Oliver Mbamara: From “This America” to “Slave Warrior”

by Sola Osofisan
oliver mbamara

Oliver Mbamara’s self-produced movies are doing well in the United States. A lawyer and poet, Mbamara’s comedic chops are bringing him a different kind of attention nowadays.

Sola Osofisan: Before we talk about anything else, what’s going on with the concluding part of THIS AMERICA, the comedy movie you made with Bethels Agomuoh?

We are presently working on the sequel. It promises to be even more exciting and in fact an improvement on the first one.

Sola Osofisan: I still have friends trying to sneak that DVD out of my collection. How did you guys tap so riotiously into the comic elements obviously in the interactions between an African fresh from the Continent and Americans?

Oliver Mbamara: Thank you for the compliment. It’s nice coming from a fellow filmmaker in Diaspora. We simply took some of the experiences of many of us (African immigrants) and tried to tell the story in a lighter without leaving out the serious impacts of these experiences on our lives as a people.

Sola Osofisan: Did you ever release THIS AMERICA outside the United States? In Nigeria and other parts of Africa perhaps?

Oliver Mbamara: Not yet. We are hoping a release in Nigeria and other parts of Africa will precede the sequel.

Sola Osofisan: What has public reaction been so far to the movie?

Oliver Mbamara: Public response to THIS AMERICA has been very reactionary. Controversial yet candid, embracing and encouraging at the same time.

Sola Osofisan: How come you did not make your latest movie, SLAVE WARRIOR, with Bethels, your partner from THIS AMERICA? You guys had creative differences?

Oliver Mbamara: No, we did not have creative differences. Remember we are still 9 to 5 workers. So there is a limit to how much vacation time we can have to go to Africa and shoot these movies. My African Film Company partners, Bethels and Citor Felix did not have enough vacation time to travel to Africa and shoot SLAVE WARRIOR with me at the relevant time, but they participated fully in the New York segment.

Sola Osofisan: Did you just say “travel to Africa”? You’re beginning to sound like a man who has been too long in America o. The average Nigerian man would say “travel to Nigeria”, not “Africa”. Even your profile online says “Oliver O. O. Mbamara is originally from Nigeria”. “Originally”? How long have you been living in America? And have you really kept in touch with your Nigerian roots?

Oliver Mbamara: Haba, Sola! You know the new wave of African filmmaking has expanded beyond Nigeria to other countries like Ghana and we are no longer limiting ourselves to the Nigerian context. In fact, the plan is to take the second or third part of the SLAVE WARRIOR trilogy to the popular slave castle in Ghana, if we get the necessary encouragement from sponsors.

Regarding the phrase “originally from Nigeria,” in a world where many Africans are living and taking up citizenships abroad (in Diaspora), it is helpful to emphasize where one is actually from if one is really proud of his origins. I keep in touch with my Nigerian roots and if you look at my poems and other writings, you will notice that I feel strongly about Nigeria. I spend my end of year celebrations in Nigeria and that has helped keep me refreshed in our culture and also helped me retain my Nigerian accent, which you probably observed in my role in the movie, THIS AMERICA.

Sola Osofisan: You are an actor, playwright, film director, published poet, web administrator, writer, and in the 9 to 5 daytime hours, a Jurist and Attorney. What’s up? Are you trying to embarrass the rest of us?

Oliver Mbamara: You sure did your research, but no, I am not trying to embarrass anyone. I am sure there are many people out there who do far more than I do. It just happens that even when I don’t want to talk about some of the things I do, people always asked about them. For instance while some people are interested in my poems, others are more interested in my essays, or my books, or my films, and so on. Only last week, I met a gentleman who said he has been a fan of my writings for years. He stated that he realizes that filmmaking could be taking more of my time, but he wanted me to write even more essays/articles. Somehow, by way of fate, I got into all these endeavors and each of them has developed its own following that I can’t ignore even if I wanted. It was in order to simplify and coordinate these endeavors, that the website www.OliverMbamara.com was created. I am ever grateful to God that I am able to do these things but remember they have their prizes too.

Sola Osofisan: Seriously though, let’s look at all these areas of endeavour that you are excelling in. Which one started you on your journey? And how did one progress into the other, until you are wearing the multiple hats today?

Oliver Mbamara: Thank you. I like your use of the term “journey” because to me, that is what life is about. I remember liking and engaging in concerts when I was very young, and when college time came, I was determined to study theater arts but my family insisted that I should study law. Even when I graduated and was practicing law, I was also writing poems, scripts, and even taking part in stage performances. A little more than a decade ago, just before the Nollywood phenomenon was to explode, I had got together with some friends like Sanctus Okereke (Director of Jaja of Opobo) and started shooting a film titled “The Wheel of Eighty Four,” but before we could conclude it, fate rather than design got me traveling to the United States. To enable myself and others with similar creative thoughts express themselves, I started publishing websites for poems, inspirational articles, African arts, culture, and more. More importantly, as a writer I decided to document my immigrant experiences and those of my friends by writing the novel “Conflicts of An Immigrant.” Then I met with Bethels and Felix and we decided to turn it into a movie THIS AMERICA. Subsequently, I decided to write the story and make the film SLAVE WARRIOR so as to address the distance and historical literary vacuum that I noticed was existing between black immigrants born/raised in Africa and blacks born in America but who are descendants of blacks brought from Africa to the Americas as slaves.

Sola Osofisan: This is the first I am hearing of “Conflicts of an Immigrant”. Is it a published novel?

Oliver Mbamara: That is the title I gave the story when I wrote it initially. The original intention to publish it as a book/novel was overtaken by the decision to make the story into a film – THIS AMERICA. I still intend to publish it someday as some people really want to enjoy the story as a novel or literary piece.

Sola Osofisan: You scripted, star, produced and directed SW. You probably wore a bunch of other unaccredited hats. Each of these responsibilities on its own is a full time job. Tell us about the days you seriously regretted combining these roles.

Oliver Mbamara: There were some interesting moments about combining the roles, but I never regretted these responsibilities perhaps because I knew what I was getting into. That helped me prepare and anticipate the challenges. Besides, I have learned that regrets are a waste of time and energy. It is better to simply accept the situation, learn the lessons involved, and concentrate on dealing with it and moving on.

Sola Osofisan: Did budgetary constraints have something to do with you taking on the multiple jobs on SW, or you just didn’t think anyone could have done it like you wanted it done?

Oliver Mbamara: I wasn’t thinking that no one could do it better. When one’s resources are limited, one has to make do with what is available and that could mean combining roles where getting someone else to do it is not really necessary in the circumstance. The good thing is that one gets more creative when resources seem limited, and one becomes more appreciative of the gifts and little things of life. I had some wonderful supporting crew that really did a wonderful job for which I will always remain grateful. I could not have done it alone. Honestly, I feel blessed for having the cast and crew I had (and have). I wish I could list them all here but when you watch the end of the movie, SLAVE WARRIOR, you will notice that the credits run for about three minutes. There were over a hundred and fifty people to thank.

Sola Osofisan: In your view, which is SW closer to, history or entertainment? Is that what you were trying to achieve?

Oliver Mbamara: SLAVE WARRIOR is both historical and entertaining. I tried to make each facet ride on the back of the other.

Sola Osofisan: I asked that question because SW is described as “The African Rambo” in your print adverts. Don’t you run the risk of losing the market that would be interested in the movie as historical material by equating it with “Rambo”, a character that is more symbolic of pure entertainment American style?

Oliver Mbamara: Indeed, we did not start off calling or describing the movie by that appellation. At first we tried to shy away from it but then different viewers and critics we met at the festivals and Premiere screenings of the film, were elated in their comparison of the Warrior’s heroics to that of Rambo and even Tarzan all in a positive way. And these were not only Caucasians and African American critics but also even some respectable intellectuals of the African community in Diaspora such as Dr. Chika Onyeani of Africa Sun Times and Cletus Olebune of nel-m.org. Eventually, we decided to embrace the appellation. Let us remember that although both Rambo and Tarzan had American or Western genetics, they stood out in their adventures because of their knowledge and command of the jungle. This is the context in which these critics looked at Ike, the Warrior in SLAVE WARRIOR. – a brave person who is in command of the jungle and well versed on how to survive by taking advantage of nature’s elements like plants, trees, mountains, caves, rivers, and more. Interestingly, this perspective has actually won for the movie, fans that would have dismissed it as a mere African story. This blend of the entertainment and historical angles has actually brought a mixed race and generation of fans for the movie.

Sola Osofisan: Well, that said, I should commend the way you shot the jungle chase sequences. It was really exciting.

Oliver Mbamara: Thank you very much. We tried to be as real as we could. We used real life machetes, bushes, mountains, caves, and rivers. It took months for my feet to heal after running around the bush bare-footed. We did not have the Hollywood type of budgetary convenience to recreate a safer jungle or body parts and we did not use any stuntmen. We did what we could but I am most grateful to God that we experienced no serious injuries.

Sola Osofisan: You live here in the United States. It is uncommon to get movies running into multiple parts here. Your two movies to date run into multiple parts, something Nollywood is notoriously known for. Are we to think your filmmaking influences lean more to Nollywood than Hollywood?

Oliver Mbamara: Permit me to correct an impression here. Some stories cannot be told in two hours or less. Therefore sequels become necessary in such cases. The end could have a twist that would make the viewer yearn for more but the film has to stand on its own as an individual piece. If you think of it, many notable movies in Hollywood history had/have sequels. Star Wars, Rambo, Rocky, Terminator, Lord of The Rings, Harry Porter, Blade, Mission Impossible, Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13, Pirates of The Caribbean, and many others. These were all blockbusters and each developed a following and a fan base that kept asking for more. In fact Sylvester Stallone is currently working on the fourth Rambo installment while Harrison Ford is working on another Indiana Jones movie. The concern is not in the sequel as a continuation structure but in the substance of the content that makes up the sequel(s). It is a concern when scenes are intentionally but unnecessarily extended or repeated just to stretch them enough to get a part two or part three. By doing that, the filmmaker subjects the viewer to boring and repetitive scenes. In both THIS AMERICA and SLAVE WARRIOR we had ample footage and opportunities to make each one run into two parts and be sold as two different movies, but instead we chose to cut down the story to fall within two hours and be put into a single disc and sold as single movie. If you noticed, in SLAVE WARRIOR, the average scene lasted less than two minutes.

Sola Osofisan: So, what do we call Africa-themed movies made by Africans in the Diaspora? There is a lot of Nollywood and Hollywood influences in the end product, but these movies are not mainstream Nollywood or Hollywood. Where do you belong, Oliver?

Oliver Mbamara: I don’t have a name for it. Some people have tried to coin names for it, and maybe someday someone would come up with a name that fits, but I think we are simply a blend of both Nollywood and Hollywood. Perhaps we are here to bridge the gap between Nollywood and Hollywood.

Sola Osofisan: What plans do you have for the DVD release of SLAVE WARRIOR?

Oliver Mbamara: Well, we have just released the SLAVE WARRIOR DVD in the USA and presently working on releasing it in Canada by next week. We hope to release it soon in African Countries beginning with Nigeria. Meanwhile, the DVD can be obtained online at www.SlaveWarrior.com and additional information can be obtained by calling the number 718 617 6077. Actually our focus now is on the sequel to THIS AMERICA which Bethels, Felix, and myself are currently working on. We will soon announce plans for the making of the second installment of the SLAVE WARRIOR adventure. In the meantime, we welcome any sponsors or promoters who would want to be part of these subsequent movies.

Sola Osofisan: Oliver, a final question. I see Regina Askia is also in SW? How did you get her back into acting? And who else is in the movie?

Oliver Mbamara: I guess Regina liked the story and felt it was a good project to identify with. She still loves acting and that was helpful in getting her to act in Slave Warrior. It was nice working with Regina Askia and you probably would be seeing her in a lot more of our films. There are a number of other Nigerian (Nollywood) veterans in the film such as Fabian Adibe, Don Nkoloagu, David Ihese, and Charles Mbamara who played the role of Agu, the Warrior’s nemesis. We also have a few American Caucasian actors like Guile Branco and Anthony Gasbarri. And we have other talented Africans like Eric Chifunda of Zambia and Manguehy of Ivory Coast. There are many others I don’t have the room to list.

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