Mildred Okwo: Girl Uninterrupted

by Uche Nworah

Mildred Okwo is a lawyer, artist, writer, movie director and producer. You may just get away with it if you call her the new kid on the Nollywood block. Her debut movie 30Days took Nollywood by storm in 2006 and opened to rave reviews and critical acclaim. Not bad for this girl next door who grew up in the coal city – Enugu. Mildred says there are still more cinematic tricks up her creative sleeves, judging from her first effort, we are wont to believe her. In the midst of traveling around the globe premiering the movie, she settled down for a chat with Uche Nworah to talk about her life, Nollywood and the next project from her Native Lingua Films stable.

On growing Up

My parents are from Nigeria. My father is from Nsukka, Enugu State and my mum is from Mbaise, Imo State.As far as I can remember, I spent a lot of time debating politics, policies and issues with my father. I grew up in the Coal City (Enugu). My family is diverse and more liberal than most families. I have cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws who are Hausa, Yoruba, Ashanti Caribbean and American both black and white.

Her Day job

Any form of entertainment related matter short of the chicken ranch variety (lol). My dream is to create a viable world class entertainment company so I have quit every other pretender job I had.

What’s a lawyer like you doing in the movie industry?

You say that like it is an aberration. I would be happier if the question was “what is a creative person like you doing in the legal profession?” Anyway, for me it was only a natural progression. I studied theatre in college and everything artistic comes naturally. The practice of Law was just an intellectual exercise for me. I have a BA in Creative Arts from the University of Benin (Uniben).

When did you decide to make the switch from law to making films?

I always knew I would do this, it is law that I did not know I would study. Once I watched “Living in Bondage” 10 years ago, I was even more convinced that I was going back to the Arts.After watching that home video, I knew I did not have to mess with trying to make it in Hollywood. Too many Africans spend so many years trying to make it in Hollywood when we have such an opportunity back home.

What influenced your decision?

The need to tell the African Story in my own way. As you can see Africa is getting popular again with Hollywood.In the past 2 years, so many films have been based around Africa. Those stories are not really our stories because they are always centered on the Americans or the British with Africans as “waka passes” in their own continent. I would like to change that by giving our actors lead roles in stories that are uniquely ours. Before you know it, there will be a Hollywood film called “Impeachment Fever” starring Leonardo Di Caprio as Governor of some Nigerian state.

Which Nollywood actors have impressed you the most?

I am impressed by folks who nobody even recognizes. For example, I watched Kingsley Ogoro’s movie Widow recently, and I was impressed by an actor who only appeared in one scene. That is how I cast Ekwi Onwuemene in my film. I saw her in a small role in “Promise me for ever”. Gbenga Richards impressed me a lot in “30 Days”. People did not think he could pull of the role as Mr. President because of his physical frame. He proved them wrong by creating an unforgettable character that is so different from his real life persona. I cast him in “30 Days” because I saw him in a small role in “Darkest Night”.

What’s the movie 30 Days about?

“30 Days” is actually a lot of things, action, romance, politics and what have you. I suppose that ten people would describe it in ten different ways. Basically, a group called FRACA decides to rid the country of corrupt politicians. Instead of doing it like EFCC, they decide to kill them off. This obviously pits the group against agents of the government. Caught in the middle of all this is an economic refugee from New York Kene Alumona who travels to Nigeria for a 30 Day vacation and falls in love with a Nigerian lady involved with the group. Joke Silva, Segun Arinze are agents of the government.

What was the experience like working with Genevieve Nnaji?

Good. She plays the character that Kene Alumona falls in love with. We had a set full of talented actors so she was in good company. Genevieve was on blacklist at the time of the production. We were the only producers who worked with her during the ban and I am so proud of Ego Boyo for not even flinching when I told her I wanted to use Genevieve for the lead role.

The ban actually worked in our favour because it was easier to have Genevieve focus on one project. I don’t know if she would have had that level of focus otherwise. As you know, prior to the blacklist, the demand for her services was pretty high. In Nollywood, they tend to shoot at least 2, to 3 films in one month and in my humble opinion no actor alive can sustain that level of work and still be very creative. 30 Days shows that Genevieve is not a one dimensional actor. She pulls the role off as an action heroine.

How about the other actors in the movie, how was their performance?

Like I said, we had a star studded cast. We had veterans like Joke Silva who never stops acting until you say cut, Segun Arinze, Nobert Young, Ebele Okaro, Gbenga Richards, and Kunle Coker. That is no joke man.They represented Nollywood very well I must say. We also have up and coming actors like Najite Dede, Iyabo Amoke and Nkiru Alinta who did very well.CBA though new to Nollywood, has NY stage productions on his resume.

Are there any other actors you like to work with in the future?

Oh yes.I would love to work with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Richard Mofe Damijo (RMD), Angelina Jolie, Chika Okpala (AKA Zebrudaya), Meryl Streep, Rita Dominic, Femi Branch, Bimbo Akintola, Olu Jacobs, and Raz Adoti.I just saw this guy David Oyewole in “Shoot the Messenger”, and I was completely blown away. Nigerians are doing big things.

What other movie projects are you currently working on?

I have a film project which I don’t think will start till summer 2007. I told my business partner that my dream cast for that film would be RMD, Angelina Jolie, Olu Jacobs, Rita Dominic and Raz Adoti. He laughed really hard. Before the film, we have a television project that I am hoping will do well. I am still signing up talent for that project. Africans are very colorful people and I cannot wait to tell our stories on an international platform.

What’s your experience been like so far considering that you are a new person in Nollywood?

You know every industry has its own ways and I am learning to adjust to the Nigerian way but with an American twist. I have lived half of my life in the US so that is bound to happen.Nollywood is a tough arena for producers. Nigerians want their money and they want it now. There is nothing like backend deals so as a producer you have to have real cash to get your movie done. Marketing and distribution side has been challenging. It is almost like we are writing a new script. There is no reliable distribution structure in Nigeria after 15 years. There are many films that have sold well but nobody can produce a legitimate paper trail. Why would any bank invest in you when you can’t even tell them how many units you sold in Kaduna or in Lagos? So we are working to create a paper trail in our own distribution process.

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