At the 2015 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, C. J. Obasi, a self-acclaimed ‘rebel-at-heart’, jolted Africa when he won the Trailblazer Award, a non-voting category bestowed on a young film-maker, who made a remarkable impact in the year under review.
At the 2014, Africa International Film Festival, AFRIFF, Obasi’s debut feature film, Ojuju; a horror film about Romeo, a young man, who in conjunction with his neighbours, battle a sudden epidemic that engulfs their community; won the Best Film from Nigeria ahead of films from more established film-makers like Dazzling Mirage – a Tunde Kelani film, October 1 from Kunle Afolayan and Lancelot Imasuen’s Invasion 1897. He also won the Restless Pitch Competition at AFRIFF, conferring free consultancy services to him for his next project. That arrangement has translated to full-time consultancy and management for Obasi and the Fiery Film Company, a company which C. J. notes is officially 3 years, he lays emphasis on ‘officially’. Ojuju features Gabriel Afolayan, Kelechi Udegbe, Omowunmi Dada, Meg Otanwa, Chidozie Nzeribe, Brutus Richards, Jumoke Ayadi, Tommy Oyewole and, guest star, Klint D’ Drunk.
Chukwudi Joseph Obasi popularly known as C. J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi says the moniker ‘Fiery’ has been there since he was a teenager. According to him, ‘Then, I already had a clear-cut vision as to what I wanted to do with my life. The vision I had for myself and for my life was always so strong and vivid to me. It came to me always with so much intensity that I could literally feel burning goose bumps all over my flesh … I’ve always had a weird fascination for the element of “Fire”’.
To that end, the first company he registered while still in the university, studying Computer Science, was called ‘Fiery Vision IT Company’. Right now, his company as a film-maker is called Fiery Film Company; so much for the Fireman, indeed!
Obasi just rounded off work on his sophomore feature film, O-Town, the tale of a young man, who aims to climb the ladder of the small-town criminal underworld to become the boss of all; but not when there’s a suave-mannered kingpin simply known as The Chairman, who is running things …
Obasi’s interview will not only inspire you, but will also make you reconsider your priorities. In fact, C. J. epitomizes the idea advanced by Chris Obi Rapu; the esteemed director of Living in Bondage; that the fortunes of Nollywood will soar to unimaginable heights when scholar/film-makers form a critical mass of the industry’s creative people (producers, writers, directors, etc.).
We present to you, Chukwudi Joseph Obasi, a fabulous scholar/film-maker and the proverbial child who dines with elders because he washed his hands thoroughly:
- Could you tell us about your education: the primary, secondary and tertiary institutions attended plus qualifications obtained at the tertiary level (undergraduate and/or post-graduate)?
For my primary school, I went to the Alvan Ikoku College of Education Staff Primary School in Owerri. My secondary education was at the Government Secondary School (Government College), Owerri. I obtained my BSc degree in Computer Science from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
I’ve always wanted to be in film. But I hardly ever had the chance. So, even after my University education and during my NYSC, I worked in an ICT firm in Abuja. But even then, film always called out to me. And every single day I spent not being a film-maker was torture to me. I felt like I was betraying my destiny; almost couldn’t look myself in the mirror, no kidding.
Film is all I’ve ever known and been. So, I can’t recall ever embracing it. Film embraced me long before I ever had consciousness of what it was. I remember as a 3 year-old, watching classic films on our Black and White TV in the 80s and then going on to re-enact my own renditions of those films through drawings. That, for me, was the fascination of film: the seemingly boundless possibilities. Even as a child, I sensed that and my entire life is dedicated to recreating that child-like sense; that wonder. And not just to the audience, but to myself. If I can feel it again, then others will follow.
4. Ojuju, your first feature film, was voted ‘The Best Nigerian Film’ at the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) 2014. You also won the Restless Pitch Competition at AFRIFF and recently got the Trailblazer Award at the 2015 AMVCAs. These feats are no coincidences, which make us conclude that you are the proverbial child who dines with elders because he washed his hands thoroughly. Could you candidly tell us everything you believe you did to earn these awards and recognitions?
I have no idea what I did to earn these awards and recognitions. All I know is this – I have a pure and unadulterated love for him; like the love of a child to his mother. When I think about how I used to watch the classics and how they made me feel, it’s probably one of the few things in the entire world that can get me teary-eyed, film, I mean. Maybe, the senior colleagues and industry greats who, in their benevolence, deemed it fit to reward me, somehow, may have seen this child-like love and hunger for film inside me because I don’t consider myself better than anyone else. I just want to make good films.
The Restless Pitch Competition came with free consultancy from the Restless Talent Management for the winning project. In my case, it was O-Town, my second feature film. However, what started out as just free consultancy has panned out as full management from the global management team. The Trailblazer award is the prize in itself and that, for me, is really the reward. But then, they garnished it with a Chris Aire wristwatch and an HD decoder from DSTV, prepaid.
6. How did you raise money for Ojuju, how much did it take to make the film and did you recoup your money?
I’m going to say this one more time. Ojuju was a zero-budget effort, which means that we went in, not having any funds. All we had were people – spectacular and talented people who were ready to pull in their quota to make it work. They believed in the project. They believed in me though I have no idea why. As for recouping the money, I’ll say that I’ll be happy when I can compensate everyone who worked on Ojuju.
7. Are there other awards and recognitions that Ojuju has clinched?
Ojuju premiered only in November, 2014 at AFRIFF. Since then, the film has been an official selection at the Eko International Film Festival in Lagos, Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, New Voices in Black Cinema Festival in New York, Shockproof Film Festival in Prague and recently at the Nollywood Week Festival in Paris; all this in just 5 months without an official release yet, so it’s been an awesome run; especially for a zero budget film – for any film actually, but more so for a zero budget film.
8. We are sure we have mentioned the high points of your career, what are the low points (if any)?
The low points will have to be when investors and sponsors show how small-minded they can be by refusing to back or support your project, only because it doesn’t conform to the norm or what’s ‘acceptable’. No one wants to take risks anymore. No one wants to push the boundaries any longer. And for someone like me, who’s a rebel-at-heart, it depresses me more than anything else.
9. We hear you are working on a new film titled O-Town. Could you tell us about it? What should the audience expect from O-Town?
It’s a crime-gangster thriller. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale because it draws from some of the crime stories I knew and heard; growing up in a small town called Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria. It’s also my exploration into genre Film-making, where I explore basically my love for film. It’s the kind of film any cinephile or film connoisseur will go in to see and go “ah hah”. But in my classic style, I don’t take myself too seriously, so it’s also a very fun film. It’s like Ojuju in that regard: serious, but fun.
10. You are an Owerri-based film-maker; the town is not one of the popular places where films are shot. How did you arrive at that choice? If you have been on movie locations in other towns/cities, then you are in a position to compare and contrast. If that is so, could you tell us any peculiar challenges you encounter, recording in Owerri? You can also share the thrills of shooting in Owerri.
First, I grew up in Owerri; so by default, I have a romantic affinity with the town coupled with the fact that I think Lagos is overused. I know that’s a controversial thing to say, since everyone shoots in Lagos. I shot Ojuju in Lagos, but did it in a small-knit slum community. I never want anything that looks generic or derivative on screen and Owerri is anything but that. It’s really a small town and growing up on Stephen King novels; I’ve always had a peculiar fascination for small-town stories because I could almost always relate to every single one of them no matter how bizarre or fantastical. One would say my choice to live and shoot in Owerri is more sentimental than business-driven and they would probably be right. But what are we without our sentiments; machines, not so? Owerri, for me, is that balance somewhere between the chaos that exists in the industry and trying to raise one’s own family.
For me, the only real challenge in filming in Owerri is the lack of access to equipment and personnel because the people here haven’t started making films at the level where Lagos is right now. It is serious struggle if you want to create quality stuff and readily get everything you need. Other than that, it’s been fun.
11. What should the Imo state government do to attract other movie-makers to Owerri, in particular, and Imo State, in general?
If the Imo State government wants to take film seriously and bring film-makers here, then we need a functional film board; we need access to funds and rebates for film-makers who want to make films in Imo State. You can’t build anything without a structure. Imo needs the whole nine yards – the structure complete with film institutions, film boards, funding and cinemas.
12. What are your thoughts on Nollywood; in terms of the industry’s achievements and the challenges it faces?
First, I want to use this platform to thank every Nigerian film-maker. I say this with so much pride because every Nigerian film-maker, as far as I’m concerned, is a winner. I’m not just saying this because I’m a Nigerian. I challenge any film-maker from any part of the world to come to Nigeria and try to make a feature film here. Just try. We live in a country where all the forces are against your success, yet we keep winning. People complain we make crap and our films suck and that’s fine. But people ought to know that if there’s one thing that is accurate, it is this – you can’t pull diamonds out of a pigsty.13. Which older film-makers (local and foreign) do you admire and why?
I admire every local film-maker because they’re just tenacious and must be lauded; but specifically, Justice Umeh who is now late. He was based in South Africa for years and had just returned to his country to make films. We even had films and TV series lined up before he died. I wrote episodes for a series he was working on, but he died within a year of his return. I was hit really badly. He was a great friend and an insightful film-maker, who had made a name in South Africa; but wanted to come back to his homeland and do great projects. He was one of those people who have a deep understanding of film. Justice Umeh was one of the earliest people to believe in me, even when I had done really nothing. He saw the potential; not many people at his level can do that. He was extremely humble and I dedicated my film, Ojuju, to his memory.
The late Amaka Igwe, Charles Novia, Kingsley Ogoro, Izu Ojukwu and Teco Benson are among the pioneers; miracle workers in my book. Even when we had no industry or structure, they were creating stuff and trying to push the boundaries. We wouldn’t have had an industry without these names and many others like them. It’s so sad people like these never get the credit they deserve.
For foreign film-makers, many directors have come to influence my work as well as affect how I view film as an expression. I would say my oldest and strongest influence would probably always be Martin Scorsese. He is such an artiste and a film connoisseur. Coming from such a deep and layered background in film, he is able to marry that art with a coolness and freshness that’s almost always commercial and yet not completely sold out to commerce. I also admire David Lynch for being able to articulate dreams and visions through film; also, Alejandro Jodorowsky for the same reason as well as for being such a core spiritual and elevating film to that almost god-like medium – something I will always aspire to as a film-maker. I will also mention Sam Raimi, being that the first two Evil Dead films were probably my earliest introduction into the horror film genre back when I was still in nursery school and I would hide behind the walls when my elder siblings were watching late night movies. I have a special place for the early Sam Raimi works. I’ve also been influenced greatly by Stanley Kubrick for his sheer ingenuity and his infinite range as an artiste, transcending genres; also Alfred Hitchcock, for just being such a masterful storyteller and futurist. Ousmane Sembene is also of great influence to me. I love his minimalist approach to film and storytelling. Nothing is exaggerated. Everything is stable, controlled and in frame. Sembene is definitely one of the masters and I don’t think he’s credited enough for what he did for film and African Cinema; the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson are also worthy of note.
14. What do you hope to achieve in the near and distant future?
God willing, I will keep making films and contributing my quota to African and world cinema.
Well, first of all, I’m a struggling film-maker myself because for some reason, investors and sponsors are just not feeling me. So, we’re still funding our films on our own. That ought not to be. You would think that in a fair world, people who made a film like Ojuju on a zero budget would have investors lined up by their doorstep, but that’s hardly the case. Actually, that’s not even the case. So, my only advice to anyone out there who wants to make films is this – be sure ready for many hunger strikes. If not, go work in a bank.