Obi Emelonye: ‘Onye Ozi’ is a psychological comedy thriller

Obi Emelonye

‘Onye Ozi’ is an attempt to revive the telling of African stories in Igbo language, which has lately become an endangered species.

Obi Emelonye, Nollywood’s top director has finally directed his first film in Igbo language.

The film titled ‘Onye Ozi’ (The Messenger), will be premiered in London on 18th October 2013.

In this interview Mr. Emelonye shares with us how the idea to shoot a film in Igbo came about, the challenges he encountered in working on the film, and why it’s important to shoot films in African languages.

Your new film, ‘Onye Ozi’, explores life as an immigrant in the United Kingdom, using Okey Bakassi , a known comedian; is the intention to make a comedy out of a serious issue? How would you classify the film? A comedy, drama or action?

I wrote the script of ‘Onye Ozi’ in 2007 and at the time. It was in English and titled the ‘Messenger’. Comedy is a genre close to my heart. People want to be happy, they watch films seeking an escape from their daily grind. In fact I value comedy so much that even in serious films like ‘Last Flight to Abuja’, I inserted comic elements occasionally to deflate the built-up tension.

So, although ‘Onye Ozi’ deals with the serious issue of economic tourism from Africa to Europe and the huge divide between expectations and reality, I believed that a comic vehicle to tell this story would be appropriate. So we weaved a ghost story sub-plot together with a funny attempt to make white people speak the Igbo language (which is the only language spoken in the film). And who best to bring the mayhem to life than the multi skilled Okey Bakassi who is one of the funniest and most intelligent comedians in Nigeria.
 
I hate to pigeon-hole my films because I see them as sheer entertainment from which different people would glean different things. However, I can best describe ‘Onye Ozi’ as a psychological comedy thriller.
 
It is your first film in Igbo Language. Why have you chosen your native language for this project?

I have many friends who are really passionate scholars of the Igbo language in London and they have been reminding me, with regards to Igbo language, of the small power we have as international filmmakers to influence trends and set public agenda.

I am also (shamefully) one of those parents who are both Igbo but whose children cannot speak the language well. I am passionately Nigerian and proudly Igbo. So I decided to make a script that I had written in English into an Igbo film to make my native language the centrepiece of an international film. The roots of Nollywood can be traced to ‘Living in Bondage’ which is an Igbo film subtitled in English. ‘Onye Ozi’ is an attempt to revive the telling of African stories in Igbo language, which has lately become an endangered species.
 
What are the challenges you encountered in getting this to fruition?

I see challenges as opportunities to push the envelope. Teaching white people Igbo language and getting them to speak it with the right accent was tough. Shooting ‘Bullet Time’ with 60 cameras for just a 15 seconds sequence in the film was challenging. This is one of the smallest budget films that I have shot in a long time. So it was tasking to maintain the cinema, international ambitions in such a small budget film. Without losing the native feel, which is important for the film’s connection with my viewers.
 
How did you settle for the cast members?

Casting is an absolutely important part of filmmaking. I am one of those directors who cast with my head and not my heart. I would therefore attribute a fair part of the success of my earlier films to excellent casting. First, I needed a lead who was a proper leading man: funny, intelligent and with an army of followers. Okey Bakassi ticked all the boxes. I have also worked with him twice in the past to great success.

Once my lead was sorted, I felt this was an opportunity to give some unknown but talented actors the chance of a lifetime. I conducted auditions in London and carefully selected an array of really gifted artistes. At the auditions, I saw Ngozi Igwebuike, who was a model and never acted. She did so well that I offered her the lead female role, to her shock. My son D’Kachy who is 10 is also making his film debut in ‘Onye Ozi’. I believe in giving people a chance and just like my earlier works, ‘Onye Ozi’ will be the launch pad for a few unknown actors in the big time. This is as important to me as making a successful film.
 
How is ‘Onye Ozi’ different (aside the language it used) from your previous blockbusters, especially, ‘Last Flight to Abuja’ and ‘Mirror Boy’?

This is a comedy, a universal film language that is easier on the senses and emotions. It flirts with thriller elements but it is ultimately a feel good film that does not take itself too seriously. Despite its lower budget, it shows my maturity as a filmmaker, confirming my unique cinematic style and practicing what I call ‘creative brinkmanship’. Every project is different but if ‘Onye Ozi’ can emulate the success of ‘Mirror Boy’ or ‘Last Flight to Abuja’, I will be a happy old man.
 
Onye OziWhat aspects of ‘Onye Ozi’ would reassure the audience that this is the typical Obi Emelonye film?

I am a visual story teller and the biggest thing in my films is the story. You will see a well-rounded, engaging story, told with compelling passion and dexterity, told from the heart of an experienced multi-media artist who is not afraid to push boundaries.

The bullet time, shooting my mini helicopters and getting white people to speak Igbo can be little confirmations of the Obi Emelonye USF (Unique selling point). The cinematic shots, the glossy finishing and the unashamed global marketing have my fingerprints all over it. If you have liked my films in the past, you will love ‘Onye Ozi’. If you haven’t, well this is an opportunity to experience intelligent, and laugh-out-loud humour from a filmmaker who respects the intelligence of his valued audience.
 
Take us through the details of the premiere scheduled for London in October? What has been lined up to make it huge? Where do you expect the film to travel to and when is it expected to hit Nigerian cinemas?

The journey for ‘Onye Ozi’ starts on the 18th of October in a gala premiere in Camberwell, London. What is unique about this is that at the same anywhere in the world, people can watch ‘Onye Ozi’ through our partners online IROKO, IBAKA, DISTRIFY. This is the first time a global premiere, live somewhere and online worldwide is being done anywhere in the world. The potential for online monetization is becoming clearer for Nollywood. Since debuting on Iroko TV, the ‘Mirror Boy’ and ‘Last Flight to Abuja’ have experienced unprecedented success. And on YouTube, ‘Last flight to Abuja’ has been watched nearly a million times in just two weeks. I am really excited about the online premiere…really excited.

The Nigeria premiere is coming in November, followed by a cinema release of the film in Nigerian cinemas- making it the first Igbo language film to have a cinema theatrical release. I am proud of this and I hope it opens the doors for more Igbo films in the cinema.
 
Recount some technical details of the film, especially as regards shots and editing?

Shooting bullet time with 60 cameras was something special for a small Nollywood film. We introduced heli-cam aerial photography indoors and outdoors to produce some of the best cinematic shots of any African film. As with ‘Last Flight to Abuja’, the original score is pulsating and gives ‘Onye Ozi’ a big film feel.
 
This effort is a positive step in the quest to support the use of local languages through cinema. Do you have any message for Nigerian film producers in this regard?

Nollywood is doing well and the world is taking notice. Now that we have their attention, let us project our culture, language and world view to convert this international curiosity into a bold cinematic identity. One of the easiest ways of doing this is by making quality Nigerian language films that are unashamedly Nigeria and proudly African.

‘Onye Ozi’
Writer/Producer/Director: Obi Emelonye
Producer: Ngozi Ideh
Cast: Okey Bakassi, Ngozi Igwebike, Stephen Moriaty, Anthony Aclet, D’Kachy Obi-Emelonye, Adesua Atuanya.

‘Onye Ozi’ will be premiered on 18th October 2013 at The Lighthouse (Camberwell), 270 Camberwell Road, SE5 0HQ London. Tickets for the London Premiere Screening of “Onye Ozi” can be obtained from onyeozi.eventbrite.com.