Femi Odugbemi is a respected writer and content producer. He is the Academy Director (West Africa) for the Multichoice Talent Factory, and an OSCARS voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Odugbemi, who is one of the founding producers of Tinsel, and the Executive Producer of Battleground, in this interview with TONY OKUYEME, shares his thoughts on documentary film genre, Nollywood, and other issues
You recently served as an OSCARS voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). How does this impact on Nollywood?
First and foremost, it is a validation of our industry. The idea is that the third and most prolific industry in the world is recognized as a legitimate and valued film culture. I think that is the first thing. And obviously, it is an incredible honour that that has happened. But it also at the same time, a challenged to us, a challenge to look at what OSCARS stands for. OSCARS stands for excellence, the most advanced technique and technology in filmmaking. OSCARS stands for powerful storytelling that is compelling and global in its narratives. The OSCARS stand for performances that are beyond the ordinary. So, when the OSCARS recognize your industry, they are also challenging your industry to become better at everything it is good at, take it to another level. But they are saying the door is open, that means that in another five years or 10 years, there is no reason for a Nollywood film not to be recognized, not to be nominated. But you know it is not by rank; it is not operated on a quota system. We have to make that excellent film for us to get that recognition.
How soon do you see that happening?
I believe that the day cometh when we will actually have Nigerian films nominated in different categories. I am looking for to time when Nigerian films can be nominated for cinematography, can be nominated for script writing, can be nominated for performance and so on. There is no discrimination in an incredible performance. The power of performance, the power of excellence is undeniable. We don’t want an OSCAR that will be given to us by quota system. No, we are going to be excellent, and we are going to have the whole say ‘this was a good film’. Not that ‘this was a good African film’; not that this was a good Nollywood film’.It should be that ‘this was a good film’. So for me, the membership of the Academy is simply a signal to say, ‘you guys are on the right part, take our game to the next level’. That is what I am committed to do. We just need our best and brightest to co me together. We need to stop working in individual cubicle. We need our best cinematographer to work with our best sound to work with our best actors, to work with our best directors. We need to stop competing and start collaborating. That is the way to go.
What’s your projection for Nollywood?
I have said this before; Nollywood must become, ultimately, the most powerful voice for the black race in the world. Nollywood must become the voice of our history. But it must also be the voice of ambition, our future. It is from films that I learnt everything about India, about China, about America. Film is the most powerful cultural diplomatic tool. And how do you do that without itself being a documentation of we are? Two thousand years from now, if the world is still here, someone will dig the ground and will find a dvd of a Nollywood film. And inside it will be the documentation of who we are, how we lived, what clothes we wore, what cars we drove. It would be, a documentary, regardless of what story it is telling. Remember my article: Is Nollywood documentary? I always say yes. Yes it is entertainment, it is fiction, but in many ways it is what will be the record of Africa, because the story of Africa has often been told by non-Africans. And it has never been told to our advantage. So, if nothing else, Nollywood is able to put on record our own dreams and values.
Tell us about your early encounter with film
I grew up in the city of Lagos in the 60s, and we used to live at 2, Ayenuga Street, Fadeyi. There was a photographer in the building where we lived, he had a shop. And all he did was taken passport photographs, but that was really the earliest memories I have of encountering a camera; encountering how a camera is used to document people.
At what stage did film come to the scene?
Of course, back in the 60s as well, there were lots of cinemas across Lagos; from house to my school, there three different cinemas. And all we saw were Chinese films and Indian films. These were the films that we, as children, after replayed after watching the films; that is what we talked about. Characters such as Damendra in Indian movies, we used to sing their songs and dance. We loved the songs of the Indians, their dances and so on. That environment we all grew up, it was our ambition either to be a footballer or to be a filmmaker. Evidently, I must not have been a very good footballer. Where I grew up, film and cinema were part of the culture of the city itself. So, for me it is not a surprise that Nollywood would grow out of Lagos. It is simply that Lagos is a state that has stories. And if you look at Lagos, it is a state that is unique in character. Why? It is because Lagos has a heartbeat. Lagos itself is a world of stories. I am a Lagos boy, I grew up in Lagos. But my parents are from Oke-Igbo, Ondo State. I am from the D.O. Fagunwa family.
So, story telling is in the family?
So, I come from a storytelling background. And I live and grew up in a city like Lagos where storytelling was the currency for young people. So, ending up as a photographer, ending up as a filmmaker, ending up as a script writer, storyteller, and content developer, it seems to me almost a natural progression, of the kind of world in which I grew up. For me, that is really why I am very comfortable doing what I do; it is a passion that I have. And whether it is expressed in documentary, in television in series, in photography exhibition, all I just want to do is tell stories; but tell stories that inspires; tell stories that create content, that also create change; tell stories that help people to reflect a little more, and hopefully, that empowers. So, beyond entertainment, for me, storytelling is a very powerful tool for development. And in a country like Nigeria, where we have so many different voices, so many different tribes, so many different languages, so many different political leanings, film can be a powerful tool for unity, for bringing us together, for helping us to understand each other’s stories, as it were. This is why, IREP Documentary Film Festival this year our theme is ‘Storylines’. There is a way in which when I am able to look at you and say, what is your story? I expect a deeper than superficial interest in knowing you and knowing where you come from, and knowing your world view; knowing your experiences, because that is the only way I can actually connect with you, beyond labels. To say I am a Yoruba man is a label; to say that I am a filmmaker is a label. But who is Femi? The only way to do that is for you to hear my story. And you might find that even though I am Yoruba and Tony is Delta, my story is that our stories are different, and so we will connect at a deeper human level when we are able to experience each other’s stories. Contrary to what most people think, it is much harder to do documentary than to do a feature film, because, in a feature, you write the script, you know the end, you know the beginning. You created the characters, so you basically have all the answers. You just need to create a story. Documentary is different; it is different because documentary starts from questions, not answers. Documentary, often, may not have answers, but it has a lot of questions. And when you are a filmmaker who is into documentary, you don’t know where the story is going; you don’t know how the story will shape. The research will take you half way, but when you begin to shoot the film you will find that what you thought you knew was not all there was to know. You will find that the people in the story have insights and revelations that totally can change the story. And I find that to be, for me, an incredible fascination because in that journey, I already am learning, I am growing. I don’t have all the answers but the questions are taking me to new levels of understanding that I think is such a powerful thing for a filmmaker to experience. The power of documentary is that it makes you an agent of change.