Obi Emelonye: Why I chose June 12 to release IBB’s biopic
Award-winning filmmaker, Obi Emelonye has a penchant for setting the pace when it comes to creative ventures. In this interview with SAM ANOKAM, he talks about filmmaking and his new film which is slated for premiere on June 12 in London after raising so much dust in Nigeria’s political circles.
HOW is the filmmaking business?
Like everything in the world today, it is undergoing a phenomenal transformation induced by technology; and one must adapt or drown.
Becoming a member of Directors UK as an African must have been tasking. How did you pull it off?
Directors UK is guild of UK directors, more like an exclusive club of the top filmmakers in the country; and while it is not a big deal to become a member of this guild for the average UK citizen, there is a difference when you are a resident or a black citizen making films, because it is doubly difficult. The criteria for membership are the things you are not given any opportunity whatsoever to attain, in other words, they are asking you for an experience when you have not been given the opportunity to even try to have; that makes it an impossible quest. It is one of those institutionally discriminatory organisations that create fences that make the guild egalitarian.
You have had a lot of challenges with your latest film, BADAMASI?
You are right. It has taken five years to get here. I went to the former President at his home in March of 2016. It was an uphill task getting him to relent from his natural suspicious attitude to open up to me, make himself vulnerable and trust me with his story. In addition to three years spent obtaining both the untold stories of his life and times and the expression and permission to use his name in my work, I faced a brick wall of resistance in my quest to release the film. So, to finally be making preparations for an audience to see the film on such a powerfully relevant date as June 12 fills me with great joy and excitement. The World Premiere of Badamasi is happening in the UK- at the classy Cineworld at the iconic London O2 Arena.
Could you relive some of these challenges?
When I set out to make a film about the man, I always knew that I would be courting controversy. What I did not anticipate was the kind of vitriol with which some parties will pursue their agenda of stopping the film from being released. There were threats of being beheaded, of being told that they would come to my house in London.
Why did you choose the date ‘June 12’ for this premiere?
Some people think that I made the choice to stoke political tensions or to reignite the debate about who owns the date- the aggrieved or the aggressor? But a great film in the wrong cycle will sink. What could be more apt than that a film which throws some light on the political and military scheming that brought forth the annulment is launched on Democracy Day in Nigeria? So, politically and historically, there is a correlation between the film and the date.
How would you classify the film?
At a time when history is no longer taught in our schools in Nigeria, at a time when Nigeria faces many challenges at the crossroads of economic sustenance and security survival, at a time when the unity of the country is negotiated across hardened ethnic lines, art must elevate to fill the void, tell us where the rain started beating us and force to see the futility and stupidity of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. As a work of art, it moves Nollywood towards an important genre- biopics. Our eyes are opened to the opportunity to tell our own stories by ourselves before expatriate foreigners tell it for us with an agenda. I am proud and humbled to have been given the right to make this film. It is the best I have made and the one I will be most remembered for in Nigeria.
IBB is known for his mercurial nature, how did you manage that?
A biopic deals with real life events concerning an individual and an exhaustive list of dramatis personae. In this case, the subject is alive. So, I approached IBB first to explain to him the importance of committing his history to film. A few books have been written about him but there’s a saying that if you want to keep something from a black man, hide it in a book. I explained to him that Nollywood, with its international strides in the past few years presents a unique opportunity to reach an expansive local and global audience with his story. I was not the first to approach him for that, but I guess, I was persistent, thoughtful and prepared. When he agreed for me to make the film, he sat down with me, together with his first son, Mohammed to entertain a no-holds barred interview session over a few nights in his home. It was on the basis of those interviews, as well reference to archival videos and books from his personal library, and interviews of family and associates that I built the narrative for the film, attempting to capture the essence of such a full life in just two hours of cinema. When I set out to do a biopic as my next film after Oxford Gardens, I considered a few national figures, past and present. I settled for IBB because his life reads like a Hollywood movie- full of military intrigue, drama, excitement, achievement, rise and fall. A character with heroic qualities who is also flawed like all of us. That is the stuff of dramas. Then his unique place in Nigerian history cannot be over-emphasised and there is the small matter of June 12.
What words would you use to describe him following your close encounters with him?
All the time I spent in his company, he remained inscrutable- smiling all the time and calling the hundreds that visited him every day with their first names. All I can say is that, whoever you are hearing about, there’s something about them. There is something that made this man rise through the army as he did. There’s something that has made every former associate or colleagues worship him as they still, even 28 years after leaving office. There’s also something that makes some people hate him with such venom. I hope as a filmmaker, I am able to capture all of these traits and special qualities as I unmask the man.
What do you think of him?
What I personally think about him does not matter. I think I owe it to my audience to put a mirror in front of the man and let them judge him themselves. This objective duty is reflected in the editorial choices that I have had to make in the film. But some people might reconsider their views of the man, for better or for worse, after seeing this film.
You have a stellar cast for the characters in the film, was it difficult to cast any of them for any particular role?
One of the most difficult casting decisions was to cast the lead role, the eponymous role in the film- IBB. Casting in biopics is a difficult art. The idea was to find an actor who was famous enough to carry the film but not usurp the character he is playing. We needed an actor who had artistic conviction in his craft but not to the point of being inflexible and unmalleable. Finally, we needed an actor who shared some physical attributes with IBB without looking like a caricature of the man. Enyinna Nwigwe fitted that bill to a T. His performance on the film has won him an AMAA 2020 award nomination for Actor in a Leading Role, justifying Enyinna’s wholehearted approach to the role and vindicating the gut feelings of my team and I.
As a Nigerian, what did Nigeria lose following the June 12 saga?
As a Nigerian that lived through those times, (In fact I nearly missed my flight to London in July of 1993 because of the riots) I have a personal opinion about the June 12 saga. But my responsibility as a creative lead at the helm of a story of that epoch forbids me from making personal comments. I have looked at the history and the politics and the personal relationships that resulted in that event from an unbiased and critical perspective, as an Igbo man living in London and making universal films. That is what makes the film an interesting watch because it does not suffer from contaminations based on sentiments, politics or ethnicity. It is as neutral as a work of art can be.
How much did this project cost?
It is the most difficult and most expensive film I have made to date. I hope it becomes the most rewarding financially and critically.
Which personalities do you owe your gratitude as regards this film?
Always, my gratitude starts with God. I would like to thank Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida for entrusting his story in the hands of an Igbo man he barely knows. He never even read the script and up till now has only watched the first hour of the film. I would like to thank his staff for their warmth and friendship. I would also like to thank my family- my wife and my children who tolerated me as I was consumed with this job for years; my brothers and my sisters for their love and encouragement. I couldn’t have made this film by myself. My small team of experienced professionals was there. I thank Bedmate Furniture Company for their invaluable location support.