These two Nigerian filmmakers are making movies you can't put in a box

Omowunmi Ogundipe
ByConrad Omodiagbe

The Nigerian entertainment industry is on a roll. In February, Netflix, the global streaming service with over 193 million subscribers, announced a slate of partnerships in the world’s third-largest filmmaking industry, Nigeria’s very own Nollywood.

Initially buoyed by a slew of direct-to-video films that closely mirrored the country’s dynamic reality and a warped obsession with morality, Nollywood is the official poster child for African filmmaking, with over 1500 films produced each year. But, with its profile on a steady rise and the internet simultaneously conflating and contracting our worlds, the films have become far removed from the experiences of regular Nigerians. This doesn’t sit right with Abba .T. Makama and C.J Obasi, two Nigerian filmmakers whose projects subvert conventional Nollywood tropes with a clear focus on identity and a rejection of the exotification of Nigeria’s culture.

“The western world has always portrayed a singular narrative for the Nigerian film industry. They gave us our identity, and it is a colonial way of putting us in a box,” Makama said on a recent Zoom call. “We are filmmakers in spite of Nollywood. We will define who we are, not someone else,” Obasi added.

In 2014, Obasi’s debut feature, a zombie thriller made on a shoestring budget called Ojuju Stories took home the award for Best Nigerian Film at the 4th Africa International Film Festival. Two years later, Makama’s razor-sharp social satire Green White Green, was greeted with critical acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival. The same year, both Makama and Obasi, alongside fellow independent filmmaker, Michael Omonua, would come together and create Surreal 16 — a collective for filmmaking misfits hyper-attuned with a distinct style of creativity and a burning desire to present a broad spectrum of Nigerian perspectives to the world.

Both filmmakers spent their formative years on opposite sides of the country, Makama in the lush city of Jos, and Obasi in the bubbly town of Owerri, popularly known as O-Town. Makama and Obasi are quick to point out the parallels in their childhoods: Enid Blyton adventures and English-dubbed Swedish black and white films. Far removed from Nigeria’s entertainment capital, Lagos, their early years spent in the tranquility of their small towns allowed them to dream and forge their own identities. “The smaller the town, the bigger the ideas and visions. The most complex people are people who grew up in small towns because they’re not manufactured in a lab. They dream differently. They’re not trying to be like everyone else,” Obasi tells me. “I wouldn’t be the filmmaker I am today if I had grown up in Lagos. I would’ve been a shitty filmmaker.”

Perhaps coincidentally, the Lagos state government recently announced a five percent tax on every piece of audio or visual content produced and sold within the state, the same week the National Bureau of Statistics announced that Nigeria’s unemployment rate had tripled over the past five years. “The government is deliberately making the living condition hostile for its people,” Makama complains. After widespread opposition, the government reconsidered the measures, but the proposal continues a line of efforts that inadvertently stifle creativity in the country.

And that’s not the only problem. The industry is currently dominated by predictable tropes that haven't made things easy for filmmakers unwilling to adopt certain genre conventions. Cinemas have also been known to allocate favorable time slots to films that fit a more traditional, and profit-driven, mold. All while brands bankroll certain projects for conspicuous product placements. “Nollywood has become like everything else that is under the rule of capitalism and it’s all about ‘we dropped a film this week, how can we double our numbers next week?’ Not necessarily about how we can make it different or better,” explains Makama. “With that in mind, every singular creative idea is placed below whatever idea seems profitable, and that’s just what it is. It is a business.”

We are filmmakers in spite of Nollywood. We will define who we are, not someone else.

While industries like Hollywood and Bollywood have been able to ensure relative equipoise between commercial blockbusters and artsy indie projects, the Nigerian movie industry seems to be pushing talented filmmakers towards a more international market through film festivals and licensing, leaving Nigerians with a narrow selection of voices. Despite two critically acclaimed feature films under their belts and premieres at festivals from New York to Germany, neither Makama nor Obasi have had a theatrical release in their home country of Nigeria.

Makama recalls meeting with a film distributor to talk about showing his film in the country, only to be told it wasn’t marketable, even though the distributor admitted to not having even seen the film. “Rather than whine about not getting the screen time you want here, why not just go where you’re wanted?. Unfortunately, the people who get to suffer, are your people who don’t get to see your films. But whose fault is that?” Obasi says. “If they really want to see something different, then they should demand it and the tides will turn.”

During our conversation, we frequently returned to the topic of identity, almost like a recurring character in a film. Makama, whose work has explored the topic through a number of perspectives — coming of age creatively in Green White Green, the need to connect to our cultural past in The Lost Okoroshi — reveals to me that his quest has always been about the pertinent questions, “Who are we? And where do we come from?” These questions resonate deeply with Obasi, who does not believe in the power of western religion, even though Nigeria, as it stands, swims in imported faith.

“We have lost our knowledge, identity, and complexity. Because even the people that gave religion to us have moved on. So every time I get a chance, through symbols and ideas in film, I will talk about it.”

Hello, Rain, his short film based on Nnedi Okoroafor’s afrofuturistic short story Hello, Moto, as well as his upcoming third feature, Mami Wata, focus heavily on witchcraft and Nigerian myths. With the global demand for “Afrocentric” entertainment on a rise, thanks in part to the mainstream success of films like Marvel’s Black Panther and Beyonce’s Black is King, Makama fears the potential gentrification of what, to most Nigerians, is simply a way of life.

But Makama and Obasi are not averse to foreign investment in their work, as they tell me their new joint feature (alongside fellow S16 co-founder, Omonua) is fully funded by Francis Nebot of the French production company, IFind Pictures. Produced by Obasi’s wife, Oge, Juju Stories, an anthology film, will see each director tackle one of three stories: The first story is Love Potion by Omonua, the second is Yam by Makama, with Obasi closing out the project with Suffer the Witch. An ambitious marriage of both worlds and featuring a diverse cast from TV and Film including Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Award Winner, Timini Egbuson, Michael Ejoor, and Bukola Oladipupo, each story will explore age-old supernatural themes set against the backdrop of contemporary Nigeria, showing young people’s interactions with Juju (Black Magic). “This project is going to be commercial and accessible but the language and visuals are indie and artsy,” says Makama.

As the world slowly adjusts to the reality of life with a global pandemic in the air, uncertainty seems to cloud future plans, however, when it comes to Makama and Obasi, work never stops. With Juju Stories in the bag, both filmmakers are focused on individual projects. Makama is currently working on the script for his third feature – “it tackles race and identity in a dystopian Lagos.” Obasi, on the other hand, is juggling three projects: A Netflix original he is currently developing alongside two other directors, pre-production for his third feature, Mami Wata, and the adaptation of a “challenging” popular book he’s still keeping under wraps.

For both directors, making films isn’t about immediate gratification – financial or otherwise. To them, each project is an intentional effort aimed at honing and refining their creative voices in the long run as they tell undiluted Nigerian stories that matter. In mercurial times when art conveys more than just beauty, Makama tells me, “Our work is not fast food, they are works of art. The question is, are you here to play checkers, or are you here to play chess? I want to create art that will outlive me. I want to make films that start conversations.”