Did you know that Nollywood (Nigeria’s bustling film industry) is second only to Bollywood (India) when it comes to film production? And both are head and shoulders above Hollywood’s annual output of cinematic product – surprised? When it comes to filmmaking here in Canada, we’re constantly bombarded with US films and television influences and we do tend to forget about the rest of the world and their creativity. But this year, TIFF is shining the spotlight on Nollywood with their “City to City” program, featuring filmmakers from Lagos.I had the pleasure of working with the talented and beautiful OMONI OBOLI (above) five years ago when I was publicizing Anchor Baby, the first feature film by Toronto-based Nigerian filmmaker Lonzo Nzekwe who cast Omoni in the lead role. She has seen emerged as a hit-making director, writer and producer as well as actor. In fact, Omoni is the #1 box office draw in Nigeria, grossing more than any other filmmakers over the past few years and I recently asked her about her career challenges, especially in light of Hollywood’s ongoing lack of female directors and roles for women of colour.When you first started acting in 1996, did you envision a career solely in front of the camera or did you have goals and ambitions that would put you in control of your own productions?
In 1996, I was an 18yr old undergraduate, who was somehow fortunate to be living out a childhood dream of being an actor and having people watch those movies across the country and beyond. I was too excited about being there that I don’t think I envisioned where I am today. My only focus then was to be in front of the camera and simply bask in the moment. My own production? That was so far from my mind then. The idea of being in control came later with experience, ambition, more interaction with others and a desire to give more of myself in light of some of the movie productions I had seen from others and felt I could do better. I love acting. It’s my first love, and the producing, writing and directing is the fulfilling of my inner desire to be featured in movies I love, which came after being in the industry for long.A lot is being made of Hollywood’s lack of diversity and few women in the director’s chair – how has your experience been working in the Nollywood film community? Have you been accepted as a female director/writer/producer?
I have to say that in Nollywood I don’t see an institutional or systematic stifling of female directors. At least to my knowledge, I haven’t felt that sense of a cartel holding back females from taking up this aspect of filmmaking. Rather, what I’ve seen is a limitation in the mindset of women to take the plunge. I have encouraged some of my female colleagues to take up directing, knowing their capabilities, and many have taken the challenge and are now directing their movies. The fact that we’re few may give this impression, but the men in the industry are not to blame, in my opinion. When the late Amaka Igwe started directing her soaps and movies in the early part of Nollywood history, we didn’t think she was being restricted, because the respect she got from everyone, male and female, was overwhelming and also encouraged, unless there was a battle raging behind the scenes which I didn’t know about. So, yes, I have been accepted as a female director. What I would say is that since my career started as an actor, and I’m still acting, when directors are called, it seems as if they’ve forgotten me as one of them. This is not to say that they don’t respect me, but I’ve seen more acceptance of other female directors who are not actresses than myself, even though my movies are making such big waves and breaking grounds with the audiences. I guess it would be due to the way I’m perceived by many (an actor) rather than an institutional segregation. The same goes with my acceptance as a writer. People love my movies for the refreshing storylines and unique dialogues, but I’m still perceived as an actor.
How do you direct yourself on camera? Are you self-critical or do you find it difficult to get perspective on what you see vs. what you present?
When I’m acting, I find that I’m also directing. Many times, when I’m in a dialogue with another actor, I’m constantly looking out for how they’re delivering their lines and how their body language is in line with what I wrote in the script. As a precaution, I always play back the scene to see how I delivered my own lines, and we don’t move on until it’s right. Yes, I’m very self critical of my acting, directing, writing and pretty much everything I do. I don’t want to have any delusions of grandeur, even if my movies are making waves. It keeps me focused on improving myself and my art. I also listen to criticism from my crew and cast so that I constantly get genuine feedback on the go. After all, it is a business, and the finished product must be top notch and sellable.As a film writer, what inspires your stories? Do you want to tackle “women’s issues” or are you open to all story genres and styles?
I love to laugh, and I want when people go to the cinemas to watch my movies to forget their problems and just relax. I’m open to all stories. My primary motive is always to entertain, because I believe it’s in that atmosphere that you can slot in any other thing you want to reach the audience with I also try to make sure that there must be a positive message that would also give hope, educate, enlighten or inspire people who come primarily to get entertained. So far I’ve done comedies, but I believe that it all starts with a good storyline, and if another genre sparks my interest and sets the stage for good entertainment, then I’m open to all.
How do you see your career changing if you crack the tough and competitive U.S./Hollywood scene like Lupita Nyong’o did? Would you move to California or stay in Nigeria where you can continue to support the film industry there?
Oh, it would change a lot! I’m bound to the art, and not to the location. So if the art takes me anywhere, that’s where I would be. My support for the Nigerian film industry is a lifetime thing for me, and It’s not going anywhere, because I would always support it in every way. Just as producers are making waves across the globe, my living, acting or producing in California, London, Paris or any part of the world wouldn’t change the fact that it’s a nollywood girl doing it, and that brings attention to the Nigerian film industry. I’m so proud of what Lupita has done, and it serves as an inspiration for many of us. Her story has also helped bring attention to the continent of Africa, and by default, the move industry.As a mother of 3 children, how difficult is it to balance work and family life?
It’s the grace of God. I’m so thankful for a supportive husband and a beautiful family. It’s not easy at all, but I try to make up when I’m around. Being away from them is so difficult that I bury myself in whatever project I’m doing till I get back home to my family. Like I always say, “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”
Any advice for other women wanting to direct, write or produce their own films?
Don’t let yourself be limited by what you think others may perceive of you. Don’t think that opportunities will or should be given to you because of your gender. Let your work speak for you, and study twice as hard to give ‘the’ best, and not just ‘your’ best, because the men shouldn’t dumb themselves down just to make you feel good. The women who are in the game are also bringing their A-game, so educate yourself to be skilled in what you want to do. Writing for women can be restricted to the feminine perspective, so get a male angle from the males so that your stories are more relatable, even when it’s meant to be a chick flick. Producing and directing is hard work, so be ready for the work emotionally, and make sure your business side is always active. Surround yourself with competent and trustworthy hands so you don’t get overwhelmed with trying to do all the work. The audience does not care about your excuses or pains in getting the movie out there, they only care enough to pay for a finished work that has value.
Above, Omoni is pictured with director Nzekwe (R) and the late actor/musician Sam Sarpong (L) at the premiere of Anchor Baby (2011).
You can follow Omoni here: www.keek.com/omonioboli