Films are very difficult art forms to make. Period films are an even more difficult turf to negotiate. The problems range from fund raising, researching the story and fact-checking to avoid historical inaccuracies, scouting for fitting locations, wardrobe and much more. And in a country like ours riddled with atypical structures and narratives, the problems are bound to be even more. It’s for this reason the historical period genre has been largely ignored by Nigerian filmmakers. The sour experiences of the few that have dabbled into it in the past are enough to deter filmmakers.
But not Imoh Umoren, the director of The Herbert Macaulay Affair.
Imoh belongs to the recent upsurge of counter-cultural Nigerian filmmakers looking to rewrite the narrative in the country by venturing and rooting themselves in new genres. A look at his filmography reveals a daring tendency to experiment. The artistic roving eventually took him to the historical period genre and Herbert Macaulay Affair was born. The film tells the story of Young Herbert, a returnee from England, and how he stands up to the colonial government. From the moment Imoh made public the strikingly golden hued poster, social media was lit with noise, praise and anticipation of what was seen as a timely tipping point for Nigerian cinema.
Having time to chat with extensively with Director Imoh Umoren gave Film Kaku tons of insight into the process of making the period drama.
FK: You made Herbert Macaulay. Apparently, it had a short running time in the cinemas and I couldn’t get it before it left. Before we continue with the interview, I’d like to know if eventually it’s going to find its way to Television.
IMOH: Most definitely.
FK: Why Herbert Macaulay Affair? What was the inspiration behind going for a story about a mostly forgotten but pivotal individual like Herbert Macaulay?
IMOH: For me, there are two things film should do: provide ample entertainment and also contribute to documentation. Currently in Nigeria, a lot of striking events are not documented; the same goes for a lot of our historical events. They have gone undocumented, largely forgotten or vaguely remembered with subjective bias. When I made open my intention to make Herbert Macaulay Affair, a lot of people didn’t know about him. There were funny misconceptions about his complexion. Most people thought he was white; they don’t know he was as black as black can be. So I said to myself “I am going to document this guy for posterity’s sake because if we don’t, we might have nothing to show for our existence in this country.”
FK: Why Herbert Macaulay? You could have gone with more prominent figures like Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikwe, Tafawa Balewa and so on.
IMOH: I’m definitely going to get around to everyone eventually (laughs) but on a more serious note, the truth is films about those guys would have required humongous financial outlay. For example, take Obafemi Awolowo and his involvement in Nigerian Civil War. Shooting that would surely have been a testament to an unprecedented ambition in Nigerian filmmaking but it would have required more of everything I put into The Herbert Macaulay Affair. I wanted to do something small and contained and also wanted to use Herbert Macaulay as a test run for future films of this sort.
FK: Very Interesting. Who are your artistic influences in cinema? Are there philosophies you hold dear?
IMOH: First of all, I’m inspired by life. Also, my very academic background, thanks to my mother’s profession as a University Professor, plays a huge role. She made me read a lot of books and that has always informed my creative impulses. Talking about artistic influences, I admire Wes Anderson, for his writing, production design and cinematography. But, really, a lot of my work just comes from observing real life.
FK: Is that how you get your story? Observing real life?
IMOH: Yes, a lot of my stories are inspired by real life events I’m exposed to. Some of films like Children of Mud and Happyness Limited came from observation. What I do as a writer is go out there and gather these real life stories before coming back to the writing table to work on dramatizing them.
FK: So, after dramatizing these real life events till they are fully formed story ideas, I supposed the writing process comes next?
FK: What’s your writing process like?
IMOH: There’s no definite approach to the process. Sometimes I write alone, co-write and or even hire a writer. It doesn’t matter how it progress, the constant is the attention paid to plotting. I spend a lot of time brainstorming and working on plot before proceeding to fill up the other elements of the screenplay. It’s not enough to just jump straight into final draft after conceiving an idea. It never works, at least not for me.
FK: How do you decide which one you write, which one you partner with another writer and which one you give someone else to do?
IMOH: (laughs) it depends a lot on what story I’m telling. If I want a story everyone should relate with, I am titled to hiring a writer, someone that can offer a different perspective. But if I’m doing satire, like the The Coffin’s Salesman, I prefer write that myself.
FK: Finally, what’s advice do you have for the young Nigerian director?
IMOH: Expose yourself to a lot of Indie movies. I just saw one called Cheap Thrill, a drama/thriller with 4 to 5 characters and just two locations. Those are the kind of films you should watch as a youngster in the game. So that when you are planning, writing and shooting your films, the character and location restrictions do not hamper storytelling but are instead catered for and eventually become muses. Young filmmakers should stop the obsession with fancy projects with large budgets. Also, start producing from when you are writing. Don’t restrict yourself to Lagos and its expensive locations. Look at places like Ibadan that are filled with cheap locations. I shot 50% of Herbert Macaulay in Ibadan. Also, getting extras are cheaper and having these niggling problems cleared quickly provides ample time for other aspects of production. Filmmaking isn’t easy anywhere in the world. It’s especially difficult in a country like Nigeria but we can’t stop, we just have to keep at it till we get it right, somehow.
FK: Thank you for time Imoh.
IMOH: My pleasure.