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‘For Maria’: The Damilola Orimogunje Led-Team Has Scored A Netflix Hit.
The Nigerian audience has consistently been accused of supporting tired comedy stories over well-told films. The debate resurfaced recently, and a few days after, an art-house film For Maria: Ebun Pataki began trending at number one on Netflix, having climbed steadily with the immense support of the same Nigerian audience.
Although incredibly grateful for this support, the director, Damilola Orimogunje, was skeptical that the film, which treats the heavy subject of postpartum depression, would struggle to find a home with the often enigmatic Nigerian audience. It did not.
“I was quite skeptical about the reception in a way,” Orimogunje says as we chat over Twitter Space. “Not because of the story but because of the style in which the film was made. It defies the style with which most Nigerian films are being made. I have always said that Nollywood deserves different genres, different styles of filmmaking.”
He explained that some of his past works generated mixed reviews because of the style. So it made sense that he was a bit scared that the audience might not take to this film, but he is happy to be wrong. “I am overwhelmed and I am also really glad that people really get to see the film and understand this work. Not just the story or postpartum depression, but essentially because people watch it and comment on the shot, the picture, the music.”
Orimogunje is a big fan of foreign language films. It is mostly where he draws his inspiration from and his influences are from different cinemas across the world. “I have been practicing my craft over the years with shots, with different mediums of filmmaking and video. With this film, I knew that I had to come in with everything I have learnt and everything I have come to know as my style as a filmmaker,” he noted.
A project like this takes a village and a leader with a clear vision, which usually begins from the story idea. When he stumbled on conversations around postpartum depression, he shared it with Tunray Femi and together, they co-wrote the screenplay. The simple goal was to tell a story highlighting the severity of postpartum depression and how it is handled in a society like Nigeria, often because of a lack of awareness.
Co-writer, Femi, also did not know much about the subject until she was called to work on For Maria. Explaining the writing process, she said, “I had an idea what postpartum depression was but I didn't know that women had to go through all of that. I think I was just really ignorant of how popular it is because I spoke to a few friends who had experienced it at some point.
“So I did my research, wrote it and sent it to Dami. He looked over and sent it over for the second draft. I think he wrote the third draft. We were sort of ready to just fly with it but it was a beautiful process. I personally like rebellious projects and it is not your usual Nollywood film but we were going to make it anyway so this was a project I loved. Working with Dami was really lovely. We bounced ideas off each other.
“The writing process was weird. Talking about something like postpartum depression and for some reason, I don't recall a moment where writing that was maybe sad or depressing. I was just really excited about it and just happy to put it out there. Happy to tell someone; I was happy while I was writing it,” she added.
Yet, For Maria is a moody story and the weight of the emotions the characters experience is filmed raw for you to see and feel too. Every bit of this was deliberately done by Orimogunje, who terms it “an intimate story.”
“The script is very short. I can reference some films that inspired me when I wanted to make these films. First, kudos to Andrew Dosumu for ‘Mother of George’, one of my favourite Nigerian films and it has similar themes and tones to ‘For Maria’. With this film, I knew I needed to tell the story in a stylized way. I also understand that it is a depressing, sad film. While you are depressed, I want you to enjoy it. To be colourful but not enough to distract you from the essence of the film. I want to focus on what essentially matters. The shots are designed to help you know what is going through the mind of the person,” he said.
Apart from the shots, the natural feel of the locations and the music, For Maria features some outstanding performances. Everyone nailed their roles, from Meg Otanwa and Gabriel Afoloyan, who play the new parents, Derin and Fola, to Tina Mba, Demi Banwo and Judith Audu, who play friends of the couple, to the babies who starred as the titular Maria.
Casting was done by Orimogunje, who was assisted by Otanwa. He initially wanted to make the film an Igbo language film and while Otanwa was already cast to play Derin, the new mother, the search for an Igbo-speaking actor to play Fola took longer than expected. They spoke to about 30 actors for the role but it did not work out. So, they had to restrategize and reset it as a Yoruba-inspired film.
“On casting, Tina Mba was a straight choice. I think she is brilliant, kills every role and is underrated. She was originally supposed to speak Igbo in the film. For the male character, I wanted a particular actor for it and it did not work out. We were looking for Igbo actors that I was comfortable with. I was looking for that natural attribute. It's not about being melodramatic. It is about the subtlety of it.
“At one point, Meg and I worked on the casting and set it in a Yoruba home. Then the first person that came to mind was Gabriel. I really wanted to work with him. Judith is family. We worked on a project before. I just gave her a call. I saw Demi in a short film with Nengi Adoki and I was impressed. He just had the talent I was looking for - the natural feel. They came, understanding the assignment. They worked tirelessly. They gave me everything. These are professionals,” he added.