…Film maker Obi Emelonye speaks on BADAMASI
By Fred Iwenjora
You announced to embark on a film on Nigeria’s most controversial yet inspiring leaders in January 2017. One year after you are yet to talk about completion….How far? What inspired you to initiate this huge project?
My father, bless his soul, would always say that the person who is in a hurry is yet to mature into an adult. Life happens at its own pace, despite our angst to speed things up. My hope and expectation were that the film BADAMASI would have been finished and released late last year. But I failed to take into account the legal difficulty of making a biopic about a living man.
Not just an ordinary man but a living legend who wields considerable influence on Nigeria’s affairs from his Hilltop mansion in Minna. There were two options: Do I go ahead and do it in typical Nollywood style and tell whatever story I want, damning the consequences?
Or do I walk the difficult path of obtaining express authorisation from IBB himself to use his name and story; while attempting to negotiate a deal that guarantees his intimate input and perspective through interviews and observations; all without allowing personal interests to colour the clear waters of truth and historical veracity for the film that would emerge.
It is like one of the few biographical films in Nollywood history?
This is the first time a biopic of this nature is to be done in Nollywood and I believe we need to get it right so that other projects will emerge in the future to tell the stories of our journey to nationhood with credibility and fearlessness.
I chose the harder but more profound route and that has taken more time than I envisaged. My lawyers and the massive legal team representing IBB have met several times to chew on the unyielding legal quagmire posed by this unique project.
My team was aiming to negotiate a deal that allows the use of the IBB brand but does not involve a muzzling of my creative and editorial voice or the hijacking of the project for ulterior motives. IBB’s legal team on the other hand, were hoping to take advantage of this opportunity to tell his story on the platform of film, with universal and unrivalled reach; without leaving him vulnerable to malicious interpretation or far-fetched extrapolation of a filmmaker’s creative license.
These contradictory aims and objectives presented us with a legal paradox. In the end, the teams understood that a certain humble acceptance of responsibility and contrition, for want of a better word, was a prerequisite for the healing that needs to happen on both sides.
The result of that commendable non-defensive approach was a consensus which means that as from July 2018, the film BADAMASI, (Portrait of a General) has been green-lighted for production, WITHOUT CONDITIONS. We are now advancing into the second phase of preproduction. What a relief it is to say that.
Could one rightly say that Badamasi is yet your greatest film coming because of its subject matter?
With every film I make, I try to step on new ideas and walk uncharted territories. The audience has been gracious to go with me wherever I have taken them. Whether it is to the underbelly of the Gambian forest in The Mirror Boy or the white-knuckle ride of a flapping aircraft in Last Flight to Abuja, I would say, I am taking on history with BADAMASI. So, I will not only be judged by the creativity of the exotic world I conjure, nor will it be enough that my story is plausible and realistic.
I have the extra loops of historical accuracy and contextual neutrality to jump over. Students of history and Nigerian polity enthusiasts will await me with sharpened knives. More frighteningly, I am taking on IBB- General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (RTD).
That alone feels me with dread. In spite of that, I have to be bold in the story that I tell and fearless in my pursuit of truth and objectivity. So, when you weigh all the elements, you do not need a microscope to know that BADAMASI would be the greatest film of my career, so far. It will be the most challenging and I hope, ultimately, the most rewarding critically and commercially.
How easy was it to convince the former military President who won’t say anything than wait for my memoir to those who ask him intimate questions about his leadership to accept you as producer?
I know that IBB has maintained a noble silence since leaving office 25 years ago. He has refused to delve into intimate details of his 8 years of controversial stewardship. I think that is stoic and really honourable. I think that resolve comes from a place of acceptance of his responsibility concerning all the things that happened under his reign- successes and failures.
There was therefore no need to make excuses or point fingers at others. That, like I said earlier is really honourable. But, how old is he now? 77. There comes a time when a man looks himself in mirror and comes to terms with the life he has lived.
A lot of books have been written about his life and after the big launches, they go on to take their place in dusty bookshelves in many homes and offices. Our people do not read. So, when this bright-eyed filmmaker from London walks into his home in 2016 to seek his permission to give his story the cinema treatment, he was curious and suspicious at the same time. My greatest shock, apart from his undeniable charm and charisma was that he had actually watched The Mirror Boy a few times and knew me by name.
That professional credibility, together with the fact that I was a recipient of his 1990 initiative to celebrate outstanding Nigerian youths under the Nigeria National Youth Award, bought me the time that I needed to surmount his natural propensity to remain guarded and breakdown his barriers of doubt and misgiving. After over a year of relentless chasing, he agreed to talk to me.
What followed was a series of late night, no-holds-barred interviews in which he spoke frankly and exhaustively about his life. And no subject was out of bounds. He talked about everything…yes, including June 12 and the fantastical and shocking truth surrounding what he called ‘…the biggest mistake of my life’.
So, I thought I was home and dry now that I had spoken to him and he has said to me things he admittedly had never told anyone else before. But then his legal team joined the fray; with a remit for damage limitation. The legal wrangling took almost another year but I am glad to say that we have arrived at a resolution that all sides are happy with. This means that I can use the IBB brand and make my historically accurate film, without relinquishing editorial control or making my craft subject to intrusive oversight.
Do you imagine producing IBB character an easy task?
I would say that convincing IBB to authorize the use of his name was a hard battle, made easy by my standing in Nollywood, my international advantage and my reluctance to accept no for an answer. However, I know that a harder battle awaits me in the court of public opinion. Every Nigerian above the age of 30 has an ingrained opinion about IBB. Some would swear by him and others will swear that he is evil.
The real man is somewhere in between these two extreme perspectives and my aim in this film is to bring out that real man, in all of his imperfection and mortality. It will be to fearlessly pursue the truth of the history and politics of that important era in Nigerian politics and to report my findings with courage, objectivity and forthrightness. Once, I have convinced myself that I have done that, then I can sleep easily, in spite of the many arguments on both sides that oppose my treatment of the man himself and the history of that period.
I will make new friends and I will make some enemies too…including maybe the great man himself. But so long as I have been truthful and faithful to history, I can raise my head up high with pride and honour for being allowed to make what would probably be the most important film in Nigerian history. I am ‘scaredly humbled’ by it all.
This seems like your first biopic or have you done one before?
Badamasi will be the first biopic on a Nigerian leader. I like to break new grounds in our blossoming industry and I hope this will encourage other filmmakers to commit the stories of many great Nigerians, past and present, to film.
The novelty of the idea of a biopic was one of the reasons that IBB was amenable to hearing more about the project. He was a pioneer in his time and likes that association with great things that are not found down beaten paths.
When is the film due?
I wish I can answer that right now. I have learnt not to constrict myself with schedules that I cannot control. Everything that needs to be done is being done to get the film out asap. But you have to understand that a retro film like this set mainly 33 years ago; with many coups, with intrigue at the highest level in Nigerian politics, with military drama, with weapons and ballistics, with a large ensemble cast’ will cost money and take time. All I can say for now is watch this space.