Oladigbolu: Why film practitioners trying to break into Hollywood haven’t had much success
Rahman Oladigbolu, based in Boston, U.S., is a writer and filmmaker best known in the continent for winning the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) 2015, for Best Film by An African Living Abroad with his debut In America. His second feature, Theory Conflict, was nominated for the 2016 edition of AMAA. He recently secured the approval to adapt Chimamanda Adichie’s poem ‘A Private Experience’ into a movie. The script is ready and Oladigbolu will soon hit location, funds permitting. He spoke with FLORENCE UTOR about the project, his experience as an African filmmaker living in the U.S.
What have you been up to after your AMAA win?
I was still in school when I made In America – the film that won the AMAA award. After the award, we gave the film a limited theatrical release. It enjoyed a relatively good theatrical release in Nigeria, Ghana and some other places, and it later went on to African Movie Magic, where it aired across Africa for several months. I remember hanging out around a cinema in Port Harcourt and hearing people talk about how much it opened their eyes about the whole venture of going to America for greener pasture, etc. Then I waited to complete my school before launching into the next project – which I did. The new film Theory of Conflict has just been completed and ready for distribution.
What was the experience putting Theory of Conflict together as an independent producer working in the US?
The experience was awesome and already I have been invited to screen it on college campuses across the U.S. I have even received an invitation from the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF), which is the largest Jewish film festival in the world, to submit it for consideration in their 17th annual film festival. Given the challenges that we encountered during the production of the film, this has been huge for my team and me. The experience of making a film as an independent filmmaker in the U.S. isn’t usually easy as people think. And it’s doubly hard when you’re an immigrant – a black immigrant. I used to think that making In America was the most difficult film I worked on, perhaps the most masochistic thing I have ever done in my life, but Theory of Conflict sneered at that assumption. Each film has its own life – from the conception of the idea to the film’s release.
Theory of Conflict happens to have a subject matter that is perhaps more difficult than I imagined. The moment I first announce my plans to make the film, I was attacked on social media, and the demeanor of people from both the Israel and Palestinian sides were sometimes bland, cold, or deliberately inscrutable. My funders retreated, and many wanted me to tell the story only from their own point of view, which is always one-sided and critical of the other side. Some of my friends warned that it was such a toxic subject that people were afraid to touch with their money or their career. My editor and friend backed out, a filmmaker I invited to work with me warned me instead that I should “be careful so this doesn’t become your last film ever.” I didn’t want to make the film all alone, and I contacted groups representing the concerned parties of the stories, but for one reason or another they were largely dead-ends. Though I must say that I understood why many of them reacted that way, but I believed so much in what I was doing and I stuck to it. I take on stories that I’m attracted to, that I strongly believe in, and that I want the world to see. And this becomes my drive through the production, no matter the obstacles.
Adichie’s ‘A Private Experience’ is the next for you. What do you find fascinating about it?
Yes, it is and I am really excited about it! I first read the story in 2009 and since then I have wanted to make it into a film. It’s such a powerful story that you just can’t get it out of your head – and that’s partly because you don’t even want to get it out of your head. The characters and the storyline are very captivating, and, most importantly, the message of the story is crucial for us as Nigerians. It’s about the one thing that we need the most: understanding ourselves as individual human beings and as a society – as one Nigeria. It’s an empowering story that I believe every Nigerian should read.
And I want them to experience it cinematically.
Sometime in 2011 or so, I discussed it with someone who’s been a big brother to me, Mukhtar Bakare; he introduced me to Chimamanda and she generously gave her blessings. I’ve held the option right since that time and only waiting to complete Theory of Conflict before launching into it. For a story of this magnitude, I don’t like rushing it; I take my time with the script, let the story ferment well enough so the film can be duly intoxicating. That’s why we haven’t talked about it all these years – I needed it to be ready first. There were challenges writing the script. I have always seen the project as a feature film, and yet didn’t want to add anything extraneous to the story. So, I have had to read and re-read the story so many times to make sure that anywhere we go is where the story itself leads us. It is such a rich story.
Which actors do you have in mind for the film?
There are actors that have been on my mind since I began working on the script and I have been in touch with them about it: Richard Mofe-Damijo and Ali Nuhu, for a start. Nafisat Abdullah has been our best choice for the lead Hausa female role in the film and she’s also on board already. We’ll be rolling out the other’s names as our dates approach – about two are coming from Los Angeles to play supporting roles. We have a completed script; we have agreements and commitments from the actors of my choice. We’re currently actively putting the funding together, and production is slated for October 2017, all things being equal.
How rewarding has your involvement in movie production been? How are you able to remain so passionate about it even in the face of difficulties in securing funding and distribution for the eventual production?
My involvement in film has been greatly rewarding. I think one of the best things that have happened to me was my realization early in life that this was what I wanted to do. Once I got bitten by the bug the feelings have been that nothing would stop me from making films as long as I’m alive. This was the spirit I took with me when I moved to America. And I thank God that He has been giving me the strength and the opportunity to stay the course. There are a few times in my life that I always look back to. The first was when I was ill in Nigeria. Most people didn’t know this about me, but I was on the sickbed for about seven years in Nigeria. It was so bad that people didn’t think I would survive. Every morning, my father would come down into my sickroom afraid that I might have died in the night. After many years, however, I survived, and my father would always thank God for giving me the “will to survive and live,” as he often put it.
For me, on the other hand, the only thing on my mind that kept me alive was my desire to make films. Because my pains and general suffering were too much, many times I thought of giving up. But throughout all the years, I had a stack of filmmaking books and copies of American Cinematographer magazines next to my bed, and their sight egged me on to hold onto my life. I wanted to be on a film set; I wanted to direct a film., I wanted to tell a story, and I always prayed to God to give me at least one opportunity to make even just one film before taking my life. So, for me, being able to make films at all has been its own rewards.
I have heard some people argue that it is easy for Indians, including black Indians, to make films in the U.S. How true is that?
It may be true that there aren’t much regulatory or industry restrictions, but there are psychological and socio-economic restrictions. It’s not easy anywhere to make films. Circumstances are different, for sure. But it’s not easy as one might think. It’s only those who haven’t been on the ground to see reality in the U.S. that would assume it is easy. I met Aliko Dangote sometime ago in Boston and as we were chatting he asked what I did for work. When I told him I was a filmmaker, his response was; “Then what are you doing here? Come home.” For him, it’s easier for a Nigerian filmmaker to make films in Nigeria than in America. This was because he knew how things were for Indie filmmakers in the U.S.; he knew that it’s an uphill battle, especially for black filmmakers. And if you’re a black immigrant filmmaker, the hill is even steeper.
Are you in touch with Nollywood industry apart from your decision to engage some of the actors in your new film?
Well, I would say that we are all who we are so that we can tell our stories from our perspectives. I believe that this is one of the reasons I’m a Nigerian: to tell Nigerian stories, to tell stories from Nigerian perspectives, and to view and contribute to the world’s stories through perspectives originating from who I am and where I’m from. Because of this, I’ve never really left Nigeria – and Nigeria wouldn’t even leave me if I tried. I guess I’ve eaten too much of its fufu and eba already. So I’m in Nigeria very often; I know what’s going on. I know the directions and developments of Nollywood, and I hang out and work with people in Nigeria all the time. Even on Theory of Conflict, which is a story based on an American campus, I still shot some of it in Lagos and I have Nigerian actors and crew in it.
I think the industry is doing pretty well. When something starts from nothing and has grown to what it has become, I think that’s a great achievement and a source of pride. The only thing I didn’t feel comfortable with is the name ‘Nollywood.’ I wish we had named it something else, and not a name that implies that we’re seconding our industry to Hollywood. But I guess it may be too late to advocate changing it now.
Why is it difficult for filmmakers from elsewhere to break into Hollywood, for instance, and do you think those in Nollywood can forge collaboration with Bollywood?
I really don’t think our goal would be trying to break into Hollywood – and perhaps that’s why most filmmakers trying to do that haven’t had much success. The few who break into Hollywood become Hollywood. And that’s not the goal we should all be pursuing – at least, that’s not what I’m pursuing. Hollywood uses you when it needs you, and it uses you only how it wants to use you, defining you only as it pleases its purposes. And when it no longer needs you, that is it! I think the better approach is to try to understand how Hollywood works, and try to use the knowledge to your own advantage, to get your own films made and seen, and in the way you want them made and seen. And it’s only this way that we can make tangible and reasonable collaborations with other industries, Hollywood, Bollywood, or whichever. There’s nothing wrong with having a relationship with Hollywood or Bollywood, but it’s best to do it on your own terms, with your terms equally respected as any other on the table.