We Need To Have A Distribution System That Works For Established And Upcoming Filmmakers
Regina Udalor is the producer of The Lost Café, a Nigeria and Norway co-production that has bagged many awards both home and abroad. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about her journey to becoming a filmmaker, changes she would like to see in the industry, the challenges of shooting a film on two continents and why every film lover should see The Lost Cafe.
Tell us a little about your foray into the world of films?
I wrote short stories and poems when I was young; I also did some acting and dancing. I think that prepared me for film, which I bumped into when I went for an audition alongside some film students in Jos. At the audition, I met some students who I found out were students of the National Film Institute in Jos. Out of curiosity, I went to the NFI, and it was while there, I found out this is exactly what I have been looking for to study. It wasn’t easy at first because my parents didn’t really understand what I was doing, but they trusted my judgement. I graduated with a degree in film studies and some years later did a master’s in media entertainment in India. Between my first degree and my masters, I produced a documentary ‘Omule’, which led me to the Berlinale Talents in 2006. It’s a yearly summit for creatives organised by the Berlin International film festival. The truth is the only thing I can talk about all day is film.
You have worked on several projects before ‘The Lost Café’. Would you say they adequately prepared you?
Yes, and No. The projects I worked on before The Lost Café helped me understand how different film departments work. For instance, right out of film school I worked as art director on Wetin Dey, a BBC series. Later, I became the first assistant director, which meant managing a set of about 60 people. I was also a production coordinator on “Confusion Na Wa, A Place in the Stars and other films. In India, I was the line producer for a student documentary film titled “Beyond Binary”, which was an introduction into production. But there is no formula to becoming a producer. It changes with each project, so you can’t really be fully prepared. My first project happened to be an international production, and I felt like “Wow! Regina, people try to produce their first films locally first before going to do international coproduction, but you had to start the hard way.” What kept me going in spite of all the challenges is that the story needed to be told. We managed to pull through thankfully because we had the right team.
What was the inspiration for the film?
I travelled to Italy in 2009, a time when, if you said “Italy”, everyone would look at you twice. At the airport in Nigeria, I was asked if I was going for prostitution. This is the impression The Lost Café will change. A lot of people travel to school. Why can’t the questions be about that? During my stay there, I started thinking about the story and stories I heard. Eventually, the amazing Ifesinachi Okoli-Okpagu brought those experiences together for a beautiful story.
You featured both Nigerian and foreign actors, how did this work?
[Laughs] The Nigerian part was easier because we did a table cast for the actors that we felt fit the roles. After much contemplation about the lead role, we went for Tunde Aladese, who is a well-known writer on projects like Tinsel and MTV Shuga. We also have Belinda Effah, Omatta Udalor, Ann Njemanze and Anita Dan. In Norway, we held an audition, and it was interesting as many actors were surprised to see a black lady sitting across from them. It turned out well in the end. However, we had some delays in assembling our crew. This led to the main actress from Norway having to cancel because she had agreed to another project before joining us. We finally got Jenny Bonden, the lady who plays Sunniva, a day before principal photography began. You cannot imagine how sleepless my nights were during that period as all was set for the shoot. It was a joy to watch Anders Lidin Hasen, Terje Brunn Lien and Torbjørn Jensen portray their characters.
Tell us how you funded this film?
We got some funding from Project Act Nollywood. The rest was raised from family and friends. At a point, we had to do a crowd funding on Kickstarter, but we didn’t meet the target. We also went searching for investors. Many of them thought highly of the story but feared an international project’s budget. We didn’t get any of several international grants we applied for. We finally decided to shoot when, through the help of a friend in Norway, we got equipment support (because our story is centred on the youth). Locations were free, so we were now set. We managed to get Angenieux Lenses in France with the help of Serge Noukoue. Then, Kenneth Gyang, our director, turned a low-budget film into a high-budget picture.
What were the prime points of producing this film for you?
Seeing the finished film. I cried because of the obstacles we faced as a team: the cast, crew and everyone who supported from listening to me nag to the financial and artistic contributors. Seeing the finished film was fulfilling. Another high point was a special screening at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Nigeria hosted by Ambassador Jens-Petter Kjemprud. Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa was in attendance as well as dignitaries from Denmark and Sweden. Another high point was the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) public screening. It was tense. I closely watched reactions and the audience liked it. To our surprise, for the first time in AFRIFF, they called for a second screening. Eventually, we won our very first award—AFRIFF’s Audience Choice award.
What were some of the challenges you faced during production and how did you manage them?
Apart from the funding issues, we also had visa issues. We couldn’t have Kenneth [Gyang], our director, present in Norway because he couldn’t get a visa until after the shoot. We had to do digital directing—so, yes, this was possible even before corona. We had to postpone the shoot because we were waiting for Kenneth’s visa. This led to a lot of the crew going back to their jobs, leaving only about four people to shoot the entire Norway bit of the film which was for 10 days because of the ticket cost and actor availability. I had to adjust the shooting schedule. Luckily summer in Norway has significantly longer days, so we shot some scenes late because there was still daylight.
How successful has The Lost Café been prior to its Netflix debut?
It has done festival rounds with screenings in over 20 countries and has won about five awards and received seven nominations at the AMAA 2018. We didn’t get the chance to have it show in the cinemas but now everyone can see it on Netflix from the 31st of July.
Why do think more Nigerian films do not do well at international film festivals?
I think it’s because we are in a hurry to make films to fit only the Nigerian audience. Some of the themes in our stories don’t resonate globally, therefore we have fewer films travelling to festivals. The Lost Café has done well at festivals and I think it is because we tried to make our film have more depth even if it is only for our audience. It is important that we remember films are archives of our culture and people today.
What changes would you like to see happen in our local film industry?
We need to have a distribution system that works for established and upcoming filmmakers. Upcoming and semi-established filmmakers struggle too much to get their work seen and are badly paid. If exhibitors can’t and don’t pay for content, how can the industry grow? We also need to treat the crew better. They do the bulk of the work but are the least paid in the industry. People forget that a film is possible not only because of actors but also because of those behind the scenes.
What keeps you going in the face of challenges life and career-wise?
I want to be able to look back tomorrow and be happy I contributed in terms of my career and my life. I feel that one generally faces challenges but how we overcome them is what matters.
Tell us about ‘Golden Brush’
It is a show in which upcoming makeup artists will compete to win the Golden Brush Trophy and other prizes that will help them start their business. The show offers a good platform for talents to develop as they learn through the challenges set on the show and receive mentorship from beauty experts who double as judges. The first season is on Afrolandtv and the Airtel TV app. Season two is currently in post-production. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the chance to air it on any Nigerian TV channels but this would change soon. So far, it’s a self-funded production with the potential to have a wide impact, so sponsors are expected to come on board from next season. It is the very first makeup TV show in Nigeria and we are happy to be pioneers of an original idea.
You also have a talk show, is it different?
Yes, Indepth is a talk show that gives the audience an opportunity to know more about the Nigerian film industry. I feature a person from different film production departments and we talk about how their work on a particular film; everybody interested in films and filmmaking should watch us.
What do we expect in the next couple of years?
I will continue to make thought-provoking stories that can bring about change. I would love for people to see and love these stories. I am currently collaborating with Afrolandtv and we have a new feature film coming out soon. Before then, though, I would love for everyone to see The Lost Café on Netflix.