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Ema Edosio Has A Message For Young Filmmakers
The talented Ema Edosio talks about her new film Otiti and navigating Nollywood.
Ema Edosio is passionate about showing the other paths to building a Nollywood career. It is a mission born from the desire to nurture fresh voices and prevent them from being stifled, a calamity she knows too well. After years of making wedding videos and being a director-for-hire, Edosio wanted to make her own film, with the creative freedom to be as authentic as possible. That film became Kasala.
It followed four boys going about their day in the streets of Lagos. It was novel, brilliant and bitingly funny. The kind of innovative idea people crave at our cinemas. But it was rejected by exhibitors in a manner that left a sour taste.
“You should have seen how it was turned down in the cinemas,” Edosio tells me via Zoom. “There was no encouragement from anywhere. You take it to these people, and they don’t even see the craft in the film.”
The rejection by exhibitors would turn into a blessing when someone encouraged her to take the festival route. Edosio hesitated because she thought film festivals were only for well-established filmmakers, but it was in the festival circuit that Kasala blossomed.
“This film started travelling,” she recalls fondly. “It just started going viral and getting critical acclaim. I asked myself, ‘what if it had stayed on the shores of Nigeria and within that small circle, so this girl’s dream would have died?’”
After its festival tours, Kasala got on Netflix without a mediator, unlike most Nigerian films, and even had a limited release in the same Nigerian cinemas that had rejected it. That was an eye-opener for Edosio, who then realised there is a world out there for her stories, a world that, if she conquers, might make Nigeria see her.
It is why she’s building a community of young Nigerian filmmakers, a place where knowledge is shared freely and they can learn from her journey about the world that awaits their stories and ingenuity. “The reason I’m very passionate about what I do is [I want to show] that the average person can pick up a camera and make a film that can travel the world,” she says. On YouTube, Edosio creates videos on filmmaking. She talks about acting, teaches directing and discusses career paths in film.
She released a different kind of video sometime in September. It was a critique of Nollywood that asked why our films were terrible. The video critiqued the Americanization and Lekkification of Nollywood—rebuking how inauthentic Nigerian films have become.
“There is just something fake about the characters in our films,” Edosio says when we talk about the video. She speaks to how unrelatable our characters and stories have become. Nollywood’s appeal in its early days came from how deeply rooted it was in everyday Nigerian reality. It is the same reason, one can argue, Nigerian music has progressed as Nollywood regresses in appeal.
The former has done away with being foreign and become unapologetically Nigerian. “They sing who they are with so much passion,” Edosio opines. “But if you look at our films, do you really see yourself in the films being produced right now? Can you honestly say I can relate to the character on television?”
Her films escape these traps; they are grounded in the realities of ordinary Nigerians. Her latest, Otiti, which packed four halls at the recently concluded Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), follows a seamstress who tracks her past to solve her present personal issues. The eponymous Otiti fears commitment and easily backs out of anything that demands it, be it love or a career-defining competition. Her fear comes from being abandoned as a child, and to find answers, she reconnects with her sick dad after discovering he is alive and unwell.
The film, shot in a rural area of Lagos, features people with simple lives. Otiti’s boyfriend sells thrift clothing and moves around in an Okada. It is a story with characters most Nigerians can point to and say, I know someone like this.
A few days after our chat, Edosio will jet to Spain, where Otiti is showing at the AFRIKALDIA film festival. France, New Zealand, Lagos and the United States of America are on the horizon. We speak about her love for everyday stories, her new film and her message to young filmmakers.
I saw Otiti at AFRIFF and it packed four cinema halls. How does it feel to know people are eager to see an Ema Edosio’s film?
It was a humbling experience seeing the cinema halls filled up with people. When I started this journey of making independent films, I went in faith, just creating stories that I was passionate about. I didn’t think that there was an audience. Seeing people eager to watch my films is a validation that I am on the right path and that the future can only get brighter.
Otiti seems deeply personal, what is the story behind it?
The film was loosely based on my personal experience. My dad had a stroke during the pandemic and it brought up a lot of questions about Nigerian family dynamics. It is a film that explores the themes of loss, abandonment trauma and how it is passed on from generation to generation.
You love stories about everyday Nigerians. Why are you drawn to such stories?
While I work as a filmmaker, I also work as a freelance video journalist. I cover news stories for BBC, DW, sometimes Bloomberg, and a lot of times, NGOs. My work as a video journalist, making documentaries for these organisations, has kept me grounded and taken me into communities I would never have found myself in. This allows me to speak to people from different walks of life and see what is happening with the everyday Nigerian. Also, I come from a modest background. I’m not from a bourgeois Nigerian family, and [my films] are just me telling the story about my life and growing up in Ojo Agric, Lagos. I’m more drawn to these authentic stories of characters I see and know. It’s a world I know, a world I’m very comfortable in.
What are some of the mistakes you learned from Kasala and have rectified with Otiti?
I shot, directed, edited and produced Kasala, and I missed out on some details. It happened [like that] not because I wanted to be a dictator, it’s because I couldn’t afford [not to]. That was how I could stay within the budget. I wouldn’t do so much going forward and [would] be more observant.
Another thing I’ve learned with Kasala and even Otiti is that I am so great, [maybe] not great, I’m good at the technical aspect, and now focusing on the story aspect. Going forward, it is to perfect the craft of storytelling, and that is where my drive is at.
A lot of the conversations in Nollywood tend to revolve around money. We’re not making enough money or the first to make so and so. It’s why I like that your video. It champions a different message that focuses on the craft. But as a filmmaker who has done a lot of stuff with little money, how important is money and can it be a barrier to doing great work?
Money is not important at this point o. And I’ve realised that if you have the craft, the money will chase you. As an industry, or let me just be using myself as an example, the most important thing right now is to churn out as much great work as possible and build your craft. Then the money will chase you. I’ll give you an instance. I made Kasala and an Emmy-winning producer reached out to me on LinkedIn. And right now, I’m writing an international movie about an African civil war.
These guys know that you can’t make a $50 million film, but they are looking for young talents they can entrust with some money. I will tell every young filmmaker to be comfortable and have the skills. When I’m not making films, I work as a video journalist, and I am currently doing my Masters in Marketing and Digital Communications. I’m not desperate to throw myself into the hard work of making a film and being unable to do my own work.
I have my way of raising money and keeping myself within budget, and I am satisfied with my life. I have other sources of income, and with that comfort, I can dream and create. I have built the skills to produce, if you give ₦500k today, I can produce; if you give me ₦200k, I can still produce. That building of skills has opened so many doors for me. So be comfortable, learn the craft and once you learn the craft, there’s a whole world out there waiting for you.
This is a fascinating perspective. And I want to compare it with the music industry because they focused on craft and building skills, then the money came in. Are there things we can learn from them?
Oh, there’s a lot we can learn. It’s just that music is two minutes or three minutes for a track, but they don’t try to be Lady Gaga or Beyonce within those two minutes. They sing about who they are, and they do it with so much passion. If I broke, na my business. But if you look at our films, do you really see yourself in the movies being produced right now? Can you honestly say you can relate to the characters?
I and many people cannot stand what is on the TV screen. And often, It’s not even our fault. The music industry has had years and years of archives. If they want to pull from Apala, they can. If they want to pull from Highlife, they can. So many genres have come out that they can draw from. But in the film industry, we don’t even know the sound of a true Nigerian film. And please don’t give me Aki and PawPaw. How many films can you pick up from 1988 and watch and be happy about? I recently stumbled on a film, I don’t know if you did too. It was a Wole Soyinka film, and I think it was shot in the 1970’s.
Yeah, those are the few fine in-betweens I can reference. It’s like I’m walking blind in so many ways. The foundation is almost non-existent because, honestly, if you tell me, ‘oh, Aki and PawPaw’, how can I say we have a whole industry, and as an industry, the craft that inspired me was Aki and PawPaw? I don’t want to sound snobbish. But do I want to build on Aki and PawPaw and create the next Aki and PawPaw for the next generation? Where were the serious stories? You can hardly find them. Maybe Living in Bondage, yeah? But can we evolve with these stories?
What direction do we need to go for the next generation?
Honestly, the next direction is to [stop dragging]. The generation before me has dragged generations before me. I believe that we are in exciting times and there’s a danger of us losing it because other African countries do not have the opportunities we have in Nigeria. So, they are focusing on stories. If you see the work coming out of Ghana, there’s a movie I watched, Public Toilet Africa. When I was in Brazil, I watched a film by a South African director, Jenna Bass, she shot this film herself and produced it herself. I saw this film and in fact, my film ehn… We are making noise and saying this is the best, but we haven’t even seen what other people are producing out there, and those people are getting to international audiences as fast as possible.
We should focus on storytelling and the skills to get us into the next phase. We shouldn’t clap because Netflix and Amazon are here. These guys are business people and they cater to investors.
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