with Eke Kalu
For many young Nollywood filmmakers, short films are a medium to express the variety and experimentalism of cinema without the pressure that comes with the big screen. They represent the creativity and diversity of a vibrant industry, as well as a stark reminder of its poorly funded landscape. Lagos is all too often the centerpiece of this irony. It is Nollywood’s Los-Angeles, with otherwise originating films being often quickly written off in quality. In 2014, Christopher Okonkwo began making films in Jos. His films (all shorts) are well crafted, possessing a maturity that is not only breaking familiar narratives, but garnering him both accolades and acclaim. As he tells me, his filmmaking journey begins with the sort of cliché that many young Nigerians will be all too familiar with.
Chris: I wanted to be a doctor. It was a thought that was instilled in me by my parents. I ran with it into secondary school and finished as a science student. After that, I delayed getting into university because deep down I knew I wanted to do something else. I just didn’t know what. I started doing other jobs and didn’t focus on looking for admission. A few years later, a friend of mine had just finished from the set of Kunle Afolayan’s October 1st set. I saw the script and then it hit me. I’d been writing stories all my life but didn’t know what I was doing. I knew I wanted to do this so I looked up a lot of videos and books on scripting and I began. I wrote my first feature film and showed it to my friend. Seeing all the stunts and everything I put in it, he laughed and said “this one na 50million naira script”.
Kalu: Sounds almost like something of a divine revelation.
Chris: Yes. I realized that my scripts are a bit hard for others to produce so I went into the industry to learn how to make them myself.
Kalu: How did that learning process shape your craft?
Chris: I learnt a lot about filmmaking online and I really got in tune with how it is done in Hollywood. It was almost as if I had schooled abroad. Facing the realities of Nollywood was somewhat disappointing, however, I knew there was a much better way to make films. Not to mention, the amount of cliques in the industry. Regardless, there are a number of filmmakers in Nigeria that make some solid films that are there with Hollywood in terms of production and otherwise.
Kalu: Who would you say has influenced you the most? Why?
Chris: Abba Makama and Blitz The Ambassador inspire me. I love how they tell African stories in a very cinematic way. It’s storytelling on an advanced level, classic films that will outlive them and become case studies in the future.
Kalu: It’s interesting that you mention Blitz the ambassador. Do you ever see yourself making a musical?
Chris: Oh yes. The possibilities are endless. In an industry so engorged on romance and comedy.
Kalu: What’s been the inspiration behind your kind of films?
Chris: I’d want to believe that this is just a phase for the industry. Everyone wants romance and comedy for now but soon they’ll stop and ticket sales will start to decline. It’s like the boom in teen fantasy films like Hunger Games, Twilight etc now no one wants to see that it’s about superheroes now. The industry will change. And my inspiration? I don’t know, I just make films that will blow my mind and a few people find it interesting too.
Kalu: How important do you think the variety and appeal you and other similar filmmakers have created with your films will contribute to that new landscape?
Chris: One thing is for sure, Nigeria is a terrible place to live in and we are getting tired of the country. The people who can, are running away and those who can’t, keep fighting. That’s where comedy comes in, escapism. We all want to escape our current reality but I think people should get angry and make real changes, no more looking for ways to adapt. We are human beings and citizens of this great country. We deserve better. The kind of films we make breaks that escapist bubble and makes you face reality. I believe when people begin to get enlightened, they’ll turn to our films. And it’s coming. The age of enlightenment is coming. I realize I sound like a villain in a superhero movie
Kalu: Perhaps if you swapped “enlightenment” for “mutants”. How do you manage your ambition in an environment that so clearly tries to kill it?
Chris: I am still trying to figure it out. One of my major problems has been finding funds to make my films. There aren’t enough funding opportunities in Jos, but I’m shooting my shots and trying to spread my wings to see what I can get. It’s not easy, if it was, I would have made a couple of feature films already. Some days, I throw in the towel, but I pick it right back up. I know I love this and I’ll keep pushing till I figure it out.
I wish I could change how people look at filmmakers who are not based in Lagos. They look at us with pity, like ‘we never start’. In a country of 36 states, I guess I wish the exposure would be equally shared. You shouldn’t have to be in Lagos to make it
Kalu: Where do you think you are in your career at the moment?
Chris: I haven’t started yet. I am still at the “idea stage.”
Kalu: The success of ‘The confession’ has been a major step though, how has that propelled you to do more?
Chris: It made me very cautious and kind of restricted me a bit. When I made “The Confession” it was just a simple idea that had been in my head. I had called my friends and we managed to shoot it. I never predicted it’s success, I wasn’t intentional in any way. Now that I have made this internationally recognized short, the question I asked myself was how to step it up. It’s been one of the reasons I haven’t done any other shorts since then. I am, however, now beginning to realize that I need to go back to just having fun and shooting whatever I want to shoot, which is why I made an experimental short “Love and Sacrifice”. I am also working on a web series and I am going to make it how I want it.
Kalu: I had the pleasure of reviewing “Love and Sacrifice” for the club as well, and I must ask, what was the inspiration behind the film? There was a lot of symbolism with the colors that were worn, the bright red by the lover, the dark clad by the seeming superhero. Just how intentional were you about this film?
Chris: It had something to do with my life, except in my case I was the lady who fell to her death. The colors the actors wore were a direct nod to the colors that the real events were based on. Of Course I didn’t jump off a bridge to my death but it sure feels like I did. Every work that I put out there directly or indirectly tells a portion of my life experience.
Kalu: How much of an effect has being the major financier of your own films had on your creativity and output?
Chris: I do the best I can with the low budget that I can come up with. I have found smart ways to go about complicated problems but this doesn’t change the fact that having funds will greatly improve certain things in my films. I hope I get funds for the series I am working on but if I don’t, I move regardless.
Kalu: And how is the filmmaking experience in Jos?
Chris: It’s pretty easy. Such a breeze. The only main problem is getting funds but otherwise, people are very accommodating and they are willing to help out sometimes for free. It’s very cool
Kalu: What’s one thing you wish you could change about the industry?
Chris: I wish I could change how people look at filmmakers who are not based in Lagos. They look at us with pity, like ‘we never start’. In a country of 36 states, I guess I wish the exposure would be equally shared. You shouldn’t have to be in Lagos to make .
Love and Sacrifice