The story of Ebereonwu who was born as Paul Obinali Ebereonwu is one that reads like a classic legend. It is the story of a young man who sought to conquer the world by pursuing his professional interest in remarkable ways. Here was a young talent who strove to make a mark in the four major areas that he plied his trades: Poetry, Drama, Scriptwriting and Directing. Ebereonwu’s is the relatively unbelievable story of a scriptwriter who moved from what he considered the peanuts of not knowing the meaning of royalty for his poetry and drama, through
N25, 000 for a film script in 1996 to roughly N350, 000 a script by 2006.
Beyond his peculiar dressing that stood him out in all the Association of Nigerian Authors’ gatherings he attended, Ebereonwu made himself a phenomenon in other ways. Long before he preached about the relationship between scriptwriting and poetry or on the need to market creative writing the Nollywood way, Ebereonwu had as far back as 1997 printed huge posters with his face adorning same in order to publicize his books the way only a film-oriented intelligence would. No doubt, the many-sided story of the poet, dramatist, Scriptwriter, Producer and Director who gave us King of the Jungle reputed to have sold over two hundred thousand copies can only be told in bits, depending on the angle of the ranconteur.
Ebereonwu is like my late friend and mentor, Ezenwa Ohaeto, one fellow one would not like to describe in the past. Although I have known Ebereonwu for only ten years, he has always appeared to me like someone one has always known from infancy. The periods I have spent with Ebereonwu were as exciting as they were challenging. The same can be said of the kind of life he lived and the careers he pursued.
At the International Conference Centre, Abuja, venue of International Book Fair, in May 2002, Ebereonwu was at his usual best. “Amanze, why you dey buy books on film? Come make I teach you film”. Provocatively down to earth; that is what Ebereonwu was. He believed in his talent as a major Screenwriter, Producer and Director. Somehow, I refused to be drawn into Ebereonwu’s arguments about his mastery of the film idiom and when I finally found myself sharing the same hotel room with him, in Abuja later in the night, I preferred our venturing into an x-ray of the literary culture in Nigeria. It was one of those exceptional encounters where I moderated the exchanges involving Ebereonwu, Emeka Egwuda, Dr. Dul Johnson and myself. Among the issues Ebereonwu spoke about with passion are the problems of publishing and the critical reception of new Nigerian writing. Ebereonwu also lamented what he, like other members of his generation, saw as the insensitivity of Nigerian Governments to matters of literary production.
Prior to the Soyinka Colloquium at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in August, 2006 Ebereonwu had called me on phone and teasingly addressed me thus: “sir, this is one Mr. Ebereonwu” He was enquiring about my postal address so that he can mail his last two drama texts to me, a rare privilege if one considers the production context of these books. Here is an Ebereonwu who has literally made sure that I was privileged to get, and relatively early enough, complimentary copies of virtually all his books starting from his first poetry collection, Suddenly God was Naked, which he gave me a properly autographed copy in Ilesha in 1999. The same goes for Cobweb Seduction, his first play which he claimed was the greatest comedy of our time and which I introduced to my students for a Drama and Theatre course at the Abia State University, Uturu in 2002. Next were his two other poetry collections, The Insomniac Dragon and Unpublishable Poems, relatively weird titles which ensured that Ebereonwu would remain in the public eye. After pasting the massive photograph poster adverts that he gave me in Abuja in November, 1997 in my office, I was excitedly looking forward to inviting the self-made Screenwriter, Producer and Director to my University base where my students had already taken a fancy to him, a fact they displayed when some of them met him in Asaba in 2002 during that year’s ANA convention. This is especially because at least twelve seminar questions were asked around Ebereonwu’s Cobweb Seduction when I taught this text to my students.
In retrospect, when I read through Ebereonwu’s words in the books he autographed to me, I feel that here was an unusual character who despite his supposedly tempestuous exterior treasures the intimacy of an academic relationship. As early in the day as our meeting in Ilesha, he wrote as follows in the copy of Suddenly God was Naked he signed for me on the 29th October, 1999, “to Austin Akpuda, compliment to one of us. Spread the gospel to the people of Abia State. Thanks”. When he signed the autograph of The Insomniac Dragon on 2 Nov, 2001, he states thus: “special compliment to a teacher of the next generation, Amanze Akpuda”. For Cobweb Seduction given me on 18/05/02, Ebereonwu writes as follows: “To a friend and colleague. Austine Akpuda extra compliments”. Additional to this was our dear Ebereonwu’s scribbling of his v-mobile phone number on the copy of the book he released to me. Similarly, when on 1stAugust, 2006 he sent me two copies each of his last two published drama texts, Nero’s Lodge and Bread of Parapos both published in 2006 by Homemade Books, he wrote in Nero’s Lodge “Akpuda Austine Intellectual Compatriot. Regards”. And in what turns out to be his valedictory and challenging statement to me, Ebereonwu in the autograph to Bread of Parapos writes thus: “To Austin Akpuda the ball of tomorrow is in your court”. He had a way about him that would surprise and puzzle anyone who came around him. One could see from some of the above statements that Ebereonwu merely put up an exterior posture to deliberately distance himself from those who should be distanced. It was not until Ebereonwu wrote a scathing critique of the works of his generation of writers that I realized how much he rated my efforts, especially when he remarked that I never allow issues of convenience and money to stop my research. Here was a soulmate whose evaluations could be as serious as his outward show of an unbounded sense of gaiety.
While savouring Ebereonwu’s seemingly bizarre but beautiful signature on Nollywood starting from Beyond the Vow, my acquaintance with his irreverentialpoem on a Bishop made it easy for me to appreciate the depth of Ebereonwu’s iconoclasm. At a time some people, holier than thou as usual, were asking for Ebereonwu’s head for scripting the damning but humanly Beyond the Vow which appeared to scandalize the clergy, it took the intervention of a very highly placed and respectable then Archbishop Anthony Olubunmi Okogie to assert that there was nothing criminal with a film that satirized some of the anomalies of some Reverend Fathers and Sisters. Thus, contrary to the viewpoint of our Taliban-oriented censors, Ebereonwu’s radical film showcased by the usually daring Gabosky got a proper clean bill of health. Today, Beyond the Vow can easily qualify as a teaching text that would make people appreciate what temptations come the way of Reverend Fathers who by the way are mortals. In identifying with the filmic freedom and truth of Beyond the Vow, then Archbishop Okogie was following the footsteps of Albino Luciani, known as Pope John Paul I. in his day the late Pope not only commended the brilliance of Belli, the famous Roman Dialect poet who savaged Pope Gregory XVI in his verses, but also addressed why there could be imperfect Christians in our world. Thus, in his letter to Pinocchio, apopular fictional character and eponymous protagonist of a novel by Collodi, pseudonym of the Florentine writer, Carlo Lorenzetti (1828-1890), Luciani, the late Pope John Paul I recognizes that just as “the Church has existed for two thousand years and the world is still full of thieves, adulterers, assassins”, it does not mean that the church should be discountenanced. As the late Pope argues: “in other words: there have been bad Popes, bad Priests, bad Catholics. But what does this mean? That the Gospel has been applied? No, that, on the contrary, in these cases the Gospel has not been applied” (78).
Ebereonwu was a passionate believer in the power of the screen to expose the different aspects of our pretentious society. As with Beyond the Vow,Ebereonwu also accomplishes this feat in his film, King of the Jungle, where he artistically immortalizes as never before the stunts of the notorious Jango of the Enyimba criminal Jungle. As a promotional move, he would tell his teeming admirers in interviews that there is something biographical about his approach to filmmaking. For him, his early exposure to the world of criminals has made him stigmatize in a Dickensian manner such remnants of a better forgotten world. And for our insomniac Dragon, the theme song of his King of the Jungle, where he directed some of the best artists in the industry, became an instant hit and youth anthem the way Majek Fashek’s “Send Down the Rain” of old was coveted. It is difficult to view the intense story of the big time gangster and passionate lover Jango who melted at the sight of his adoring wife without being moved.
However, despite the empathy one may have for the criminal Jango because he is presented as one who has some emotions in other areas, Ebereonwu in King of the Jungle does not fit into those “directors and critics who”, according to Pope John Paul I, “believe they can redeem an entire pornographic film with a final moralistic sequence or speech, added like a sprinkle of holy water, as exorcism and counterspell” (Illustrissimi 48). Rather, as the ideology behind the film shows, Ebereonwu agrees with the Pope’s thesis that “since the province of art is all reality, that artists can legitimately and very freely narrate, depict, describe everything, including evil…but in such a way that it appears an evil to flee, that cannot be believed good, that is not beautified and does not inspire others to repeat it or imitate it” (47). The life lived on the edge and what befall Jango and his group are too ominous to encourage any normal human being to emulate the Jangos of this world.