Michael Omonua talks Nollywood, Memories and Eavesdropping on Diner conversations

Michael Omonua’s acute interest in existential topics grounded in the Nigerian reality and the states of the human condition colour his filmography.  Loop count and Brood spotlights the concept of memory and its malleability. Yahoo boy provides an intimate look into a single day out of many tumultuous days in the lives of struggling internet fraudsters. Bleed feeds jarring insights into the illicit body parts trading network in Lagos. Rehearsal, a Berlinale 2021 selection, casts a sharp satiric gaze on religion. The Man Who Cuts Tattoos, his debut feature length effort released in 2019 , treats love, pain and sacrifice with the tattoo culture of an understudied ethnic group as rich context. With screenings all over the world, Michael Omonua’s somewhat idiosyncratic style is proof that the world is ready for African stories told in whatever style or form.

Film Kaku interviewed Michael to gain extra insights into his work and even more:

Film Kaku: We’re a huge fan of your work. Especially the less popular movies and filmmakers you fawn about on your social media platforms. Which I think points to a deliberate exposure to different kinds of cinema growing up. What kind of films did you see growing up?

Michael Omonua: My earliest memory of a film that got me really invested was Jurassic Park. I was really young back then when I saw it in a cinema in the UK and I remember everything about that day; how it made me feel, how the everyone in the cinema was in awe of the film, the sizzle down my spine. I was also exposed to a lot of horror films thank to older brothers.  Then in high school, it was all about Hollywood. You know, Michael Bay’s The Rock and other spectacles. But the nuanced education started with my English teacher at the time who was a film buff. He invited me to a film activity group he had going on then and that’s where I was exposed to a different kind of cinema. I’m talking the Kurosawa collection, Night of the hunter and other unpopular films. It got even better when I got into University. There was a film library open to students. About 10,000 films just sitting in shelves. Tarkovsky, Bergman, Scorsese, Malik, Altman, everything. I was spoilt for choice and I made the most of it. Practical sessions were also going on by the side so it’s was quite a rounded experience. 

Michael Omonua at the London Film Festival 2019

FK: How about Nigerian films? Did you see any?

MO: No, I didn’t. But I saw some West African films. Sembene, Mambety and the likes. It wasn’t until when I got back to Nigeria that I started seeing Nigerian films and I was already 24/25 years old. The thing about these films, African films I mean, is that they’re not readily available. You have to do your independent search for them and that’s what I did.  

FK: How did Jurassic Park make you feel in the cinema? Was that the moment you knew you were going to make films too?

MO: I remember the overwhelming sense of awe watching the giant dinosaurs on screen. It was insane. But that wasn’t the moment when I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was too young then, didn’t even know what filmmaking is. It was around age 13/14 that the craft started to appeal to me in a way that meant more than just a hobby. 

FK: You were obviously exposed to a lot of films growing up. How much does this influence your work right now?

Hal Hartley
Trust by Hal Hartley

MO: I pool from a wide range of sources. But a name that really stands out for is Hal Hartley. He’s a filmmaker from the 90s and has dabbled into a wide range of genres. But in all these he retained a distinct style that continues to blow me away. I see him like an amalgam of Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard and other brilliant filmmakers.  The first Hartley film I saw was Trust, a romantic black comedy released in 1990. One thing I like about him is that like me, he adores Bresson. He employs the use of relatively unknown faces and continues to work with them over and over in all his films. Names like Martin Donovan, Adrienne Shelly, Robert John Burke and so on. 

FK: This explains your repeated casting of names like Valerie Dish and so on?

MO: In a way, yes. Films are always inspired by other films. Comparisons of my films to, say, Hartley and Bresson, can be compared  to the comparisons between Woody Allen and Bergman. In the sense that, similarities do not necessarily jump at you but they are there. 

FK: Interesting. Because I’ve followed a lot of your conversations. And the names I read and hear are Satyajit Ray, Yasujuro Ozu and Robert Bresson. Not Hal Hartley. 

MO: I think you need to dig deeper. I actually have a short film on Vimeo called Talk. It’s one the first few films I ever made. In Talk, one conversation played out three times between two different characters. Hal Hartley made a film called Flirt, a drama in the 90s. And it’s this same scenario. One conversation, different characters, different countries.  So that’s where the idea came from. Ozu, Bresson and Hartley are all prominent features in my understanding of film. 

A still from Talk by Michael Omonua

FK: I love Ozu too. Tokyo Story is a classic. But the one that appeals to me more is The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice.

MO: I must have seen that in film school. Ozu’s filmography is really vast. There’s a backlog of silent films that have been understudied. His work is immense.

FK. Most definitely. Back to your work, Memory is a recurrent feature in all your films. Is there a perspective to memory you’re trying to communicate?

MO: Memories fascinate me, it’s that simple. There’s a scenario about memory that’s probably going to inspire one of next films. Someone is told about something and a few years later he remembers this little event like he was there. So, it creates that brief confusion: Was I there? Is this Deja vu? The affinity for concepts like memory can be linked to my love for psychology-heavy scientific fiction sagas like Blade Runner, Matrix and others.

FK: Only that you go about it in a different way. Neo-realism, realism…

MO: Yes, yes, it has to be grounded in reality. But my favourite genre has always been science fiction. In fact, I want to make genre films sometime. So, I guess it further explains my love for Memory and associated elements.

FK: It does. For someone who didn’t grow up watching Nigerian films, your films make honest attempts to mirror realistic living in Nigeria. What’s your approach to story development, character building and the likes?

MO: It varies from project to project. Sometimes it’s an idea that just sticks, an image you think would work on screen, a scenario, a line of dialogue or anything. Sometimes it hits you afresh in the middle of scribbling down another rough idea into your journal of film ideas. When it comes, you start to build on this bit. Fitting in and binning ideas that work and don’t work. That’s how it is for me. It’s the same when it comes to actual writing. The first draft is terrible but you keep working on it over and over till it gets better. 

FK: That’s cool. What about research though? Your films dabble into topics people don’t really translate onto the screen. Sun Eje, Yahoo boy and so on. How do you root yourself in these topics well enough to make films about them? 

Sun Eje by Michael Omonua

MO: Sun Eje was inspired by a story of a man who told his friend to shoot him in an attempt to test the potency of a charm. I came across the story back and then was really fascinated by that scenario. That’s like the origin of the short film. And then also there was the whole ban on Okada rides in Lagos State. So, these two ideas and others just connected really well to make up the short film.

FK: And how do you deal with the topic of accessibility. Do you dialogue with yourself about if Nigerians have issues relating to your films?

MO: I’ve always had a spontaneous approach of some sort to making films. That is, I come upon an idea or concept I like, I shoot the film and I put it out there. I’ve not really gotten into that headspace where I start to think business, marketing and all that. I’ve gotten to where I today by just making stuff and putting it out. But that should change with my next film. There are conscious attempts to package and distribute. But all this starts with a festival run. I consider this as a phase 2 of some sort for my career.

The Surreal 16 collective

FK: Unlike other members of your collective, your work is a bit more grounded in humanity. CJ Obasi is into horror and surrealism, Makama dabbles with the psychological and influences from his art but you keep it at very human levels, demanding really intense performance from your actors. How do you handle relationships with actors on projects to bring about desirable outcomes?

MO: I remember my first time on set. It was in film school, a practical session. I didn’t know much about the specificities but I knew I wasn’t satisfied with the performances. Battling nerves and a bit of ignorance, I kept asking the actors to go again. After that disaster, I knew I had to work on that so I got this book, Directing Actors by Judith Weston. It was an eye opener as I got exposed to action verbs, overseeing rehearsals and all that stuff. So, yes, it all started from that book and I’ve tried to improve on what I’ve slowly learnt with each project. One thing I do is carefully study human interactions. Be it in a restaurant or a bar, I just observe for conversations and relationships. What you get in these places is the truth, not acting, but the truth, originality and rawness. And that’s the goal for my acting performances on set. That truth and rawness. Honestly, 95-97 percent of the job is getting good actors. Especially here in Nigeria where are actors are given to theatricality and that’s not what I want. So, my casting is quite deliberate. I’ve weed through faces and names before getting people that can give me what I want. With that sorted, I’m left to tie up the script and modulate the performances.

FK: Perhaps your idea about what good and bad acting is defined by your upbringing. Because that theatricality that you refuse to permit in your films is, in most cases, what we see as good acting.

MO: Maybe I need to clarify myself. The theatrical approach to acting is a different aesthetic. So, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s just a matter of choice and what fits into the aesthetic and outlook I’m going for.

FK: Sure, I get that. I was referring to your first time on set. How you were so quick to adjudge what was good and bad acting to you.

MO: Again, I’m going to refer to the restaurant scenario from earlier. That’s the truth for me. So, if you’re going to act for me. Or let’s say, I’m in an audition room to choose my actors, you have to give me the truth. If not, it can’t work for me. Of course, there’s a good chance the problem might not be the acting. It could be the script itself and the direction.

Berlinale selection, Rehearsal
Still from Rehearsal

FK: It’s been about five to six years now when the Surreal 16 came out with the manifesto. How has the experience been? You know, being against the tide and all.

MO:  It’s been great, really. I have no complaints whatsoever. The hope is that, with time, more people will be drawn to that kind of sensibility. And to be honest, I feel like part of the awareness we wanted to influence has started to happen. More people are dabbling into new stuff. Filmmakers are taking festivals seriously. The mainstream Nollywood channel will remain and the alternate channel for people who want to curate new voices will exist too. That’s the idea.

FK: Final question. Is there a narrative strand connecting all your work? Like some form of cinematic universe.

MO: I’m not sure about the universe bit. But there are recurring themes and ideas in my films. You already mentioned Memory and that’s something I’ll continue to return to.

FK:  This has been insightful and we’ll definitely be talking again . Thanks for the time Micheal.

MO: You’re most welcome. 


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