Shijuwomi… Game Changer from Veteran Filmmaker Bayo Awala
By the time you are reading this, filming on Shijuwomi, a post-colonial cinematic adaptation of Rasheed Gbadamosi’s book, Behold My Redeemer would have reached advanced stage. Presently being canned under the direction of award winning theatre and film director cum screenwriter Niji Akanni and adapted for the screen by the trio of Ola Rotimi, Femi Olugbile and Bayo Awala, Shijuwomi, starring some of the movie industry recognizable faces like Ayo Lijadu, Bimbo Manuel, Tina Mba and Jude Chukwuka, is promoted as a metaphor for Nigeria as a nation state and many African countries whose dream of utopia after freedom from colonial powers have all evaporated leaving behind hopelessness and frustration. ‘This project has been in the works for over two decades. I have always been fascinated with this story since I first directed it on stage in 1969,’ Bayo Awala, producer of the film said while also explaining that the movies thematic relevance, the tempo-spatial canvass against which the narrative plays out and the opportunity it provides to increase the volume of works adapted from Nigeria’s rich literary traditions are some of the reasons why he is collaborating with renowned economist and accomplished arts collector Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi to showcase the piece. Awala disclosed in this chat few days before shooting commenced that Chief Gbadamosi serves as Executive Producer on the project while the movie is being produced with the active collaboration of the Ogun State government and with funding support from the Federal Government’s Special Nollywood Intervention project dubbed ProjectAct Nollywood Film Production Fund (FPF).
FILMING on Shijuwomi, a cinematic adaptation of Rasheed Gbadamosi’s book, Behold My Redeemer has reached advanced stage. Directed by award-winning theatre and film director-cum-screenwriter Niji Akanni and adapted for screen by the trio of Ola Rotimi, Femi Olugbile and Bayo Awala, Shijuwomi, stars industry’s recognizable faces like Ayo Lijadu, Bimbo Manuel, Tina Mba and Jude Chukwuka, it is promoted as a metaphor for Nigeria and many African countries whose dream of utopia after freedom from colonial powers have all evaporated leaving behind hopelessness and frustration. “This project has been in the works for over two decades. I have always been fascinated with this story since I first directed it on stage in 1969,” Awala said while also explaining that the movie’s thematic relevance, the tempo-spatial canvass against which the narrative plays out and the opportunity it provides to increase the volume of works adapted from Nigeria’s rich literary traditions are some of the reasons why he is collaborating with renowned economist and accomplished arts collector Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi to showcase the piece. Awala disclosed in this chat a few days before shooting commenced that Gbadamosi serves as Executive Producer on the project while the movie is being produced with the active collaboration of the Ogun State Government with funding support from the Federal Government’s Special Intervention project, ProjectAct Nollywood Film Production Fund (FPF).
Congratulations for securing the ProjectAct fund. How did you scale through?
Well, I really didn’t know that the competition was going to be that tough. It really was, because on the day that we were invited to sign the memorandum of understanding for the grant, those I met in the auditorium suggested that it was battle royale. However, I had absolutely no fears because one, with or without the grant, I was going to fly. I mean, my story was ready and before the grant came I had started some grant-sourcing preparation. So all is well that ends well.
But why Shijuwomi? I thought you were planning to shoot Oke Langbodo?
Yes, I was aiming to produce Oke Langbado by D.O Fagunwa and I have actually done the local budget except the budget for the Computer Generated Images (CGI) and that took me some time because I kept scouting around for a quotation for CGI. I got someone eventually but it was in England who gave me a quote that was four times the amount of money I anticipated. He sent me a quote of about $3 million and this was just going to be my entry, as it were, into filmmaking and I asked myself how I was going to begin with a movie that will cost me $3 million dollars for CGI alone. I don’t think anyone will take me serious.
So, I said, ‘well, let me go back to something else’. Now, Shijuwomi has been with me for years even before Oke Langbodo. The late Professor Ola Rotimi first wrote the screenplay after which I sent it to Dr. Femi Olugbile when I saw that what Professor Rotimi wrote was too linear. So I sent it to Dr. Femi Olugbile who also wrote and sent it back. I merged the two and we arrived at what we now have. And it has been with me for about three years. So when this opportunity came and because I was itching to make a movie, I decided to get it all up. So I went to Chief Gbadamosi and that was how it started.
What are your plans for the production?
Well, you can see me scratching my head. When I first made the budget, I gave to someone to write what I called a prospectus for investors. He wrote it and sent it to me. Behold his budget was 200 million naira and I said to him I am sure I cannot recover this from what I know about Nollywood. So, we did some adjustment and got 50 million and I thought that was a bit too high considering that I was just making a major entry into the industry. No body knows me at least as a filmmaker. I might have been known as a television director and producer but not as a mainstream Nollywood filmmaker. So I said, 50 million is still too high. I did some adjustment and came to 40 million. I was quite comfortable with that even though the amount I got from ProjectAct was a bit low but I felt that I was comfortable to start with that. I then went back to Chief Gbadamosi and then we started looking for money. Men, it is hard sourcing funds for movie production. I now know why Nigerian producers rely on their friends and family. It was very difficult. So I went back to Chief Gbadamosi and asked for N10 million to start, while I get the rest from the market and then from family members and friends. I went to Bank of Industry (BOI) and they said they have facilities for equity and loan. I was asked to send a feasibility study, which I did. They said to me that I have to get a house as collateral and I told them I don’t know anyone who does this kind of thing with a house. I asked them to consider the film I was going to make as collateral and one other film Prince of the Savannah that I made that has not been released as collateral and they said no. They wont even consider my personality. They said it is a regulation that they are following. So I moved on. I went to family and friends. I approached Remi Ogunpitan who gladly threw in his facilities as equity into the production. That was how I started. Then of course the grant thing came and thank God I have done all of that so it was quite easy for me to say this is how much I have and this is how much I am looking for. So that was how I got funding support and that was what led me into producing the Shijuwomi story’’.
Are you sure this will fly considering that what is in vogue now is romantic comedies?
I think there is a serious flaw in our approach to the industry in this country. What we do here is for somebody to make a successful story and every body jumps into the fray. I think one should just stick to his or her story and know that it will make it. And I believe that this story will make it in spite of the comic affairs that we have on hand. This is something that nobody has ever done before and it is for me, something that needs to be looked into. The story of Shijuwomi is the story of Nigeria, of Africa. There is particularly one line I like in the story. He said ‘I went abroad, studied and listened and decided on what I think our people want….an asylum’. And I think we need to tell ourselves that we are living in a mad house. So for me it is not a strange story. It is particularly apt for this time and I think Nigeria will like it. I think so.
I gleaned from your cast list that you don’t have those that are considered ‘Market hot’ or crowd pullers. Is that deliberate?
I remember I once told a Nollywood guru, that if I were to count good actors, I could do so on my fingers. A lot of them are neither here or there. Is it not about playing roles? Here, the role of the director has been totally marginalized and that is why we have this star syndrome. It is the director that creates stars in a movie. Stars are not born they are made. So I do not see any dichotomy between the stars and the assemblage we have put together. Well, many of them probably unrecognized but those we have on our cast list are fantastic. Luckily, we have created a website where we have uploaded their pictures and what they have done. But I tell you the truth—we are coming out with a blockbuster. It is something that Nigerians have not seen before.
You are shooting outside Lagos? Is there are reason you decided on Ogun State?
Yes, we needed space to build our set and we needed a location that will fit into what we had in mind and we found a location in Ogun State. We are hoping to be on location for about three weeks funds permitting. We are using a two-camera approach, so that is our saving device so we don’t spend eternity on location. Of course you know the location expenses increase as long as you stay there. Hopefully we should wrap up under three weeks. I say hopefully because there is fund consideration. To keep people and equipment cost so much.
I am wondering why you didn’t direct the movie?
Well, originally I wanted to direct it, but something cropped up. I am a licensed national distributor and the application for the distribution grant is open and I have to work on that. So I ceded the direction and handed it over to Niji Akanni who is very competent. And secondly I was beginning to be afraid that I have stayed too long with the story so I needed someone to interprete it. When this story first came in the late 60’s I directed it on stage. So, I was beginning to be afraid that my closeness to the story might have jaundiced my vision that I may not see clearly. Niji Akanni is the director and he is doing a wonderful work. More than I could have done and I think I feel justified that I invited someone else to direct.
I like your optimism especially about recouping your investment. But you and I know that we have a very poor distribution network in the country?
Well, you are absolutely right. But thank God for new developments like Video on Demand (VOD) and so on. The more diversified the sources of recouping money the better it is for us so you are not afraid to spend money on production. And one is forced to spend money on productions because our productions are seriously lacking in aesthetics and artistic directions. Many of us are afraid of spending money that you will not be able to recoup. As at this time two years ago, you probably have about five cinema houses in Nigeria and almost all of them in Lagos but now you can boast of twenty to twenty two cinema houses and I think the situation is improving, which actually emboldened me to say let’s give it a shot. I have always wanted to make films all my life. That was why I left Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) in 1980 to set up an outfit that will make films. So it is something that I have always wanted to do but the unfavourable environment made it impossible. But am glad and this is just a beginning. Before I hang up my boots, I hope to make about four or five films.
So do you strongly think that government should fund movie production?
“Why not? I don’t think it is absolutely true to suggest that government should not fund movie productions. Government should, just the same way it sponsors agriculture and sports. It spends billions. Agriculture for example is a business. In the US, men in agriculture are some of the wealthiest people in the US. But having said that there are many things competing for the money that we have. And so it may not be all right for government to spend so much on the entertainment industry. But given the example of South Africa, I think they should fund movie productions. I mean, South Africa came 17 years after television began in this country. But see where they are today. We are running to them. The South African government simply set up a department for culture and technology and they set aside about 4 million Rand to support entertainment industry annually. Take also Australia. They shut their doors to foreigners coming to shoot and will open it unless you use local crew. That is government intervention. In South Africa, they have four lines of sponsoring their films. They have a grant, equity and loan. But I think that even if we don’t follow that, there is something that French speaking countries of West Africa did that I find wonderful. There is a bank called ECOWAS Bank of West Africa. The English speaking West African countries and French are members. They told the bank that they want to go into the cultural industries but we don’t have the money. We will set up a fund under you. Now, when our people need money to make films, they will bring the project to you. You will assess the project, when you approve send them to the commercial banks in their countries to take loan and you guarantee that loan. I have never seen anything that wonderful. This policy of ‘bring house as collateral’ is not going to fly. We can’t be selling our properties to make films. But there should be an easier way to source funds for filmmaking. As a matter of fact we have the story. What we don’t have is the money to tell the stories we want to tell. So I wish that the Nigerian government would adopt what the French West African government did. If they do that, the contribution of Nollywood to the GDP of this country can hit 5 percent. South Africa hit about 3 percent some 5 years ago. We could do much better. We have the population and we have the know-how. Thankfully, President Goodluck Jonathan has provided a grant and this is a good president really, I mean he has done well in that direction. He has done what any Nigerian President has not done for the creative industry. Am sure it can be extended and be seen as a platform which succeeding Presidents can build upon. So, you are looking at a billionaire if the proper production and distribution systems are embraced in the Nollywood industry’’.
So you still think you can make billions as a filmmaker with the activities of pirates?
Well piracy is a challenge. But before this film is out my distribution plan will be out, up and running. People may not see this film in the next one year. We will take it to international festivals. So I am aware that the pirates have become something else now. I just heard a story about a guy who after making a movie, went to the popular Alaba market to say ‘please I have come to beg you guys to allow me distribute this movie without problem’ and they (Alaba Marketers) asked him to pay twenty-five thousand naira before they can listen to his plea. After he paid, they insisted after his plea that they were going to still pirate the movie. The fellow was told to bring two hundred and fifty thousand naira if he wants them to allow him sell the movies for a few months. It is that bad. In fact, recently, we embarked on a raid there and the Alaba boys were up in arms. But the truth is, for how long are we going to be stomaching this piracy thing. But the end of piracy is in sight and I tell you how one of the ways it is going to come about. We are trying to franchise retailers- third parties who can challenge anyone that is selling without authorization. So that way we will reduce it. I do not see a situation where we will totally eradicate it. But we can make the business attractive. But I am happy that there is a momentum going on and hopefully we can overcome the challenge posed by piracy. One of the ways to overcome it is to have more spaces for exhibition. The industry is in great need of exhibition places. There were some structures former President Ibrahim Babangida built for political parties. I wish we made a case for those party secretariats built around the country to be converted to cinemas. But I believe that the future is very bright. Shijuomi is going to blaze a trail in the direction that this industry is going to go. We are gunning for about 5 cinema houses. We are working on showing them at rural and cottage cinemas. We will release in December 2015 all things being equal’’
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