15th November, 2013
After the success of his two full length movies, Mirror Boy and Last Flight To Abuja, United kingdom-based Nigerian filmmaker, Obi Emelonye, returns with an Igbo language movie, Onye Ozi. In this interview with FUNSHO AROGUNDADE, the producer and director spoke why he decided to do a film in that language
Why did you decide to shoot a film in Igbo language this time around?
I have always wanted to shoot a language film because I believe our language remains our form of identity. Many Nollywood filmmakers use English language as a medium of expression because it is a language imposed on us as official language. But the ability to tell our story and deliver messages in our native language always has a lasting effect. Tunde Kelani, a filmmaker, that I look up to as an inspiration has proven that with almost all his works. He is one of the successful filmmakers that Nigeria has produced and he has used Yoruba language as a medium of communication in his films; and has recorded tremendous success and earned international recognition as a filmmaker. However, I am concerned that Igbo language is becoming an endangered species, according to UNESCO. A lot of parents no longer speak the language to their children because they don’t consider it hip. They feel the language is not trendy enough. But we have to change this warped perception. So, I thought after the success of my last two films which were done in English language, I have to take up the challenge to take the present Nollywood back to where it started with the film Living In Bondage an Igbo language film that helped revolutionise the Nigerian film industry.
Tell us about the new film?
It is called Onye Ozi. It is a situational comedy set and shot in London. It is all about a young graduate played by Okey Bakassi who just arrived in United Kingdom from Nigeria. He came in with very high expectations but at the welcome party organised for him by his wife, a white man being pursued by some assailants was shot right in the middle of the party venue. While everybody ran away, Okey braved the odd and offered to help the dying man. Before he died, the man handed over an envelope and a bunch of keys to Okey. From that moment, Okey embarked on a journey that was to change his life and people around him forever. Onye Ozi is a situation comedy with a deep spiritual story. The film also features a number of white actors who spoke pure Igbo language in the movie. They include co-lead Stephen Moriaty and Anthony Aclet. Also in the film are Ngozi Igwebike, Adesua Atuanya and D’Kachy Obi-Emelonye.
Why the choice of Okey Bakassi for the lead role?
Okey Bakassi fits well for the role. I have worked with him twice before on some comedy flicks and they were successful. In Nollywood, he has not really done a lot of acting as he is more of a stand-up comedian. But after he dabbled into politics a couple of years back, he slowed down. But since his return, he has done more of stand-up comedy but I thought he should come back to his natural turf. And he has proved me right with his A-class delivery in Onye Ozi.
Are you not bothered that producing a language film will limit your scope?
Producing an Igbo language movie for me will cause no limitation. In fact, if you see Onye Ozi, it was produced in such a way that without even listening or understanding the language you will flow with the message. Basically, it is well sub-titled. But the success we recorded when the film was premiered in London in 18 October was a huge boost. Besides, while the premiere was on in London, we simultaneous premiered it online on IrokoTV, Africa Nolly and Ibaka TV platforms in about 60 countries. The most popular place where the film was watched online was the United Kingdom. It was followed by Saudi Arabia. On the night of the premiere, over 66,000 people clicked to see the trailer, while about 2,000 people paid online to watch the film. That alone confirmed that the film will be a success.
What is your take on the fact that M-Net Africa has AfricaMagic channels for Hausa, Yoruba and Swahili but none for Igbo where the bulk of Nollywood practitioners come from?
You know what? I am deeply concerned. I was at the maiden edition of the AfricaMagic Viewers Choice Award held in March this year. At the event, my earlier film ‘Mirror Boy’ won the ‘Best Drama’ award. During the award ceremony, there were categories for Yoruba, Swahili and Hausa and non for Igbo. That was part of the motivation and I said then that I have to make an Igbo film even if it the only one that could earn a nomination in the subsequent edition of the award.
Part of the problem we were told was that there are not enough content to start a channel for the Igbo. So, are you championing the cause now?
Yes. What I wanted to do was to encourage more of our people because apart from the art of making film, it also a business. I see no reason why an Igbo story being told from Igbo perspective and culture and shot in an Igbo village setting should have English as a medium of expression and delivery. With due respect, I know that if you tell a story about witch doctors and become successful, every other person will follow suit. So if I make an Igbo film in Igbo and it is successful definitely everybody will want to make one because they think it is the common denominator.
As a producer, how was the transition from serious drama to comedy?
There is no transition my brother. This is not the first time I would be producing a comedy movie. Even in my past productions, I always inject comedy into some of the scenes. Gone are those days where you shoot a film and it comes out a serious drama. Even in Hollywood, most of the films now have a bit of thriller, adventure, comedy and suspense. Good films should have comic scenes because comedy is good. It relaxes people. It makes us forget our problems. The idea of people coming to watch a film is to relax not to get stressed but to escape from their immediate problem and get entertained.
Talking about budgeting, how much did it cost you to produce Onye Ozi?
Seriously I don’t like discussing budget. But Onye Ozi is a much smaller budget production compare to The Mirror Boy and Last Flight To Abuja. Nevertheless, big budget never determines the success of any film. Just like a producer who spent almost $8million to produce a film in Nigeria and is struggling to sell the film, it is not just about spending money, it is about doing something that works.