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The Review/Feature/

There is no “male" or “female” when it comes to making a good movie

Filmmaker Omoni Oboli shares how she put Nigerian cinema on the map

by Omoni Oboli
Aug 18, 2017 @ 8:00am

TIFF has made a five-year commitment to increasing participation, skills, and opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera. We will prioritize gender parity with a focus on mentorship, skills development, media literacy, and activity for young people. Donate today to help TIFF support and empower female voices like our campaign ambassador Omoni Oboli.

In high school, I was the president of the French Club and the Literary and Debating Society. Occasionally, we would present plays for the school. I was the writer, producer, director, and actor. It didn’t occur to me to have it any other way.

Later, as I begin to act in films in Nigeria and write screenplays, I remember feeling like every script I gave to a director wasn’t going to be made the way I would’ve wanted. As an actor, I didn't always come across the roles I wanted to play. My passion for acting fuelled my need to become a director — I wanted the stories I wrote to have my DNA.

In 2009, Kunle Afolayan's movie, The Figurine (in which I played the lead female character), started playing at the local cinemas. Suddenly, a new Nigerian cinema culture had begun. I knew moviemaking for me wouldn't be a business as usual, like the straight-to-DVD productions our industry was accustomed to, so I took a short course in digital filmmaking at the New York Film Academy. I wanted to understand the technical details, rather than relying on my on-the-job experience. Other filmmakers — their work, journeys, successes, and failures — have taught me a lot. Tyler Perry is a major influence on my career — so much so that when I took on the responsibilities of writing, producing, directing, and playing multiple characters in my first film, I found my strength in knowing he had done it and succeeded.

The first movie that felt like it was really mine was Being Mrs. Elliott (2014). I was wearing more hats on this film than ever before: writer, producer, director, actor (playing dual roles in the movie), and executive producer. The challenges were enormous: I had to keep the budget tight while ensuring the actors and crew were happy. I had to call the shots as the director as I played dual roles in the script. I was in every scene. It was my baptism into the real art and business of filmmaking. For the first time since I had started acting, I couldn't take a break. I squeezed in three hours of sleep at best, even on our off days. But even with all the sleepless nights that come with most productions, I loved being the director.

Omoni Oboli looks into the camera (image courtesy of the author).

We shot the movie in three different states of Nigeria. Coping with the logistics of moving, feeding, and accommodating a cast and crew had a steep learning curve. After waiting for some money that never came, we shot some scenes where my dad lived in Asaba, the capital of my home state of Delta. My father fed my cast and crew, while providing vehicles and some accommodations, to save me the money that I didn't have.

Our shoestring budget made it impossible to overextend our shooting schedules, so we had to make up for lost time. This included a 24-hour shoot day so we didn’t lose a pivotal location. My exhaustion sometimes affected certain scenes, which necessitated a pickup shoot down the road. When the movie was done, I felt like a woman who had just given birth, thinking that she wouldn't be able to do it again. But after editing the film and seeing the finished product, I couldn't wait to make another movie.

I am grateful to the other women in Nigeria who have fought a lot of my battles, like the late Amaka Igwe, a great writer, director, and producer. I think there's an unfair perception that men would want to stop women from making films, and this false stereotype has prevented many of us from taking our first steps. I remember being given a discount and an encouraging nod by the CEO of Jungle Filmworks, Seyi Siwoku, for the film equipment we rented from his company. The CEO of Klink Studios, Kingsley Ogoro, has also been a strong supporter in many ways. While I have heard people say things like, “So-and-So said you have no business being a filmmaker; stick to acting,” my ears are closed to such statements. I refuse to allow anyone to deter me.

Filmmaking is a business where people will size you up to see how determined you are. They get with the program when they realize you’re not a pushover! I’ve chosen to pursue my dreams, rather than find out first if some people (male or female) were okay with it. Ever since I started directing, I have seen a rise in female filmmakers in my country. My ultimate goal is to produce content that entertains and educates an audience, while also remaining socially relevant. I want to build a vibrant local film industry in Nigeria that has a global appeal because of our work, instead of the number of our productions.

No one in my life has ever discouraged me. My husband has always been my strongest supporter, and my family and friends have been behind me 100 percent. I have had career setbacks that could have stopped my trajectory as a filmmaker, but somehow I have always been able to pull through. I'm not deluded enough to believe that everyone means well for my career, but I can't let what I know stop me from achieving my goals.

Okafor's Law (2016)

My film at TIFF ‘16, Okafor’s Law, was a story about the battle of the sexes. I wanted to use the mythology of a real Nigerian law, which states that if you have been involved in a relationship with a past lover, you can always go back and sleep with them, no matter what their current circumstance is. I thought it would be interesting to explore gender stereotypes, seeing as how the male characters might otherwise judge the women in the film, based on whether or not they fell for this rule.

Being selected for TIFF was surreal. I don't know if anyone is quite ready for that much exposure, but I thank God I was ready with a movie at the right time to be amongst those selected for the City to City programme. It was certainly a turning point for a small-town girl who grew up in Aladja, a complex of the Delta Steel Company.

I was nervous the night my film premiered, but after the first few minutes, I knew I wanted this. The audience’s reactions and the questions and comments during the Q&A were very encouraging. This was the world coming to my movie, and they loved it! Who would have thought? I had come a long way to standing on a world stage, and I only wished my mum was alive to see me.

It was a major turning point in Nigerian film history, and we Nigerians don't know how to keep things quiet without milking an opportunity for what it really is. After watching Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe at the Festival, I felt so encouraged. Not only could I relate to the story, but it was also a drama with good storytelling, acting, and production value that I knew I could make myself. I had the privilege of having a private meeting with Cameron Bailey, and he encouraged me to reach for much more than I felt I could. I came out of that meeting thinking, “I have no limitations. It doesn't matter that I am a woman of colour in a male-dominated industry. The world will watch my stories — it will only be a matter of short time.”

As in wars, stories are written from the position of the victor. When men write, they often speak through their movies about what they would like women to be, rather than who we are. After years of watching these films, women end up believing they should be what men have portrayed them as and start acting to fit into these perceived roles. When female filmmakers are empowered to tell their own stories, there's a balance. Women begin to see a different way of assessing themselves with new stories to identify with.

As a filmmaker, I know firsthand that my stories have helped to start conversations that were swept under the rug for a long time in Nigerian society. Women have expressed how my movies have helped them start a tough conversation with a man, or acted as a mirror to their lives so they can see their mistakes. They simply see me as a woman who has demonstrated that being a filmmaker isn't the exclusive reserve of the menfolk. By supporting female filmmakers, you can make sure the stories women are longing to hear are told truthfully. Not only does it empower the filmmakers, but it also helps an audience to see the possibilities of women instead of our limitations.

As more women in film are given opportunities, I know they will become the heroes of their own stories. It’s crucial for women of colour to be given the platform to tell their own truths. We are few and far between, and the higher the concentration of us in the industry, the less oppressed we’ll feel. We need to have the tools at hand to state our case, from our own understanding. That's what I enjoy doing as a female filmmaker — I know the issues I want to present, I write a story showing my own perspective of the world, and then I release it because I have a platform.

As a screenwriter, I write in pictures. That means that I see the characters come alive in my head as if I were already directing the movie. Nigeria is a peculiar country, so my stories must resonate with audiences across the numerous tribes and cultures within the nation. The right story for me is one that appeals to all of our people, in all of their diversity. When I have that, I can begin plotting out my screenplay and start writing the script.

Acting is my first love, so I always want the actors on my set to be treated the way I would like to be treated. Starting from my very first production, I've learned on the job and improved my craft. My biggest challenge would be money. Unless you want to run yourself out of business, the budget for movies must be reasonable, given the highest possible returns on investment from the cinemas. You can only break even if you have the right product and know how to market it. Most Nigerians only watch our films on DVD, so I travelled to cinemas across the nation to appeal to the people directly. I told them that by patronising our movies, it would not only entertain them (due to the fact that the storylines were more in tune with Nigerian culture), but it would also help to grow our industry so we could improve as time went by. Other producers began doing the same thing, and the benefits we have seen have been tremendous.

Sometimes, I run out of money and have to compromise on some aspect of the film while still trying to make it great and enjoyable. You have to keep it moving! In the past, I’ve told people that if they watched my film and didn’t like it, I would personally give them a refund. I feel confident saying that because my movies have consistently been good, with a great appeal to Nigerians. I also know most Nigerians would definitely ask for their money back if my movies were really bad.

After people leave my films, it’s almost like a carnival when the audiences pile out. The excitement they show is worth the stress. Every movie is a hustle. You have to be fearless and shrewd if you're expecting to stay in business for very long. Businesses do not discriminate: there is no “male” or “female” when it comes to making a good or bad movie. My enthusiasm and passion for what I do is what keeps me going, even though I'm often tired due to the long hours. Any filmmaker must keep moving forward, no matter what, and I love being a filmmaker.