Uche Chika Elumelu on Virtual Filmmaking and Surviving a Pandemic in Nollywood

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The very first few cases of COVID-19 recorded in Nigeria necessitated a lockdown of the country, a lockdown more stringently enforced in the nation’s commercial capital Lagos, and hub of the country’s film industry, Nollywood. The lockdown impacted on the industry: Cinemas were shut down and film release dates were indefinitely pushed back; film productions brought to a halt, leaving filmmakers and actors jobless. Many actors resorted to shooting and uploading monologues on Instagram to continue their craft, and perhaps to score the attention of producers in anticipation of the inevitable return to production.

For an actor and budding filmmaker like Uche Chika Elumelu, the lockdown triggered unimaginable ingenuity. She collaborated with fellow actors and director Olumense and made the cyber short film Atunmarilaka. With zero physical contact, these young actors and filmmakers were able to produce and direct a film exploring the world of the supernatural on a budget less than $10. However this film has raked accolades in such a short time. It has been selected to screen in two international festivals and was a winner of the Union Bank’s Union Rise Challenge–an Instagram challenge set up to reward young people who had risen above the challenges of the pandemic and the mandated lockdown, and had done outstanding, innovative work in their chosen careers.

With the lockdown eased and cinemas set to reopen, a number of productions have commenced, and Elumelu has resumed work. However, there’s still a concern for film practitioners, especially actors like herself who have to work in proximity with their counterparts, as there are no functional guilds catering to their welfare and offering guidelines that ensure that they are protected through the course of production.

You had just wrapped up on Africa Magic’s Unbroken when the country went on lockdown, were you already on a project or about to embark on one?

Yes. After we wrapped Unbroken mid-February, I got another project almost immediately, Omugwo, a stage production for the Lagos Theatre Festival. We had barely two weeks of rehearsals before we went into production in the final week of February. Another job came in March, this time, a movie produced by Maimuna Yahaya. This was at the time we had started recording cases in the country. But we shot the film amidst the panic, were extra careful on set. We were done by the end of March and joined the country in lockdown.

A day after the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCA), news filtered across social media platforms that one of the attendees had just returned from the UK and could be COVID-19 positive, how did you react to the news and the need to self-isolate?

Wow. I’m sure you’d get a lot of interesting answers from any practitioner who was at the AMVCA. I remember sitting in bed and reading the news from my phone and studying the man’s picture, wondering if I had shaken him or been in close proximity with someone who did. Then I reasoned with myself that panicking would do me more harm than even contracting the virus. Remember at the time research was limited and we didn’t know about the virus as much as we do now. Our earliest reactions were fueled by paranoia. In fact, I had contemplated quitting on Maimuna Yahaya’s project stating health reasons as why and refunding her because I had already been paid in full. However, I considered that it’d be a breach of trust; I had developed a relationship with her working as co-actors on Unbroken. Maimuna Yahaya is a beautiful woman and I had a pleasant time working with her on the show, so I was looking forward to working with her, this time, in the capacity of a producer as well as a co-actor.

After a lot of deliberation, I decided that I wouldn’t be self-isolating immediately. It was neither the right nor the wrong thing to do, it was just my judgment call. I prepared myself for set, went with my masks and hand sanitizer. While on set, we were very careful, maintained a level of distancing, and had minimal crew per time. Thankfully, it went well and no one got infected on set. Two days after we left set, Lagos went on lockdown.

The lockdown period was a trying and tiring time for a everyone, especially for creatives like yourself, what did you do during the lockdown to keep body and soul together, and fight lethargy?

If there’s anything that I learned during the lockdown, it’s that extra free time doesn’t guarantee extra productivity. If anything, you might be subject to the law of diminishing returns. I thought I’d be working out more and living healthier. Truth is, I didn’t notice any significant difference on how hard I went at my fitness goals before lockdown and during the lockdown. The only difference would be that I ate healthier because I had more time to cook and plan my meals, and because I had less access to junk food and pastries.

For a lot of people, the lockdown offered an opportunity to do more, but for me it was basically just the same thing. I worked out as hard as I would on any busy day. What I found that I had more time for was reading and catching up on entertainment. Prior to the lockdown, I was paying Netflix subscription for nothing, but the lockdown offered an avenue to catch up on all the shows I had been missing.

Lethargy wasn’t a problem for me, because I was already active during the lockdown and all I did during the lockdown was to maintain that level of activity; it was how I was able to ward off any listlessness.

However, there was something very therapeutic about the lockdown for me: It was a way of finding myself and returning to things that actually brought me joy. Reading was one of my favorite past times but I lost that due to hectic call time. It was beautiful to find that balance again. The lockdown also afforded an opportunity for introspection too, I liked that instead of paying too much attention to my body because of how people would say I looked, I channeled all that energy to my mind and healing myself from all the pressures, from myself, work and family, I was going through. It was really a deep healing process for me and I am happy that I am the better for it.

One of the things you did during the lockdown was feature in the Cyber Short Film Atunmarilaka. You were not just an actor on the project but also co-produced with other cast members, how did the idea of shooting virtually come about? 

Yes. That was my first producer credit. So on this day of our Lord in April, Olumense, the director, calls me and I thought he was calling on a project he had initially contacted me for and I was ready to say no and be vehement about it, about not working during the lockdown. But he clarifies and says it’s another project and it wouldn’t be conventionally shot, that it would be shot virtually. I had heard about virtual shooting, but it’s not something I’ve done before or seen done. Olumense was very expansive in explaining and talking me through the rudiments of it. And apparently he had done the same with other cast members.

We created a chat room where we went over the details of the story and shoot, and it was such a fun experience preparing and rehearsing the story and our roles. One thing that worked in our favor was that we all, the cast, had a pre-existing chemistry working on Africa Magic’s Unbroken. And it was really why Olumense chose us, because we could bounce off that energy off each other effortlessly. One of the recurring feedback was that apart from the performances being good individually, they could sense that synergy in the room. You can feel when four people are being a good actor on their own, and when four people are coming together to be great together. And I dare say that was what we did. Nobody was trying to be a star everyone was trying to interpret the role perfectly and bring the common goal to fruition. That was what the story and the project needed.

Shooting the film was simple, yet not so simple. We couldn’t of course record an actual video call, even though that was how we rehearsed. We had to sync our reactions exactly to every joke, every remark, such that the viewers can be convinced that we were actually on a video call. How we achieved it was, we made our individual taping by ourselves then sent to Olumense who edited it. Apart from doing video-call rehearsals to check expressions, Chris Okagbue and I were elected to do audio recordings of everybody’s lines, taking into cognizance the cadence everybody brought to their lines, the pulses that they had observed during rehearsals, such that there would be uniformity in delivery. In the final product, what everyone saw was the four characters on a video call, but if you noticed, we all had headsets on; what we were individually doing, was reacting accordingly to the audio recording Chris Okagbue and I had made. It was timed perfectly. Everyone was laughing at the same joke at the same time, everyone was angry at the same time, afraid at the same time. It was crazy.

It didn’t come out perfect the first time, but we did it over and over again until we got it right. I’d also commend Abisoye Balogun, who was the make-up artist, and plays Abimbola in the film. She did the best work I have ever seen her done, and just with the little she had, she had no access to premium products but she still did a very good job.

The virtual filmmaking was a new experience for all of us and we all went through the learning experience with the right vigor and humility, even the more experienced actors among us like Uzo Arukwe and Chris Okagbue. That was the beautiful part of making Atunmarilaka. We thank God it all came out well.

As an actor, you’ve shown immense talent across all media of acting: you’ve been on TV, been in film, musicals, and theatre. How did these experiences prepare you for the novelty of performing and being directed virtually, and how does it differ from an Instagram monologue? 

Like you say it’s talent, I do not take credit for that at all. I was freely given and I’m using it to the best of my ability. What I can use that talent to do, is now what I call discipline. I feel for every performer, every artiste, no matter how talented you are, the medium for channeling that talent is discipline.

I have worked on several media of entertainment, radio, TV, musical theatre. Theatre especially grounded me in this work. Theatre is of course where everyone starts from. It starts with the church and school plays. Just doing things in front of 10, 15 people, then grow from there. Theatre trained me in the art of not being an eye-service actor or a people-pleaser. It trained me in such a way that even if the director wasn’t around, I’d be able to do my job and deliver as I would when they are around. Translating that to the virtual filmmaking experience was pretty seamless. I do not need the director’s nod to do a good job, I just need to remind myself that I am an excellent actor, I pursue excellence with all that is in me, I’m intense in doing that and I would do that.

With Olumense not being in the room physically, all I needed was his guidance, that happened virtually, to deliver. Atunmarilaka was a challenge and I love a challenge, I channeled that in-borne desire to excel to deliver on the project. I get bored of doing things I’ve achieved a certain level of mastery over. Virtual filmmaking was the next hurdle and I knew I just had to work hard at it, it was that discipline that I brought to the fore that guided me and I was able to ride that wave to the shore. It was really discipline. Because there are many talented people but people who come to the limelight, people who are able to show their talent to the world, are those who are daring enough to be disciplined.

Yes, shooting a film virtually differs from an Instagram monologue. But not so different. The only difference between a conventional set and what we did for Atumarilaka is just the physical presence of the director. But he was there in that he was virtually giving directions remotely. But with an IG monologue, you’re both director and actor. So a higher level of discipline is what you need to be accountable to the director part of you. There’s a shit detector most actors have, without a director calling it to your notice, there’s a part of you that tells you, this doesn’t work and I need to fix it. So I feel it’s even trickier doing an IG monologue, ‘cause with virtual filmmaking, there’s still a third party giving you guidance and direction.

 

I’m asking you this now as a producer, stories that explore the paranormal aren’t quite the staple in Nollywood despite most of our traditions and beliefs being rooted in the supernatural, what inspired the story of Atunmarilaka?

I don’t think I’m qualified to answer this question because Atunmarilaka was solely conceptualized by Olumense. He would be in a better position to answer what inspired Atunmaralika. However what I do know is, that Atunmarilaka is the second movie in the short film series project he’s embarked on. The first one was Arabida.

That being said, as an actor and consumer of Nollywood, I believe we should return to the kind of stories early Nollywood started with. The days of Living in Bondage embraced more of those kinds of stories. It’s the kind of authenticity we should return to. Life is essentially spiritual, everything isn’t physical, people aren’t as they seem, there are a lot of nefarious activities going on. Look at our politics, it’s filled with blood oaths and human sacrifices. These are the kind of stories we should tell. We have the technology now to tell those kinds of stories in a fresher and more alluring way. I think we have now diverted to the Lekki-life stories, romance, and living in luxury. Not that they shouldn’t be told, but we can surely do more.

Oyibos have their voodoo stories but they sell it to us as superhumans with superpowers. And they’re making billions of dollars not just from the films but from merchandise and syndication. How about we start to do that? There’s a lot left untapped in the paranormal sphere. It is different. It is fresh. There’s a lot you can leave to the imagination. I would be glad to be part of a project that explores the world of the paranormal.

What has the audience reaction and reviews to Atunmarilaka been like?

It’s been fantastic. Because it’s not terrestrial TV restricting viewers to a certain location, reviews have come from everywhere. And that goes to show the kind of stories people are yearning for. It may be something we have always had but they want it told in a fresher and more appealing way. Atunmarilaka is not your archetypal Karishaka, but it’s still paranormal and was made in a way to appeal to the younger generation. We surely can’t be stuck in the LIB way of telling stories but we cant reinvent and make it fit with the times. Look at Marvel and the superheroes, we can make Amadioha and Osun our superheroes. The Greeks, the Zeus have done it too. They’re selling us pantheons and motifs from their culture. They’re making profits of off it and propagating their culture, what stops us from doing it? This is what the reviews from Atunmarilaka made me realize.

Union Bank set up the Instagram Union Rise Challenge to reward innovators who had/have risen above the challenges of the pandemic and the mandated lockdown; competitors included young people in the arts, entertainment, education, and commerce. You emerged one of the 10 lucky winners in the fourth and final week of the challenge, why do you think Atunmarilaka stood out and became a winner?

Thank you. But it’s plain and simple why we won, you said it yourself, we stood out. This is said with all the humility and gratitude to God for his mercies. Going through all the entries to see what we were up against, I didn’t see any project quite like ours. And even when we won, the commentary I got was, people were marveled that 5 people could come together with 3941 Naira to make a movie without any physical contact whatsoever. It was mind-blowing, it suddenly blew ours. So I think that being fresh and taking the road less trodden was what really worked for us.

Another key reason to why we were one of the winners, I think, was our project was directly linked to not being able to reach people during the lockdown. Many of the submissions were what people could do with or without the lockdown. So we were rewarded for exploring the ingenuity of virtual filmmaking. With the support we’ve got from Union Bank, we intend to expand Atunmarilaka into a web series.

Winning Union Bank’s Union Rise Challenge isn’t the only accolade Atunmarilaka has received, it’s recently been film-festival vetted having been selected for two international film festivals. It is surely validating, especially as it is your first time as a producer. Nollywood is in a kind of actor-producer era, with a number of actors producing and featuring in their own films, are you thinking of transitioning fully into a filmmaker? You’ve been very vocal about the kind of stories that should be told, would you like to see some of these your ideas come to fruition? You also mentioned the expansion of Atunmarilaka into a web series, would you be wearing the producer hat on the project once more?

Okay. I am sort of a lone ranger and I’m careful about carelessly following trends without it resonating within me and without feeling a sense of purpose in that regard. I feel like the transition from being an actor to a producer has to come from within as well. Atunmarilaka fell in my lap and I just rolled with that tide. I am tempted to say that it was a flash in the pan because I had help from four other capable people. It would be naive of me to believe that the little experience from virtual filmmaking has readied me to be a producer. I still need to watch, learn, and be hired more as an actor. I don’t think I’m ready to be a producer yet.

Because Atunmarilaka is now a passion project for all of us now, originally Olumense’s, I do see myself coming back as a producer during the web series. I’m sure the web series would take a more conventional form than what was the case with the short film. I feel like that is where I need to cut my teeth and learn more and be in the face of more responsibility, see how I take those before I can decide if I’m ready to take the plunge. Of course, I do want to tell stories, explore genres, paranormal being chief amongst them. But I need to pace myself, I don’t think the training wheels are off yet.

The lockdown has been eased, most productions have commenced, you’re currently on a set. However there’s concern especially for actors like yourself who have to work in proximity with their counterparts, are there guilds catering to your welfare and ensuring that actors are protected through the course of production. How is working as an actor and social distancing coming along?

Omo, every man for himself, that is how it is. I have taken it upon myself to be responsible for my own safety equipment. I go to set with my mask and my own hand sanitizer. Then we have the thermometer on set for temperature. And there are reasonable counterparts who keep to themselves until or unless it’s time for us to be in close proximity, everyone is trying to safeguard themselves. I understand that it’s a dicey situation, but people, actors have to work, have to feed. We are working and taking the necessary precautions.

 


Dika Ofoma writes because he believes one who eats maize must learn to grow maize. He’s on IG and Twitter as @dikaofoma.

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