Nollywood Filmmaker Femi Odugbemi | The Backlot Podcast | NYFA

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you a revered Nollywood filmmaker. In case that term isn’t familiar, that’s the nickname for the Nigerian film industry, one of the largest producers of cinema in the world. Our guest’s work includes producing the daily soap opera Tinsel, the TV series Battleground and feature films Fourth Estate and Gidi, which he also directed. He’s also served as a juror for multiple film festivals, produced a series of documentaries, is an arts educator and a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures. We’re talking about Femi Odugbemi. Though his storytelling stems from Nigeria, Mr. Odugbemi stressed the importance of connecting with audiences from across the globe. He believes that all storytelling really comes from the same place: humanity. 

Femi Odugbemi: Stories are important simply because they help us to understand, to understand our world, to understand our cultures, to understand ourselves. It’s how we communicate, really. So all stories eventually are about humanity. They are about the shared experiences and the shared ambitions and the shared desires. Everybody, regardless of where you come from, desires love, desires prosperity, desires connection, desires achievements. Regardless of what ways your culture structures, those desires are the heart of your connections. And because film is about the human connections, is about us communicating both in language, in gestures and so much subliminality in terms of context, in terms of the world that’s around from where the stories are located, it’s all about the shared humanity. That’s why I would understand a Chinese film without speaking the language or an Indian film, which were the films that were popular when I grew up in the 60s and 70s in Lagos, and they were never subtitled. But we understood the humanity of love, the anger. We understood those who wanted to be a champion or to be rich or to be strong. All of this is why I say all stories are in the end human stories, and I often say that so that we remove labeling. It’s easy to call something an American story. Well, it’s a human story from America. It’s a perspective. A Nollywood story is not any less a human story. It just provides the information and a backdrop of perhaps a cultural experience you’re not familiar with. So I’m not really keen on storytellers championing a culture. I want storytellers to champion the human experience, give us insight so that those of us who may not be of that cultural experience are still able to be enriched by the stories that you tell. 

Eric: Though his stories focus on the human experience that ties us all together, Mr. Odugbemi’s work still definitely captures the culture and experience of his home country. The Nigerian film industry has, in fact, grown exponentially and artistically over the years, despite working with much smaller budgets than Hollywood. 

Femi Odugbemi: The one thing that everyone agrees with is that Nollywood is an organically grown film culture from Nigeria that perhaps surprised a lot of people in terms of the quantity of its production, the passion of its practitioners, and the fact that they’re able to do so much with so little. If you’ll recall that Nollywood came out of a space where there were really no grants, there were no funding, per se. So a lot of it is really driven by just the passion of the storytellers to create something. And in doing so, I mean in the course of twenty five, thirty years, it’s something that has grown – organically grown in terms of the quality of storytelling, grown in terms of the quality of cinematic exposition, grown in performances as well. But it’s also grown globally because the audience have also been, how will I say, there’s a lot of Africans in the diaspora who have introduced African cinema, which is what I now call Nollywood as a way to connect with their neighbors, to introduce their origin, to get their children into a space where heritage can be visually communicated. So, yeah, that’s for me the first thing.

But in terms of “from here,” what I think is clear is that there is a constant understanding of possibilities. The idea that beyond being successful, Nollywood needs to be significant. Why? Because Nollywood may be the African voice for change in a lot of things that you would call the narrative about Africa. One of the things that I think has been powerful about Nollywood is that it’s provided basic information to update what you would call the National Geographic narrative of Africa, where anyone who has never been to Africa, or been to Nigeria, thinks that everywhere is a forest. And so it’s, in the most basic form, an interesting narrative side-by-side with what has been. Where, you know, you only saw Africa from the perspective of poverty and disease and wars, thanks to Nollywood you also see Africa that has cities, that has professors, that has beautiful cars, and I dare say, beautiful women, and incredibly successful entrepreneurs. And I think it’s very important. Nobody is going to tell the new African story on our behalf. The time of colonialism is gone. Storytelling is now what I call the new soft power. And so whilst we may not be able to compete in terms of military power, we may not be able to compete in terms of economic power. We certainly can compete in terms of the soft power of storytelling to sort of shape our view of the world and to put a voice out there that says, this is who we are, this is who we want to be. And it’s a work in progress. But it’s something certainly that I think Nollywood has been magnificent in achieving. 

Eric: Though it’s a relatively young film industry, Nollywood’s movies have expanded their reach throughout Africa, as well as the world. This is due to both committed filmmakers working hard to hone their craft and a dedicated audience who connects deeply with these stories, regardless of their technical scope. 

Femi Odugbemi: Remember, twenty five years ago, there were a lot of people who just laughed at Nollywood simply because the films were made with, you know, poor cameras. The performances were a work in progress. The storytelling was clearly not as educated as it needed to be. But over the course of time, thanks to its audiences, who were very aware of these shortcomings, but had decided that these stories were important. They were more important in substance and significance than they were in technical craft. And over time, a lot has changed to inspire other African countries and other African cultures. And I don’t like to say that Nollywood has exported itself. More like it has inspired filmmakers in neighboring countries, in Francophone countries, as far away as South Africa. And this is very important, I think, for African storytellers to simply make that shift from waiting for funding, for validation, whether it’s from Paris or from America or from England, to simply understand that unless they are the authors and owners of the narrative, the authenticity of it would always be up for debate. Because there is no way you get a grant from France and you’re not subject to the approval of those who give you the grants. And that approval may simply be a small shed in the story. A little bit of editing preference, but it’s still not entirely your story. And I think what’s clearly happening is Nollywood is inspiring Africa to tell their story. Don’t wait until you have 50 million dollars to make a film. And I think that’s a movement and a revolution that is also ongoing locally because we’re prioritizing training. As you know, I am academy director of the MultiChoice Talent Factory. The reason I am interested, and the reason this whole movement to train and to empower the filmmakers is so key, is simply because, you know, the passion is there. And for it to truly be sustainable, the passion has to apply education. And I think it’s important that an institution like MultiChoice is committing investment into that. Partnering with the New York Film Academy, partnering with filmmakers across the world to say, can we give these young people a chance? 

Eric: This drive for education in Nollywood is for both its future filmmakers as well as its audience. Mr. Odugbemi explained that one of the unique properties in Nollywood stories is their use of customs and cultural traits specific to Nigeria, which might not resonate to all corners of the globe, but are very much embraced by the local audience. 

Femi Odugbemi: One of the things that’s clear, that makes our storytelling different, is that it’s, in many ways, three dimensional. There is the added dimension of our spirituality, the fact that our stories are both physical and metaphysical. The idea that we can tell a story where someone interfaces with an ancestor or interfaces with a dead character and you do not have to prepare the audience for it. It’s not unusual. Why? Because it’s part of the culture. But, you know, we believe that life is sort of like an ongoing existence in realms. And it’s possible for your protagonist to be unseen. A lot of Nollywood films would talk about – especially in the early days – would talk about witches and wizards and people killing people by blowing powder on them. For you it does not pass the test of plausibility, but for us and our audiences, it works. It’s totally fine. There are things that you would have a problem with in a narrative. You know, a traditional man having more than one wife, having four or five wives, when he’s actually poor, to you would be weird because it’s illogical. But to us it’s also part of this culture. So there are so many cultural things that emerge in a Nollywood film that also have also evolved over the years, also represent our city experience, contemporary experiences, historical connections of family. There are things that we do here that is accepted. I can arrive in my brother’s house without warning and it would be unthinkable to I ask him why he did not give me a call before coming. Whereas anywhere else those sorts of things would be weird. So there is a way in which I do think subliminally there are many things that I put on the table, obviously I do not have to speak about things like costuming, habitats. The context of our stories provide a lot of information just about spatial relationships, cultural relationships in terms of parents and child and lovers and the kind of things that we, I mean, we we obviously are not, how shall I say? It takes a village to raise a child. That concept is essentially African. The idea of care and the fact that every young person in the community is to be taken care of by the nearest adult. Things that you still find in storytelling that I think allows us to present a unique world view with our stories. 

Eric: As Nollywood expands artistically and technically, it has worked to create more universal stories while still producing work that can resonate deeply with Nigerians. 

Femi Odugbemi: There’s a bit of a mix. I do think that there’s a whole section of Nollywood that does a lot of traditional stories, a lot of stories that maybe time, or period pieces. But there’s a huge chunk about contemporary experiences. There’s been one or two that have also foreshadowed a future. I am very keen. I think that over the 25 years or so that Nollywood has been, there’s a lot of stories told about the past. I would like that to evolve into us connecting, because we also have an incredibly rich literary heritage. We have a lot of authors who have done a lot of great stories. My uncle, Chief D. O. Fagunwa was one of the first authors of novels in Yoruba language. Some of those stories we do need to bring to cinema to connect them to very important works of the past. I do think that foreshadowing is a critical space we must move into. Our storytelling needs to begin to model a future that we desire. You know, we talk about our ambitions in terms of good governance, in terms of more rapid development, in terms of economic progress. And I think our films need to begin to create heroes along those lines, because right now we have stories that are contemporary, but in many ways timid and I’m being very careful. But the truth is, we have, in a way, a situation politically, you know, development issues that somehow have not made it into a cinema in a way that models how we would like it to be, not just how it is. I think that’s really critical. And I tell my students that the first idea that a Black man could sit behind the resolute desk in the Oval Office is from cinema. And that’s very important that, you know, people are able to stow away that image as a possibility in their subconscious. And so in the fullness of time, it happens because cinema does that. And for me, I think that’s something that cinema has to do. It has to begin to reach into the future, not just to talk about Nigerians going to the Moon or Mars or something like that, but something that connects us to our ambitions as a people, perhaps a more prosperous, more organized, less corruption ridden political culture. We just need heroes. We need to create those heroes through our storytelling. 

Eric: In 2020, the entire world faced the unprecedented pandemic of the coronavirus. For Nollywood, which already worked with limited resources before covid, the filmmakers were forced to reassess how to still move forward with their productions, despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles. 

Femi Odugbemi: Well, I mean, covid is obviously something that is inviting all of us to rethink everything. The impact of it in a film culture like Nollywood that is actually, that doesn’t have a lot of funding, that is actually struggling in terms of the size of its budgets. The impact of that is that it introduces a cost element to its budgets that would have a huge impact. You now have to deal with insurance for that possibility. You have to deal with all sorts of protocol issues. You have to test people. And today in Nigeria, tests for covid done in a private hospital is over 50,000 naira. All of this, if you put that cost onto the budget of a Nollywood film, it’s a lot that’s not ending up on screen. So that’s going to be the first challenge. But I think the other challenge is also how we begin to mine these stories that are evolving and how we express this in terms of storytelling. Spatial relationships. I keep asking people, is a kiss still a kiss in a post-covid world? There are just so many things that I think comes into play that impacts a smaller film culture like ours. Of course, the distribution part is going to be a huge, huge hit because we don’t have that many cinemas to start with. We’ve got less than about a hundred cinemas for 180 million people. If you start to socially distance in cinemas, I mean coming from the impact of people having to get back into the cinema-going culture after being home for months, it all just looks really difficult. And you understand that the government’s already had a budget deficit. We’re not planning very much for this. Health care infrastructure was always a work in progress. So, yeah, the industry is really going to be badly hit and it needs conversations with other professionals. The insurance industry in particular, about how do we mitigate the impact of this, especially on budgets. Because, you know, when the budget is affected, choices are affected. Choices are affected in art direction. Choices are affected in the ambition of the story itself. Choices are affected equally, the selection of performance. So that’s really where it’s at at the moment. 

Eric: Ramping up production during and, hopefully, soon after the pandemic has proven difficult for every country. On top of which Femi Odugbemi and Nollywood are still actively trying to change the perception of their industry. 

Femi Odugbemi: I tell you, one of the regrettable things about stereotypes of Nollywood is that there’s a lot of films from the early days of Nollywood that are just making the rounds. And what it exposes or gets people fixated on is a history that’s long gone. When you see Nollywood today, you have to understand that there is a world of difference. There’s such a huge world of difference in everything. In the early days, there were a lot of folks who all they had was the passion, whether it was to perform or to tell stories or to be a cameraman. The passion was all it was, and the cameras and the equipment themselves were not great. But over time, there’s been a generational evolution. You now have more and more young people who are well trained in film schools, but you also have the simple, sensible logic that practice has made perfect for even people that did not go to school. You make enough mistakes over 20 years, you will get good at anything. And I think Nollywood is in an incredibly upward trajectory in terms of quality of exposition, in terms of visual narrative structure, in terms of the content and the representations and the power of the stories. I have been privileged to be head of jury of the African Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards four times and the awards are seven years old. So I was there in the first year to see the quality of the films, and I was also head judge last year and I see the quality of the films. And I’m very excited about where the quality is. So if there is a problem, it’s that in the age of digital video, you can’t bury your past. I mean, there are films I made in my early days that I wish I could kill everyone that saw it, or bury it somewhere. Simply because, you know, I think I’m much better than I used to be. And that’s the way Nollywood has been. And I think it’s important that people speak to Nollywood of today, not Nollywood of the past. It’s unfortunate because a lot of people in academia are doing research on Nollywood and constantly bringing up those films and those imagery from its history. While that’s important, I also feel like a lot of scholars like Jonathan Haynes, -inaudible- these guys, did the work at the time, and they helped define what that movement was, what it was trying to say, where it’s going. So I do think a lot of work has been done on the history of Nollywood. I do feel that a lot of scholars need to look at what it’s doing now. There’s a lot of courage, a lot of work, and there’s a lot of width to how it’s, the exposition of culture and culture is not just about the past. Culture is what are our contemporary experiences? There’s a lot of young Nigerians and it’s not just Nigerians. Africa is 60 percent people under the age of 50. So there is also a young, vibrant population that is also represented in this modern stories. And so for me, that’s the biggest thing, is that we’ve got people constantly, constantly resurrecting the past and using it as a measuring stick for the present. It’s not just unfair. It’s incorrect. 

Eric: Well, good news. The present and future of Nigerian cinema got a recent boost thanks to Netflix expanding into Africa. Mr. Odugbemi, for one, could not be any more thrilled at this opportunity to share Nigeria’s stories with the world. 

Femi Odugbemi: Well, yeah, of course. I mean, Netflix has got “Netflix Africa,” and I am just as excited as every film maker in Africa that this global platform is offering an opportunity, a window, for the work of Africans. And the reason this is very important is that it takes the work even farther, allows the rest of the world a window into our stories. So for me, it’s a win win. We need as many platforms as can come into Africa and help us find audiences to consume our stories. I think that’s the plus side. But regardless of whether it’s Netflix or ShowMax or, you know, whatever the name of the platform is, you are an artist just do your work. Don’t tell a story for a platform. Tell a story for people. Tell a story that has got you passionate, a story that when you look at it, you feel validated as a storyteller. And if the platform comes for it, all good. If they, don’t all good. There will always be somewhere for you to show your story. And I think the idea that we have this thing sometimes in an our industry where people have a one-upmanship with each other. The competition is, you know, what’s the latest thing? Does my film on Netflix mean I’m a better filmmaker? I’m not sure there’s a lot of poor films on Netflix. Just as much as there are some very, very good Nigerian films. So Netflix is a commercial platform. It gives you an opportunity for audiences to see your work. The audience must decide if they want to see your work. And that’s what I think all of us as storytellers must aim for. How do we give the best 100 percent effort to tell the best stories we can? 

Eric: Part of Nollywood’s expansion across digital platforms has also necessitated an expansion into a variety of styles and genres. 

Femi Odugbemi: One of the things that I hope we grow in is in being able to actually know how much an audience likes a particular genre film or what it is that, shall I say, trending now? One thing that’s clear, Nigerians love comedies. Oh, they love to laugh. Nigerians love to laugh. The films that have done the best in Nigeria, often have a large chunk of it has been funny. And of course, you know, it’s not just regular funny. It’s usually Nigeria funny because we’ve got teaching language, we’ve got cultural nuances. We’re a bit strange sometimes and we’ve got things that happen that don’t happen anywhere else. How we do our weddings, how we party. All these things, when you represent them in film really well, in a funny way, our audiences always go for a laugh. But I love to see what a slice of the audience is for horror. What’s the slice of the audience for thriller? What’s the slice of the audience action films? The idea of this is that not every filmmaker can make a funny story. I’m not any good at making funny stories, but I still want to be able to create a film in which there are things that are interesting, funny, quirky. I don’t set out to make a comedy. I would set out to make a dramatic story that may have a character that’s funny, but that’s it. So yeah, the genre is something that will encourage more specialization. It’s important that we’re able to build storytelling brands. I mean, when you hear someone’s name, you ought to be able to sort of guess what his film culture is, how he tells his story, what you might be able to expect in terms of genre. I mean, I think that’s something that would evolve over time, but that’s where we are. 

Eric: So the goal for Nollywood is to have movies across the cinematic landscape and the Netflix menu, too, which takes a lot of talented filmmakers. Mr. Odugbemi advised our students to find the right collaborators to make their storytelling work. And even when making a lower budget project, don’t cheap out on the talent. 

Femi Odugbemi: You have to also respect the work that directors do. If you don’t value a director’s work, don’t put them on the project because it’s a waste of money. You will constantly double guess their work. If you bring a director to a project, it’s because you think that director has the creative skills and know how to make that project achieve its best potential. And if you have the creativity to take that work to its best level, then put everything you’ve got into it. If you’re convinced you have the talent and you have the skills. But directing is not something that you simply decide to do. There’s a skill set and there’s a passion. And then there is, you know director’s disappear into this world. And it’s important that they are well remunerated for what they do, especially talented directors. I would suggest to you that the director is not where you save as a first time producer. Get a proper line producer. Get a proper production manager and figure out what’s your best budget to start with. You can always do barter exchanges. I always say to young filmmakers, not everything in film’s about money. Sometimes it’s an exchange. Sometimes it’s -inaubible-, you go do something for them so they can do something for you. Sometimes it’s about credit on the film. Sometimes it’s about showing goods or services. You just have to be resourceful, but don’t make the director the line item of savings. 

Eric: A big part of this investment in people is education, finding the next generation of talented artists who can deepen and expand Nollywood cinema. 

Femi Odugbemi: I’m here because I’m also part of the MultiChoice Talent Factory. And to say that in the last couple of years we’ve graduated now about 120 young filmmakers. It means that there are a lot of young, passionate filmmakers out there in the three regions of Africa who are in need of support, who are in need of mentors, who are in need of guidance. And I hope that all of us who have had opportunity as filmmakers and storytellers also understand that we owe it to this generation to pay it forward, to support their dreams and to to help guide them, to give them opportunity on your platforms and help us to sort of grow this generation next in a certain direction. So that’s something I’d like to leave out there. Obviously, to also say thank you to you, Lizzie, and to the New York Film Academy for a wonderful opportunity to be part of this conversation. 

Eric: And we’ll think Femi Odugbemi right back for his work in global cinema and for sharing his insights with our students. And thanks, of course, to all of you for listening. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Liz Henlein. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at youtube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive produced by the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to Ose Oyamendan and all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

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