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With La Femme Anjola, Mildred Okwo Is Experimenting, Owning Her Distribution.
As a director, I tear up the whole thing just to get the soul of the story. I tear the script apart and figure out every scene and find the thread
Dejare Johnson (Nonso Bassey) was a man with a good job, an eccentric apartment and a lovable girlfriend. He loved playing the saxophone, taking calculated risks and enjoying his life. All that changed when he met a woman and got entangled with her; even when he knew he shouldn’t have.
It sets off a domino effect, and things move from bad to worse. The story, at the core, is not new material, as one can see it almost everywhere if they look closely enough. The question is if people actually look closely enough and this is what Mildred Okwo was aiming for with La Femme Anjola.
“I really always just do different storylines and my film career is about being able to tell stories the way I see things, in my own view,” Okwo said in this Zoom interview, her voice conveying her optimism that films will teach people how to observe their societies betters. “So, when you watch, you can see another part of Nigeria, Africa, that you can still relate to. I try to tell stories that Nigerians might think are not happening around them.
“In this film, I took a young man who could be anything and made something tragic happen to him. There is no good or bad as long as you have money. This is what we see every day in society. I want to hold a mirror in front of society to show them the stories that they are missing around them.”
Her most notable film, The Meeting, is a love story that comedically jabs at society’s corrupt layers — it remains one of Nollywood’s most remarkable works till date. Yet, as the detailed filmmaker that she is, Okwo says there were issues she would have loved to fix if she had more resources to play around with. That was 2012 and she has carried those lessons into this new project – she did not want to take any chances with La Femme Anjola.
With this film, Okwo experimented with film noir intertwined with Nigerian elements, a feat that is not commonplace in Nollywood. It is easy to see that a lot of work went into making the film and that the director spent time going over details with members of the cast and crew. The journey to making the film took five years from the day she first received the script.
La Femme Anjola was written by Tunde Babalola and it was love at first sight for her. “I only wanted to read the first ten pages in the beginning and continue later, but I was hooked and just kept reading,” Okwo recalls. “I was captivated by the story and I knew that I wanted to make the film, to bring the characters to life.”
Her attraction to the story was mutually shared by Rita Dominic, who starred as the titular Anjola and co-owns The Audrey Silva Company, a production firm, alongside Okwo. In an interview, Dominic said, “For me, when I read a script and the character scares me, that is inspiration right there. When I first read the script and I was getting to the end, I said to myself, what just happened here? I went back to the beginning and read it all the way to the end. I feel for every actor, we are all going to find that one role that we connect with and I did connect to that role and I felt that I needed to be a part of this project.”
Despite this early connection with the script, Okwo and Dominic waited half a decade before the story hit the big screen. Okwo explains, “At the time, I didn’t have the money to buy the script so someone else bought it. I was disappointed because I really wanted to make the film. One year later, I had the money to buy it and Tunde called me to say that the other buyer had to pull out as the person did not have the money to make it. So, I bought the script and held on to it for another couple of years while I looked for resources to make it. I am grateful that Tunde trusted me enough with the story.”
Several critics have noted that the film is largely missing some issues that have plagued Babalola’s recent works. Although it is not a perfect film, this makes it clear that Okwo was a hands-on director, an element quite scarce in Nollywood where scripts do not seem to be turned over and over by directors, thereby transferring issues on screen that anyone in the audience can pick up. Okwo credits the long wait for resources as a key reason she got to work on the script as much as she did.
“A film is a director’s vision and I expanded the story. I love that Tunde will write a script and you can adapt it — and still have an opportunity for others to look into it and work with it. He writes international standards. I realised early enough that this story was huge and wanted to do it right.
“For many years, I looked for money but it was a good thing as I got to know what the script was about as I read it over and over. As a director, I tear up the whole thing just to get the soul of the story. I tear the script apart and figure out every scene and find the thread,” she emphatically noted.
La Femme Anjola features a lead who moonlights as a musician and, in some quarters, this is enough recipe for a musical but Okwo noted that the music, while important, was not the core of the story; “the thriller is the story.”
This element influenced the film’s general outlook and the production elements. “I made sure to know what the story was about. I was intentional about the film, linking production design to the undertone of the film. We wanted it to have a gritty feel,” she added.
Beyond experimenting with the film’s look and feel, distribution has been a major part of the learning process for the filmmakers involved. Okwo and Dominic recently launched their digital distribution platform where the audience can pay to watch the film online. The motivations behind this are not far away from the interesting but complicated dynamics of the Nigerian film distribution channels.
On April 2, 2021, in La Femme Anjola’s second week in the cinemas, it was yanked off from all but four screens nationwide. Okwo and her fans, many of whom planned to see the film during the Easter holiday weekend, raised the alarm. Confirming the reports, she said on Twitter at the time, “FilmHouse has removed us from all cinemas except these ones. I guess it is to make way for their new film. It is their cinema and they will do with it what they please….”
The tweet caused a major row on Twitter, with fans of the movie accusing the top exhibition and distribution company of playing double standard in favour of the newly released film the company co-produced.
Amid the heated online debate, Okwo further revealed that FilmOne had prematurely taken her 2015 movie Surulere off its cinemas in its second week. She has chosen to interact with her market directly by launching a digital platform for her films. Her journey to choosing the platform and using it starts with a simple conversation, far from the Twitter drama.
“I was talking with a younger filmmaker and she said she was going to put her work on this new platform and I remember that film festivals use it and she said they just started letting independent filmmakers use it, because of the way the pandemic has affected film screening. She shared the platform with me and I looked at it, was impressed and we decided to build our own portal,” she said.
One of her key reasons for experimenting with a digital platform is “the lack of transparency which is a big issue in the industry. Knowledge of the business and being excellent at it is another issue. Around the world, the films coming out are big blockbusters, but we are just bringing out any kind of film into the market. We can be intentional and collaborate to push films that fit the bill. Distributors also need to be intentional about selling the films.”
Okwo admitted that she remains a firm believer in the growth of the Nigerian film industry but bemoaned what she calls “a lack of business background. I see our industry as one still learning how to build a business. There are young people in the distribution chain who do not understand the business. You can tell that the people have no background in business before coming to the industry. The marketers at Idumota tried some of the same moves they are doing now. It didn’t work then, why should it now?”
Okwo and Dominic have added another layer to The Audrey Silva Company with the new digital platform. The decision, according to them, was to help expand their options. As Okwo puts it, “I decided that I can’t keep leaving things in the hands of third parties so I decided to own my distribution. If I only get ten or a thousand people who watch my films, I know that I will make films for them.”