Back in April, the Global IP Center celebrated World IP Day with a series of virtual events. One of them – “Innovation Ecosystem: The Common Thread” – highlighted “the threads that weave the ecosystems of craftsmanship, creativity, and innovation into the societal and economic fabric that enables us to allocate resources, facilitate collaboration, and bring ideas to the realm of possibilities.”
The event featured a conversation between our very own CEO Ruth Vitale and accomplished Nigerian filmmaker Omoni Oboli. During the spirited conversation, Oboli shared her story of coming up in the Nigerian film industry, starting as an extra and rising to a Nollywood powerhouse.
Vitale and Oboli hit it off, drawing on their mutual experiences as successful women in film and their shared disdain for the devastating effects of piracy. Today, Oboli is one of the biggest names in the Nigerian film scene not only as an actor, but as a writer, director, and producer of several successful films.
Oboli spoke to us from her home in Canada about the origins of her career, the Nollywood community, and her experiences with widespread digital piracy.
JUSTIN SANDERS: I learned from [Ruth Vitale] that Nigeria makes more than 2500 films per year, so obviously there’s an incredibly thriving industry there. Can you just tell our readers a little bit about Nollywood, your general impression about the industry, and what it’s like to work in it?
OMONI OBOLI: So, Nollywood is an amazing industry. It’s completely different than everything else that’s out there. It was pretty much formed by the filmmakers themselves and is really thriving on its own, without any form of support from the government or from any international bodies.
People use their own resources. They just put their money together and they make these films. The majority of them don’t play in the cinema. They are made for home viewing, and they’re very low budget films. The turnaround on those films is usually very quick and they’re just thrown on YouTube or any of the smaller digital platforms. Most of the films are that way.
But if your film is big enough, it does the cinema route and then it would go to all the forms of digital streaming.
JS: You mentioned when you spoke with us before that from the age of four you knew you wanted to be an actor. How was your interest sparked as a kid? Were you watching a lot of movies? Was your family creative? How did that passion begin?
OO: You know what? It’s hard to say now that you ask that question. I really wasn’t watching a lot of movies at all! I don’t know where it came from. My mom was quite creative. Even though she was a schoolteacher, she would also be in church plays, so maybe that’s where I got it from. But honestly, I don’t know. I just really wanted to act! And it was something that kept pulling me and kept calling to me. It’s probably one of those things you’re born with.
JS: What part of Nigeria did you grow up in?
OO: I was born in Benin city in Edo state, but I didn’t live there long. At five, my mom got a job that was located in a really small town, almost like a village. The company she worked for had created an estate so workers could stay there. My mom didn’t have any extra money, but we had the trappings of a good life because she was working for this company.
She was working as a teacher, so she wasn’t well paid, but we had access to a lot of great amenities like good schools, country clubs, and hospitals. So, it looked like we had a good life going on, but there was never any money to travel to see the world or anything like that.
JS: what was your first professional acting role in Nigeria?
OO: During my first year of university, we were in Benin which is about three and a half hours away from Lagos, which is the big city where everything happens. It’s like the New York of Nigeria.
So, my friends had gone to Lagos during vacation, where they had met some people in the film industry and were able to get onto some sets as extras. They came back to school and that was all they were talking about, and I was like, “Wow! I really want to act! I really want to do this!”
Growing up I had done a lot of school and church plays, and directed, written, produced for all of them. I told my friends, “When you go back next vacation, I’m going to go with you.” We had a plan. And I really went with them the following vacation!
I got my first role as a maid in a film starring two really big actors at the time. All I had to do was open the door for the female lead’s love interest and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m opening the door for this super famous actor that every little girl had a crush on!” He was just so huge, and I couldn’t believe that I was in the same room as him.
I have now directed and produced two films that starred that same actor. I was a tiny little girl, like 18, when I was first in that movie with him. It’s amazing how when you stay focused and committed, everything in the universe aligns and works in your favor. Life is so funny – everything has come full circle. So yeah, that’s how I started!
But then by the time I was in my second year in my university, I had done three or four more roles at that point, but it became a problem because it was clashing with my education.
My grades were slipping because I was missing weeks at a time to act, so I was forced to decide whether to drop out and focus on acting or complete my education. My mom was a single mom, and she had done so much to put me through school, so I decided to complete my education and take a break from the movies.
But then right after that, we left the country, and it took me a whole decade to come back into the movies.
It was only after I had my kids that I was able to come back to Nigeria. It was like I was the new girl all over again. So, it was really difficult getting back into it. I had to start writing scripts and giving them to producers and just saying, “This is free, I just need a role in the film.”
JS: And they took you up on that?
OO: As a matter of fact, they did. It was a struggle getting back, but I stuck with it because it was what I really wanted to do. Eventually I did two major films, one called The Figurine and another in Canada called Anchor Baby. Those two films shot me back into the limelight.
After that, I decided I wanted to direct my own projects. And that was scary, because I thought to myself, “You’re just this little woman, who’s going to listen to you?” But I really wanted to do it, because the scripts I wrote at the time would go to producers and they would turn into good films, but they weren’t what I had in my head when I was writing them.
So, I said to myself, “If my movies are going to have my DNA, then I’m going to have to write and direct them myself.” I took a short course at the New York Film Academy about digital filmmaking just so I could have some knowledge and then I came back to Nigeria. It took me almost four years to make my first film. It was a struggle.
JS: So that film that started you off, that you were finally able to make, what was it? What was the story you had to tell and make happen for yourself?
OO: When I got back from NY Film Academy, I had this story that I couldn’t get out of my head.
It was about a car accident that caused a switch between two people – one person got burned beyond recognition and was thought to be the other passenger, and the real person was flung out of the car, and she ended up in a village somewhere.
It was quite a complicated film. When we started to make it, I started to beat myself up. I was saying, “You’re a first-time filmmaker, how dare you make such a big film? Why didn’t you just make a cute little romantic comedy and move on?”
The film was shot in three different states in Nigeria. I had trucks of crew and equipment going from one part of the country to the other. There were days where I would sit there and just start crying.
JS: And how long would it take to get from one place to the other?
OO: The whole day! You’d be driving the whole day! And I’m just sitting there crying like “Why did you decide to do this film!?” But in the end, it came out really well.
JS: One thing you mentioned in your conversation with Ruth was that starting your career was intimidating because Nigeria has a very patriarchal society. I imagine it must have taken a lot of courage. How did you find the strength to work in that environment?
OO: It’s true that Nigeria is patriarchal. A lot of Africa is. However, Nigeria is also waking up to the fact that women are here, and we are going to do big things. So, I try not to let gender limit me in whatever I’m doing.
The filmmaking industry in Nigeria is largely dominated by men, so your crew is 90% male, and as a director and producer, I’m running that ship. I had to really dig deep and say to myself, “It’s ok that you’re a woman. You are the leader here – you need to step up and lead and it doesn’t matter what gender you are.”
I’m not saying it was easy, it took a lot of work. My style of leadership is more of a nurturing style because I lead from a place of love. And that can be tricky because people can quickly learn to take you for granted. I did not want to change my leadership style because that’s who I am, but I had to be firm so that they realized and understood that I was in charge.
However, filmmaking is a collaborative effort. At the end of the day, it takes all of us to make this film. So, it was a balancing act for me.
JS: You mentioned that when you started there were only three or four women directors in Nollywood. Is that still the case today?
OO: There are many more female filmmakers now. I guess women have seen other women making it work and they see that it’s possible. Right now, in the industry, women are very well respected. You have some of these women directing the biggest blockbusters in Nigeria. It’s completely different. I think it’s just from us being there and proving ourselves, and not giving up or backing down.
JS: It seems like you were kind of a pioneer in that way. Your determination seems to have literally changed the industry for the better.
OO: I try to be very modest – it’s not just me who’s responsible for this change. There are a few of us female filmmakers who stuck with it and earned us this reputation. But we did pave the way for all these new female filmmakers you see today. So yes, I would call myself a pioneer in that sense.
JS: I know you’ve had some experiences with piracy. Could you tell us a little about your experiences with piracy and how it’s affected you?
OO: It’s major, to be honest.
Before today, you would make a film, and while it’s in the cinema, you would literally see DVDs of the movie being sold everywhere. Just out on the street, in traffic, everywhere. And as a filmmaker, you’re not making a dime from that. Someone would get this movie, make millions of copies, and sell all of them without you getting a cent. So, you might not make your money back from the film.
I have never released any of my movies on DVD. Ever! Because I just realized that it didn’t make any sense. Why would I compete with the pirates, who already have that distribution channel for these movies? They have the framework already built up, and it’s impossible for someone like me to compete with that.
It’s so demoralizing. So frustrating. It’s something no filmmaker should have to go through. I don’t sell the rights of my movies to anyone to make DVD copies, but the pirates were right there trying to sell me my own film. That happened to me too many times.
After a while, I just kind of accepted the DVD pirates because it was too big of a problem that it just seemed hopeless. It’s the kind of fight that only the [Nigerian Government] could fight, and we tried plenty of times to get them involved but it wasn’t important to them. So, I just tried to forget about it and move on.
But now, it’s actually worse – because it’s digital piracy now. It’s no longer people selling DVDs on the street. The digital pirates make it so difficult to recoup on your investment. During the lockdown last year, one of my movies got released on Netflix. Within 24 hours, I was online trying to shut down pirate sites that were streaming my movie. It’s crazy!
So now, that’s just another struggle we’re facing as filmmakers. People around the entire world are given free access to illegal copies of my movie, which is way worse than just having DVDs sold on the street in Nigeria.
JS: Do you ever get a chance to give young filmmakers advice? And if so, what do you tell them?
OO: You have to be sure that you know this is what you want to do. Because it is going to be tough. You are going to struggle to get recognized. You’re going to struggle to even make the film, because nobody is going to just give a rookie director a film to make. So, chances are, you’re going to have to produce your first film. Which means, you’re going to have to look for the resources to finance the film, and that’s tough too!
However, if you know that this is what you want to do, then you are going to do everything that it takes to make it happen. You’re going to knock on every door. 90% of those doors will be slammed in your face, but you’re not going to give up. You’re going to keep knocking, because when you get that “yes,” it’ll all be worth it. It might take a long time, but if you know that this is what you want to do, then you will make it happen.