Obi Emelonye

Badamasi, Portrait of a General, a film that x-rays the life of a former head of state, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (rtd), popularly known as IBB, was scheduled to be released yesterday, 28 years after the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election. In this exclusive interview, Obi Emelonye, UK based award-winning filmmaker, reveals how it took him three years of persuasion before he could get the approval of the retired general to do the film. Excerpts:

We learned that your long awaited movie, Badamasi, would premiere on June 12 in London. Why was the release delayed for over two years?

This project has been in the making since March 2016. However, after the film was finished in the middle of 2019, I battled some unseen forces whose powers cannot be under-estimated. First, the planned cinema release in November 2019 had to be cancelled when, what I call, the ‘murmurs from the dark’ grew louder and more sinister.

I was receiving messages asking me not to release the film. I pulled the plug on the release and, together with my distributor, decided on a less confrontational release strategy online. Even that was beset with inexplicable bottle-necks.

So, after nearly two years of being patient and deferring to people I have never met and who have refused to formalise their objection to the film, a confluence of circumstances led to this world premiere, which is proof that there is a perfect time for everything in life. Saturday, June 12 2021 is the perfect date for the world to see BADAMASI, albeit only in London, so far.

What inspired Badamasi?

General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida inspired Badamasi (Portrait of a General); his mystique, his grass to grace story, his pivotal role in the shaping of, for good or for bad, Nigerian economy and democracy; his involvement in 90% of coups in Nigeria, his charm and gap-toothed smile, his legendary dribbling, his central role in June 12 and his noble silence since leaving office, all made him an irresistible dramatic fodder for a filmmaker in search of an evocative subject.

So, why did you choose June 12 to release the film?

I have been asked this question severally by people who are drawing a political inference on what was a pragmatic and logistically astute scheduling. It’s like asking a Hollywood producer why they chose September 11 as the day for the release of an imaginary blockbuster on Osama Bin Laden.

READ ALSO: Film on IBB will be my greatest

The alignment of such a film with that iconic but deeply relevant date makes compelling business sense. A similar strategic and commercial sense is one of the reasons for my curious scheduling on this fateful Saturday June 12, 2021, which spookily aligns with the Saturday, June 12 1993.

I felt that I do not have to justify and rationalise why I chose to release a film about the architect and main antagonist of the June 12 saga on a June 12. Unless someone has copyrighted or patented that date, I believe everyone is free to schedule their weddings, film releases or funerals on that date without the requirement for effusive explanations. Although I have had to make some subjective editorial calls in the making of Badamasi, I come to this story from the most neutral artistic position, if ever one existed.

I am a commercial Igbo filmmaker who lives in London and who harbours no interest in the political hegemony of the north or the partisan grievances of the west concerning the events of 28 years ago. Moreover, this film transcends June 12. That date and its political correlations are only incidental to the exciting and dramatic life story of IBB which the film explores.

If the movie is all about Nigeria, her leaders and people, why did you choose London, United Kingdom, for the premiere instead of any city in Nigeria?

I have answered that question above where I indicated that a premiere and cinema released was planned in Nigeria in 2019 before I was forced to cancel them.

But having said that, I live in London and it has always been my routine with my earlier films like The Mirror Boy and Last Flight to Abuja, to first premiere them in London before they hit Nigeria. Eventually, that may be the case for Badamasi. At least, that is my hope

What should Nigerians and movie lovers all over the world expect from Badamasi?

Badamasi is not just a film release. I believe it is a political, historical and cultural event that every Nigerian should partake in. Every Nigerian, no matter their ages, ethnicity and status need this film to demystify history and contextualize the myths and half-truths from ‘Chinese Whispers’ of the 1980s and 1990s.

Apart from its heavy dose of inherent relevance, which I have subsumed in universal paradigms, Badamasi is also a fiercely dramatic story with military intrigue, heart-pumping action sequences, shootouts, memorable character, international standard scene design, exquisite acting and a level of visual realism not yet seen in Nollywood thus far.’

My team and I have a penchant for cutting edge films on unique subject matter. The Mirror Boy and Last Flight to Abuja come to mind. I would say that Badamasi carries the cake. It is like eavesdropping on the past in an interactive computer game, through a 4k vista and in 5.1 Dolby Pro Logic sound.

Can you tell us about the cast – the familiar faces and their roles in the movie?

The film stars Enyinna Nwigwe in the eponymous role as IBB. He is a perfect match for the role and played out of his skin. Little wonder he has been rewarded with an Africa Movie Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his gutsy portrayal of the enigmatic General. Also in the film.

We have Sani Danaja as General Sani Abacha, Ali Nuhu as UK Bello, Okey Bakasi as Chief Athur Nzeribe, Kalu Ikeagwu as Prof Humphrey Nwosu, Julius Agwu as Dr Chu Okongwu, Charles Inojie as Barrister Clement Akpamgbo and Garuba Mohammed as Professor Aminu. Although unknown right now, Amara Uwakwe-Anyanwu deserves special mention for her mercurial performance as Maryam Babangida.

Did you get a sort of approval/permission from Gen. IBB before embarking on the project?

Dem no born me well? I know I am bold but not as bold as taking a living man’s story and using his name without his permission. We are not talking of an ordinary man like you and I but still one of the most powerful men in Nigeria.

Like I said earlier, this project started in 2016 when I first had a meeting with IBB to ask his permission to tell his story. As a man proverbially slow to anger, it took three years of my constant nagging and persuasion to eventually get his approval.

I had to be patient because I needed his participation in the project. I did not just want to re-hash what’s already in the public domain. I wanted exclusives, salacious details of events to which we only heard anecdotal sketches.

And that is what I got. That is what makes this film unique. It is the perfectly true account of IBB’s private life from childhood to presidency. But it may not be the perfect truth of Nigeria’s history- only IBB’s perspective.

What kind of support did you receive from the former head of state?

Beyond telling me the details of the story he has not told anyone and giving me express permission to make the film based on that story, I did not receive any further help from IBB. I was hopeful that I could use his influence to get military support for the production.

But that did not materialise. He is a very proud and private man who doesn’t want to put himself in a position where people can say no to him. I completely respect that. When I went to him in 2016, all I wanted was the story and the right to tell it. I got that and I am humbled by that responsibility.

Again, when I was battling with the unseen forces who didn’t want the film to be released, I ran back to him and explained what was going on. His answer weakened me. He smiled and looked at me from the corner of his eye and said, “The people doing this may be more powerful than me…right now”. That was all the advice I needed.

You are known for directing award-winning films with unique storylines such as Last Flight to Abuja, The Mirror Boy, etc., what informs your stories?

You could say that everything we are goes into everything we do. I come into Nollywood from a very unique perspective- an ex footballer, theatre artist turned lawyer, turned filmmaker.

I have also spent the better half of my life in the UK without losing what I call local connection with Nigeria. So, my world view is special and that is reflected in my work; the subject matter I choose, how I tell the story and how I promote them.

That is my part in it. The rest is God perfecting my imperfections and granting me grace beyond my merit. For that, I am most grateful.

You equally make big budget movies. How is the fund generated?

I don’t think it is correct to say that I make big budget movies. The films I have made do not rank anywhere near the top of Nollywood film budgets. You could say that I have a knack for squeezing out value from modest budgets. I tell every young filmmaker that they should start small and create a name for themselves. That is when investors will approach them and offer money to support their projects.

That has been my journey. I started by making small, no budget films and gradually built a reputation. Afterwards, investors started taking me seriously and on the back of recent success of my films internationally, funders now actually approach me to enquire about my upcoming projects that they can invest in. I consider myself lucky although I had a hand in making my own luck through strategic, long-term and patient planning.

In 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down businesses globally, you became the first film director to make a movie via Zoom. How did you make it happen?

It was April 2020 and the lockdown and its limitations were beginning to bite really hard. I observed my wife conduct a work meeting on Zoom and recorded the proceedings

 That was my eureka moment. I thought that if I could get actors, wherever they were to record themselves with their own phones, I could remotely direct them and record them to make a film. That night, I wrote a script for a short film that eavesdrops on a video call between two lovers separated by Covid 19 lockdown on the day that was supposed to be their wedding day.

I cast one of Nollywood’s rising stars, Swanky Achufusi of Living in Bondage 2 fame; together with a young lady from the outskirts of London that I had never met in the role and after a brief training for their family members to serve as crew, we shot the film over a few hours and I released the film titled, HEART TO HEART, on my youtube page without much expectations.

Unknown to me, it was actually the first film globally to be so remotely made and what followed was a carnival of praise and press.

I was interviewed by the BBC, French channels, Channels TV in Nigerian and the film was promoted on blogs all over the world.

Beyond the novelty of its production style, Heart to Heart had an uplifting narrative that became a little ray of hope and positivity at a time when the entire world was subsumed in doom and gloom. I kept wondering, why didn’t someone think about it before?

How did your journey into the make believe world begin?

My journey as a filmmaker is a long and eclectic one. I first studied Drama at University of Nigeria Nsukka. Then I played professional football for Rangers international of Enugu before I left Nigeria for the UK in 1993.

There, my pursuit of professional football did not work and I started staging plays in theatres across south east London. That was when I realised that the future was on the screen and not on stage. While I thought myself screen writing and directing through online courses, I obtained an LLB Law degree and returned to Nigeria in 2000 to cut my production teeth in the fledgling Nollywood industry.

I had a raw deal as every person I collaborated with cheated me. I returned back to the UK a year later frustrated but undeterred. I completed my lawyer training by obtaining a Post Graduate degree in Legal Practice to become a solicitor

 I practiced law for a few years before I returned to film. In 2011, ten years after I ran out of Nigeria in frustration, THE MIRROR BOY became my comeback film. My life was never the same after that seminal film. The rest, they say, is history.

Why did you leave your flourishing, lucrative law practice for entertainment?

People are finding out that there’s more to a career than just making money or making a living. I think for some people, the satisfaction from what they do is more important than the big title they hold or the massive income they attract.

For me, I studied law, majoring on intellectual property law in preparation for life as a filmmaker. Today, I have the kind of fulfilment and contentment that is the envy of my law colleagues and cannot be bought by money.

What I do is not work and yet I get paid for it and attract friends from all over the world because of it. It is a privilege to do what I love and love what I do. And to be honest, the practice of Law is not as lucrative as it used to be.

People get better legal advice from google than they can from a practicing lawyer. I believe Law, with all due respect, is in the list of the occupations that are threatened by advances in technology. So, I left at a perfect time.

What is your dream for Nollywood?

I believe that Nollywood will continue to evolve and its role as the carrier of African stories will continue. But I have asked for wariness about the gradual decline in our controls of the factors of production and distribution that distinguished Nollywood from other African film industries.

Today, with the decline of the VHS and VCD formats that made Nollywood great, with the decline in the growth of cinemas in Nigeria and more importantly with the rise in power and influence of global streaming platforms to the top of the Nollywood food chain, that hard-fought control over monitization of our content is being eroded and he who pays the piper is gradually beginning to dictate the tune.

Soon, they will become the gold standard and validator of Nollywood authenticity. That is a dangerous slope for a film industry that prided itself on its independence and its informal non-conformist identity. While their influx is a great thing and I am one of the few that have benefited from it, they should never be the only sheriffs in town.

If given the opportunity, what’s one thing you will change or improve on in the Nigeria’s movie industry?

Honestly, I will change nothing. I think Nollywood’s imperfection is part of its queer and unique charm. If we try to over-polish it in order to be accepted in the international film community, we may begin to lose the ‘nolly’ in the Nigerian film industry without achieving the elusive ‘wood’ of Hollywood that we crave.

Nigerian music hasn’t changed much and the world has come to accept it on equal terms. Nollywood can also achieve such recognition, without seeking a make-over that will erode its authenticity.

You are regarded as a star-maker of sorts, who is motivated by talent. Do you have an Academy or a platform where young talents are harnessed?

I believe in giving young people opportunities to achieve they dreams. Some people joke that it is insurance for my future when I retire and available help for my children when I am no longer here. But honesty I like to empower the next generation of creatives, unlike some of my colleagues who are threatened by their advance.

When I turned 50 four years ago, I set up the Obi Emelonye Foundation, to help young creatives, in front and behind the camera to get a foothold in the industry. Our first project was Crazy, Lovely, Cool TV series now showing on Netflix, which was co-produced with Trace TV France.

The second full project was Heart and Soul TV series (also showing on Netflix), which drew actors from a free actors’ workshop that I organised in Lagos in 2018. It gives me great joy that those young creatives have had their careers lifted by exposure on the world’s largest stage.

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