (playing and watching) to unwind. But I am my happiest when I am in the company of my wife and beautiful kids...Life couldn’t be better when I am around them and I am as cool as a cucumber.
What has kept you going over the years?
I have had a raw deal in this industry with marketers exploiting my meekness and frustrating me temporarily out of the industry. But I was determined to continue to improve myself and wait for the right set of circumstances; the right time, right project etc. That happened with The Mirror Boy.
In those years of frustration, I kept going because I believed in the Nigerian entity. I believed that in a country with over 150 million people with disposable income and who love movies, it is just a matter of time before the stars align. That is beginning to happen and people like us that have refused to go away have been vindicated.
What’s your favourite vacation spot?
Disney land Florida or Paris, really because of my three kids. Personally I feel refreshed in my village but kidnappers have robbed us of that...shame
Your kind of music?
I listen to melodious sounds, from Egedege to Michael Jackson and Rihanna. I also do the musical scoring of my films and have gradually carved a niche as making films with the best musical enhancements in Nollywood...something I am so proud of.
If we go peep into your wardrobe, what would we see?
You will see sensible and quality clothes that fit. Some expensive, others very cheap, I take a lot of pride in how I look and clothes are only a small part of that. I live my life with the best care, eat right, sleep right, and exercise right, no smoke, no drink...to me that’s more important than what label I am wearing.
Let’s say we are having a chat like this five years from now, what new achievements of yours would we be talking about?
I am not a clairvoyant but I am positive that if I continue the hard work that I am doing now and my star continues in this trajectory, then, I will be an international filmmaking figure; championing the emergence of African cinema to the mainstream; making films that are released all over the world to critical and commercial acclaim. And then, there is the Oscars, I hope to get a mention in the next few years, insha Allahu or by God’s grace..