Who’s looking forward to catching The Lost Okoroshi soon?
For years, a good number of film lovers in Nigeria have continually asked for two things: increased global acclaim for our movies and artistic expressions beyond lighthearted fare. The Lost Okoroshi provided both. The impressive BFI London Film Festival 2019 selection was followed by its viral trailer that easily communicated its premise: a regular city jobber wakes up one morning garbed as a Traditional Igbo masquerade and must survive. That wasn’t all that stood out. There was the trademark surrealism of Director Abba Makama, the grittiness that spoke to the soul of the typical Nigerian city and the artistic sensibility obvious through the music, mood and colour scheme.
The minds behind the scripts are Director Abba Makama and critically acclaimed screenwriter Africa Ukoh. This same duo was behind Green White Green, a coming of age satirical comedy that screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 2016 edition and more, garnering favourable reviews .
Film Kaku had a long talk with one half of the screenwriting duo, Africa Ukoh, and he was gracious enough to discuss at length his approach to storytelling, masquerades, artistic sensibilities and capacity building for screenwriters.
FilmKaku: I first came across your name and your one man play, 54 Silhouettes, while going through the lineup for the Lagos Theatre Festival last year. Your name registered even further when friends who were present at the festival raved about the play, that it was unlike any one man stage play they had ever seen. And then there was the critical acclaim that’s since trailed your work both nationally and internationally. How does this make you feel?
Africa Ukoh: (laughs) It makes me feel great. I wrote the play while I was in my fourth year studying Theatre Arts in the University. It’s been about 9 years since its conception and despite repeated rewrites, revisions and stage performances, it continues to command interest. That makes me really happy. A known peculiarity of theatre is that a large number of people don’t get to watch at once, like film. You have to make do with the little fragments of audiences you can gather here and there.
Also, the gradual evolution of the subject matter over the years is a source of joy. When I wrote it, broaching the issue of activism in the arts felt idealistic, far-fetched and ill-advised but today it’s become something artists build their careers on. This, more than anything, makes me really happy.
FK: Then there was Green White Green and The Lost Okoroshi, both of which you co-wrote with Abba Makama. At first glance, you appear to me as the kind of writer that favours quality over quantity. Is it the state of the industry conditioning you to be so or this is simply a deliberate attempt to carefully curate your filmography?:
AU: From everyone’s perspective, what they see is out there is the rate at which my work comes out not the rate at which I’m working. For example, if I write ten works and only two get released. To everyone, I have only worked on two projects. The difference in perspectives must be taken into consideration.
Now, this is my opinion: If you’re intentional about good writing, I don’t expect you to do five projects a year. The year is divided into four quarters. And on average, it takes about three months to put out a script that is only at a decent, workable level. So, do the math. But, yeah, it’s true that I aim for quality over quantity.
FK: That’s interesting.
AU: I mean, come on, we all aspire to work on projects we can be proud of. Nobody likes to go on Twitter to write disclaimer threads deflecting the blame to producers that were intent on ruining the vision from the get-go. I’m aware there are conditions beyond control that will challenge the quality-first approach to work. It’s the reality of the average Nigerian creative. But the truth is you really have to go out of your way to favour quantity over quality. That means putting up with the two weeks writing deadlines, absence of a structure that encourages creativity and so on. It takes a deliberate effort to subject your craft to all that and more.
Good writing takes time, there’s no going around it. Occasionally, you may strike gold, like Paul Coelho did with the Alchemist. He wrote that in two weeks, supposedly driven by a spiritual awakening and a sudden flow of creative energy. There’s Taxi Driver written by Paul Schrader. I think that happened within fifteen days and, according to him, the writing process was self-therapy, not a drive for success. These are exceptions. The entire process of writing, reviewing and rewriting takes a lot of time. You cannot favour the quality-first approach and look to circumvent the lengthy development phase good scripts demand.
FK: Let’s talk about Lost Okoroshi. Did you conceive the idea alone or did Abba Makama come to you with the idea formed already?
AU: Abba had this cool photo exhibition thing he was doing way before the idea for the film was formed. At the time when he was uploading the photos, I somehow knew he was set to work on something along the same line. What he did with the photos was to have someone wear masquerade outfits and take pictures in everyday locations, like a construction site. There was one particular photo that really stuck with me and made me go like, “I don’t have the particularities of what you are working on, but I get it” It was one that had the masquerade embracing a statue of the Virgin Mary. What I saw was a contrast of forms: the masquerade representing a marriage of traditional African religion and art while the sculpture was Western assimilated art and religion. My mind practically went into overdrive after this realization. I struggled to articulate the exact things I could feel but I informed him that I was available to work on whatever he’s planning with the photo whenever he’s ready because I get it. And that’s how Lost Okoroshi happened.
FK: And what about Green White Green? Did its conception follow this same route?
AU: The thing about both projects is that he’s done some work on them before I was brought in. What followed was a long spell developing the existing idea. Ideas had to be synchronized, differing perspectives and minds had to find a common point. So, even before the story was attended to, we spent quite some time trying to fix the concept. From there, after he was satisfied, we moved forward to the next stage of fleshing out the story.
FK: Abba belongs a group of filmmakers that have come to be labeled as alternative, countercultural, artistic and whatever. The emergence of the Surreal 16 Collective that has Abba Makama, CJ Obasi and Mike Gouken appears to have perpetuated this fine separation from the majority? What’s your stance on this? Fine with the labeling?
AU: Well, I’m very indifferent towards it. I’m a storyteller and that’s the beginning and the end of my being as an artist. I write, I direct, I act for stage once in a while and I produce and function in any storytelling capacity. Any other thing is marketing and branding and stuff I’m not overly concerned with. If I’m in a situation where I have to bother about that then yes, maybe I would. Apart from that, I’m just on my own, in my room, chilling, doing whatever. Whatever label ascribed to me is just how I’m being assimilated and that’s outside my control.
The series continues next week.