By Jemi Ekunkunbor
After shooting a short film as a project for her Bachelor’s degree in Communications, this product of American University, Washington DC knew that her destiny was with film production. On graduation in 2005, this proud Nigerian and native of Adamawa State returned home to pursue a career in film production in the already bustling Nigeria Movie Industry.
Beautiful, Michelle Aisha Bello got her break in 2007, when she worked as associate producer on the set of TV talk show, “Moment with Mo.” This was followed by TY Bello’s “Green Land” video. After that brilliant interpretation, her career soared “and everybody wanted to work with me” she says. She further maintained the momentum with the production of her first feature film, “Small Boy”.
Dripping with ideas after a Master’s degree from the same institution in Communications specializing in Film Directing, Michelle is set to work on a new film, Flower Girl which is due to be premiered next month in Lagos. Now she could exhale as we chatted about her rough long journey to fame and fortune.
What was it like breaking into the industry when you returned?
It was tough especially not knowing many people in an industry that is dominated by the menfolk. I am so passionate about films that my determination helped and a lot of peseverance and learning about how things work here. How I learnt abroad and how it is done here, is very different. So you have to learn, ask questions, and work with other people to gather experience. But when I came to my own productions, I had very high standard for myself even as a producer/ director.
I like to learn from each project that I do what I can do better. I’ve always pushed myself to the next level. So I naturally expect high standard from everybody; actors, crew and everyone that I work with. I am tired of people telling me this is the way it is done in Nigeria. For me, mediocre is not an excuse. I understand that there are certain limitations we have but for me, with passion, determination and with God on your side, you can achieve anything. I am a testimony to that.
Was there any producer or director who helped you get your first break?
Back then, I started working on a project called, Film Directory. It was like a yellow page of everyone in the industry and through that, I met a lot of producers and directors in the industry but not a lot of women. Fidelix Dukar and Temitope Dukar, organizers of Abuja film Festival, were huge help and they introduced me to a lot of people with whom I started networking. Then through the directory, I met a lot of people and people started getting to know me.
Then when TY Bello’s Green Land was shot, people started contacting me. So that was how my break came through personal hard work and dedication.
What was the very first challenge you noticed when you started?
Finance! You have all these great things you want to do and a good story too but where do you get the money to carry it out? So getting finance was very hard. I remember going to several banks to ask them to support this Nollyhood film And they just say “No, no, no! Because for them, they had some bad experiences with Some producers from Nollyhood in the past.
So for us new film makers, we had to bear that burden and the brunt of their experience and so we weren’t able to get sponsorship. Now things have slowly changed with Bank of Industry coming on board, other corporate bodies are getting into entertainment. Back then, it was very difficult. You had to beg people you know; friends, family to support what you are doing, whether it is money or kind like equipment.
Did you think then that the movie industry was doing okay and did you think we could do differently?
When I got back, Nollyhood was doing very well. The industry churned more than 2,000 films in a year. When I went back to do my Masters, it was so that I would horn my skills more because the BA was very broad but with Masters, I needed to specialize as an artist. So coming back was to bring the knowledge, my experiences and everything that I had learnt. So for me, it’s really about showcasing our stories to the world.
I thought that the story lines could have been developed better. I thought that there was a time for certain stories to be told, and better quality films. So I think in terms of the story, acting, editing, it could have been done a lot better. So what I could do was to do great story lines not the mother in law disturbing daughter in law or the juju thing. Or best friend slept with my husband. No! real everyday stories better told.
What is the thrust of your work?
Anything that I am passionate about and I think it happens at different stages of my life. For me, “Small Boy” was about child abuse and a young boy’s journey but the way I shot it was in an entertaining way. It wasn’t so direct- telling you child abuse is wrong.
My new movie, Flower Girl, is a romantic comedy about the issues of marriage. Marriage situation is so bad now. You have people under 30 getting married and getting divorced six months or one year after. For me, it’s scary because that is my age group. Society has changed and I am trying to figure out why.
A lot of people are getting married for the wrong reasons: money, family pressure. A lot of people are trapped in their marriages and they do all kinds of things including adultery. So Flower Girl is about a young girl Kemi, who dreams about getting married to her boyfriend because that is what a lot of the women do. They dream about the wedding and never think about the marriage itself which is a lifelong commitment.
That is how God intended it to be. So the movie is about how we dream about the marriage and not stop to consider or pray to find out if the guy is the right person. Because the truth is, only prayers can do it. No amount of time spent with someone can truly reveal who the person really is. For some people, after many years, you still wake up and you are wondering, “ is this the person I married?” So for that film, I did a lot of research talking to marriage counsellors at my church. So I pray that this touches the heart of young people.
So, how do we begin to tell our stories right?
Producers tend to do their own thing. They like to be private about what they are doing because if you tell your story to someone, he or she may steal your idea. There is a lot of plagiarism and piracy going on as well. But they are telling our stories and film producers have worked on particular issues which is good.
Have you identified actors and actresses who can interpret scripts well?
Last year, it took me a while to cast that movie. I was nervous because I hadn’t been around for a while. But on the first round of the audition, I was blown away. I was shocked. I invited well known movie stars, those who trained here and those who trained abroad. I also invited some entertainers who are trying to break into the movie industry.
I tested them on several skill levels. At the end of the day, many of them who are staring in the movie now, were really quite happy because the script was different from what they are used to. So for our lead actor, we have Damilola Adegbite, this is her first Nigerian Movie.
We have Chris Ator and Eku Edewor from Studio 53. It’s her first Nigerian movie and she was absolutely brilliant. We also have some fresh faces on the movie. And they are all young, fresh, up- and- coming faces. I didn’t want the faces that people are used to because I wanted it to be a platform for other young people to showcase their talents and to discover new generation of actors and actresses.
So, what do we do in our local movies that you won’t do?
I won’t do juju or films that promote evil or the devil. I’m a Christian and I believe that good conquer evil all the time. So I’m not going to do anything that promotes the devil and idol worshippers in my movie. I believe there are other ways to tell those kinds of specific stories. My movies are to inspire people.
And for the future, what should we expect?
The “Flower Girl”, will premier next month so we are very excited about that. I’m working on other TV projects as well.
Is your passion paying your bills now?
I pray to get to that day where I won’t have to think about money being an issue, where my finances are sorted out and I don’t have to worry about bills. As artists, we should be able to make money off what we do. So I pray we get to that level where we can sit down, relax and let money role in.
How do you manage work and family life?
My family and friends know that when I am shooting, I work long hours so it’s not always easy to balance both. But I always try as much as possible to spend time with my family and friends. So it’s all about balance.
You did say earlier that women producers and directors are not many. Is it just that women are not many or that they are marginalized?
I think we are definitely a minority but that doesn’t stop us. We are still very strong and passionate about what we do. So, it’s not like no one will see us because we are females. No, that will never happen. We are just a minority.
How do you plan to grow this minority group?
I just want to encourage other young females who are passionate about producing and directing. A lot of the females that we have on crew are usually for make up, hair, costumes, production manager etc. But a lot of the actresses are now switching to producing and directing. It’s not easy to do both.
What is life like in production?
I love it. I love challenges, I love making something out of nothing, creating stories from script to screen. Seeing your work on screen is the best feeling in the world. There are challenges such as logistics problems but I still love it. I can endure the challenges because I am passionate about what I do.
I’d just want to encourage other young people who want to get into the movie industry that they should not give up hope and that they should continue to be passionate about what they want to do whether it is directing, producing or acting. They could start by reading online about their craft. Buy books and attach themselves to a producer for a while so that they can learn about the business and how things work. I’d just encourage them not to give up because I know how hard it can be because I’ve been there myself.