by Shameelah Khan
SK: Tell the readers a bit on yourself. Your name, where you were born, what you do?
I’m C.J. Obasi. friends and colleagues sometimes call me ‘Fiery’. and I’m a filmmaker. I was born in Owerri, a small town in South-Eastern Nigeria.
When did you decide to be a filmmaker?
Never quite had a particular time when I decided to be a filmmaker. You see, unlike most people, they had an ‘aha’ moment. I never had one of those. I can say that as long as I’ve had consciousness I always wanted to make films, even when I didn’t know what ‘being a filmmaker’ was. But you might say, the moment I decided to leave my 9-5 to actually pursue film as a profession – that was 2012.
How is your work different from the traditional ‘Nollywood’ model of cinema?
I don’t know what a traditional Nollywood model is because Nollywood as a concept is in a constant evolution. The very idea of Nollywood is contrived. I say contrived, because some dude saw a bunch of guys in Nigeria making films in spite of the challenges in Nigeria ranging from the lack of a studio structure, to the lack of infrastructure to the lack of funding, and the dude went, this is cute, I’ll call them Nollywood. Somehow that name stuck, and it isn’t going anywhere. But to define an entire country’s cinema by that name is a bit of a stretch in my opinion. However, I don’t worry too much about labels. I’m more interested in creating stories that move and spark my visual sensibilities. People look at it and say, hey that’s not the usual Nollywood film, and they’re entitled to that.
Can you comment on the journey of your no budget film Ojuju? And how festivals responded to this film?
That journey began in November 2014 at the Africa International Film Festival, where we premiered Ojuju – my no-budget debut. It won Best Nigerian Film at the festival, and went on to screen on numerous festivals around the world, from PAFF in Los Angeles, to Fantasia in Montreal. It also screened in festivals in France, Switzerland, Scotland, South Africa, Czech Republic, etc garnering critical acclaim from the likes of The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, Shadow & Act, Bloody Disgusting, Cult Montreal and many others. Ojuju also received numerous awards and nominations locally and internationally. Ojuju is at the moment arguably the most travelled and internationally reviewed Nigerian film. I mean, three years later we’re still getting festival requests. It’s crazy to think it all started with a chance stumbling into a Lagos slum.
Nollywood is a self-sustaining cinematic industry in Africa, with strong ties to Nationalism in Cinema- this for me- is the epitome of a cinematic industry that is doing something for the people of that country- what would your opinion on this be?
I would agree to a degree, because Nollywood films do have an appeal locally. And people actually go out to support these locally made movies – be it with straight-to-Video or theatrical releases. There is an appeal. That being said, there’s a large gap waiting to be filled with genre stories that drive a National narrative, as is the case with any truly evolved cinema. So you could ask, what is Nigerian cinema? There really isn’t any. Nollywood in it’s design isn’t cinema, even though the movies go to the cinema. We can all chuck it up and say, who gets to decide what cinema is and blah blah, but until our movies transcend local appeal, can we truly say we have a cinema? That’s the question.
What are some projects you are working on right on?
Currently, I’m in post-production for Hello, Rain – a 30min short based on “Hello, Moto” a short story by World Fantasy, Nebula and Hugo award winning author Nnedi Okorafor. Nnedi is a super talented visionary who writes African sci-fi, fantasy and magical realism, or as some people like to label it “Afrofuturism”. I’m deeply inspired by her work and extremely excited about working on Hello, Rain. Still have to pinch myself sometimes. I mean, this is a lady who’s working with the likes of HBO, Disney and Marvel. And then there’s lil ol’ me. It’s crazy! I also just finished VISIONS – an anthology of three shorts I made with the Surreal16 Collective – a cinema collective I formed with two other likeminded filmmaker friends of mine, Abba T. Makama and Michael Gouken Omonua. We’ll be premiering VISIONS at the Africa Int’l Film Festival (AFRIFF) on November 1.
I’m also in pre-production for Mami Wata – a female driven revenge thriller based on the Mermaid folklore of West Africa.
Can you comment on your production company and the kind of films that are being made?
My production company is called Fiery Film Company, and so far we have made two features – Ojuju and O-Town, co-funded the short VISIONS, and produced Hello, Rain, which we optioned from Nnedi Okorafor. There are othe projects in various stages of development, such as Mami Wata and Otokoto. Mostly we tend to produce films which we consider either groundbreaking or intense in its narrative. We are interested in exploring the uncharted aspects of Nigerian and African storytelling.
I met you a while back at an African film festival and we spoke in great detail on the notion of “The New Nollywood”- what would you say regarding this term and how would your work speak to it?
The way I feel about the term “New Nollywood” is pretty much how I feel about the term “Nollywood” indifferent. Some people, especially the older filmmakers think its derogatory and cocky, while the so called younger filmmakers like to embrace it, like a thing of pride. What I’ll say though is, the Nigerian Film industry is undergoing a renaissance, and like with every renaissance, the new will always overwhelm the old. It’s either you evolve or you die. Take the renaissance of Hollywood which took place between the late 60s into the 70s, with the likes of Woody Allen, Francis Ford Copolla, Scorsese, Kubrick etc Those guys where considered the New Hollywood at the time, and the ones still alive today are still as relevant to American cinema as anyone could hope to be. So yes, there might be a few new guys doing some cool new stuff, but will the work be relevant? Will they be relevant? This is yet to be seen.
What is your favourite genre and why?
This is tough. I realize I tend to lean towards horror, supernatural, fantasy, and thrillers when I write. But I’m a lover of all cinema, and I plan to explore different genre with as much love as I would with anything I make – even if it’s a Romance film.
Who is the one director that you draw inspiration from and in what ways has this director influenced you and your work?
It’s a tough question, because I admire and draw inspiration from different directors and for different reasons. But over the years I’ve always been constantly fascinated by Scorsese. He just makes cinema so cool. And no matter what story he’s telling, his visual style will keep you locked in. I just admire how he’s able to strike that fine balance between art and commerce.
Did you always know that you would be a filmmaker? If not- what did you think you wanted to be
As long as I’ve had consciousness, yes. I remember, even at age 3 I would watch movies and draw comics from the movies I had watched, and try to get my peers to re-enact them. Film has pretty much always been a part of my world.
The world of cinema sort of has a negative view on Nigerian cinema “Nollywood” – what is it about this amazing industry that they do not know?
What the world doesn’t know is the diversity in the storytelling. I’ve travelled around a bit with my films, and the one constant reaction I get is how they don’t know people where making ‘these kinds of films’ in Nigeria. But this is no fault of theirs. We have to penetrate the world with our cinema, the way North America, Europe and Asia has done with their films. We can, and we will.
What are your top 5 favourite films of all time?
Oh man…this is like the worst question ever…Okay, in no particular order, I’ll say – The Seventh Seal, Casino (or Goodfellas), No Country for Old Men, Yeelen, Magnolia. There are so many other films I feel I love as much as the ones I have listed, but you asked for five, and there you have it.
If you were to give advice to the future filmmakers in Nigeria and in the world- what would that advice be?
You’re either in it for the long haul or you’re not. Film is a jealous mistress. And if you’re in it for the long haul, be ready for the strife and pestilence. If you’re not, which is cool, stick to your day job.
Are any of the new projects you are working on going to any festivals we should know about?
Visions will be premiere at AFRIFF this November. After that, we’ll see where we go from there. Hello, Rain is still in post. And though there are festival prospects for 2018, but it’s nothing we can speak of yet.
Who are the people in your life who you have to thank for being where you are today and your success?
My wife and my parents. They’ve given everything and continue to give to ensure that I keep doing what I do. Pretty blessed to have them. I owe them everything.
What is your mantra in life? What do you live by as an artist?
I don’t quite have a mantra. Not sure I’m that sophisticated. But I try not to ever get comfortable. I try to stay hungry.
How does your cinema speak back to the identity of a Nigerian people? If it does at all.
Haven’t really thought much about it, but the characters and stories I create are from the people and things I see and know living in Nigeria. How does that speak about the identity of the Nigerian people? Simple. There is no single narrative for a people. The ideal is to allow for diversity to be reflected in my storytelling, and that’s what I always try to push for.
What are some of the global, communal and social issues you find arising in the Nigerian cinema market currently, if any at all
None whatsoever. This is why I reiterrate that we don’t have so much of a cinema. Not yet anyways. Nothing in our local filmmaking reflects any of the global issues or conversations. Sure, there are some filmmakers making relevant films that do well in the festival circuit and all that, but nothing truly impactful, and certainly not as a collective.
What are some points you think could be improved on in cinema? Do you find anything problematic in Nigerian cinema/ Nollywood?
It would seem like the market doesn’t encourage genre filmmaking. The general consensus seems to say that Nigerians only want comedy and romance dramas. But then again, the same Nigerians watch shows like The Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, etc and they love it. I don’t see any reason why we can’t explore such genre within the local context. If for no other reason but to give the local audience a buffet of choices. Otherwise, how can we honestly claim we have an industry if other genre isn’t encouraged or allowed to thrive.
Any final comments on your love for cinema or what about this exhilarating art form that keeps you going?
I love cinema so much. It makes me cry, it makes me laugh, it makes me do stupid things. I can’t think of anything else I would rather do than make films. I feel true joy and fulfilment when I’m making a picture. There isn’t quite anything like the feeling of creating a film. The joy in itself is addictive, and after you’re done bleeding and splitting your bones into a thousand places just to make one movie, soon enough you’re back chasing that high. What else are you going to do with your life?
For more information on CJ, you can visit the website at : www.afieryfilm.com or follow him on Twitter, IG, Facebook @Fierycj
Festivals coming up: VISIONS will screen at AFRIFF, Lagos on November 1, 2017