It is not uncommon to see Nigerians and Africans resident abroad flying back home to shoot a movie. This is just one of the great ripple effects of the Nollywood project. It has woken filmmakers who otherwise would have continued to think movie-making is too expensive to embark upon. Meet Azubuike Erinugha:
Sola Osofisan: From my interactions with you, one would have expected you to direct your own movie. Instead, you produce and write. What do you think the director, Obi Emelonye, brings to the production that Azubuike Erinugha couldn’t have?
Azubuike Erinugha: I originally planned to direct The Asylum till I spoke with Obi Emelonye (a UK based editor and director) on the project. After reading the script, Obi came up with very imaginative angles for the film. Although his proposals differ from ideas already written in the screenplay, I knew immediately that his reasoning and logic will spark an unusual moment in The Asylum. He made me see his movies like The Successor, Echoes of War and Lucky Joe. Since Obi has more directing experience, and I wouldn’t want my movies to be one-sided as a couple Nollywood movies, we then agreed he come in as director. This provided review of ideas with objective criticisms providing the brand new concept that we see today in The Asylum.
Sola Osofisan: Let’s talk more about this “brand new concept”. I’ve heard that said often about Nollywood movies, and they often turn out to be the same old thing. Your storyline already qualifies, since it is based in a mental asylum. What else makes this movie new?
Azubuike Erinugha: One needs to see The Asylum to appreciate the novel concept we used. What we have done is blending seriousness with comedy to achieve a unique genre, a unique style of satire. Humour is used in sugar coating pieces of message that otherwise could have been too dry for our kind of audience. There are psychological and psychiatric moments switching lanes in convincing pace aiming at socio-political and economic criticism. It has already been described as an intellectual comedy. The most outstanding element of The Asylum is the use of serious characters in comic roles and vice versa. We want to prove that one does not need to be just drunk, stupid or dysfunctional in order to make us laugh. That is the problem with our Nollywood comedy filmmakers who have refused to see a comic lawyer, doctor or even a comic governor. The Asylum breaks the static rules with creating comedians out of political assassins, unemployed graduates, reggae musicians, motor mechanics, pastors and even university professors! This is carefully done without losing the message. Another thing that makes this movie new is the soundtrack. I would not want to take our time on this. A visit to the movie´s website tells it all.
Sola Osofisan: What struck a chord with you about the three Emelonye movies you mentioned earlier?
Azubuike Erinugha: The unconventional camera angles. I personally see film as art. As a student of literature, I value my poetic license. I do not believe that any work of art should have a rule clipping an artist’s wings of creativity. I like flexible directors who do not just mount cameras on tripods and yell action! and after that they will move the camera towards the actors for close up shots. Obi and I kept awake most nights discussing his shots, not just in The Asylum, but in other movies – especially up coming ones. He is also a DOP (Director of Photography). Sometimes he takes the camera from the DOP who is also very good. But Obi finds it difficult sometimes to explain what he wants to the DOP instead of wasting time, he takes the steadyCAM and takes those shots swimming in his head. By the way, most of his shots are dollied, steadycamed or craned. In his movies mentioned earlier, the audio-sound are great and shots were not exactly taken off tripods. Maybe that struck the chord.
Sola Osofisan: The first excuse a typical Nollywood video filmmaker will give you for not attempting intellectual comedy is that the average viewer of Nigerian movies will not get it, and that such comedy belong on stage. In your view, did you guys manage to break down the academics of it to bits of easily digested visuals and sound?
Azubuike Erinugha: Those filmmakers will not attempt intellectual comedy because they refuse to seek services of creative writers. That is the major issue with Nollywood. And that is why most of the movies come out looking like others before them. We have a couple of creative writers but no one will give them a job to write. Instead the said filmmakers either try to write the scripts themselves or engage some funny people who know nothing about characterisation. I asked a writer in Lagos what he understood by democratisation of language and he was laughing thinking I was cracking a joke. The truth is we do not have comedy writers. Some producers see a successful comedy film and rush to do exactly the same thing that is why comedy ends with people like Nkem Owoh, John Okafor, Aki and PawPaw, Papy Luwe, etc. In The Asylum we made sure every scene has sustaining jokes from beginning to end. That is the secret: not keeping the audience waiting a long time for another laugh. The language is still broken down to normal life so nobody notices any intellectualism. It is now left for critics like you and other intellectuals to sift the politics and intellectualism in the movie and this could take a long time after watching the movie.
Sola Osofisan: Where did the idea for The Asylum come from?
Azubuike Erinugha: The idea came right after an argument with my very good friend, Chike Bryan (a Nollywood writer and director) that there is no way one can escape making a hospital scene less boring. I disagreed and told him it depends on the writer’s style. A writer should get his content intact before applying style to convey the message (content). The message at the back of my mind is political awareness. How can one marry both and still remain relevant? The answer is comedy. And since I do not believe that comedy must be stupid I have to create my own style going back to my satire lessons. In The Asylum, politics is discussed without boredom and comedian are made out of stars like Patience Ozokwor, Enebeli Elebuwa, Sandra Achums, Ofia Afuluagu Mbaka and even action actor, Emma Ehumadu (Totolos, Labista). They are not necessarily comedians. We achieved this with catalysing established comic, Okey Bakassi. The whole idea apart from the unique story is also to bring new style into Nollywood.
Sola Osofisan: Are you based in Canada or in Germany?
Azubuike Erinugha: I shuttle between Canada and Germany. My business and studies are in Montreal. I am currently teaching while researching for a German foundation in Erfurt, Germany.
Sola Osofisan: What’s the reception to Nigerian and African movies like in Germany and Canada?
Azubuike Erinugha: The life style in Germany affects reception owing to language and cultural differences. The cinema culture here does not encourage immigrant Africans. Germans are prepared to watch Nollywood and African films with standard picture and sound qualities especially if dubbed in Deutsch (not just subtitles). We in Towncrier International have adopted a special distribution approach in Germany, Austria and Italy quite different from UK and Canada plans. Reception in Canada is more encouraging because of the large African and West Indian immigrant communities who quickly integrate into North American cinema culture.
Sola Osofisan: Let’s talk about Nollywood briefly. I know this is a passion of yours. What is your assessment of the current state of the industry and what role do you think Diaspora Nigerian filmmakers like yourself can play to move us from where we are now, whatever the direction, as long as we move…
Azubuike Erinugha: Nollywood industry represents realities of the larger society. As soon as structures are put into place the system will begin to work. I do not want to see myself as a Diaspora filmmaker but the so called Diaspora filmmakers should first of all consider distribution and marketing plans before making movies. They need to come home and study the industry proper before trying to make films from their American or European cities. I recently met one Diaspora filmmaker in Toronto. He spent over 45,000 CAN$ to make a film that never sold one copy. Why? He filled the movie with white and African American actors and actresses speaking “Americana”. Another group made their own hard currency movie in Hamburg, Germany. No sales either. But someone like China will make a film with Aki and PawPaw with Amechi Muonagor and will sell tons with less budget. Some of our Diaspora people think because they live abroad they have solutions to the problem. They are not helping matters. If they really want to make a change and take Nollywood to a new direction, alternative distribution (is the key).
Sola Osofisan: But however we choose to slice it, Nollywood is altogether a wonderful development, right? For Nigeria and Africa? And it is here to stay, right?
Azubuike Erinugha: One thing I am very proud of is being an African especially a Nigerian. For Nollywood to come out of Nigeria is the new revelation. The industry has not even started. The whole world will not believe what they are about to experience. Shame will catch CNN and other western media in the habit of painting Nigeria evil. Every African and Nigerian should be real proud of Nollywood and its off shoots in Ghana, Uganda and other African states.
Sola Osofisan: Let’s get back to The Asylum. How soon are we likely to see it on the video shelves in different parts of the world?
Azubuike Erinugha: We are doing our best to reach our international screen goals in London and Ireland, Montreal, Toronto and Calgary, Maryland, Venice, Barcelona and few cities in Germany. In Germany we are negotiating with a 77-kino network that wants the movie dubbed in Deutsch. As soon as we near completing these set tasks, The Asylum will enter VCD levels for viewers who miss the big screen events.
Sola Osofisan: Is the rampant piracy of Nigerian movies giving you any concern for your investment?
Azubuike Erinugha: It is a huge shame that nothing much is done about piracy especially the online stretches. Towncrier International has already put in place huge legal facilitated plans to check piracy in the Quebec province of Canada. We are working towards the Ontario and Alberta provinces and woe betide any one unlucky to be caught in this act with any Nollywood movie we are representing. All we need is just one pirate that’s all. Just one. We are working on the same in Germany right now. The issue of piracy can be solved if the owners of these pirated products actually seek education in this field. Everybody keep screaming piracy! piracy!! But what are we doing about it? We all scream and go back to bed. All we need is to prosecute just one pirate and it will reduce significantly in these provinces of Canada.
Sola Osofisan: To conclude, tell us about Azubuike Erinugha and how he found himself straddling the academia and mass consumer world of video movies?
Azubuike Erinugha: A regular guy heavily influenced by Esiaba Irobi’s avant gardist movement and the dialecticism of my favourite teacher Udenta O Udenta. I was also initiated into writing and theatre by Chris Abani and this same Obi Emelonye who was coming to our school then from UNN. When I left Naija, I abandoned arts and went into transmission and management. Today I am glad I can diversify enough to include my original passion into my academic career. It is only in the past that academics remain Marxists. Most professors I know are also entrepreneurs. Above all, the situation of our country needs the assistance of all of us. It is my belief that we all can help through various means. Filmmaking is going to be my own contribution. My themes will not only treat social experience but will also explore the actual engagement, involvement and empowerment of the young people.