Naming the Unnameable: A Memorial For Ebereonwu

As with his creative works, Ebereonwu’s occasional ventures into debates about Nigerian literature and the movie industry were equally tempestuous but also deep-seated. For instance, in the heat of the revulsion about the supposed misnaming ‘Nollywood’, Ebereonwu wondered why any Nigerian intellectual who wanted to be taken seriously should contest a name given to a product he never showed interest in. According to him, “it took only one article in the New York Times for Nigerians to begin to understand and appreciate the phenomenon that is Nollywood”. During an interactive session at the 2005 edition of the annual Convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors in Kano, Ebereonwu who earlier in the day was a keynote speaker at a major event in the programme reasoned that without white journalists and culture activists projecting Nollywood no serious Nigerian intellectual had as much as given Nollywood academic attention. That is quintessential Ebereonwu. It is also instructive to note that at a time many people insist that Nollywood has nothing to offer even when it was this denigrated industry that produced the prototype Blood Diamonds before some Hollywood fellow began to flaunt a version of same to the wider world, a Nigerian film scholar based in the United States of America and who, like Ebereonwu, believes in Nollywood, Prof. Frank N. Ukadike, has secured a Full-bright Fellowship to understudy and teach Nollywood. And, happily enough, he is coming down home to Nigeria to a University that has produced a good number of the key actors and actresses in the industry to conduct his research, the University of Port Harcourt.

In terms of background, orientation, vision and general film ideology, Ebereonwu shares a lot in common with some of the world’s celebrated filmmakers. This is no exaggeration, especially for one who could perhaps appropriate Federico Fellini’s thesis that “it seems to me that I was born for the cinema, to do it without even

realizing it, like breathing” (Interviews 58). Such can be expected of a young and talented auteur who without the benefit of any exposure to a Film school could before he was seventeen begin a flirtation with the moulders/administrators of the film idiom via the NTA, Aba. In other words, before Ebereonwu studied English/Literature at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, he had already, as it were, without knowing it, become one made for the Cinema.

Ebereonwu was never one to be taken for granted in the course of his passion for filmmaking. For someone who believes that “Scriptwrting is the foundation of a movie” as he tells Shaibu Husseini in a December 9, 2002 interview in The Guardian, Ebereonwu was conscious of the heritage that makes him share a kinship with the likes of Ben Hecht, Jules Furthman, Dudley Nichols, Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. Ben Hecht is described by Tom Stempel, the author of Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film (1988) as “the archetype of the reporter turned screenwriter” (114) In her 1968 book, Kiss Bang Bang, Pauline Kael, a famous movie critic describes Jules Furthman as one who “has written about half of the most entertaining movies to come out of Hollywood” (59). While Herman Mankiewicz is the screenwriter of the famous film, Citizen Kane, Dudley Nichols has been described by Tom Stempel as “the most critically acclaimed and highly respected (particularly by other writers) Screenwriter of the thirties and forties” (118). Again, in the Nigerian context, this was what Ebereonwu accomplished. Even when the average Nigerian movie viewer like the producer hardly bothers about the intelligence behind a film, Ebereonwucontested such seriously.

As someone who was sure of his heritage as an intellectual who became involved in the film industry, Ebereonwu informs us in the December 9, 2000 interview with Husseini that

I don’t allow the producers to treat me shabbily. If they can’t meet my terms, they have the liberty to go and hire their brothers in the village to write for them as most of them have been doing. I did not read Aristotle and went through the tutelage of great literary minds only to be paid peanuts(30).

No doubt, the screenwriter of Wedlock, Beyond the Vow, Wedding Bells and parts of Victor Eriabe’s Izozo knew his worth and insisted on the attendant recognition which he got and savoured before his death.Apart from usually signing off his films as “an Ebereonwu film”, he was excited about proclaiming on the sleeve jackets of his films that one had before one’s view”a script crafted by Ebereonwu”. Without doubt, Ebereonwu was sensitive to what he shared in common with such internationally celebrated screenwriters as Akira Kurosawa, author of Throne of Blood, Francis Ford Coppola, author of The Conversation and George Lucas, author of Star Wars. Such explains why according to his testimony, his scripts were good enough to fetch him reasonable amounts of money that made him fulfilled and comfortable.

For what he shares in common with the famous Italian Filmmaker, Federico Fellini, once described by Irving R. Levine as “one of the most sought-after men in Rome for interviews” (Interviews 54), certainly those who are familiar with Ebereonwu’s life story and career in the screen world would appreciate Federico Fellini as anticipating the world Ebereonwu would inhabit roughly 30 years after Fellini’s 1966 interview with Irving R. Levine. We shall let Fellini speak while we draw the parallels with Ebereonwu’s life and distinguished career. For Fellini:

I don’t think I chose the career of film director with any premeditation. As a young man during the first years of my work… I never thought of becoming a director. I began working in films as a writer. I was a journalist, and I started as a gag-man in some screenplays. Although I had the opportunity to go on set to talk to a director in correcting dialogue, I generally remained quite detached from the world of cinematography… Probably I became a director to engage in a very spontaneous vocation. And then, because of working in films as a writer, I was never satisfied at the way the directors for whom I wrote carried out the work. Suddenly one day I accepted a rash offer from a producer friend of mine and decided that I would do a film from a script that I had written. That’s how I became a director (Interviews54-55 emphasis mine).

During press interviews and at his very well advertised presentation in Kano in 2005 at a forum on Film and Literature, Ebereonwu said things that bear out his kinship with Federico Fellini. As a summation of his career and life, the movie industry was to him what it was for Fellini. When Fellini states that “then things began to roll, and now I am able to say that cinematography was the means to the realization notonly of the artist, but of the man, the realization of myself that seems more congenial to me. I wouldn’t know how to place myself in another kind of profession or human activity, other than that of making films” (Interviews 58), one realizes that this Fellini confession which sounds like the quintessential Ebereonwu is one major reason why Nollywood is in mourning. In life, Ebereonwu, whose works received rave reviews, wasalso like Fellini, in the Nigerian context, “one of the most sought-after men in (Lagos) for in interviews”. Shaibu Husseini featured him on his Celebrity page in The Guardian on Saturday at least twice which is rare for the move people Husseini promoted.

Similarly, Ebereonwu is not unlike Haile Gerima, the famous Ethiopian filmmaker and Director of Harvest. Ebereonwu shares with Gerima the view that the film medium can be considered as “the new Hydrogen Bomb”. It is this sensibility that made him follow the footsteps of his artistic forebears: Sembene Ousmane, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka and the late Ken Saro Wiwa. Here was a born artist and consummate auteur who took himself and his art seriously. It explains the reason why Ebereonwu’s straggling colleagues in ANA were always looking up to him as the likely instrument of their desired movement into the enchanting world of Nollywood.

Beyond the award wining Picadilly and some of his earlier films, Ebereonwu was at his best in producing those films a Bernardo Bertolucci would describe as “desperately autobiographical”. For Ebereonwu, this represents the phase of filmmaking where he claims to have let loose the demons of his earlier forced apprenticeship to the criminal world in Aba. However, as he learnt early enough in those heady and formative years where he consorted with big time criminals who couldn’t ‘claim him’, he was perceptive enough to appreciate as he wrote and made King of the Jungle that the average big time gangster has, to put it in James Hadley Chase’s classic phrase, “a short time to live”. While claiming that he preferred ‘committing’ crime through presentations on film, Ebereonwu also strove to demonstrate that crime does not pay. As with the moral drawn from the novels of James Hadley Chase, especially those that read like The Way The Cookie Crumbles, where in the long runthe Ticky Edris’s of this world would usually be humbled by the Sheriff, Ebereonwu in his crime and gangster films also demonstrated the truth of his real life experience, peering into the world of big time gangsters, that the days of the criminal were usually numbered.

Virtually every action taken by Ebereonwu had the touch of the rebel artist in it. At a time his colleagues and mates were lamenting the failed publishing industry, he took his destiny in his hands by heeding the late Prof. David Cook’s submission that “Young writers need alternative publishing outlet”. Such a predisposition accounts for Ebereonwu’s early appearance in 1995 under the imprint of the soon-to-be properly celebrated Kraft Books. Unlike several of his mates, Ebereonwu had the courage to dedicate his first poetry collection to Nzeogwu, Dimka, Vatsa and Orkar at a time it would be considered extremely risky so to do. In protesting a poetry style that he dismisses as one written in ‘algebraic English’, Ebereonwu in his three collections sought to redefine his idea of poetry by becoming the George Bernard Shaw of Nigerian poetry with catechismal and manifesto-oriented prefaces/preface poems. Despite the self-advertisement that may characterize such preface/prefatory statements, Ebereonwu in “what’s a poem”, “To an Unborn Poet (Unpublishable 14 &15) “The minstrel”, “Catharsis” (Suddenly 6 & 9), “Just a poet” and “Song of the insomniac” (Dragon 9;14-15) used his poems to demonstrate his thesis that “our ill-considered fixation with serious poetry has delimited our repertoire of poetry” (Unpublishable 10). Moreover, these poems advance his life long desire to “evolve a new spirit, a human spirit in Nigerian Poetry “(Unpublishable 12). Thus, just as his dress sense marked him out so did his approach to Poetry.

One thought on “Naming the Unnameable: A Memorial For Ebereonwu

  • pmdaboh@yahoo.com · Edit

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I had never heard of Paul Obinali Eberenowu, for I am an African American. Therefore, I looked him up on a website, and found more interesting facts as well. The website is: http://www.independentngonline.com/?c=45&a=25924.

    My husband is Nigerian and will be joining me in the states in June. Therefore, I am trying, through him, and many other ways, to find out more about Nigeria and Africa period.

    You wrote a very nice memorial to him.

    Reply

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