Fortune Kezi Ejim is a Port Harcourt-based film-maker; whose short film, The Strangers, won three awards (Best Cinematography, Best Directing and Best Sound) at the 2014 International Short Film Festival, InShort. A few years ago, his short film script, Choice, won a N1 million grant at the HOMEVIDA Awards and was subsequently made into a film.
Wait for this: Ejim shot the video for Tiwa Savage’s Ifewagbona. He tells us his vision and goal as a film-maker who has shot several projects for popular plus up-and-coming colleagues as he warms up for the release of his first feature film, The Wind.
- Educational Background:
I had my primary education at St. Peter’s State School 1, in my hometown, Isiokpo, the headquarters of Ikwerre LGA in Rivers State and my secondary education in three different secondary schools namely: Igwuruta Community Secondary School, Igwuruta (JSS 1 – 3), Bishop Crowther Memorial Secondary School, Rumubiakani, Port Harcourt (SSS1) and Government Army Secondary School, Elele (SSS 2 – 3). All secondary schools are in Rivers State as well. Afterwards, I proceeded to the National Film Institute (NFI), Jos where I obtained a Professional Diploma in Motion Picture Production (Film) and a Bachelor of Film Arts. Additionally, I’ve got a Master Lighting Certificate and SHOOT certificates in Film-making and Animation respectively.
2. Life Before I Turned a Film-maker
As a growing young boy, I played and did things in common with my peers until sometime around age 9/10 when I devoted most of my leisure time to drawing. I drew anything that caught my attention, ranging from the then WWF wrestlers, footballers, popular musicians/models to animals, cars – just to mention a few. In JSS3, one of my landscape drawings was entered for an exhibition even though I never got feedback. This part of me gave way when I was in (SSS1); then, in (SSS2), my passion for acting and photography were born. So, before I became a bona fide student at the NFI, I had done lots of stage acting in secondary school and beyond as well as featured in some Nollywood films like Armadillo, Nze na Ozor, etc. I also did a bit of street photography. I am quite renowned in my locality because of my meticulous nature and the zeal to do it well. I actually revolutionized photography in my hometown. I was the first to take snapshots with a 300mm telephoto prime lens, which then became the trend.
I barely worked in any other field outside the entertainment industry. The issue was forgoing my initial ambition for Film-making. As a kid, I had always dreamt to study Aviation and become a pilot, but change came when I discovered that acting and photography were my passion. It was almost impossible to convince my parents on the need to study Theatre Arts, which was my first choice as against Aviation or any other science-oriented course. The battle was swift and fierce, but as God may have it, my mum who forbade me shunning sciences for anything else was the one who brought me the information on NFI. Although I lost a few years to the struggle to be an icon in the entertainment world, I’m living my dreams now. For me, film is not just an art, passion or hobby, it’s my life.
The Strangers is not my first short film. Back then in film school, they instilled in us the zeal to shoot films “practice makes perfect, they say”. Those of us who were really passionate about Film-making converted the slightest opportunity, time and resources into shooting films. As a film student, I made four (4) short films and fortunately each of them either won awards or was nominated. I also made two attempts at music videos.
After film school, I shot three other short films and a documentary namely: Choice, Dark Quest, The Strangers and Red Line respectively. And they all have awards to their credit. The award for Choice was at the level of scripting. It won a one million naira (N1m) grant for its production courtesy Homevida Scripting Competition, Abuja.
In addition to my personal short films, I’ve shot a lot others as a Director of Photography (DoP) either for my colleagues or on commercial bases; including Night Fall, Little Babel, Nkiru – for 37th State and ABC of Death – for Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen – just to list a few. I have also worked on a lot of feature films either as a DoP, a director or both. Some of the projects include: Passion of a Lilly of the Ghetto, Passion of a Widow, Adesuwa, The House, In between the Lines, Green Eyed, Miss Teacher, The Reincarnate and my debut feature film, The Wind. I have not really explored music videos; however, I shot Tiwa Savage’s Ifewagbona video, which got 7 nominations including best cinematography and won two in the Nigerian Music Video Awards NMVA, 2012.
TV Series: I think I’ve shot three, Diamond Republic, 2009 in Jos, then Pristina (working title) and Losing Control, produced by the iconic Emem Isong. Although my website “www.kezipix.com is currently under construction, details of my works, honours and more can be seen there.
5. Budget for The Strangers
I raised money for The Strangers from my personal savings. The budget for The Strangers was five hundred thousand naira (N500, 000.00). The short film is all about love. The Strangers was inspired by my urge to preach LOVE, which is the greatest of all the commandments yet is almost going into extinction. Human beings’ radical quest for wealth and success, which have led to the demise of conscience, is destroying the world. We’re forgetting that love is the bedrock of wealth and success. Please, it is important to note that wealth and success without love are doom/disaster. A critical analysis of the Nigerian situation today will attest to this fact.
6. The Strangers: Awards
The Strangers was among the 10 nominated short films in the 2nd edition of the Afrinolly Short Film Competition, where it competed with about five hundred (500) other shorts from around the world. The Strangers went ahead to pick up the Best Cinematography Award in the said competition. Any of the 10 nominated films could have won any of the Afrinolly cash prizes. Unfortunately, we didn’t win a cash prize because of votes. I realized my film was nominated 2 days to the end of voting period and worst of all, I was on set shooting a TV Series (Pristina), hence couldn’t mobilize enough votes.
Hmm, big one: To the glory of God Almighty, my career has enjoyed a lot of high points, owing to the fact that practically every project that I have been part of has at least been nominated and in most cases won awards both locally and internationally. For me, that’s inspiring. Even before the Oscars created a category for us, I’ve always envisioned my film winning an Oscar and I see it materializing pretty soon. The other high point of my career is winning some awards that have cash prizes … you know what that means … (smiles). Furthermore, doing stuff which are totally different from the conventional ways also mark some high points in my career. For instance, in one of my short films, Three Zero, I had a character whose mind had conflicting opinions i.e. good/bad and I needed the argument to be physical. As against locking the frame and having the character play out the roles of the good and bad minds as well as herself, I chose to pan from the real character to the bad/good minds of the same character. And the three characters were, of course, interpreted by the same person. This innovation wowed everyone that saw the clip and I felt really good because it is completely my initiative.
However, my blossoming career has also had some low moments. In an attempt to answer this very question, I took a while to evaluate the low points of my career just to find out that it can’t be separated from funds. My ambition and creative ingenuity as a film-maker have on several occasions been hampered by finance. For instance, what is coming out as my debut feature film now was not to be. After scripting my purported debut feature film, I evaluated it and the cost was really huge. I really needed to make a statement with that film. I made several attempts to get sponsorships to no avail mainly because I am a young film-maker. As a progressive individual, I had to return to the drawing board and emerged with the story/script for The Wind, which is today my debut feature film. It suffices to say that as soon as I have the financial strength to execute that other project, I’ll not hesitate because it is an evergreen kind of story that can be likened to The Titanic and films like that.
8. My New Project
My debut feature film, The Wind, though fictional, is inspired by a few factors drawn from reality. It is a contemporary film that spans over a decade. It is an inspirational film that also explores the themes of poverty, charity, agony/pain and forgiveness. The Wind thrives on a 3-1-2 plot pattern and runs for about 2 hours. It has both urban and rural settings and is delivered in the English language except for a few exclamations and maybe music.
The Wind is the story of an iconic lady, Winnie Martins, who at age 28 is already a world figure with lots of awards (local and international) to her credit. She is a giant in the world of charity and philanthropy yet practically from a nondescript background. Poverty was one of the major antagonists in this film. In the face of all these, Winnie dreamt big and was willing to go beyond the horizon to accomplish her dreams. She went through thick and thin. And in the long run, she becomes one of the most celebrated women in Nigeria, Africa and the world at large. Some of the notable actors in the movie include: Kalu Ikeagwu, Uti Nwachukwu, Seun Akindele, Segun Success, Joy Success, Lawrence U. Lawrence just to mention a few. Some up-and-coming stars also aided the success of this spectacular piece of art, namely: Princess Okah, Victoria Ubani, Joy Akamgba, Stella Emmanuel, Justice Slik and a host of others. It is noteworthy to say that Princess Okah is not just a talented actor, she is a wonder lady. Considering the complexity of the character “Winnie Martins” and Princess’s ability to interpret this role at every level, she is an exceptional actor. That’s not say the other guys didn’t do well. They are all impressive.
I sponsored The Wind myself. Over the years, I’ve worked and saved some cash and I had also won some awards with cash prizes. So, I pulled through the project with my savings. The Wind was shot in River State. The village sequence was shot in my home town, Isiokpo, while others were shot in Port Harcourt and its environs.
Not blowing my own trumpet, fact is that The Wind is quite captivating, thrilling, intriguing, hilarious, motivating, action and suspense-packed. I bet it will keep anyone who comes across it glued to the screen. You sure would not want to blink while you see this piece. It is paramount to state that in addition to the entrainment, The Wind is a therapy for broken hearts and despairing people. The Wind is a must-see for all.
Em … first, I think one can make a difference where one finds oneself. So, I refuse to see a barrier in location. Besides, I won’t be mistaken if I call Port Harcourt/River State a virgin ground as regards film production; hence one has a lot of options to choose from regarding film locations. There are lots of talents in this state and that’s a huge plus. Record has it that the University of Port Harcourt has produced most of Nigeria’s finest exports in terms of actors/actresses. Also, we are beginning to have people in the hospitality world, who are willing to aid film production in the city with very good rates for accommodation. At the moment, the city is free of touts and their dubious activities, so one can shoot all day and night without any form of molestation. The security situation in the city and state is commendable and it is an advantage for film production-cum-business, in general. The absence of commercial motorcycles (okada) is also a plus for the sake of good film sound. Again, the weather here is beautiful, not too hot and not too cold. My only advice on this note is: don’t fix your shoot here in the heart of the rainy season except, of course, the story has a lot to do with rainfall.
On the other hand, like Lagos in the South West, Port Harcourt is the busiest city in the South-South of Nigeria, so such challenges as traffic can’t be ruled out. My next point isn’t peculiar to Port Harcourt, but Nigeria at large. Much as the urge to make good films is high now, there are just a few individuals who understand and speak the real film language mainly in terms of technicality. And a lot of logistics is required to assemble these core film professionals. But then, many people are now undergoing professional film training in institutes and universities. So, I leave this aspect to time.
On the part of the state government, I wish they do just two things and Rivers State will be the hub of film production in Nigeria. They should build a film village. Once that happens, I guarantee a swift migration to the state in terms of film production. The essence of a film village cannot be overemphasized. They should encourage indigenous film producers. Film grants and soft loans will do the magic. Rivers State is endowed with lots of cultural heritages and our stories are yet to be told. Whoever really understands it won’t hesitate to tap into it.
10. Nollywood: Advancement and Challenges
Anyone who is conversant with the history of film in general, the history of Hollywood and the other renowned film cultures in the world will attest to the fact that Nollywood’s growth can only be best described as “divine”. Nollywood is yet to celebrate a third decade of its existence yet has long become of one of the biggest film industries in the world. And the good news is that this is just the beginning. For the first time in our history, we now have institutions in the country dedicated to professional film training. People now study Film Production, strictly, up to the Bachelor’s degree level. I’ve always said that the problem with Nollywood movies isn’t acting, but technicality. However, with the advent of the National Film Institute, Jos, of which I and a few others are proud products, challenges of technical know-how will soon be history in Nollywood.
Again, the revival of the cinema culture is a great plus to the success of Nollywood. Today, we can boast of about 50 screens and in the nearest future, it is expected that there will be a rapid increase in this figure, considering the reforms Nollywood is undergoing courtesy of the Federal Government. Hollywood and other developed film industries can afford to invest hundreds of millions of US dollars in just one movie because there is a ready market for it. The US alone has far more than 5,000 cinema screens. Besides, such films are not limited to just the US screens. Once the film is good and you have distributors, your film can screen globally. Such Nollywood films as Invasion 1897, Half of a Yellow Sun, 30 Days in Atlanta and a host of others have already enjoyed global exhibitions. All you need do is make a good film. Therefore, I make bold to say that the best is yet to come from Nollywood. Its future is more than bright.
It suffices to say however that Nollywood needs investors. Film production requires a lot funds. Though a few films were mentioned above as enjoying global exhibition, one cannot overlook the fact that those are very high budget movies from the Nigerian perspective. Therefore, to get it right, finance is very essential. In a nut shell, I am saying that Nollywood needs investors. The film business is a very lucrative one and with the innovations in our marketing structure now, chances of incurring losses are slim except, of course, you don’t have the right product.
Looking at the challenges and prospects of Nollywood, there is absolutely no way piracy won’t be mentioned. In fact, it is one of the worst challenges this rapidly growing industry is facing. I call film a mother art because it is a collection of several other arts like scripting, acting, music, set design, make-up, cinematography, directing and a host of others. Besides, it takes so much time, energy, technical know-how as well as recourses to put a film together. And after going through thick and thin to produce a movie, someone sits in the comfort of his home or office to reap from the labour of others. And the most appalling part is that there is yet to be, at least, a conviction for the perpetrators of this heinous crime. I am of the opinion that addressing piracy and related issues should be top priority on the government’s list; else we’ll just be moving in a circle.
To further buttress my point, in recent times, Nollywood has witnessed some serious piracy. Half of a Yellow Sun, for instance, was on DVD and being sold all around the country even before its official cinema release date in Nigeria. I am sure we understand the implication of that. 30 Days in Atlanta too was already being hawked on the streets in various cities in this country while it was still in the cinema, way before its official DVD release in Nigeria. The producer had to employ the electronic media, asking people not to patronize the pirates and all that. In any case, the movie was pirated. Piracy is a crime against God and humanity and should be seriously frowned at.
11. My Role Models in the Industry
admire James Cameron a lot. For me, it is not about how many films one makes, but the impact of such movies-cum-the impression they leave in the minds of the audience. We all know Titanic, an evergreen movie and a standard even for generations to come. The same man was to make the movie Avatar soon after Titanic, but no he didn’t. Why? Because he felt technology wasn’t where it should be for what he was set to do. Cameron had to hold on. No compromise. And eventually, when he felt the time was right, he struck and left us with another masterpiece in the film Avatar.
Back then in film school, I heard so much about Tunde Kelani and saw a few of his movies. He is one of those individuals that you can’t avoid to mention if you must successfully discuss film in Nigeria. I was privileged to have a one-on-one session with this veteran and award-winning cinematographer/director and I asked: “TK, do you set out to make a movie just for the purpose of winning awards, considering you have a lot of film awards to your credit?” He answered: “I don’t make films to win awards, I just do my best in each production and if anyone finds it worthy of an award, good”. This response didn’t just humble me; it changed my perspective about Film-making instantly. And to God be the glory because practically all the movies I’ve worked on have won awards or, at least, have been nominated.
Another film-maker I admire a lot is Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, De Guvnor as he is fondly called. This man isn’t just passionate about Film-making, he is meticulous. Lance must hit his target each time. He is a star maker. No wonder he is one of Nigeria’s pride and most valuable exports when it comes to film directing.
12. The future
Much as film-makers are not as popular as actors, regular film-goers easily reckon with such directors that have distinguished themselves. I want to be an “A-List” film-maker and be reckoned with far beyond Africa. The idea is to make a bold statement with each of my projects. I have to win an Oscar sooner than later. I intend to further my Film Studies. Furthermore, I intend to own and run one of the most reputable film companies in this part of the world.
13. A word for younger film-makers
First, it is important to note that life is not a bed of roses. However, opportunities abound, but without your address. So, each of those opportunities ends up in the hands of the first grabber. However, you have to be well positioned to grab it. GET TRAINED. PRACTISE. At this formative stage, don’t make money a priority. Some jobs might come with little or no financial value, but might link you to your fortune. Please, give your best to any project you lay your hands on because you never can tell its future. Envision a future for yourself; stay true to that course. This won’t be easy. People won’t encourage you; in fact, you’ll meet dream killers. Even your loved ones will desert you. Trust in no man, but God. Push on and one day, you’ll break even. Note that you are not better than anyone and no one is better than you are. What makes the difference is time plus how you present yourself.