Otana Writer/Director Wingonia Ikpi on Scares, Themes and Blending Agendas in the Horror Genre

Fear is the ultimate fuel for the horror genre. It, perhaps, explains why the genre has been used by filmmakers over the years to commentate on the ills of society. It’s no different with Otana, Wingonia Ikpi’s ambitiously directed short film. It tells the story of Peace, a young lady suffering intense sexual trauma, who bonds with a demon from hell over the ambiguities of pain and vengeance.

The roughly 25 minutes short tells the story of sexual assault and its attendant traumas with the graphicness that ensures the timely message is branded into the psyche of audiences. Nollywood has been accused of staleness by many outsiders but Wingonia’s provocative sensibilities could be the shake-up the industry desperately needs in times like this.

The FilmKaku team had a quick chat with the filmmaker about Otana, her filmic philosophy, influences, and plans for the future. The transcript of the conversation was transcribed, condensed, and edited for publication.

FilmKaku: Could you introduce us to your background in film? How did Wingonia’s journey start?

Wingonia Ikpi: I grew up in a small town called ‘Ugep’ for a bit. Those were the days we still did lots of VCD and DVD rentals. As a child, I remember spending most of my money on getting those films. And, yes, they were mostly Nollywood films. Sometimes, I starved myself in school just to be able to afford them.  I grew up with these films and they helped build my love for the craft.

Fast-forward to 2017, while I used to post stories on Facebook, Ootobong Ekpenyong, a friend of mine, liked one of the stories and showed interest in working with it. Together, we developed it into a short film titled ‘Eno’s Demons’ and that’s how my screenwriting profession started. Later in 2018, I moved to Lagos, received more screenwriting training, and then wrote a feature script.

Film poster. Source: Wingonia Ikpi

FK: Eno’s Demons, an interesting title. With Otana being your debut as a director, it’s obvious you have an affinity for horror and mystical elements in your stories. How did that sensibility emerge for you?

WI: As I said, I grew up in my hometown. So, I grew around stories, stories, and more stories. Especially stories that were rich with these elements. This influenced me into becoming a storyteller in school and I guess that’s how the passion started to form.

FK: Why this movie? Why did you decide to do it?

WI: Firstly, I’m passionate about women; I love to question societal values and I’m curious about the old ways. Secondly, I did this as a calling card. Horror is a very sensitive and difficult genre to pull off, so I thought to dare myself. Also, the horror genre is dynamic enough to serve as a conduit for many themes and messages, while still serving up ample entertainment value.

FK: These reasons are fairly clear, especially the first being about society and women. How did this figure into writing and the creation of these characters and their worlds?

WI: I’m interested in seeing women and their issues fully represented in film. A representation that captures them as humans with flaws, ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses; not just as Femme Fatales or damsels in distress. I prefer holistic representations.

The eponymous Otana. Source: Wingonia Ikpi
Peace and Otana. Source: Wingonia Ikpi

FK: Let’s talk about the characters.

WI: Otana is a female character from the underworld who was dethroned, punished, and betrayed by someone she trusted. It was while escaping this person that she met Peace. On the other hand, Peace is a young lady who was being sexually violated by her uncle. These two, upon meeting, bond.

FK: Were there any specific challenges you faced while shooting?

WI: Yes, we did face a few challenges.  Otana being my first project naturally meant the funding had to come from my purse. It was difficult to find people who were willing to put their money into a short film. I got a lot of Nos but decided I wouldn’t let the project die. During preproduction, one of the locations we scouted for the shooting was a beach close to my cinematographer’s home. Unfortunately, a few days to the shoot, he was mugged around the place. This meant my cinematographer’s mental health was at its lowest and his participation was doubtful. Fortunately for us, he did pull through and remained interested in the project. Then we proceeded to scout for new locations within the limited time available which led to a lot of tension and extra cost.

FK: Making films is hard anywhere in the world, but making them in Nigeria is a dance in hell.

WI: Omo. That’s not even all. While shooting, we almost got attacked too. Street hoods looking to take advantage of filmmakers. But when they saw the prosthetics on Otana, they thought twice.

Evelyn John as Peace. Source: Wingonia Ikpi
Uche Chika Elumelu plays Otana. Source: Wingonia Ikpi

FK: Interesting. How did you handle finding the right actor to play Otana? I’ve read a lot about how difficult it was dressing the character up.

WI: Well, yes. We called for actors to send in reels, which they did, and from there the first batch was selected. During the second selection, Evelyn John and Uche Chika easily stood out. Upon sending a few pages of script to them, a screen test, and conversations that included questions about what they thought of the script and the characters they were being screened for, I knew then that my choices were on the money. For Otana, the goal was to find a teachable, intelligent actor with the range to understand the backstory and give every word meaning. This is because I wanted to make a film that had the right balance of story, character, and scares. I didn’t want to make a generic horror flick. So, I needed an actor who could sound convincing as a scary character and still be relatable in the process of initiating a connection with Peace.

FK: That’s a really good approach.

WI: Thank you.

FI:  The film seems to have a very gritty aesthetic. Can you talk about how you worked with your cinematographer and design department to create the look of this film?

WI: Good question. I met first with my cinematographer, Don Dizzy, and shared my vision with him. We started communication on the lighting, shots, and framing. I also brought in the Head of Design department- Dino Francis, and three of us planned it out. Both the cinematographer and production designer knew the feel I was going for and we all worked towards it. For instance, during the conjuring scene, we used the red calabash lights around Otana to represent her world while using the white light for The Voice because The Voice was Otana’s voice of reason that she needed to listen to. Everything we did was pretty much informed by the thematic structures, background stories, and characters. Asides from just spotlighting the experiences of women, I’m also interested in using stories and art to question the human condition.

FK: Did you find any films as key inspirations or references for the film, both thematically and visually?

WI: I did find some films as not just thematic references but also for style, horror characters, and gore. These films include Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (Vol 2), Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, West Craven’s A Night on Elm Street, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Christian Onu’s Karishika, and Death Note (an Anime). What I tried to do, despite the many influences, was stay away from the usual horror tropes of horror characters destroying things just because.

FK: Interesting choices. What has the response to the film been like?

WI: So far, the responses have been great. The hard work and dedication from the team have been noticed and appreciated. The film has also served a key purpose as a calling card as I’ve been able to secure a feature film gig which I’ll be working on next year. And, certainly, it still feels like there’s more coming. It’s gratifying because the goal for ‘Otana’ wasn’t perfection but a concept that could put me on a map as I continue to pursue excellence.

FK: Wish you all the best, Wingonia.

WI: Thank you very much.

The short film can be watched here.

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