By Bethsheba Achitsa
Published September 6, 2010
CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME, a 120-minute drama from Nigeria, won the Golden Mboni Award for the best children’s film at the 5th Lola Kenya Screen in Nairobi, Kenya, August 9-14, 2010. Chidi Nuel Nwokeabia, the producer of the Mak’ Kusare-directed film that beat a field of 22 to the prestigious award, speaks to BETHSHEBA ACHITSA about it.
Please introduce yourself.
I am Chidi Nuel Nwokeabia, the CEO of Macnuel Productions Limited, a film production company here in Lagos, Nigeria.
Tell us something about your background.
I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Accountancy and a Master’s in Human Resources Management.
When did you get into filmmaking?
I got into the film sector because of my passion for film. I was doing well in the oil and gas business before 2002 when I left for filmmaking. I had had a brief romance with acting between 1993 and 1997 before moving over to oil and gas. When I discovered I wasn’t enjoying my sojourn in that industry, I left in 2002.
Your film, CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME, has been lauded for superior story-telling; tell us how you treated the subject matter.
I treated the story from the perspective of neglect as experienced by the physically challenged people who are stigmatised in Nigeria. Many of these people have lost their self worth and feel they are a liability to society even when they know they are as intelligent and articulate as the person next door.
CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME came about as a result of an experience I had in 1997 with a young girl of about 12 years here in Nigeria. I was in a filling station when I saw the girl in a chair struggling to wheel herself towards the bus stop. She got to the bus stop and since the overhead pedestrian bridge had stairs she was begging passersby to help wheel her to the other side of the road but nobody was willing to do so because every other person was using the pedestrian bridge. I watched her for a while and approached her to help. I was touched and at the risk of being arrested by some official who frown at crossing the express road, I wheeled her not just to the other side of the road, but to the primary school. I had barely walked back about 200 metres when somebody ran to me and said the same girl wanted to see me. I was alarmed and I rushed back into the class only to meet her crying. She said she was crying because she had nothing with which to thank me. She said a short prayer, “Dear God, may any time this man does anything for people like us, be celebrated. As at that time this prayer was just the wish a grateful 12 year-old girl, I forgot about her till 2003 when a careless hit-and-run driver killed a physically-challenged beggar. I was downcast and suddenly remembered that young girl and that was how I started writing CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME.”
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What was the cost of producing CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME?
The cost of producing CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME was quite high; much higher than an average Nollywood film and that was why it took such a long time between when the script was concluded in 2005 and when it was produced in 2010. It might be interesting to note that in April 2007, the script won the third position in an international scriptwriting competition conducted by Intermedia of Italy. We are eternally grateful to the Executive Governor of Lagos State, His Excellency Raji Fashola who graciously provided the funds for the production.
Critics feel that CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME is unnecessarily long; do you agree with them?
I share the sentiments of the critics about the length of the film and we are working on it. Initially it was 188minutes before we brought it down to 120 minutes. Our target is 100 minutes maximum.
Given another chance, what would you have done differently about the film?
CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME is an advocacy film. The doors in our financial institutions would never allow any person in a wheel chair to get through “for security reasons”. I find this very repugnant. The doors are too narrow and would make “one animal noise” each time anything metallic passed through it. There are other things I would have done to make it better but as humans we are never perfect.
How many films have you produced so far?
I have not done so many films because of the marketing and distribution problem we have in Nigeria which encourage piracy. However I have done a couple of films among which are THE LAST GIRL STANDING (2003) which was a story on rape and its attendant stigma on women. It was screened in Italy in 2004. While we wait for the marketing and distribution network to improve we have been involved in the production of soap operas. Our soap, THE PATRIOTS, is making waves in Nigeria; in fact, it has won the best soap 2010 award and it is showing on network televisions across the country. We have 95 episodes of the soap and we are still making more.
We also have SCHOOL, a new 54-episode soap opera that has not been aired anywhere. At present we are working on a new film project called ENGAGING MIMI.
What is the way forward for African film makers?
The way forward for African films is support by government and its agency. I don’t know how it is in Kenya, but it is very bad here in Nigeria where the government pays lip service to the development of the film industry.
In different fora I have made my position clear. We were doing our thing our own way. We called it “Home Video” which families were enjoying in their homes. Suddenly the world took notice of this young industry and from the day they gave us that big name, Nollywood, we have never come out of the woods. They began to compare us with Hollywood and Bollywood and on daily basis upbraid us. What we are saying is this, if you want improved quality, provide funds for training, for better equipment and most importantly, we need constant electricity. We lost everything we did with CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME five months ago because there was power outage and our computer system crashed in the process. We had to start afresh.