Funa Maduka: Taking African Films Beyond Borders
When Funa Maduka walked into The Guardian Studios, a little later than scheduled, the first thing that struck about her was how she easily towered over everyone in the room. She apologised profusely for her lateness despite the fact she called ahead to inform The Guardian Life team that her driver didn’t show up and the second driver’s car developed a flat tire.
Her self-conscious aura made it hard to believe that she is the same woman who received an offer from Goldman Sachs as a fresh college graduate and gone on to become the Director of International Original Films for the online streaming giant, Netflix. To an outsider watching the scene in the studio, it would have been easy to miss her as the celebrity.
The graduate of History from Cornwell University who has a Masters in Business Administration from Harvard Business School has done quite well for herself having previously worked at Participant Media managing campaigns around original content. She has held leadership and strategic positions at McKinsey & Company, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative and Goldman Sachs.
Maduka always thought she would be a diplomat but her curiosity about the world and exploring it through film took her along another career path. Talking about how her early background in history influenced her journey into the world of films, she says,
“History is very much about storytelling and the segment of history that I focused on at university was International Relations. I always thought I’d become a diplomat. I’ve always been curious about the world, the cultures it contains and the way those various cultures experience and interact with one another – for better or worse. Film is another way to explore this – I can sit in a theatre or in my home, and be completely transported to another’s world view. And because film perspective is often very specific, there’s potential to explore millions of world views within one culture alone. How does a filmmaker from a particular culture observe and interpret love? fear? laughter? pain? Films I watch from the around the world give me a window into answering these questions and make me a better global citizen.”
Maduka left Nigeria at an early age but she has worked most of her adult life in Nigeria. Her first film was directed and produced here and it is understandable why she did this when she explains what strikes her about Nigeria.
“Nigeria’s most valuable export is her citizenry. There is so much brilliance and I hope we can work harder at harnessing that power to further push this nation towards unequivocal greatness. We need to create systems and structures that don’t obstruct this brilliance, but rather nurture and grow it.”
She adds that the country needs to invest in its human capital by creating a system and structure of nurture with the youths.
In her own capacity, she has put Nigeria on the global map as she was recently drafted into the Academy’s Awards (Oscars) board, a feat she says she is proud of. However, for her, the opportunity goes beyond just having a voice in which films get recognised at the Oscars each year.
“Beyond the Oscars, the Academy has a lot of mentorship and outreach programs and I’m looking forward to getting involved to help widen the net for more participation from across the globe.”
Of Awards, Strengths And Systems
Despite landing Netflix its first film nominations at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, Maduka says awards are not the reason she is in the creative space although she appreciates the achievement as it gives a feeling of validation. This explains why she says she has the audience in mind when working.
“When I’m looking at a completed film or reading a script for the first time, I’m getting a sense for the universality and emotional resonance of the work. I put the audience front and centre and ask, “will they feel joy discovering this film?” I think staying faithful to this principle has helped me develop an eye for what works.”
On her position at Netflix, she considers pioneering the bringing of Nigerian and other African films to a global streaming audience of millions her proudest achievement. She says,
“There was a notion that our stories were not valuable and so I set out to prove that notion wrong. People are watching in places you wouldn’t immediately think – like Finland. It was April 2015 when we first launched the Nollywood offering with Kunle Afolayan’s October 1 and I remember seeing a tweet from a woman in Finland and she expressed sheer joy.”
While many others would prefer to see the flaws in Nollywood, Maduka focuses on the industry’s strongest trait which she says is the ‘heart and emotion in the storytelling’.
“There’s a lot of heart in the storytelling, I can never say a Nollywood film is lacking in emotion. When done well, it’s this connection that pulls the audience in and gets them to stay.”
Yet, she is not oblivious to the fact that Africa despite having a rich cinematic history and being the birthplace of the oldest storytelling traditions can improve and harness its potentials. She believes that now that there is a demand, this is the time for Nollywood to elevate its storytelling while staying true to its African authenticity.
“Production values are rising, but more money doesn’t always equate to better quality – and this is true for film communities around the world, not just Nollywood. Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight was one of the least expensive Best Picture Oscar winners. When artistic excellence is chased through every aspect of the production, I believe you increase the commercial prospects of your film. When commercial profit is front and centre as the only goal, there is a limit on the upside and you cap the potential. I watch a lot of Nollywood/Nigerian films and step away wishing the teams had spent just a bit more time on the art of the film, instead of rushing to completion.”
On producing and directing her first film, Waiting for Hassana to world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and how others can replicate this, she says,
“There’s no point trying to copy and paste something you’ve already seen in Hollywood. The industry is thirsty for unique ideas and perspectives. What makes me excited about Nigeria and other storytelling traditions across Africa is that there are so many stories yet untold. We have only just started scratching the surface. Read and support Nigerian and African authors, and adapt their stories into film. My favourite memories of Nigeria are sitting with my grandmother and listening to her stories. It was an honour to be the first at Sundance, but I don’t want to be the last. Our country is ripe with potential in this regard.”
The Rise Of Female Filmmakers
Maduka who is versatile with her creativity believes she will definitely go back to filmmaking having gotten a taste of sitting in the director’s chair and the world can expect more films from her.
“I definitely caught the bug and it’s something I will do again. I think about it often and have a couple of stories I still want to tackle. I’d also want to continue helping filmmakers develop their films in a creative producing capacity. This follows what I was saying before – guiding the first draft of the script to the final draft and bringing together all of the elements into the making of a compelling film.”
Broaching the subject of female filmmakers’ representation in Nollywood and Africa generally, she has this to say,
“Women need greater representation. In Nollywood and Africa, we have predominantly experienced a male gaze that until recently has had a little contribution from women. Now we’re seeing a healthier contingent of African women representing us on the global filmmaker stage: Rungano Nyoni, Genevieve Nnaji, Ema Edosio, Mati Diop, Kemi Adetiba, Chika Anadu, Wanuri Kahiu, Nosipho Dumisa and Jade Osiberu to name a few. Wanting representation and inclusion shouldn’t be seen as a political statement but a practical one. We are doing ourselves a disservice by not giving women an equal role and denying ourselves of strong films and ideas that push our collective narrative forward. I also believe film can begin to help heal some of the wounds in our nation by addressing the issues we’re uncomfortable to speak about.”
She concludes the chat with words of encouragement to those still chasing their dreams.
“My sister shared something with me that a friend shared with her: ‘Faith feels like a risk before the leap, and like a gift afterwards.’ It’s in that space after the leap and before your wings grow, that it’s important to be relentless in your belief of self and your gift. So, run hard at your dreams and don’t look back, don’t look to the side, just keep pushing forward.”