How 'Nigerian Spielberg' Izu Ojukwu is taking advantage of free speech and a changing industry

The director of 76 on how his country's developing cinema may help Africa's communication problems


Like so many film industries in developing countries, Nigerian cinema started small and scrappy, with inexperienced filmmakers rushing out ultra-low-budget movies on tight turnarounds for quick profits. But the cinema scene The New York Times dubbed "Nollywood" has grown with incredible speed: Nigerian filmmakers are producing more than a thousand movies a year — more than twice Hollywood's annual output, and second only to India in terms of production. In 2014, PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated that film was Nigeria's second-biggest industry, after agriculture. That's particularly remarkable for a country with few movie theaters, a limited distribution industry, and a cinema culture largely based on bootlegging, dollar-DVD peddlers, and small-scale local video cafés. But since 1999, when the country returned to democracy after 40 years of civil war, military rule, and destabilizing coups, Nollywood has seen explosive growth and increasing international visibility. It's also seen a new cultural openness about its own history, which has been particularly helpful for local film luminaries like Izu Ojukwu.

Ojukwu has been part of the Nollywood film scene since 1993, when he started making films directly out of high school. Touted in African publications as the "Nigerian Spielberg" for his fast-moving action scenes and his increasingly ambitious movies, he won the Best Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for his 2007 movie Sitanda, and became one of the subjects of the documentary Welcome To Nollywood. His latest film, 76, is an unusually high-budget, high-profile historical epic about Nigeria's 1976 coup, focusing on the pregnant wife of a soldier unwillingly drawn into an assassination plot. Ojukwu is currently looking for an American distributor for the film. At 2016's Toronto International Film Festival, which showcased eight Nollywood films in a special program, I sat down with Ojukwu to talk about how political and cultural shifts are changing filmmaking in Nigeria, why filmmaking is an important part of reuniting the country with its own history, and why he felt a need to shoot 76 on film, even though it literally added years to his production time.

Tasha Robinson: Is it true that for decades, Nigerian filmmakers were banned from even addressing the military era?

Izu Ojukwu: Yeah, you couldn't. During the military regime, you couldn't even raise your camera, if you were talking about the army. But now, not only can we make these films, the army is willing to support projects like this. And they are in no way influencing the outcome with their support.

Is that primarily a cultural shift? A political shift?

The world is evolving. It's moving very fast, so after the country was handed over to civil rule in 1999, things started changing. We became a democratic nation. It means people could speak and be heard. Before then, if you spoke, you were picked up, locked up, and that's the end. So there were so many human rights organizations rising and talking, and some of them took political asylum in foreign countries, while still speaking as a diaspora. It was difficult at the time. But from 1999, it was easier. In 2004, I was watching the director of army public relations talking on television, saying "The army of today is different than the army of yesterday. The army of today is more open, more accommodating. It's here to defend you, it's being run by your tax." It's not the army that we used to know, the brutality we grew up knowing about. So I felt I should take advantage. My first attempt to collaborate with the army was a project about the operation of Nigerian soldiers in Sierra Leone in 2004, a peacekeeping mission in Liberia and Sierra Leone. I spent three months at the barracks. I really had the opportunity to interact with the soldiers and their families and their wives. And then the story of 76 started growing.

Why did you decide to tell so much of 76 from the perspective of soldiers' wives?

Growing up, we had this negative image of the army. We don't really think they have human feelings, a conscience. We don't really remember that they also have families. When I started interacting with soldiers and their wives, I heard stories that were heart-touching, and I said, "These guys are human beings after all." And I began to see what each woman goes through when their husband is in the front lines, fighting. And I started wondering if they have been able to come to terms with the fact that this man may walk out the door and never come back. What would be their reaction if their husbands are involved in a treasonable offense, and stripped of their rank, stripped of their entitlement, and executed in front of everyone? I tried to see this story not from the perspective of soldiers fighting in a battlefield, but soldiers who are executed by their own army. And it was informed by the officers' wives' perspective.

In the US, we're in the middle of this huge cultural battle over diversity, and part of that is trying to champion more stories about women, or told by women. Is this kind of story common with Nollywood? Do you struggle with diversity, too? Are there tribes or cultural groups that are particularly underrepresented on-screen?

Yes, there's this struggle. Sometimes for women, it's not too much of a problem. It's just a matter of who we're seeing tell stories. There are some women directors in Nigeria. We don't usually see stories from that perspective, but now it's diversifying. For the minority tribes, it's always difficult. Sometimes telling these stories, you have to cross the red lines. We're a very sensitive nation, and the country still is fragile. So information that could spark up any form of sectarian crisis, the government really frowns at it. So you still don't have dramatic license to explore stories that border on minority groups.


(Shoreline Entertainment)

One of the subplots in 76 involves social tension because two people from different tribes with different social status get married, and the wife's family hates the husband for what he represents to them. Are these largely historical tensions? How much of the film is commenting on modern social rifts?

These tensions are still there, but people fight them these days, because the world is becoming a global village. The world is shrinking. Intermarriage in our country is not as difficult as it used to be, but it's still difficult. People still have reservations when someone is not from your tribe or religious background. It's still a problem in the country today. But the story is preaching that love has no boundary. That's easier said than done. It's always difficult to cross those racial lines in intermarriages.

This is being billed as one of the biggest-budget Nigerian films of all time. What's a big budget for Nollywood? What did this one cost to make?

Yes, the cost of the film was $3 million. For some time, we've had big-budget films coming out of Nigeria. This is one of them, but it wasn't preplanned. We had a series of problems that escalated the budget of this film. A period film will always cost you money, because you're trying to re-create an era. We didn't have access to restricted locations. And it's even more difficult making these films in everyday areas that are lit up with satellite dishes, and all manner of modern-day elements. So it was a huge challenge. It took two years for the army to decide to support the film. Then we eventually realized we had waited two years for access to objects that were no longer in the army's inventory. That set us back a little.

And then we had a deal — this one was pretty standard. I tried to get a deal with Quebec, which is always difficult. In Nigeria, we normally don't shoot on film. To do this, I needed support from every angle. My executive producers were willing to go all the way to use film, but we needed support. The Nigerian Film Corporation gave us some facility, but we don't have studios for post-production. We don't have a lab. So we got Quebec to support us. They had an office in Dubai that's there to assist developing countries. So we keyed into that. Unfortunately, we waited two years for the army to respond, and by that time, they had shut down the Dubai office. So we were stranded with our film, not having the budget to go anywhere else to do it, because we already got some level of conservation and concession. We ended up doing it in Germany. That ended up escalating our budget. It's really expensive to film anywhere. But we didn't have a choice, the show must go on. That's what stretched the budget of the film to this point.


(Shoreline Entertainment)

Why was it so important to you to shoot on film?

I've always wanted to do a historical film. First, we have poor communication practices in Africa. We have little respect for history. As a matter of fact, history has been suppressed from our secondary-school curriculum. The major part of our lives has been taken away. I couldn't access archival material. I had to get it from the Associated Press in the United States. We have a national television, we have a film corporation, but some of the events that occurred in our country are nowhere to be found. So I felt that I needed to do this in a film format, document history, and keep it for the future. And that's why it was difficult. The vision started long before it kicked off in 2009. So it wasn't only, "Why film in a digital age?" I wanted the dirt of 16mm. I'm not looking for colorful film stock. I wanted it colorless because there's something beautiful about the dark parts of 16mm. I wanted to make the dark parts light. That's what I wanted on Super 16.

In spite of what we went through to get film, we agreed within ourselves that we would not be tempted at any point by the digital cameras that are available. It was still true to our original intention to finish this film on film, and that's exactly what we did. So this will also form part of our historical materials. There is political content in the film about the period that can become a reference material for younger people in the future. The reason we blended history and fiction is because it's a known fact that the younger generation of Africans are really not interested in our history. We know what they're interested in, and that's why we have a story that will lead them to our history. So that's where we'll package history and make it appealing to a younger generation to watch. They have to learn unconsciously where they are coming from.

This is partially your personal history, too. Is it true you have a pretty traumatic personal experience with this exact story?

I was three when the principal character in the coup — his family owned the compound we lived in. The apartment where we lived was owned by his family. One night I was let outside by my aunt to pee, and suddenly we saw a shadow of a human being running behind the building. I was quickly dragged into the house. I remember everyone, my dad, my mom, they all ran toward the window and were peeking out, saying "Dimka, Dimka, Dimka." [Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka] Dimka assassinated the head of state [General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, in a 1976 coup]. He was a ringleader. And by morning, everybody in the compound was thrown out of their houses by soldiers. They turned the entire compound upside down, because when the coup failed, Dimka managed to escape, and he came straight to Jos, which is where I was born, which is where 90 percent of the people involved in the coup came from. So everyone there knew somebody who was directly involved or affected.

"Growing up, we had this negative image of the army. We don't really think they have human feelings, a conscience."

So that was my relationship with the story at that time. Dimka moved toward the borders of Nigeria, toward Cameroon. He was eventually captured and executed. But all that didn't make sense to me until I started growing up. I witnessed one public execution, but that was a criminal, an armed robber who was executed publicly during the military regime. So as I grew, this image from childhood started sinking in. And then I started asking questions later, with each coup that ravaged the country. With each coup, I would ask questions, and the situation of the 1976 coup would always be made clearer to me. I began to understand what happened then, because these things kept recurring, up until 1999, when the country was handed over to civil rule.

Did that childhood experience make you want to explore who Dimka was, and humanize him?

I didn't want to humanize him in any way, because I in no way support what he did. My interest in the story was just from the perspective of the conspirators' wives. I was just wondering "How would these women cope?" They are not entitled to anything from the army for their husbands' years of military service. Some of these soldiers fought in the civil war, but there's nothing coming to these women. They are kicked out and ostracized, and it's not their fault. I was hoping there should be some level of consideration from the government. We're trying to make the case to the government to look back and see that these woman have raised children on their own, and they've gone through traumatic experiences. It's enough that your husband is executed publicly, and then you have to leave the barracks and be on your own? In 1976, when men were arrested by the military, their wives weren't allowed to speak to them. They didn't even know what's happening. One of the woman I talked to said her husband was asleep when the soldiers came for him, so they said "Okay, when he wakes up, tell him he's needed at headquarters." When he woke up, he got dressed up and went. That was the last she saw of him. Next, she heard he was among the people who was executed.

I remember vividly the last words of two of the soldiers involved. One of them said, "Tell my wife she's free to remarry, because she's a young woman, she should move on with her life." The other said, "Tell my wife to check with my bankers. We have a property, you should sell the property and raise the children." Those words, they never got out of my head. I felt so bad. It lingered with me for days. To be executed this way, and never get a chance to talk to their families. The families are not getting any information from the army, any of the things they need to know.


(Shoreline Entertainment)

You've been in the Nigerian film industry for more than 10 years. How has it changed for you since the beginning?

It has evolved. It was an industry that started by default, with no support. We were just making films to survive. At some point, one begins to think, "People can actually make a career out of this." We were a lone voice in the wilderness. It was not easy in the past, making films in Nigeria. In the past, movies went straight to DVD. They had to be done in a few days, and they had to be strictly commercially viable. Any form of art was a waste of time and resources. It's evolving now. The cinema culture that vanished when the dark age of military reign took over, that cinema culture is now revived. More cinemas are being built in Africa. Initially, it was just Nigeria. Now, a lot of African countries are emulating what we did. They're coming up, they're making films. Nigerian styles are becoming known all over Africa. Now we have cinemas all over Africa, so the distribution networks are widening. Now if we make a good film with a reasonable budget, we can make some money and plug it back into the future. We are evolving, and we can progress from where we were to where we are now.