Azubuike Erinugha is a Nigerian poet, actor, screenwriter and film director living in Germany. His film, ‘The Asylum’, directed by Obi Emelonye received its world premiere at the Odeon cinema, Surrey Quays, London in May 2008. Azubuike has come up with a new movie: ‘The Champion Sportsman‘ (TCS), a comedy that serves as a sugar coating in the film’s study of the misadventures of an immigrant in Europe. TCS stars funny man John Okafor (Mr Ibu, Uncle Wayward) and the queen of mean, Patience Ozokwor.
You currently teach Business English in Germany. How long have you done this?
I teach Business English to very interesting groups of students who are mainly adults and company managers. I have been doing this and enjoying it for almost five years now. It is a very challenging and rewarding experience to rub minds with business executives who are on top of their game. It keeps me striving for excellence in everything I do.
How then did you become involved in filmmaking?
I have always been involved in writing for the stage and screen as well as productions right from my college days. I guess I seriously got involved in filmmaking when I was accepted to join the team of writers of the acclaimed NTA network comedy, ‘Icheoku’. The production set was then at NTA 8 Enugu, just like the sets of ‘The New Masquerade’ and ‘Basi and Company’ were at the ABS Channel 50 also in Enugu. It was during the productions of these TV series I discovered how interested I'd come to be with all the actor-camera-director relationships. That was the point I made up my mind to be get into the business of film. With all the great things happening in Nollywood, I knew that I had much to contribute. My ambition is to create memorable issues films that will form an important part of Nollywood and global history of film development.
I attended the premiere of “The Asylum”. As far as I know, it never went on general release or on to DVD. Any reason for that?
‘The Asylum’ never went on big screen theatrical release because I was not stationed on ground, in Nigeria, to push the film towards that direction. Back then in 2008, mainstream theatrical releases in London spearheaded by films like ‘The Mirror Boy’ was not what Nollywood films did. It was also difficult to pursue that alongside my job which was already becoming quite successful and extremely demanding on my time. I left the promotion and distribution task to some other people who were apparently not skilled in film marketing and exhibition. This is a major issue with Nollywood, of course. However, ‘The Asylum’ later made it to DVD and VCD where all the initial copies available were sold off. The marketer and I have recently agreed to introduce more copies into the market.
What was it like working with Emelonye on that film, and given his massive international successes with ‘The Mirror Boy’ and ‘Last Flight to Abuja’, will you consider working with him on a future film?
I started working with Obi Emelonye right from our days at the university. He helped us in building Ide Theatre Group, the Abia State University's first private theatre. He later directed me in an excerpt of Esiaba Irobi's Hangmen Also Die which later led to me directing the entire play. I played the major role of Metumaribe in Emelonye’s own play ‘Claws of the Hawk’. We also worked together during a command presentation of Chris Abani's ‘Song of a Goat’. You can now see that working with him again on ‘The Asylum’ was like a homecoming! We worked with most of our Ide Theatre Group members about fifteen years later. Obi's successes with ‘The Mirror Boy’ and ‘Last Flight to Abuja’ never came to me as any surprise because we have always known this fact and only waited patiently for it to manifest. There are still many more crazy concepts in the offing, and naturally, I am following those footsteps.
You made another film ‘The Plumber’ before ‘The Asylum’. Did you direct that yourself?
No, I didn't direct ‘The Plumber’. I wrote and produced it because I didn't want it to be one-sided by directing it as well, especially because it was my first major film production. But I wasn't happy with the project so I decided not to release it. I plan to redo the entire project at the right time with much better resources and materials.
Let’s talk now about ‘The Champion Sportsman’. What is this film about and why should people go to the cinema to see it?
‘The Champion Sportsman’ is a reality-based comedy with a storyline one can almost touch with the finger. You feel it happening around you and sometimes you wonder if it a personal story of someone you know. Only that that someone you know happens to be John Okafor, Mr. Ibu, who arrives Germany with the passport and visas of a sportsman. For him to stay in the country, he has to prove his sportsmanship! This is where the comedy springs up in an apparent tragedy. People are encouraged to see this film not just because it is differently hilarious but for the important topic of migration, situations of immigrants in their host countries as compared to the reactions and expectations of family members and friends back home. Last week I was invited to speak at the European Integration Forum of the European Commission on this topic where ‘The Champion Sportsman’ was presented to policy makers and administrators. ‘The Champion Sportsman’ is on the way to becoming an accepted enlightenment tool for both the African migrants and European host audiences. Whatever we have seen as comedy in Nollywood is replaced intelligently in ‘The Champion Sportsman’.
Shed some light on your experience of working with funny man John Okafor? He is in no shape to convince anybody that he is a sportsman, is he? What was the reason to cast him in this unlikely role and did he carry it off?
No other could have played the role of Okoro in TCS better than John Okafor, Mr. Ibu! Yes, he is in no sportive shape but he's already endowed with that original disconnection seen in his perfect portrayal of the migrating character. He is the most unlikely cast for this role but that exactly is the irony that pushes the hard humour forward! No doubt he is a born comedian as well as a believable actor. It was fun, big fun all the way working with him. At the end of the shooting we had problems selecting our materials because the guy is just too funny! He is very calm and down to earth, understanding and portraying his character to the point! Of course I had a couple of clashes with him because he almost turned our set into a somewhat comedy spot. We wasted a lot of precious time on trying stop Mr. Ibu from entertaining, albeit distracting, the cast and crew members with his unending jokes. It was difficult because those entertained saw me as uptight and a workaholic dictator. But I had to put my foot down if we must wrap. Whenever we fought it got even worse because the whole shouting and name calling turned funny again! Above all, it was real fun and I will do my best to work with John Okafor again and again.
Patience Ozokwor. There was a time she only played mean women in Nollywood movies. Does she play a role to love or hate in The Champion Sportsman?
She plays her roles true to life with her personal touch of exaggerations and I am sure that is what got her to where she is today as one of top, bankable Nollywood actors ever. In TCS she plays the role a typical village woman. The role a mother would play when her son has suddenly gone to live in Germany! She is also comic because she thinks the time to recognize her importance in life has finally come and it has to be rubbed into people's faces. I am sure every member of the audience would love to hate her after seeing The Champion Sportsman, but cannot fail to recognise the kind of woman she plays in this movie. Patience Ozokwor is really an outstanding talent and I say this, Nollywood is enriched by having her work in the industry. She is smart. She is funny. She is a very kind woman in real life and fun to be with. Nothing at all like some of the characters she has played on screen.
Nollywood has been making waves in British cinemas with such films as ‘The Mirror Boy’, ‘Tango with Me’, and ‘Amina’ generating quite some interest. What achievements do you expect ‘The Champion Sportsman’ to add to the Nollywood phenomenon in Britain?
I expect ‘The Champion Sportsman’ to change the perception of Nollywood comedy films as struggling too hard to make audiences laugh at somewhat stupid and unrounded characterisations with ill-conceived gag situations, dialogues and gestures. ‘The Champion Sportsman’ does not set out to make the audience laugh in the first place. It presents an identified problem of an identified people and breaks this problem down to mentor and inspire us into action. Along the line some of these identified situations may evoke the same laughter we are aware of without distracting us from the original theme of the art. Don't get me wrong, ‘The Champion Sportsman’ remains a comedy set in the midst of real serious issues.
You are one of the Nollywood film-makers working mainly outside Nigeria. Do you have any advantages over Nigeria-based film-makers?
I don't think I have any advantages over Nigeria-based film-makers. What I'd prefer is a situation where all of us should come together and start working on how to improve the film industry. All these ideas of comparisons and working differently from totally different angles without any reasonable central cohesion makes no sense at all. That said, who am I to dictate to others on how their work patterns should be?
Why do you seem to make mostly comedies?
Simple. I enjoy making people laugh. I am happy with my life when I see people around me laughing, especially when my work is the source of the laughter.
Offer an honest assessment of Nollywood at the moment. Is there any truth to claims that in search of international acceptance, Nollywood film-makers are gradually dumping the traditional Nigerian stories that made Nollywood what it is in the first place?
I agree that some of us African based filmmakers have totally ignored the basis that even set up the Nollywood industry. I don't want to go into colonial mentality theories but the filmmakers are not the only ones guilty in this regard. The distributors, the executive producers, the cinema owners, the audiences; what are they doing about it? It is a case of demand and supply. If I make a traditional Nollywood film and no one wants to distribute it, no cinema wants to show it because they are afraid the audience wouldn't want to see it, do you expect me to make the same kind of movie next time? Until we start placing values in ourselves and what we have as a people, it will always be the same old story.
Where would you like to see Nollywood in 5 to 10 years?
I would like to see Nollywood as the real pride of African media not only for entertainment but also to inform and educate its own people.
Tell me the one Nollywood film made between 1995 and 2012 that you wish you had made, and why?
I wish I made that Nkem Owoh's ‘Ikuku’ because I see a lot of potentials that are totally ignored in such a super storyline. Imagine a top educated man dragged home to the village by the gods to become a deity priest? Powerful storyline, I think.
What is next for you after The Champion Sportsman?
Two TV series and two films. I am still working on which one to be realised first. One of the TV series will be based in Berlin because the target is the German audience. The other is a TV comedy situated in a hospital in Nigeria aimed at exposing the poor and sometimes ridiculous health delivery system in our country. I hope that this film will generate discussion and push for change in our healthcare system. Our country will fare better if we are a healthy people. The films promise to be wild, insane and very very funny.
Will you be personally attending the UK Premiere of The Champion Sportsman. I am sure members of the audience will have questions for you?
Yes, I will be there at the Greenwich Odeon for the UK premiere of The Champion Sportsman. I have also written to my German co-producers who are working on their schedules to find time and accompany me to the event.
Thanks for talking to Nollywood Focus.
You are welcome, Nnorom! Thanks a lot, for having me.
© October 2012. Nnorom Azuonye & Nollywood Focus
The Champion Sportsman will receive its UK premiere at the Odeon Greenwich on the 9th of November.