Mary Njoku: Telling The African Story Through Films
The misrepresentation of Africa by western media has inadvertently given birth to the need for Africans to tell their own stories by themselves. The medium through which the African story can be told is as diverse as there are messengers.
One of the message-bearers of the African story is Mary Remmy Njoku, the CEO of Rok Studios, who is telling the continent’s story by creating unique films that resonate with Africans at home, and in the Diaspora. Rok Studios is the largest production house in Nigeria. The Lagos based studio has four international television channels; three in Africa and one in the U.K.
In spite of her outstanding achievements and self-assured demeanour, Mary describes herself in one sentence, as“ a young girl that just loves telling stories.” And indeed she has been telling stories through Nollywood so much so that it is safe to say that the N in Nollywood stands for Njoku.
Nollywood is Nigeria’s most significant cultural export. Its appeal – stories that every African can relate with, irrespective of geography, gender, belief or orientation – is made evident by UNESCO’s report that it has surpassed Hollywood as the second-largest movie industry in respect of the number of annual film productions.
The significance of Nigeria’s over 853.9 billion Naira film industry is further highlighted by the interest of foreign media giants, first in 2016 when Netflix launched its streaming service in Nigeria. And most recently, in July 2019, when French media giant, Canal+ announced their official entry into the Nigerian film market.
Talking about the spike of interest by foreign media in original African content, Mary re-emphasised the uniqueness of the African story. “Africa is interesting. We are unique. For the fact that we’re Africans, our stories are unique. It’s our time, I believe. If you look at most of these big Hollywood movies, they are mostly going into sci-fi… a lot of technology stuff. Here in Nollywood, we still believe in the story. We’re still fresh. We’ve not been explored. We still have a lot… so many stories that have not been told. Africa is emerging. Africa is untapped.”
It is for reasons such as this that ROK studios is committed to ensuring that the production house stay true to their goal of ensuring that amazing stories are told with passion. In a statement made last year on the launch of ROK2 and ROK 3, the prolific producer gave the direction of Rok Studios:
“As always, we keep our focus purely on ensuring amazing stories are told with passion and sincerity, by teams of super-talented African writers, actors, producers and directors. This approach to building the ROK brand has resonated with audiences across the continent, and we continue to strive to meet their needs and delight them with great content.”
It is the beauty and distinctiveness of African stories that propelled the French media company, Canal+ to acquire Rok Studios along with their library of over 2,000 hours of content.
But Mary didn’t set out to be a producer. She always had a passion for acting. It was that passion that made her join Nollywood at the age of 17. She was an actor that people, in her own words, referred to as “small Mary”.
So how did “small Mary” metamorphose into the media icon that she is now?
“I sent a script to an actor, an A list actor… He requested to see me, I went to see him and it was more like an interview. He was interviewing me to see if I was big enough [for him] to feature in my film. And after the long interview; ‘who are you?’, ‘what do you?’, ‘why are you producing?’, ‘what camera are you shooting with?’ he said, ‘You know what? You are not even big enough. When you’re big enough, you’ll come back.”
Over 500 films, 25 TV series and 4 international TV channels later, Mary Njoku has not only proved her critics wrong, she has boldly imprinted her mark on Nigeria’s film industry.
Yet, Mary thinks there is more left to be done.
“Still not enough. People want more. Africans are so many… Africans in the diaspora, they consume a lot of content and they love Nollywood. They want to identify with the story. They want their story to be told.”
Beyond this, that single negative experience gives one an outlook of how close to hopeless it is for new talents to break in to the Nigerian film industry.
“It’s very difficult for new people to penetrate… There’s this thing about Nigerians that they believe if you don’t know someone there, it will not happen for you.”
However, Mary is set on making a difference in the industry. Having been in that position herself, she knows the immeasurable potential and value that new and lesser-known talents can add to the industry.
Rok Studios, consequent of the Canal+ acquisition, is set to invest in new talents and in the quality of production. She notes that they have a goal of empowering over 15 producers until she is satisfied that people are able to do a proper TV production.
Nollywood is not all tales of the sweet nectar of success. The hydra-headed challenges in the industry often leave many – actors and producers alike, frustrated and quick to compromise.
“It took a while for most of the people I work with today to realise that, you know what, she knows what what she is doing.”
And how does she handle setbacks?
“It’s part of life,I expect it. So I prepare for it. It’s easier for me to go through it when I’m expecting it.”
In 2011, the unexpected happened – Mary Remmy Njoku lost her sister Eucharia Remmy. As she sat before the mirror in the studio’s dressing room, waiting for the makeup artist to work magic on her, she said, with a heavy sigh, “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her.”
ONCE UPON A GIRL
One can trace her self-assured outlook on life and its challenges to her childhood. Mary Njoku, the sixth child in a family of eight, was born in Amuwo Odofin, Lagos.
Her mother instilled in her a mantra that she held onto for life.
“I was playing dress-up one day, and my mom walked up to me and she was like, ‘Nnenna, you’re the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen, say it to yourself’ and I was like ‘I am the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen’. And ever since that day, I tell myself every day, ‘Mary, you’re the prettiest you’ve ever seen. I don’t care about what anyone else thinks.”
THE ERA OF WOMEN
It is interesting to note that the top four highest-grossing Nigerian films; The Wedding Party 2, The Wedding Party, Chief Daddy and King of Boys, were all produced by women. Women like Mo Abudu, Kemi Adetiba and Genevieve Nnaji are at the forefront of Nollywood’s international acclaim in recent times.
Mary believes that now is the time for the women.
“You know, women… we’ve been ignored for a long time. People just believe we can’t do much. And when you ignore someone for a long time, they just wanna prove you wrong… If everybody is given a fair chance, women and men, I believe women would really do well.”
She believes women can have it all. They can be all that they set their mind to be.
“You can have it all. You still be a mom, be a wife and still be a career woman.”
And yes, she is a feminist. A hardcore feminist, she retorted. And it’s not just her, she shares this value with her husband, Jason Chukwuma Njoku, the co-founder and CEO of iROKOtv, the world’s largest legal digital distributor of African films.
“Yes, I’m a feminist. My husband is a feminist. My kids… I’m raising feminists.”