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Uzoamaka Aniunoh: From Shuga To Sundance
CJ Obasi's film 'Mami Wata' just premiered at Sundance with Uzoamaka playing Zinwe. Here's a snapshot of her career so far.
I first saw Uzoamaka Aniunoh in the sixth season of MTV Shuga. She played Cynthia, an unassuming nerd trying to get her friends to do the right thing. For a stereotypical character in a high school drama like this, a lot could go wrong but not with Uzoamaka, who brought an interesting balance to the dynamic. I made a mental note to check her work out and generally keep tabs on her screen appearances, assuming that this was her first work.
Well, it wasn’t and she jogged my memory during our conversation for this piece. Her first work was playing a storekeeper in one scene of Ndani TV’s Skinny Girl in Transit (SGIT). I laughed when she mentioned it because I remembered it the moment she brought it up. It was the scene where Shalewa (Sharon Ooja) was harassed by the wife of the man she was having an affair with. The scene is hilarious and real SGIT fans had a laughfest over it.
While it was simply a moment for Ooja’s character to get some character development to the delight of fans of the show, it was a big moment for Uzoamaka as this was the first time she would work on a film set.
“I’d given myself a timeframe because my dad, at the time, wasn’t keen on Nollywood. [He] didn’t like the idea of an actor; it wasn’t a real job for him. I decided that I was going to attend auditions and if I didn’t get any jobs after those auditions, then maybe this thing wasn’t for me. Then SGIT called and said they wanted me to play a shopkeeper,” she said.
When Uzoamaka heard she was going to be on a film set, she remembers feeling super excited to experience filming an actual project. “My brain was excited to just see what a film set looked like, like how people were–how people did the job, what it was like, so, I immediately just sped to the set to go and do that. That was my very first project.”
It was wakapass role but Uzoamaka believes there are no small parts, and actors, who do good work, can shine and have moments regardless of the length of their performances on screen.
“Right now, I don’t worry myself about playing lead or supporting lead,” she says. “I see what people have done with small parts and I’m just amazed by that. That’s what I want to be able to do — to come on screen, not have much but do so much with what I’ve been given. That’s putting in the work.
“I mean obviously, lead characters do work. People with lots of lines do work, but I’m just saying that I don’t dwell on whether or not I get the lead part or the most speaking part, no. If I get the lead part, that’s brilliant. Wonderful. I find ways to do the work, but if I get the part where I don’t have as many lines as many people would like, I want to be able to do so much work with it that I stand out and when people watch it, they remember.”
People do remember Uzoamaka’s work and she is regarded as criminally underrated in some circles. In the last couple of years since her debut, she has experimented with several film genres and even led an Africa Magic original telenovela.
Uzoamaka’s gifts go beyond the screen; she has a way with words. I enjoy reading her poems and thoughts, especially about women and life. . “I’m very drawn to life and experiences that go on around me. My experiences, other people’s experiences. I like to observe what’s going on,” she tells me, and it reflects on her Instagram feed which is filled with captured moments that reflect her zest for life and her tweets do not shy away from her thoughts on feminism.
“I’m very passionate about feminism. I feel like when you say feminism, it rubs people the wrong way, but anger is necessary. It’s a necessary emotion. It’s not bad. If you’re angry about something, it’s because there’s something wrong and you shouldn’t neglect that. So, for me, I just try as much as possible to use every tool that I have to say who I am, what is going on around me and talk about the things I’m passionate about.”
She has found ways to use her voice to call out inequality with her writing, even in Nollywood. For her, it is about documenting the things that go on around her “especially when it comes to women, inequality and just like day-to-day experiences really. Erm- how does it affect my job? I don’t know that it affects my job.”
When I ask if the audience will ever see more of her writing, she mentions a short film in the works. “I’ve done that recently really. I’ve written a short film, a dialogue-based short film that I’ve shot with my friends. It’s called Love Language. It’s a love story that explores the relationship between an Igbo girl and a Hausa boy. Just like what conversation between them would be like.”
While the film is in post-production, Uzoamaka has been on a roll in the last few months. She received accolades for her work on Diiche, a Showmax mini-series, where she played a thorough inspector trying to make sense of a murder case.
In December 2022, she was selected for Berlinale Talents 2023 — a prestigious talent development programme that explores the how and why of movie making. Since 2003, it has become a one-of-a-kind forum for film professionals and cinema lovers, featuring public talks, discipline-specific workshops, project development Labs and networking events.
The same month brought with it another heavy announcement, with significance for the entire Nigerian film industry. The CJ Obasi film, Mami Wata, in which Uzoamaka plays Zinwe, just had its world premiere at Sundance, the biggest indie film festival in the U.S., in its World Cinema Dramatic Competition. It will be the first indigenously produced Nigerian film to screen there. Held in Park City, Utah, Sundance’s estimated physical audience of up to 46,000 filmgoers. In 2022, the expanded online festival had over 600,000 views. This is a big platform for an indie film, especially from a Nollywood filmmaker.
It must be blissful to get on two top international platforms simultaneously, one of which provides a strong sense of purpose and defines the growth of the Nigerian film industry. If her Instagram page is anything to go by, Uzoamaka is basking in this moment and thriving. This is her time and we are eager to see what she does next.