Martin Chukwu calls himself a masquerade. Resident beneath all the layers is a form flexible enough to satisfy diverse artistic needs. There are acting credits, published essays, film reviews, short film directions and an incoming feature. For many, this is confusion and chaos, the proverbial curse of one skilled at many trades. For Martin, it’s different. It’s raw talent, expressed in ways that appear infinite. Film Kaku had a chat with the artist. The conversation has been transcribed and edited for publication.
Film Kaku: You’re an actor, a writer and a film director. You’re also the founder of a very influential film club. Was there a specific time in your life that was most crucial to shaping your love of cinema?
Martin Chukwu: My love for cinema can be traced to a lineup of images from my past. Seeing films in Brother Taye’s TV repair shop with the other kids in the neighborhood. Watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Wesley Snipes’ Blade through window nets and getting pinched in the ear by my mom for staying out past my bedtime. I recall the late-night movies on DBN in spite of my big brothers’ orders to go back inside. I remember watching my brother rehearse for a church drama in front of the mirror and then appearing as an extra in one of his gospel music videos. There was the sitting desire to be an artist, simply because my brother was one. Then came the love for photography in the University. These are moments, you see. Token moments from many I can’t begin to remember right now. But they all prepared my mind to love images and inspired me to want to make films.
FK: Great. But when it comes to the films and filmmakers you love, how do you link their influences to your work?
MC: The kind of life I had growing up influenced my attachment to a certain art form and, by extension, the kind of filmmakers I’ve come to appreciate. As an art student in Secondary School, I loved abstract paintings, mosaics and collages. I still do, by the way. I still find depth in them because there are no singular interpretations and they lend themselves to debates. For names, we can talk about Alejandro Jodorowsky, Darren Aronofsky, Lars Von Trier, Yorgos Lanthimos, John Carpenter and the rest of them. I also enjoy observing life; to sit and watch people behave in the natural order of things. So, the love for Robert Bresson and Werner Herzog comes rather easily. Before I started studying these masters, I’d been making experimental films that I used as therapy for my pro-active and possessed mind, without knowing that a lot of my thought process aligned with these masters. The use of non-actors (as Bresson would), the documentary narrative style like Herzog and the overarching unorthodoxies like Von Trier. The constant battle to refine my individual voice amidst the many voices in my head remains, however.
FK: Something I love about all of your films is how experimental they always are. Can you tell me about your themes and how you develop them into films?
MC: Thank you. When I start off to make a film, the idea must first make me feel uneasy. A run in my stomach, a certain rush of excitement, of a disturbing kind, most times. Our society is filled with the worst kind of people on both natural and supernatural levels. I believe we are all bad people trying to be good. So, I like to look into those controversial ideas that conflict every man. I like to explore taboos in an attempt to question (and find answers, if there are any) certain cultural and moralistic perspectives. Making these ideas into film consistently require a confidence that I’ve been trying to grow, because “the society” will come for you when you try to question or disregard its code of conduct. So, when I set out to make them, I distance myself from focusing on whatever the theme is; I only try to get you emotional attached to the world I’ve created. That’s most important. When a film sets you up for emotionally attachment, it’s much easier to endure or permit a supposed evil or taboo.
FK: A risky but interesting approach to work.
MC: It can be. Things are already tough in the country, why play it safe? Especially in a free world as the movies, where anything is possible?
FK: That’s true. Let’s talk a bit about your short experiments. Do you have any favourites?
MC: You want me to pick a favourite child? I don’t want family problem o. Laughter. But I’d go for Killing John (2020). The filmmaking process has some history. I had recorded a footage a while back of my sister killing a chicken, then I directed a friend over the phone to record his nephew making faces. This was during the Covid Lockdown. I stitched the recordings together till I was good with it and a film was born. When the nephew (a kid) got to see the final result of the film, he said, “This is upsetting”. I think he was right. I hope he still has the stomach to eat chicken meat.
FK: Your body of work is surely full of these narratives and stylistic approaches. Do you think of your films as being in conversation with each other?
MC: I’d like to think so. It’s possible they exist in the same world altogether. I’m yet to study my own films with the critical eye. I hope a critic does some day.
FK: This is a good time to talk about another creation of yours. The Film Rats Club. What inspired it?
MC: There was a need to have a break from office work at the time. So, I suggested to some friends at the office that we could meet at my place, see some movies and have discussions over drinks. We were only three back then (Tunde Apalowo, Dami Orimogunje and a Lady) and that was it. I created a WhatsApp group, added some more friends who were passionate about cinema and the cult began. I gave it a ‘cool’ name and now we have over a hundred members around Nigeria.
FK: Indeed, The Film Rats Club is fast becoming an unparalleled meeting point for Cinephiles and film enthusiasts in Nigeria, providing platforms for film appreciation, documentation and Criticism. What have you learned about the Nigerian film industry as regards documentation and Criticism?
MC: Two things. We still don’t know what to do with collected data and the industry is still oblivious to the essence of criticism. It’s illiteracy, really. The socio-economic context appears to have made illiterates of even the most educated. The thinking is that whoever is out to review or evaluate us and our work is tagged the enemy and must be stopped by all means necessary. When they hear ‘critique’, their ignorant minds think negative. Because for them bad press is not good money and nothing must stop the cash. This sad situation accounts for the kind of films we keep churning out in droves. Superficial films. Films that cannot even stand the test of constructive criticism or essays not to even talk of standing the test of time. Films we can’t write or talk about without grating our teeth in anger.
Reviewers and critics in Nollywood are always met with hostility, sometimes threatened in DMs. Pressmen get blocked on social media because they don’t agree with the filmmaker and their films in their reviews. There are many prominent publications that don’t accept “bad reviews”. There are some that get paid to write good reviews. These crumbs of ignorance make the work difficult. The rot spirals through to actors and budding filmmakers who are afraid to share certain opinions because they don’t want to be marked by the beast. This is the country we live in. They can critique the government but they don’t want to be criticized.
The Film Rats Club is working towards solving these problems. We organized a film evangelism one time at the mall to share tracts and talk to cinema goers about film and also promote the need for them to see Nigerian films at the cinema. We constantly try to educate our members and audience to understand the concept of criticism by first appreciating why films are made. With this understanding, documenting films and filmmakers who have purpose and intent becomes a much more enterprising and interesting venture.
FK: I hear you but we know that these supposed reviews can be poorly constructed. How do you address the problem of weak or bad film criticism and its negative affect on the industry?
MC: There will always be opinions of all kinds. I know for a fact that there are a lot of weak ones informed by a poor understanding of what film is and can be. Number is power. In an era where your ability to go savage and brutal gets you more comments and followership, these toxic monoliths will continue to become prominent. With blogs like ‘Cinemapointer’ actively influencing the industry with their dangerous ideas, constructive criticism will continue to struggle. The harm to the industry is that the truth about movies and the industry continues to get blurred. Audiences that are already miseducated about cinema continue to plunge the depths of falsehood, further dampening their tastes and ridiculing the potentials of the craft. What can we do? We can only keep trying to fight the miseducation. We, the pressmen and scholars, all coming together to have one voice, at least, on what proper reviewership and criticism should be. Then we present it to the public.
FK: Amazing response. How do you make the transition from directing films to acting? What does it feel like when you are the one being directed?
MC: I always know my place. It’s actually a virtue to know one’s place in an artistic collaboration. I work with directors on their own terms. It’s mutual respect for the craft. I don’t just jump at roles really because I have to trust the director’s work ethic and I care about my mental health too. So, the transition is effortless for me, we were trained for this moment.
FK: What art figures do you revere?
MC: I religiously have the pictures of Jelili Atiku, Salvador Dali and Werner Herzog on my wall. Some quotes from Robert Bresson, and some art from Jelili Atiku & Banksy. I’ll recount my experience with Life is Beautiful (1997) by Roberto Benigni and restage Wole Soyinka’s A Play of Giants. And yes, I’ll take a picture with Nkem Owoh for memory.
FK: Thank you very much, Martin.
MC: It’s my pleasure.