Azubike Erinugha is an entertainment entrepreneur, creating movies that are now in demand in Europe and Asia. He has won awards in India for films he created and achieved a Bollywood collaboration for his future movies. He has also achieved acclaim in the European Union parliament for his themes on immigration and culture. He speaks in this interview with The UNION about lessons he had learned liaising with Bollywood and the potentials of the sector to re-create the Nigerian economy.
What led you into Nollywood despite other opportunities available to you?
I actually started on time as far back as before our high school days of dramatic societies. I joined an Enugu local ensemble called the AURA Theatre led by Mr. Uche Anakor. I was a sophomore member of our university’s theater group, the Creators Club. Later, my friends, Chidi Okere and Chris Ekeagwu and I left to form our own independent Ide Theatre Troupe on campus. If we had effective guidance and counseling units in our schools systems, perhaps we should had all known what path I was going to follow. Initially I had plans to be a lawyer but when I arrived the United States I trained as an IT Project Manager, still scheming that one day I will become a lawyer. I came back to Nigeria and worked in the telecommunication sector at those early stages of GSM in our country. Did I love that job? Why not, especially the part of being sent abroad for trainings and traveling all over Nigeria to work in the field. I was also a freelance teacher in Germany until recently. Although I love teaching, I’d rather do that part time, as I am doing now. I just want to create stuffs myself with others with the same vision. I want to work with people who come in as contributors in a project, not necessarily as employees versus employer thing. The more I worked for people who determined my life and the more I see future opportunities in the film industry, the more my spirit continued showing me a parallel direction. I want to be in the midst of talents that inspire. I also would like an opportunity not just entertaining folks, but also inform and educate as much as I could. I am led into Nollywood because I believe in a cause, a purpose to reach and be enriched by our people, our heritage, our styles and our opinions.
Describe your passion and decision for the sort of themes you had adopted for your films.
I am not a competitive person. In order to avoid competing with tough filmmakers in Nollywood I decided to carve a niche for myself. And since I am able to write my films, it was quite easy. I spend most of time outside Nigeria and I experience choruses of curiosities from the west. The global media has not done us good by the way. I find the international community’s misinformed about us. The same manner of negative image that has become our shadow, clinging to us, is all we are abroad. It is exhausting correcting impressions with arguing, shouting and fighting closed minds that believe we hang out with monkeys and chill out on trees. When one makes a cool, fun and cultural film weaved around global themes as migration, social cohesion, integration, culture exchange, etc, these curious guys will come to the cinema and ask questions after watching. I believe this is the best and decent way to have a conversation and at the same time promote your heritage. Moreover, lots of us are now permanent citizens outside our countries of birth. We marry and have children outside Africa and building further African communities in Europe and elsewhere. New types of audiences of Nollywood are emerging gradually. Our new host countries must be enlightened about us. And only us can do this. We study these new audiences, find what they would like to know about us and start building new sales territories outside our main domain. Personally I think it is a social duty to tell the real Diaspora stories. Our films are hopeful windows of seeing what may eventually happen to one the moment you have left your business in Nigeria (for instance) to come to Europe expecting to make millions overnight. Most stories earlier told are not with clear truth. Although we make very funny films, we brand a whole lot of creative efforts in coating our blunt messages with humorous layers of sugar!
Of the films you had made so far, which would you say was the most successful…and why?
Success is relative. As a filmmaker you can only get better. When around 2004 we made a film, The Plumber, it was quite successful to me. But to the marketer it was not a commercial success. It was a successful venture to me because when people watch that film, I watch their reactions and tap myself at the back saying, “good job”. The marketer didn’t agree with me because he wanted hundreds of thousands of DVDs sold. He was not wrong but if we covered our expenses and made a bit of profit why worry when we are still on board to make more films? I wrote my next film that I produced with my brother, Emma Ehumadu, aka Totolos or Labista. We invited my brother and friend, Obi Emelonye to make the film, “The Asylum” with us. It was for me another success. Again, the marketer, another one, in a hurry to make billions was not happy with the sales! A film people watch and fall on the ground laughing is not successful? We recovered our costs, made profit and you are not happy? That was when I paused making films, just to study these guys who “market” films. I will discuss my findings in another forum but it was these findings that positioned me in looking beyond DVD and VCD sales. It was in time for us to launch our German cooperation, The Champion Sportsman. This film was a huge success both in Europe and in Nigeria. In Nigeria it was aptly renamed “Mr. Ibu in Germany” by the Nigeria, Paulo Concepts. His wealth of experience and idea worked well. That film is still selling up till today. Our new film, “Brothers” is the film that has taken us all over the world. We got two invitations to India. One is for an international film festival and another is to train with a Bollywood film set. At the moment we are discussing collaboration. Although it is interesting, I would not want to rush into it till we conceive an appropriate storyline that will work with our usual global theme concept. Apart from countless screenings in Berlin, Braunschweig, Erfurt in Germany, Antwerp, Bornem, Brussels, Oostende in Belgium, Brothers has taken us to the European Union Parliament where the film set off discussions on migration, integration and cultural exchange.
Nollywood seems to be on the downward loop. Do you think it has reached its saturation?
Well, a whole lot of rubbish is also happening right now and Nollywood is not the only one on the “downward loop”. The film industry of Nigeria known as Nollywood has not even started. What we are seeing right now is just a scratch of the surface. The major Nollywood has not even started. If we have a focused leader who understands the meaning of culture, tourism and cinema and the role these sectors can play in the economic growth of our country, that is when this film industry called Nollywood would take off. As a nation we only think one-easy-way out: oil. As far as Nigeria is concerned the only source of wealth is oil. Germany is the economic powerhouse of the EU yet there is no single drop of oil in that European country. India has one of the busiest tourism exercises in the world. Under their “Incredible India” PR concept, India has been able to export the idea of Bollywood Restaurants to the west. When we met with our potential distributor in India he told us the secret of the commercial success of Bollywood. There are up to 1,000 cinema screens in Delhi region alone! This is what was expected of the last president who was unarguably the only one government that actually paid any attention to the growth of Nollywood. His office earmarked a lot of money as grants to filmmakers. With all due respect, some of us faulted that move. Let’s face it: the ones who were closest to the government would find a way to share the money amongst themselves and say they are shooting a film. You are shooting a film with the money that belongs to the government, and where are the films you have shot? What distribution plan did you submit to get that money? How did you convince the government you would strictly use the money for what it was meant for? Instead of sharing that money, the government should have used the money to build more cinemas. When producers know they will spend good money to make films and compete for sales at the cinemas, they will wake up and start making better movies. Better movies translate to better money, and from there an industry will finally take off. Not saturation point already. Just help the private sectors build more cinema screens and stop sharing free money.
You are based in Europe and do films that have local themes. How have you been able to manage these given the seeming high budget for such films?
I come from a very beautiful community in Imo State known as Dikenafai. Our community has a huge tourism potential that has been totally neglected by both the governments and the private sectors. And when one imagines the opportunities we are missing it is disheartening. In order to showcase what we have to the world I have taken upon myself to attract as much international attention as possible for social and economic motivations. Luckily my basic background is literature and I majored in African drama. Since I cannot bring everyone to a definitive stage, I have the quest to take this stage to the whole world in electronic medium. I love Igbo folklores, legends, wit sayings, idiomatic expressions and proverbs. Our language, our culture, is facing a strong extinction threat. If there is a way I can help in doing anything to save our language, culture and heritage, I would! By the grace of God, as from next year we plan making films not just in our Igbo language but also in the fast dissolving Dikenafai dialect. When we have a story we spend a lot of resources in making sure we get all traditional and cultural values right. We go to the village and speak to our titled men and knowledgeable women, elders and so on. We compare results from our oral interviews and realize all these elements into the film we are making. There are also a lot people who like what we do. They compliment us and most times offer to support by loan or donations. The budget seems enormous but all the funding don’t come from me. I am not that rich.
Tell us, what sort of reception does Nollywood films get in your part of Europe.
At first it was not easy to bring the European people to the cinema where our films are screening. At the screening of my first film, The Asylum, which I did with Obi Emelonye, the reception was wonderful with an audience of mostly Africans and the West Indies. That was sometime around 2008 in London. By 2013 when we premiered The Champion Sportsman in Greenwich, UK it was even greater. In 2015, we changed the game, this time in Belgium. A whole cinema room at the Cinema Galeries in Brussels Belgium was filled up with more of Europeans than Africans and Asians. And we realized it didn’t even matter there was no French subtitles of the film, Brothers. The people in the audience come from all cultural backgrounds of the world! They all laughed, sighed, screamed and applauded at the same time. It was a huge success that we yielded to the clamor for a second screening of the same film, this time with French subtitles. To be sincere, the entire world will be willing to see Nollywood films only if the films are authentic and treating universal themes. If we make films to answer foreigners’ curiosities, they will eventually come. They will not just come; they will wait after the film for questions and answers. But when we try to make the same types of films they make, they will see us as making terrible copies of their own films, so why would they come?
Recently, you had a show in India. Tell us about it. What was the reception like? Was the movie generally accepted in India?
Recently our new film, Brothers, was designated to screen as the official selection of the third Woodpecker Film Festival in Delhi, India. I went to India just to represent the cast and crewmembers of Brothers and ended up with awards and certificates for the film. I heard outside the Bollywood styled films; the cinema loving people of India do not have patience for other types of movies. The reception accorded Brothers led to two other screenings in Delhi and an offer for an Indian collaboration in our next project. Right now we are working out plans to commence on a TV sitcom to be shot in Nigeria, Belgium and India. It was my first time in India and having made some strategic contacts, tasted their food, meditated in a couple temples, enjoyed their calm and peaceful approach to life, we can say I am now seriously addicted to India.
Do you see any reasons to collaborate with Bollywood? What are the reasons?
I have always been a cultural entrepreneur and I have advocated in various instances the need to globalize our heritage through the works of arts, cultural exchanges and potential integration purposes. The Indian film culture is far more developed than ours. We have a lot to learn from each other. I joined the Bollywood crew on set while I was in India. It was amazing all they were willing to show me throughout my stay. I also dropped a couple suggestions here and there. We got on very friendly and professionally. I was also offered a role in an upcoming film from Emem Isong while in India. It is an amazing comedy about the Indian Hair African women weave in their own hair! That film is a huge potential not just because of the powerful and humorous plot, but also its uniqueness as a Nollywood-Bollywood coproduction. If we collaborate with other cinema structures, especially the Bollywood, we have a lot to gain economically, socially, technically and intellectually.
Most Nollywood films have themes that have to do with juju, church, marriage failures etc. If films mirror society, would you say these are apt representations of Nigeria or Igboland?
I would say the presence of juju in our films has been radically reduced. Recently there are new concept themes coming out from producers in Nollywood. Historic films like Kunle Afoloyan’s “October 1”, magical realism adventure stories like Obi Emelonye’s “Mirror Boy”. Is there any juju in Mildred Okwo’s “The Meeting”? My last film is a cross continental comedy with John Okafor, Mr. Ibu in Germany, “The Champion Sportsman”. We have nothing to do with juju in that film. This is not to say juju does not exist. Like you rightly said, “films mirror the society”. Our lifestyle is not 100% juju. I think it is faulty to lean an entire film on the frame of absolute juju, church or marriage failure. Some of those aspects of life could be negative and represents a very little fraction of our entire life. Not every marriage is bound to fail. If a producer decides to make a particular story about a particular couple who allowed a particular issue take over their marriage, that is just one particular episode in a millions of episodes. Thankfully we are developing rapidly and the themes of our productions are developing as well.
A new breed of Nollywood filmmakers have joined the Nigeria film industry. Most of them are coming from the Diaspora. How do you see this affecting Nollywood?
Nollywood is not just a film industry. It is a movement. Some also argue it is a culture. I say it is a cultural movement that posses the power of influence. A lot of African kids are now talking the same ways Nigerians talk. Where did they learn these with slangs and histrionics that go with those? I was in a tram in Berlin few years ago when suddenly someone’s telephone goes off. The ringtone was Nigerian. I thought I have met another Nigerian and started making my way towards the direction of the ring tone. I stopped in my path because it was a Caucasian girl’s phone ringing! As we speak now, most nightclubs in Europe dedicate up to two hours, or more, to sessions of Nigeria music. After a screening in Erfurt, Germany, a German lady walked up to me and requested I bring her to Ramsey Noah. A couple of Russian girls have repeatedly asked me to bring Aki and Pawpaw to Brussels. So if foreigners are indicating interests in our cultural presentations it naturally means some artists residing in these foreign lands would rise and start contributing from their own experiences and points of view. If they have easier accesses to funding, techniques, trainings and other forms of support, why not? I want to make it clear that there should not be any comparisons between this so-called new breed of filmmakers and the ones based at home. What is actually lacking is the synergies for these various groups to work together in order maximize the expectations, goals and objectives of this cultural movement.
From your European tours, what else do you think could be done to enhance the capacity of Nollywood as a job creating sector?
It is not just in Nollywood. It is about the entire country and nation building capacity. Stop forcing square pegs into round holes. Simple. For anything to work, get the right people to do the right job. The people in government should stop using official appointments as political settlement options. There are people who are trained to create business possibilities to enhance economic and social growth. Genuinely search for these people and give them mandate to perform and achieve. Just sit back and see what would happen. In India, tourism including Indian food and Bollywood is a huge export. This could also happen in our country if we start telling ourselves the truth.
Some of your movies are set in Dikenafai in Imo state. What special features led you to the town?
There is an English proverb that says, “charity begins at home”, but that doesn’t really explain my thoughts well enough. That is why I will try with the Igbo adage that says, “beauty is first observed at home before being appreciated from the outside”. Another important proverb in Igbo tells us that if one considers his barn worthless, his neighbor will convert it into a refuse dump. What do I gain if I have a very beautiful hometown that has all the potentials the entire world would love to see yet continue filming at the locations of other people as well as promoting their own home fronts? Dikenafai has one of the most amazing tourism points in Nigeria. How many people know about this? I am on a mission to sell the rich cultural heritage, the tourism opportunities and the humble hard working people of Dikenafai, by the grace of God in the global market.
Who is the most difficult act you ever worked with in Nollywood?
I will answer this huge question with a very little story. The management board of a big company suddenly sent out an obituary announcement that says: “The one who is making this difficult for you in this company is dead. You are therefore invited to view him while laying in state today during lunch hours”. At lunch hours, all the employees trooped to the laying in state spot and waited for the coffin to be opened. Finally the coffin was opened and they were all invited to view the content of the box one by one. They observed there was no dead body inside the coffin. Instead a huge mirror lay in the box. As each employee peered, he or she see themselves. That way, they were all able to see one is actually the one who makes life difficult for him. No one is the most difficult act in Nollywood. If you are a director or a producer and fail to update yourself with the qualities of a leader then you need to see that mirror in the coffin to realize one thing: people you work with need to be studied on individual levels. That way you and only you should device an approach in handing them all, one at a time.
Among the actresses you had worked with, who would you say was the most inspiring?
Unfortunately my films have been accused of starring quite a few female acts. Of course it is not intentional. It all depends on the stories and again as dictated by the screenplays we were working with at those moments. However this position must change. I have promised to make sure there will more effective lady roles in our future projects. Having said that, I have been honoured to direct both Patience Ozokwo and Sandra Achums in “The Asylum” and “The Champion Sportsman”. Mama G is a very generous mother of all the Nollywood people, especially if you work with her. She is very supportive and understanding. That is the most inspiration one needs as a producer. Sandra Achums’ baby was about three months when we shot the Berlin scenes of The Champion Sportsman. Her dedication and support by arriving location with her new baby is one of the most inspiring moments I have ever experienced. Inspirations come in various shapes and manners. In Brothers, Madam Salome Okeke, a veteran, played her motherly roles on the cast and crewmembers. She prayed for us all the time, shifted most of her other appointments and remained with us till the recordings were over. There are a lot of other actresses who in one way or the other inspired not just me but were blessings to the entire film making projects. This makes it quite difficult to define exactly who was most inspiring. They all were and still are extremely inspiring.
How long are you prepared to stay in Nollywood as film producer before you go make your own music like most others do?
One thing we must not forget is that art is universal. Just because you are producer does not mean you lack talent for music. In fact these two are more related than to the rest of the other areas of arts. I am a published poet who organizes workshops and readings in many countries. A part of our performance is hugely realized in music. Whenever I am in Owerri you may most of the time catch me in the studios of my friends, Tonneil Avo, the reggae gospel musician who creates most of my soundtracks, or Ralph Cee, one my younger brothers who is a great music producer in Owerri or the grandfather of Bongo music, the popular Engineer Bruno. As a poet it is easy to transit into music. These guys are now inspiring me. Thankfully I am more of a produce than an actor, which means when I make my own music it will not be as news worthy as most actors’. Well, on a more serious note, if I ever decide to make music, it will not be for commercial reasons. It will more for arts, poetry, cultural philosophy or plane political reasons.
Finally, do you think that FG’s Nollywood fund was what the sector needed to grow? Did you access the fund for your production?
Sometimes I almost think Nigeria was intentionally created for nothing to work. This is a country where non-farmers are given the government subsidized fertilizers. These guys hoard the fertilizers only to resell them to the real farmers who actually need the fertilizers. How can a grown up men who are making decisions for a country come up with such an idea to give money to people who happen to be “regarded” as filmmakers. And expect this exercise will grow the sector? It is a really confusing system we find here, my brother. Elsewhere, based on the potentials the film industry is showing, the government would be talking to firms to start with building “community” cinemas in all the local government areas in the country. You need less than a year and you will see how the culture will translate to economic platform not just to power the sector but bring revenue to the country. But, no, we would not do that. We will get a few friends and dump that large amount of money, pose for TV reporters, appear in some newspapers and a huge applause is resounded and life goes on!