C.J. Obasi has built a reputation in the film industry for his total commitment to the New Nollywood aesthetic, bound by the bold manifesto of his collective, the Surreal 16. He is also prominent writer, sharing writing credits in Living In Bondage and Lionheart respectively.
With his Mami Wata project securing funding from international partners, getting representation from the global talent CAA and most recently, getting signed up to the Netflix Original African series slate of directors, Obasi is surely one of the most exciting filmmakers out of Africa in recent times.
His films include Ojuju, O Town and Hello Rain. A film festival favourite, his zero budget Zombie film “Ojuju” won the Best film award at the African International Film Festival (Afriff) and got him the Trailblazer of the Year award in March 2015, at the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA). It is also regarded as one of the most traveled Nigerian films ever, garnering glowing reviews from The Hollywood Reporter and Indiewire.
Catch Ojuju’s trailer here
It wasn’t always this way. Obasi’s ascent to the stratosphere of visionary directors was preceded by a period of near obscurity that any aspiring filmmaker can relate to vividly.
Born in Owerri in 1985, Obasi grew up reading Stephen King books and loved to watch classic Horror films. From an early age, Obasi found himself enamored with cinema but would go on to attend the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he studied Computer science.
In lieu of a formalized education in filmmaking, he bought a few cameras, taught himself the craft and established his own film company, Fiery Film, with his wife, the TV and film producer, Oge Obasi and the late screenwriter Benjamin Stockton. Their first film, Jim and Joan was a well received horror film that was never completed due to a lack of funding.
Ojuju, his first completed film is a zero budget masterstroke, here are the three lessons you can apply to your own work
1. Be original but also keep your influences
Though it is full of social allegories, Ojuju is almost a familiar genre film: A micro-budget zombie film that happens within the spaces of a Lagos slum. Showing his affinity for the genre, Ojuju is referred to as a love letter to George Romero’s (which is also the name of the lead character in Ojuju) Night of the Living Dead.
However, Obasi’s skill as a storyteller helps him to create wholly unique film even when clearly influenced by many sources. In addition, the film dialogue is either in colourful pidgin English, Yoruba and Igbo.
“…I grew up on George A. Romero, but I wasn’t trying to make a Hollywood story. I was trying to make a subversive, localized story set in a slum in Lagos, it has a reality to it “
2 Be Inspired By What You Can Find
Every story a community tells is in essence a myth about itself, whether set in the past, present, or beyond. In the case of Ojuju, C.J. Obasi used a Lagos slum as a canvas for his allegory about Nigeria. He found the slum while visiting a friend and it inspired not just the writing but the setting of Ojuju.
C.J. describes the slum as a tightknit and supportive community. This offered him the perfect opportunity to make a film tailored to his zero budget style, as opposed to struggling for production funds and location rentals.
” It’s crazy to think it all started with a chance stumbling into a Lagos slum.”
3. Don’t Rely On Conventions
Ojuju, like the rest of Obasi’s work, eschews the regular Nollywood aesthetics and stories and goes for a gritty realistic feel, called the “New Nollywood” sometimes by critics and filmmakers alike.
Interestingly, the film struggled to find suitable cinema release deals in Nigeria after a successful festival run , forcing Obasi to opt for VOD and TV distribution deals for Ojuju, effectively sidestepping the “gatekeepers” for his audience.
Ojuju today remains a fascinating insight into the voice of a bold storyteller and the raw directorial powers he could exert with minimal resources and tireless drive.
So make that film.
You can watch Ojuju here