While it is the wish of every filmmaker to tell a story, how they go about achieving this differs. Filmmaking in Nigeria, dubbed Nollywood, has undergone many unspoken reforms, with traditional theatricians, pioneering filmmakers, mass market enthusiasts and New Nollywood pacesetters all embracing elements and techniques that are not only in sync with their times but also in tune with the respective filmmakers’ ideological standpoints.
The early development of Nollywood includes Kenneth Nnebue’s Living in Bondage as well as many other mass market productions that spotlight the simplistic age-old practice of money ritual. But as times have changed, New Nollywood filmmakers like Ebuka Njoku are now taking it upon themselves to right misconceptions and create stories driven by more empirical wisdom and less incorporeal sentiments.
Born and nurtured in Eastern Nigeria, Ebuka Njoku grew up fascinated with Nollywood and Bollywood films. While he was younger, he frequented his neighbour’s place, where his attention was drawn to that special world of make-believe. It was only a matter of time before this burgeoning interest led him to scriptwriting. He wrote the script for Ordinary Fellows (2019), a film co-directed by Lorenzo Menakaya who he would later collaborate with in Yahoo+. When he decided to start handling his own stories, it was so that his artistic vision would be uncompromised and his voice stay as realistic and naturalistic as possible. This virtue is noticeable in his first production Yahoo+ where his alt-filmmaking politics manifests as simple casting, down-to-earth language (Igbo mixed with Pidgin English), unassuming cinematography and honest storytelling.
In this exclusive with Culture Custodian, Ebuka Njoku takes us on a journey through his filmmaking career, which includes the doubts and gains of the game. Letting us into the production backstory of his directorial Netflix debut Yahoo+, Ebuka Njoku unveils his long-term filmmaking goal.
First off, accept my congratulations on your first feature-length film on Netflix. As a writer, co-producer and director of this project, how does it feel to be on such a global platform, and what is the story behind your Netflix debut?
It feels great to be on Netflix because that has always been my dream. I’ve been dreaming of Netflix since it came to Nigeria. That should be in 2015 or 2016. When the streaming platform arrived in the country, I was among the happiest people and I believed my vision would come true. We (My producer and I) worked with FilmOne who handled the cinema distribution of our film. In the second week, FilmOne decided to extend the distribution deal to accommodate a global streaming platform. We got talking and found a middle ground that worked for both parties.
The narrative in Yahoo+ is quite relatable and it seems you were out to clear some misconceptions regarding internet scams as a social menace. What was your vision for the project from the outset?
When I realized that what we called money ritual had nothing to do with spirits, I found it fascinating that we’ve been making films in the country for over thirty years and no one has ever bothered to make a film about that. Also, the fact that Nollywood played a part in pushing that narrative about money rituals made me feel it was my responsibility as a filmmaker to make people start questioning the narrative. Apart from that, the film is a personal story. I’ve been in Nollywood since 2014. I took a break in 2016 and returned in 2019. As someone who has struggled to break into the industry, Ose and Abacha’s story is more or less my personal story. There was a point in my life I came very close to trying Yahoo.
It also appears that your film takes a swipe at Old Nollywood productions such as Living in Bondage. Did you have to do some background check or research before deciding to do this project?
That Living In Bondage mention was the closest pop culture reference that could fit into that conversation in the scene. I actually adore old Nollywood. The filmmakers were the Kekes and D1s of the Nigerian film industry. They were starting out as pioneers who didn’t have people they could look up to in the industry. I started as a scriptwriter and had the privilege of receiving mentorship from Mr Yinka Ogun , Kemi Adesoye and a couple of other people before me. The old Nollywood filmmakers didn’t have that level of film mentorship opportunities like filmmakers of my generation, but they told great stories nonetheless. While I was preparing for the film, I watched a lot of classics, including epics like Ijele and Oganigwe.
You have an interesting antecedent in Nollywood as the writer of Ordinary Fellows (2019), you have also curated a number of short films. Can you lead us through your backstory as an independent filmmaker?
I remember showing interest in films as early as 7 years. The film Titanic was just out in Nigeria. I was in my landlord’s sitting room with my sister, a couple of teenage girls and a guy who was the landlord’s help. I was the youngest of the group. They were watching a particular film, and at one point, the room became tense with emotions. Everyone was struggling with tears. At that time, I couldn’t really understand the film, but I found myself also struggling with tears. Another moment I remember was the first time I heard the name Tchidi Chikere. That was the first time I became conscious of the fact that films were actually made by people. I could remember someone mentioning that an epic film of the past era was either written or directed by Tchidi Chikere. Growing up, the filmmaker became a hero to me. I grew up in Awka, Anambra state where I didn’t have a filmmaker around that I could look up to, so filmmaking felt like an impossible dream for me. In my teenage years, I wrote some fiction and dabbled in playwriting. I was quite intelligent and did well in school. Everybody expected me to be an engineer. After SS1, I switched to Arts. My parents initially disagreed with my choice before allowing me. I studied Theatre and Film Studies in University of Nigeria, Nsukka. While in the university, my course mates often commended me for my writings. One day, on my way to the hostel, one of my course mates told me how he’s been learning editing, cinematography, etc. and said he wanted to make a film. It was when I got on the project that I learnt about short films. He managed to convince me to give scriptwriting a trail. Once I did, I couldn’t stop. I had to stop my playwriting career for scriptwriting. When the film came out, I wasn’t really happy about it. I decided to start directing in order to have more control. After school, I came to Lagos and was advised to take to screenwriting which was an easier route in the industry. I was told that after making a name for myself, I could now gravitate towards directing. While working with producers, I wasn’t given the freedom to play with local languages and break some rules. It was challenging. In 2016, I gave up on the industry. For the next two years, I didn’t do any writing that involved Nollywood. I felt lost and nearly tried Yahoo. At one point, I decided to work in a bar, which gave me access to have more conversations. I noticed that everyone there usually had complaints about their workplaces. It was then it dawned on me that every industry had their challenges. I got motivated to stay on course and remain committed to any creative industry I was passionate about. When I returned to Nollywood, I decided to take writing as a business. I also took production classes, and I started pitching to different people. That led to Yahoo+.
The characters in your film mainly spoke Pidgin and Igbo, yet the dialogue was unencumbered and free-flowing. Was this deliberate, or is there a thought behind this creative decision?
The choice of languages is both a creative and political decision. I noticed that most Nollywood films do not really embody realism and naturalism. For me, I wanted the film to feel as natural as possible such that at some point, you forget that you are watching a film. When you watch Indian, Korean and American films, you realize that they are all quite comfortable speaking their languages. In American films, you notice the way Blacks speak differently from Whites. That made me feel that for my film, in depicting young Igbo guys, the conversations must be a mix of Igbo and English as obtainable in everyday conversations. I thought it was high time we started attaching intellectualism to our local languages. Politically, I used those languages to let people know that is exactly how we speak in Nigeria. I want to show people that I have pride in my language, that African languages are sweet.
Yahoo+ has a cast of six actors: Echelon Mbadiwe as Kamso, Ken Erics as Ikolo, Somadina Adinma as Abacha, Ifeoma Obinwa as Pino-Pino, Keezyto as Ose and Lorenzo Menakaya as Mansa. What informed your casting choice, and how were you able to get the best of your actors on set?
I had to watch the first features of great American filmmakers. Their first features gave them a cult following. I feel that a filmmaker’s first feature should have its audience narrowed down. If it targets just a state, it’s okay. I noticed that Scorsese’s first film focused on New York, so it was the pride of New York for a lot of people. So I decided my first feature would be fans of Phyno and Flavour, who are young Igbo guys. I knew I had limited resources to get cinema faces, so I decided to focus on a specific demographic. After writing the script in Pidgin and Igbo, I needed people who could deliver.
It appears your film adopts a minimalist style, from casting to location, cinematography and the production as a whole. Is this a deliberate thought or a matter of budget?
One is the budget. The other is skill level. I was realistic about my options. I knew that I did not have the means to produce alone, so I had to ask a senior colleague of mine, Lorenzo, who also played a role in the film to join me on the project. Lorenzo has better people skills and more media experience. With him, it was easy to go about a lot of things. I also understood that it was the first time we were working together in that capacity. It was also the first time I was producing, so I didn’t want to bite more than I could chew. Shooting in one location meant that we didn’t always have to move the cast and crew from one place to another. If I had wanted more money for my first feature, that means I would have to sacrifice my creative freedom. I didn’t know anybody that could give me more money and still allow such freedom.
Do you have any other projects currently in the works?
I’m currently working on my second feature, ỤNỌ (The F in Family). It will be out next year.
Your story is an inspiration to many creatives and filmmakers out there. Have you got any advice for individuals looking for their big break in Nollywood?
I’ll tell up-and-coming creatives to start somewhere. In the early era of filmmaking in Nigeria, theatre practitioners considered film an inferior art. But it isn’t. Likewise, when skit making started, some filmmakers took skits as an inferior art. Anybody that wants to make films should start doing so. This is the greatest time in history to be a filmmaker. In today’s world, with your phone camera you can tell a story. So, anyone who really wants to make a film should go out there and do so. You should make films you are naturally inclined to, and overtime you should improve and discover your style.