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Odugbemi: The filmmaker as activist

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femi-odugbemiHe’s one of the very few Lagosians, who gives accurate direction to locations; he usually takes his time to give detailed instruction with visible landmarks. So, largely, the journey to Femi Odugbemi’s new office in Ogudu, Lagos, this morning, was hitch free. Except for the early morning showers, coupled with the ongoing construction work on the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway that kept traffic at snail speed, it was a matter of keeping to instruction.

Unlike his former office in Gbagada, the new DVWORX Studio is much bigger and Odugbemi occupies a strategy office that faces the main gate; right from the entrance, the boss watches every movement. So, when the secretary calls to inform Oga of your presence, it’s just a matter of formality. And once you step into his office, you will surely know this man is a lover of art and antiquity.

Though a new building, his office setting is not far from the former; three single seats in the middle, a centre table with all sorts of film festival brochures piled on it, a cabinet of awards on one side, artworks, his laptop computer… and he still prefers to face the wall. Oh, yea, that bowl of sweet is still there; loaded as usual. And if you are lucky to visit before lunch, then you are covered in his ‘stomach infrastructure.’

Aside from being knowledgeable in the business of filmmaking, Odugbemi’s wealth of experience in the field, having worked on many international projects, remains a resource for young Nigerian filmmakers to tap from. And beyond the naira and kobo that lures most youths into the craft, for the former Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria (ITPAN) president, filmmaking – particularly the documentary variant- is a passion.

Right from his days as a young boy in Fadeyi, Lagos, Odugbemi has always wanted to be a filmmaker; it wasn’t an accident. Often times, he would sit and watch a certain photographer in his neigbourhood doing his thing.

“One thing I think that was the consciousness for me that early, was the fact that the storyteller was not the people beautifully dressed in their aso oke taking picture; it’s the man that was taking the picture of them that determines how they looked,” he recalled.

No doubt, being a storyteller was the main attraction for Odugbemi to enroll at the Montana State University where he studied Film and TV Production.

“I really like that fact that you can shape reality just by your view of it. It’s an empowering consciousness to understand that a common you can have a voice just because you have a camera. That I grew up with and I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker, so, I went to film school.”

After his university, he worked briefly as film and radio producer at Lintas Advertising. He had scripted, directed and produced documentaries, short films and drama, including Tinsel, a Nigerian soap opera that began airing in August 2008 acclaimed “the most successful television drama on Nigerian television in recent times” in 2013. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the School of Media and Communications, Pan-African University, a postgraduate training university in Lagos.

Odugbemi belongs to the rare club of concerned Nigerians, who strongly believes that training and re-training are very vital in the effort to put the country’s films on the global platform. No wonder he’s a regular to almost all popular international film festival where his works are usually shown.

“What this training awareness that ITPAN initiated some 10 years ago has done is that both the filmmakers and the audience, we have raised the bar. You cannot tell me that the quality of Nollywood films has not grown. The truth of the matter is that ITPAN started the film festival and the Lagos international film forum. Now, there are film festivals all over the place and the people have approached it also with a commercial intent.”

The success story of Tinsel, according to the cinematographer, could be attributed to the collaborative spirit of the parties involved.

“Jaiye Ojo, Lemi Adegboye and I are known producers. Lemi has a lot of experience as an international person; he brought a lot of that experience in; Jaiye has experience in producing television programmes in Nigeria; he also brought that in and I brought in my experience as a director.”

One lesson in Tinsel is that, “everybody is humble enough to agree that we want to create something of international quality. We don’t want to do a Nigerian soap; we want to learn how other people do it. So, we gathered ourselves — 20 people — to South Africa, London… to see what they are doing.”

Filmmaker as the voice of change
Though Nollywood is already a success story, considering the impact it has made in the world of filmmaking, Odugbemi believes Nigerian filmmakers could be that voice of change for a better society.

“I think it’s important for a filmmaker to understand who they are. This is the way I’ve said it to the young people, ‘you go to the market you buy a drill because you want to hang a picture on the wall. But you buy the drill not because you wanted a drill; you buy the drill because you wanted a picture hung on the wall. But if you decide to just play with the drill, it’s fun; it makes a lot of noise all the time. But if you sit there and just make the noise with the drill and never actually put it on the wall, you will never hang a picture. And regardless of how great an artiste you are, if all you do is play with your drill, your picture will never hang on the wall.”

To the DVWORX Boss, filmmakers are one of the few people in the community whose voices can be heard without election to office and without being rich.

“I mean, everybody listens to a rich man, everybody listens to political leaders, but filmmaker invades the thought of the viewer by the power of his art. Just like a writer would, just like an architect might, but the power of the filmmaker is that today, more people watch films than read books. So, the filmmaker has even become more powerful; it becomes such an incredible drill in the hands of someone who is an artiste.”

Beyond entertainment and making money, he strongly believes that film must reflect the environment where it’s produced.

“If your art is not saying anything; if all you keep doing is referencing things that were done in America; if it’s not addressing the imbalances, if it’s not talking about the imperatives of leadership; if it’s not issue driven; if you are not using that time with the audience in such a way as to impact them, to cause them to think, to cause them to have the vision of possibilities that can affect your community for the better, then you’ve got a noisy drill,” he said.

Nollywood, according to Odugbemi, should do more in the area of interrogating government activities and exposing corruption, rather than romancing with political leaders.

“What’s the point of having Nollywood be named as number two, the second most prolific film industry in the world, and the themes of its films simply are restricted to juju, romance, 419… yes, it’s not all Nollywood movies though, and we need to get better at it. But I think if we are as powerful as what we are putting out is, then we should be in a place where we are not friends with leadership. There’s no way, if our films were interrogating leaders, if our films were exposing the corruption that is a problem in our country, if our films are using entertainment and cinema as a way to strike the iron, I doubt if we would be as friendly with government as we were in the last administration where the president was also a member of Nollywood.”

Birthing iREP
TEAMING up with two friends (Jahman Anikulapo and Makin Soyinka), who have been attending the Reel Life Film Festival in Ghana, Odugbemi, in 2010, initiated the i-Represent International Documentary Film Festival, (iREP). Six year’s after, the initiative has become a major promoter of documentary genre of filmmaking in the country.

For the iRep team, the larger picture is to get young Nigerian filmmakers to become empowered with this awareness and consciousness, such that, what is called the African experience, becomes something they are interested in documenting. And to a large extent, that dream seems to be coming to life.

“When I look back to when we started iREP six years ago, I see the ingenuity and power of documentary to attract young people as a powerful tool to express themselves. In the first year of iREP, we asked for documentary entries and we got less than 10; it’s either the documentaries were not out there or documentarians were not working; one of the two had to be. Half of the films we showed from Nigeria were mine. In this last edition, we had over a hundred Nigerian entries.”

This progression, according to the filmmaker, shows there’s enough awareness, not just of film as a way to make a living, but film as a way to make a point and intervene in a public discuss.

“Film as a platform of change; film as a way to put your institutions to account; film as a way to grow democracy… these are the powers of documentary. There’s no sustainable film industry in the world that is fiction only; documentary is a powerful part of any established film friendly community.”

Because documentary and short films are the place where creative signature of a filmmaker is developed, Odugbemi believes it has become a place to encourage filmmakers to dig deep and think wisely.

“Documentary is harder to make than feature and drama for one simple reason; it starts from questions not answers. When you start up with an idea in documentary, you don’t know where you are going; you don’t control anything; the characters are not fictional, they are real. And believe me, the things you discover on the journey with the documentary takes you the filmmaker to school as well.”

He hinted that a lot of established film industries take their filmmakers through the path of documentary to grow their skills, grow their thought process, grow their creative signature and more than anything else, to grow their voices as a contribution to building their environment.

“That’s really what I’m happy about because, now, the hundred entries we had this year were not from old, haggard, expired filmmakers; they were from young, vibrant filmmakers; I had just one entry this year. We had all kinds of incredible young people come in with films, ideas, thoughts; they have come to own iREP as an idea. And because they now own it, I’m more convinced of the sustainability simply because it’s capacity to go to where we need to go, to be relevant to Nigeria, not just as a film industry thing but as a Nigeria thing, is going to lie with the young; this is their country.”

For Odugbemi, the reason a lot of young people have lost hope about this country is because they don’t know enough about the past of this country.

“All they see are the present and the present is ugly politically, historically and culturally. And a lot of the things that is wrong with our environment today, what can help us to navigate them is documentary. And luckily for us, technology has made it easy, so, young people are able to tell their own story, to put things to account, to pursue people in power and cause them to be accountable.”

Asked what he considers the greatest achievement of iREP over the years, he said, ‘we are beginning to take documentary out of the hand of institution and placed it in the hands of individuals. And once we succeed in doing that, it would have been for me our best contribution, to not only building the film industry, but also building the filmmaker and making them relevant to the change that we need in our environment.”

To him, documentary is critical to how we shape our history as a people.

“There’s a way in which the future is entirely dependent on our understanding of the past. Our capacity not to keep repeating the mistakes of the past involves understanding what happened in the past, who were the people responsible for what happened in the past so that we don’t leave ourselves vulnerable to the same people, the same strategies, the same deceit… we will keep on repeating the history.”

On the other hand, he believes documentary and archives ensure that we also see the best of ourselves.

“We were talking today about, not so long ago, our institutions like the Ministry Of Works, were out there helping people who were displaced to move; that just basically indicated a functional institution. It means that we were able to see this through a film Slum Dwellers. It also reassures us that our institutions can work because, they worked before; we can begin to ask, why are they not working now? If we didn’t see that film, we might be subject to thinking that it’s not possible for that institution to work. But if it has worked before, it means it can work again,” he said.

Journey to Gidi Blues
For those who know Odugbemi better, hardly would he grant an interview on his works without the reporter first seeing the film; it has become a standard procedure.

“You are the 11th person to see my new movie, Gidi Blues. You can pause and ask questions if you wish,” he said, as he passed his iPad over, with earphones to make things easy.

Odugbemi is on the verge of releasing his latest feature film, Gidi Blue. Shot on locations in Lagos, the love story celebrates the beauty, spirit and ever-vibrant energy that the city is know for.

Produced and directed by Odugbemi, the movie stars Gideon Okeke, Hauwa Allahbura, Lepacious Bose, Daniel Lloyd, Nancy Isime, Bukky Wright, Tina Mba, Segun Obadare-Akpata, Toyin Oshinaike, William Ekpo and others, with cameo apperances by Banky W, Aduke and Jahman Anikulapo.

Billed for premiere on June 4, at the Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, in collaboration with Africa Magic, the movie tells the story of Akin, an indulged playboy from an affluent family, who accidentally meets an interesting beauty in an unpredictable place. Nkem is a beautiful, confident but unusual young lady who devotes herself to her work as communities volunteer in the belly of the city’s worst slum. Their encounter drags Akin into a whirlwind experience that unravels his world.

“Honestly, I’m a Lagos boy; I love Lagos. I was born and breed at Fadeyi here. If you are one of those people who lived their lives in Lagos, you will understand that when you leave Lagos, you miss Lagos. Regardless of what you say, when you are abroad, in places where everything works, you still miss Lagos. Why? There’s a certain thing about this city that I think is fascinating; there’s a spirit and energy that’s unique to it. And that energy affects everyone.”

Though there were other scenes in the yet to be released movie, Makoko and Idumota were prominent. And from the way Odugbemi enthused over his experiences working on both locations, you could tell he had fun working in both spaces.

“I really like being able to shoot in places like Makoko, places like Idumota… these are iconic spaces in Lagos. What’s unique about marketplace in Lagos is that it’s almost reminiscence of the old village market square. In a market setting like Idumota, it doesn’t matter whether you are from Ikoyi, VI or you are from Agege… everybody meets in Idumota; body rubs body there. No matter how huge a car you bring, if an area boy wants to deal with you in Idumota, he will deal with you.”

For Odugbemi and his crew to shoot in Idumota, it took a lot of understanding the terrain and a lot of talking with the Area Boys on ground.

“These are boys who were born and breed in this space; they live there, they’ve grown up there, they know all the nooks and crannies. And for us, it was very important that if we were going to try to control that environment cinematically, the only way to do it was to do it, not just in consultation with them, but also in collaboration with them.”

In collaborating with the boys, some of got roles in Gidi Blues, especially for the market scenes.

“I’m really happy because, a lot of people hear area boys and they think negatively; that they are thieves, they are dangerous. But the truth is that when you give them a task as big as this, you will be surprised how they made it possible; they were involved, they acted in the film, they were the security for the crew, and they kept our equipment. I mean, these guys showed us place we could go; they contributed immensely to making it possible.”

Spotlighting Makoko
Makoko, the riverine community in Lagos, was also a unique experience for Odugbemi and his crew. In a lot of ways, shooting Gidi Blues on the Floating School was a plus to the economy of Makoko. With an advance that held talks with the Bale and the people, the coast was clear for shoot.
“Obviously, shooting on water, we need to have rigs and boats; we simply made the film the economy of Makoko for the period we were there. They supplied all the foods, all the boats, all the rigs that we wanted and we used people from there as actors,” Odugbemi hinted.

Beyond shooting on Makoko waters, there’s also a CSR side of the project. Aside from adopting the school as a CSR for the film, with some of the crewmembers currently teaching in the Floating School, Odugbemi also shot a documentary to highlight the needs of the community.

“We made a documentary on the school called Makoko: Futures Afloat, a 30 minutes documentary, which is on video. We used that documentary to show how the school came about, the history of Makoko itself, why the children of Makoko need to be educated and what you and I can do to help them be educated. This was a school that needs uniforms, needs books and all kinds of things.”

Since the documentary started showing on ONTV, Soundcity, online and at film festivals, quite a lot of people have actually come out to help the fishing community.

“A couple went there and bought them powerboat; they spent over N600,000 in one day to help the school and many other people are going there to help the school. For me, that’s what is really important because, in incorporating the school into the story… that’s the documentary part of me that I wanted to input into the storytelling such that people see that there are ways in which we can touch and be part of development and not wait until when you are rich or you the minister before you can actually do something for your environment.”



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