Emile Biobelemoye Garuba is a refreshingly talented screenwriter, whose works include Road to Yesterday, Genevieve Nnaji’s maiden production, which he co-wrote with Ishaya Bako, the film’s director; Mrs. & Mrs. Johnson, the debut film by the Derwin First Shot Initiative founded by Grace Edwin-Okon to support brilliant film-makers, who lack the funds to produce their own first feature film and directed by Alexandra Hul; 9 HOMEVIDA short film scripts, which he edited and numerous other works; some of which have been released though several are underway.
Garuba, whose father is Idoma from Benue State and mother Ijaw from Bayelsa State was born in Oklahoma City, USA, where he also studied for his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. According to him, “Because of my surname, people assume I’m a Northerner. That’s fine. I like the mystery. I’ve even been referred to as Emily once or twice. But no, I’m Emile Biobelemoye Garuba and very soon people will remember my name.”
Undoubtedly, you will remember Emile’s words for a long time, owing to the fact that he speaks from the heart. Enjoy the interview.
- You attended Kings College, Lagos, and the University of Central Oklahoma where you studied Creative Writing. Could you tell us about the other institutions you attended (primary, other tertiary institutions, professional trainings, etc.) plus the various degrees you obtained at Oklahoma and the other tertiary institutions you attended?
My primary school education was haphazard at best. Being a so-called army brat, I moved around a lot – from North to South, East to West for short amounts of time. However, I remember finishing my primary 6 in Bauchi. I went on to attend Kings College, Lagos and then the University of Central Oklahoma, where I received a BA in Political Science and an MA in Creative Writing. Thankfully, that’s been the extent of my journey in education. Although I keep getting bugged to go for a PhD, I haven’t given it much thought.
- Could you briefly tell us about your work at HOMEVIDA AND Streetmic?
I was brought into the HOMEVIDA fold by friend and film-maker Sebari Diete-Spiff as a script editor in 2010 and was retained as a creative consultant and part of the creative team for the next four years. The Nigerian Integrity Film Awards (HOMEVIDA) uses its platform as a vehicle to help young screenwriters and film-makers develop and showcase scripts and short films that empower ordinary citizens to participate in governance and development. I’m happy to have contributed to nine award-winning specific messaging short films via the HOMEVIDA platform. I ended my collaboration with HOMEVIDA in 2014 to pursue other projects.
StreetMic was my foray into reality television writing. It was an urban entertainment magazine show I wrote on the fly directed and produced by my friend Beedof Abireh. We thought about doing a show that showcased up-and-coming Abuja artists with some pop culture thrown in. The show is currently streaming online.
- Did you work in another sector before you started working as a screenwriter or have you always worked in film? If you were in another field, could you tell us about it and why you embraced screenwriting? Did any experience in your childhood, adolescence or adulthood prepare you for film-making?
I worked in various sectors between 1999 and 2009 during and after my college days in the US. Yes, I studied Creative Writing; but I didn’t invest in it to pay my bills at the time. I consider myself well rounded as I’ve had experience in Banking, Hospitality, Customer Service, Insurance, Journalism and Business. But my first love has always been the creative arts and writing, specifically, so I decided to leave the corporate world behind and delve into it full-time.
I’d like to think on some level my childhood nurtured my creativity and fostered my passion into becoming a screenwriter. I spent countless hours in front of the television as a kid, absorbing everything. I was into comic books too (still am) so I’d say that helped form my storytelling because the comic book narrative flows in sequential panels so I could visualize the story from beginning to end. I actually self-published one issue of a comic book I created in primary school, but discovered I wrote better than I drew. I think I made a wise decision.
- Why didn’t you work in film while you lived in the US?
Like I mentioned before, I had to pay bills and being a small fish in a big pond didn’t help matters. I honestly believe things happen for a reason and I wasn’t meant to achieve any kind of fame and recognition abroad as a screenwriter. But what I did learn during my time there has helped me achieve my dreams in Nigeria. Oddly enough, I’m now fielding offers from clients abroad. Go figure.
- Could you briefly discuss your projects: the thought-provoking Silent Tears, where you were researcher/scriptwriter and the scintillating Road to Yesterday, which you co-wrote with Ishaya Bako? Tell us what you were trying to say with Road to Yesterday.
Silent Tears is a documentary that focuses on the victimization and abuse of women in Abuja, Nigeria by a unique multi-agency government task force. Sponsored by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) the project has been 18 months in the making and recently won the Audience Choice Award at the just concluded African International Film Festival (AFRIFF). The documentary was directed by my friend and collaborator Ishaya Bako, who also directed the award-winning documentary Fuelling Poverty. We both feel stories like these deserve to be told as a means of giving a voice to the voiceless as well as making the public aware of such atrocities. As you can imagine, a lot of research went into compiling and structuring the narrative and we feel the response has been favourable. Silent Tears will premiere sometime next year.
Road to Yesterday is the first feature length project I and Ishaya have worked on. Hopefully it’s the first of many. It’s also my feature film debut as a writer. It’s at heart a simple story about the things left unsaid as an estranged couple tries to work out their differences during a road trip. However, much as I like telling conventional stories, I also like to add a bit of “oomph” here and there to spice things up. Those that have seen the movie will attest to that. We’ve tried to add a bit of art in the process with the nonlinear narrative and I give it up for director Ishaya Bako who handled that and the performances well. The movie stars Genevieve Nnaji, Oris Erhuero, Chioma “Chigul” Omeruah and Majid Michel. It opened nationwide November 27th, 2015.
- We’ll be pleased to know the other Nollywood projects you have worked on and the capacities in which you worked.
Wow, it’s been a lot. Where do I start? Let’s see … I wrote a season of Tinsel, the soap opera back in 2011, was script editor on 9 of the HOMEVIDA short films, wrote a short film titled Easy Money for the Securities & Exchange Commission in 2012, was Head Writer on The Tai Show and StreetMic, wrote the Africa Magic Original Films Moving On in 2013 and Love-struck earlier this year directed by Obi Emelonye. I worked on the feature film script for Amina, The Origin about the 16th century Queen of Zazzau in 2014 and came up with the story for Mrs. & Mrs. Johnson directed by Alexandra Hul and produced by Grace Edwin-Okon for the Derwin First Shot Initiative. I also have an upcoming feature titled Oxford Gardens again directed by Obi Emelonye.
- We’ll like to know what your role as the Creative Director of Rated E Productions entails and what projects the company is undertaking at the moment and/or the organization’s future projects.
Rated E Productions is an independent content development & production company I established to develop and produce meaningful African-themed stories. My role as Creative Director is primarily to champion creative content, which starts with the script. Thus, Rated E collaborates with writers to develop our concepts for transmedia outlets. I’ve spent the past few years, researching the industry to find the most talented Nigerian screenwriters and mentoring those who want a chance at proving themselves. It’s been a process, but I’m getting there. Currently, I’m developing a platform for Nigerian screenwriters to get the much needed exposure and representation. I can’t decide on what form it’ll take as of yet but it will either be via radio, print or online. I also have a few in-house projects scheduled for next year, where I’ll tack on the role of producer.
- Could you tell us all about Script Junction: how you learned about the script competition and what you learned at both phases of the programme?
Script Junction is a new UK-Nigeria screenwriting partnership programme that helped 6 Nigerian and 6 UK screenwriters develop their skills as well as foster cultural exchange between the film industries in the UK and Nigeria. The programme is designed to bring together, inspire and motivate a cohort of contemporary screenwriters to explore, develop and create screenplays via a range of workshops, talks and mentoring delivered by top industry professionals and visiting guest experts. Programme partners are the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), National Film and Television School (NFTS), Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) and Nigerian Film Institute (NFI). The first phase took place over 5 days in June at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, EIFF, and the second phase was another 5 days during AFRIFF in November.
I heard about Script Junction in April of 2015 and initially lobbied for one of my mentees to attend. I was surprised when I got the call instead, rather suddenly I might add, asking if I would be available to travel in the next two days. Lucky I have a US passport which cut through a lot of red tape. So off I went to Scotland. I was there with other notable Nigerian film-makers including Kenneth Gyang and C. J. Obasi and the learning experience under our UK and Nigerian mentors was refreshingly honest and useful. I returned with renewed purpose on reworking a script I’d written way back in 2012 and getting it ready for the second phase. When AFIRFF rolled around, my script was ready to go and all participants pitched our projects to a panel of industry experts. I’m happy to say I’ve garnered quite a few offers on the script and made quite a few friends in the UK and it’s all thanks to the collaborative efforts of everyone involved with Script Junction.
- What is the highest point of your career so far OR may we know your remarkable experiences so far in this business?
The highest point of my career so far has been my creative output this year. It’s taken about 6 years to work my way up the ladder and I’m just happy to have met the people I have that have challenged me creatively. I honestly believe the best is yet to come.
- What is your lowest moment so far (if any) OR could you list some odd experiences you have had in the entertainment industry?
I wouldn’t say I’ve had any low moments. I tend to take things as they come, good or bad. I’ve spent many a night soaking garri like everyone else and I try not to dwell on what could’ve been. It’s normal I guess. However, I will say I’ve had a few run-ins with unscrupulous film-makers who tried to exploit me. Safe to say I’ve never worked with them again. It’s all been a learning process.
- What film/TV production are you currently working on and what should the audience expect?
I’m working on a couple of projects. 2015 has been quite the productive year. I wrote the historical adventure screenplay Inipki about the legendary Igala princess. I also had a hand in developing the upcoming TV series Sons of the Caliphate for EbonyLife TV and I’m in the process of finishing up the next Genevieve Nnaji project again with Ishaya Bako.
- What are your thoughts on Nollywood; in terms of the industry’s achievements and the challenges it faces?
I think Nollywood has come a long way in its twenty-something years. At first, watching Nollywood films in the US brought some criticism on my part, but I was happy to know there was an industry to begin with. Coming back and delving right into Nollywood, I feel that it can only get better. Film-makers and audiences alike shouldn’t expect too much given its short existence so far and should just let things evolve as they should. A good friend recently told me that people expect Nollywood to be Hollywood. But Nollywood can only evolve to BE Nollywood. Not even a better Nollywood, just Nollywood. I’ve been in Nigeria since 2009 and Nollywood is tricky to navigate, at best. It’s a virtual minefield of cliques and cabals, independent auteurs and unscrupulous marketers/producers who seem only concerned with the business side of showbiz. Stable electricity is hard to come by some months and reliable internet connection is sometimes as elusive as a unicorn. But all through this, I’ve made some headway via aggressive networking and recommendations from those I’ve worked with. As a practicing Buddhist, meditation helps me stay focused on my work and also to deal with the negative feelings and questions that creep up every once in a while in my head, regarding if relocating to Nigeria was the right decision or not. I gave myself ten years to make it or break it. I’m on year six.
- Which older screenwriters (local and international) do you admire and why? Could you list your favourite local and international films?
Truthfully I don’t know any local screenwriters I admire because right now, the way the industry is structured, we’re all on the same level. However, Internationally I admire such names as Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, David Goyer and Quentin Tarantino. Why? Watch their works, especially Sorkin and get back to me. We’ll talk then.
- Do you nurse the dream of becoming a director or will you like to remain a writer/researcher? If you will like to direct, which film-makers (local and international) do you admire and why?
I actually directed a short film last year as an experiment. Friends always tell me since I know how to structure scripts, I must know how to direct shots. Not so. I believe in Film-making, everyone has their place: from the key grip to the sound guy down to the caterer. I write. For now that’s enough. However, if I were to eventually turn to directing, I’d say I’d adopt a few styles from the greats like Steven Spielberg, Katherine Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino and my all-time favourite Sir Ridley Scott. I’ve followed all these film-makers from inception and I admire their choice of narratives and how they were challenged by their execution. For me, Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, Aliens, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven are by far the most influential movies I can think of.
- What do you hope to achieve in the near and distant future?
I hope to be a pioneer of a new screenwriting guild or association that actually works for the Nigerian screenwriter. Right now, the current guild does absolutely nothing for the screenwriters and this has held back writer representation in the industry all these years. There should be training, representation and more done for the people who lay the foundation of all our Nollywood stories and its high time they got their due.
- Are there any other insights you will like to share with us?
Next up for me is adapting one of my spec (speculative) scripts into a sci-fi graphic novel. Figured if I couldn’t sell one of my high concept scripts, I’d let it survive in another medium and a graphic novel seems the most cost-effective avenue. Through Rated E Productions, I train aspiring scriptwriters, provide script doctoring services and also do consulting work to pay the bills. It’s all very exciting, to say the least. Good thing, meditation keeps me sane. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m determined to make it work. I’m definitely inspired. It also helps that Africa has a plethora of rich untapped history and stories just waiting to be told and now is the time to bring those stories to the forefront.