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Oris Aigbokhaevbolo: The business-minded film critic seizing the world one film at a time

By Guardian Nigeria
03 December 2022   |   12:46 am
To some readers, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo writes some of the most memorable sentences about Nigerian movies and music; while for others, he is overly critical of the Nigerian film industry. Just back from Amsterdam, where he attended the world's biggest documentary festival, IDFA, and now on his way to the Red Sea Festival in Saudi Arabia,…
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo


To some readers, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo writes some of the most memorable sentences about Nigerian movies and music; while for others, he is overly critical of the Nigerian film industry. Just back from Amsterdam, where he attended the world’s biggest documentary festival, IDFA, and now on his way to the Red Sea Festival in Saudi Arabia, he spoke to TOBI AWODIPE about his life as a small town boy making his way in Lagos, his frequent travels, the business of covering the African film and music scenes as well as his future plans.

You are headed to the Red Sea International Film Festival, tell us what to expect from this trip?
Yes; this festival has been able to attract some of the biggest movies released over the past year and Oscar winner Oliver Stone is head of jury. Clearly, they mean business. Of course, part of the trouble with festivals is that there is hardly a chance to see the city since one is mostly in the cinemas. Not that I am complaining.

Tell us about your experience at IDFA, did it live up to expectations?
It was amazing truthfully. The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam takes place yearly and I was there last year but this year was even better. The array of films was superb. I think we must start a campaign for documentaries in Nigeria. Many of us probably think documentaries are boring but I can tell you that people are doing great things with them. I saw really wonderful films at the festival. There’s a film by Lena Ndiaye that I think everyone must see. It is titled Money, Freedom, A Story of the CFA. Then there was a film about the jute industry, Nishtha Jain’s The Golden Thread. It was eye opening to see how those jute bags we have known since we were kids are made and where they are made and the stories of the people that work in the factories.

You were also in Dubai earlier this year, how are you able to go on so many trips in a year?
Yes, that was for CABSAT, a media expo. As for how I can afford those trips, I think the secret is to not be a Nigerian journalist. None of those trips were paid for by Nigerian publications or institutions. It’s unfortunate but true. If I weren’t writing for an American publication, IDFA wouldn’t invite me. That worries me even if I’m not complaining about my own position. But I’m thinking about the business end of it all these days.

It looks like you work remotely?
That’s one way to look at it. I write reviews for the Film Verdict and it’s based in the US, but it’s a bit like the BBC or Bloomberg having correspondents in Nigeria.

How did this start for you? A film critic in Nigeria is not a career path your parents must have wanted for you?
True. I studied pharmacy at the University of Benin. So I’m sure they’d like to wash their hands off the rest of what has happened. But they were also the ones who sowed the initial seed. My mother was a heavy magazine reader and my dad was one of those 1990s parents who insisted that you read, read, read. I read and read. I like to think it helped me pass exams before it fully took over my life.

So you were an ardent student?
You could say that. I was probably first in my class across three schools in three states from primary 3 to SS3, save for maybe one term, which has its own story. That kind of thing gives you a very inflated sense of your powers as a child and you sort of carry it with you through life. But I don’t think I was this great genius; I just was able to do a bit better than the rest of the class. By university though, the supply of schoolroom brilliance had dissipated and I finished with a second class upper. But I had become very interested in Hemingway and company, which was maybe a surprise because I went to a “science secondary school” and emerged top 10 for Kogi state at the National Mathematics Competition back then. My secondary school was in Lokoja. My mother lived there and I lived with her.

After university, did you practise pharmacy that you studied?
Yes, as an intern and as a corper. But I had gotten published just before I left school. And that opened a path to a side gig as a writer. Later, I was invited to write about films at a festival in Lagos. It was supposed to be for three days and I brought three shirts but I didn’t go back to Abuja for four years.

How come?
It is a long story. Short one is that I heard about the Durban film festival accepting applications. I applied. I heard about Berlinale Talents. I applied. I heard about Rotterdam Young Critics Project. I applied. I got accepted by all three in the same year. And it changed my life. I wasn’t just a small town Lokoja boy anymore.

Do people get into those programmes routinely?
Not really. In my time, Berlin accepted maybe seven people from around the world. Rotterdam accepted four. At the time, I was told I was the second person to get Berlin and Rotterdam in the same year. The first person was an American. I don’t think anyone has managed the three at once. But then the one in Durban is only for African writers.

Then you won an award?

How was it like winning a journalism award at an event for musicians?
Scary. Imagine a guy who came into Lagos just the year before and pretty much sits behind a laptop to earn a living. Suddenly, I was on a stage facing a room full of the biggest artists in Africa. I was so nervous. That category, Entertainment Journalist of the Year, was cancelled shortly afterwards. I think my awful speech contributed to that decision.

How did you start remote working?
Luck or na God, as we say here. One of my mentors at one of those programmes I attended about six years ago suggested my name to a publication that was about to start publishing. The editor looked me up, liked what she read and sent me a mail inviting me to join the team. There is couple of lessons in that but I don’t want to sound like a motivational speaker.

You said you are thinking about business now?
I am. Nollywood has grown but the media for the industry hasn’t. It needs a trade magazine or two. And not just Nollywood. I saw a few films at IDFA this year that just wouldn’t be covered by mainstream publications in the West with any sort of genuine enthusiasm. It’s the same dynamic at Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam, Cannes and any other significant “global” festival. A lot of these will not become very available to the European or American market, and even if they did, the audience for them are probably not as valuable to the media publications. But a lot of these films can or should be important to us as Africans and we need to cover them just as the west covers theirs-with reviews, interviews, features, covers, business analysis and insightful commentary. We need to build a platform that puts us first, the way Variety and THR puts the west first.

You want to do all this?
I want to try. We need to try. Nobody cares about film writers here but I have enjoyed quite some recognition as a film writer, reviewer and critic in international circles. Over the past year, I have reviewed films from Cannes, Berlinale, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Venice Film Festival, Sundance, Thessaloniki Film Festival, Locarno and others. That gives me quite the network and if I don’t attempt to do it, who would?

Where would you get funding?
Whoever can give us, we’ll take. And I have a business model in mind. But we need a grant to really begin. My own funds will help us begin but it can only go so far.

How does Nollywood receive you these days?
There’s a joke in the Thomas Crown Affair where someone asks how do porcupines mate? The answer is “Very carefully”. That’s where we are. The industry and I relate to each other very carefully. A Nollywood director was threatening to assault me weeks ago over something I wrote but another filmmaker also praised the very same thing I wrote. So the industry is not a monolith. I respect them even when I don’t like some of their work. I expect the same from them even when they don’t like my work. My approach is centred on quality and honesty. If something doesn’t quite work, I’ll say it and say why. If it works, I’ll say it and say why. But the service to the industry of a review is a by-product. The real target has always been the reader. Of course, now that video has become a tool for reviews, you can say the viewer.

How long have you been writing professionally? Should we expect a book soon?
I think I published one of my first reviews the year that Wizkid released his first album. So maybe I’ve been writing and publishing for just over 10 years. About a book, I am compiling one that covers my writing about film and music and includes some of my more literary essays, but things happen every two weeks that I feel like I want to include and that just keeps this dream alive.

Would you recommend this path for young people?
No. In a poor country like ours, money is always important. I’m doing quite well but you need a level of luck and skill that may or may not be available to you in the required amounts to get to this position. I just explained how something I did years ago paid off recently. In this harsh economy, can you wait? It’s much too precarious and I don’t want anyone coming to say I caused it but it is always a good thing for anyone to know how to write and think well.

You taught writing sometime back, will you do it again?
Yes, if there’s a demand for it. Everybody should know how to write to an extent. No matter the profession or vocation. It’s probably why it’s under-priced because we all do it and need to do it in the modern world but if you can do it at a high level and you’re smart and lucky, you’ll get the rewards. It might take time. So, yes, I’ll teach what I know one of these days. But as I said, I wouldn’t ask anyone to follow my path and make writing your life. But you should learn how to write. Learning to do so has saved my life.

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