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C. J. “Fiery“ Obasi

I met C. J. during the November 2017 Ake Festival while climbing up Oluma Rock. He was in the company of Nnedi Okorafor, partly because he is the writer-director of a Nigeria-based film of one of her stories. He’s adapted, “Hello, Moto” to make the film “Hello Rain.“ You can watch a behind-the-scenes preview.

During the panel with Diane Awerbuck and Nnedi Okorafor on SFF, he intervened and got a short preview of the film screened.

He studied computer science in college, and became a web programmer, before he left it all to pursue his childhood dream of filmmaking.

C. J.: “I’ve always been interested in fantasy, Afrofuturism, all that. So when I started to do my research to see if there were any Nigerian writers who were writing material along those lines, Nnedi’s name came up. First of all, my reaction was shock that I didn’t know about her. I was like, ‘How do I reach out to her?’ From the description of all her work, it sounded right up my alley, the kind of story that I would really love to tell visually—alternative African stories that people just don’t see.

“It wasn’t until a mutual friend got me her email address that I sent her a very long email introducing myself. And to my surprise she replied back with an even longer email. We just pretty much struck off from there.

“She talked about her own journey as a writer, how it wasn’t always easy starting off in this genre that didn’t have at the time the universal appeal it’s beginning to enjoy now. We both had to deal with the environment not being used to what we were doing, and be consistent and keep pushing.”

Sadly, at this point, I had to get back to my hotel to check out before 12 p.m. So we had to continue the interview walking back through the art centre garden and then Abeokuta traffic.

In the room, I just left the recorder in his hand as I packed. The result is my perfect interview—I say almost nothing, and C. J. talks.

C. J.: “Merging ju-ju with science fiction, merging Nigerian mythology with technology and science fiction­—those are my favourite things.

“But jumping on a project that’s science fiction is capital intensive. It’s tough enough trying to raise funds for filmmaking, but, particularly in Nigeria, it’s even worse if you are a genre filmmaker, if you are not making romance, drama, or romcoms. Especially when the budget is going to be bigger and it needs to be. You have to make it work; you have to do it well. If you don’t get it right, sci-fi can look like crap.

“You need funds to make it work. I knew that I would have to do it on a smaller scale, go for the short stories instead. I mentioned it to Nnedi and she said, ‘That sounds like a great idea,’ so she sent me a catalogue of her short stories.

“I read every single one of them. They are all amazing; they blew me away, but something about ‘Hello, Moto’ just stood out. Because it had this quirkiness to it. Three women who create magical wigs, of all things. Wigs that grant the wearer supernatural abilities. It’s not something I’ve ever imagined in my wildest imagination.

“I knew I wanted to make that. She said, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s make it happen,’ so we started the process of getting the option rights. That was earlier this year, about three months of back-and-forth between my company and her agency. And after that, we started to look for funding to get it made. That wasn’t easy.

“We were able to strip it down. It took a lot of planning from the conceiving stage. When I had written the first draft, I sent it to Nnedi. I really wanted her to like what I wanted to do; I wanted her blessing.

“I want to put out a work that anyone who sees it will say, ‘He put in his best.’ That is my standard for success. Nnedi loved the first draft, to my surprise. So, I knew we were on the right path.

“In the end we were able to get two other production companies on board. Small production companies, but visionary people who want to do new things. They are both Nigerian-owned companies, with one based in Canada. Barely three years old.

“We shot from August to October. It was a one-week shoot. Very intensive. We did some rehearsals beforehand. Most of the locations were in a studio. We built Coco’s house in a studio, the kaleidoscopic shrine inside the studio. All of that allowed us to really control the schedule of how we shot. We stripped down the scheduling.

“The meetings we had even before the shoot, my own planning after the script meant we could work quickly. I had a sixteen-page treatment of the film, breaking it down to every element—visual and audio, cinematography, look and feel, make-up, hair, and audio elements with references, picture references and video references. All that was distributed to team members. I also functioned as the art director. I wanted a particular look. I wanted things to be built a certain way, so I worked with a set designer, carpenters, and painters. I also worked with concept artists who drew every single thing. I would give them sketches. The guy would draw on paper, and we sent that to a 3D model artist. And that was what we sent to everyone. Everyone knew what we were building, how we were going to light.

“So when the cinematographer stepped onto location, he knew how he was going to light. He didn’t have to do a lot of figuring things out.”

As I pack, I start to talk about how Nollywood is no longer synonymous with Nigerian film these days.

C. J.: “Both the so-called old and new Nollywood coexist in Nigeria at the moment. You have guys who make movies that go to cinema, and the guys whose movies go straight to DVD. The cinema guys are struggling to get distribution beyond cinema.

“Normally, they would do a cinema release and after a while release the DVD. But there’s a disconnect between cinema and DVD. Some of the DVD distributors are pirates. The straight-to-video guys have deals. He says to a distributor, I need five million to make a movie. It’s nobody’s business how much it really costs to make. So you make it for four million instead and the difference goes to you as profit.

“There was a time in Nigeria when the cinemas closed. Now they are coming back. But we are still struggling with the audience. The cinema-going audience is not the same as the DVD audience. The cinema-going audience wants to watch Iron Man 5. They don’t want to watch Nigerian films. Also, because Nigerian films don’t necessarily appeal to their sensibilities.”

I’m intrigued by his backstory. How long has he been in the industry?

C. J.: “Not long. I would say three years. I shot my first film in 2013, but I didn’t show it anywhere until 2014 at the Africa International Film Festival in Nigeria, one of the largest festivals on the continent, at least in the top three. Now it’s in Lagos, but then it was held in Calabar [in the extreme southeast, near the ocean and the border with Cameroon].

“It was a zombie film, zero budget, but it ended up winning Best Nigerian Film at the festival. It’s called Ojuju. I should have given you a DVD.

“It played in over twenty festivals around the world. It got rave reviews from Indiewire and The Hollywood Reporter [the summary was ‘Despite its miniscule budget, this Nigerian horror film delivers the goods’]. But when I tried to get a cinema deal, the cinema guys were like, ‘Nigerians wouldn’t like a zombie film.’

“Eventually when the movie got some international traction with the reviews and the festivals and all that, then they gave me a limited deal. Which I had to pay the P&A [prints and advertising] for. I am this guy making a zero-budget film and you are asking me for a three-million P&A fee. It was just awful. It didn’t work out.

“So I did the festival thing, which opened up some doors and then I put it out on VoD and TV distribution on the continent and that was fine. Just last month (October 2017) it was screened in Berlin for the first zombie film festival. They had like eight feature films from round the world and Ojuju was the only film from Africa.

“Ojuju means … it’s like what you say to scare kids, it’s like the boogie man. Juju means our spirituality, or traditional practice. But Ojuju is like a monster, a masquerade

“After Ojuju I made a film called O-Town. I would describe it as a semi-autobiographical crime gangster thriller. O-Town is the town of my birth. I grew up in a small town called Owerri. I wrote a story about my experiences growing up in Owerri and the crime stories I heard and the people I knew who were involved in the underworld. It was actually the first script I ever wrote, the first film I wanted to make. It was a very personal story, and you couldn’t get funding for such stories, but with the little money we got from Ojuju we were able to channel that into making O-Town. (You can meet the cast and crew of the film on YouTube.)

“It was a passion project. Thinking back on it, I maybe wouldn’t have made it when I made it, though some good came of it. But I think I needed to make it because, after Ojuju, everyone wanted me to do another horror film. I wasn’t interested in that, doing things based on what people wanted me to do.

O-Town opened at the Africa International Film Festival. It got nominated in three categories at the AMAAs, the Africa Movie Academy Awards, and it won in one category. It had a premiere in Sweden and I was invited to that screening. It had three screenings in three venues in Gothenburg and they were all packed. It was well received on that critical, artistic level. But I knew it was not going to be a commercial film.

“The third film is a collaborative short film. Last year I formed a collective called Surreal16 with two other like-minded friends of mine so that we would challenge the way films are made in Nigeria. Kind of inspired by the Dogme95 movement in Denmark. We don’t have a vow of chastity that constricts our filmmaking. Our manifesto, which we released at AFRIFF this November, some of it is tongue-in-cheek. Some of it we take very seriously, like, ‘Every story must have an African perspective.’ We also say, ‘No establishing shot of Lekki Bridge.’ (Laughs) You’ve seen a million of those in Nigerian films. And then we say, ’No more “To God Be the Glory“ at the end of the film.’“

Surreal16 commits to alternative genre and surrealism. It avoids the traditional Nollywood style of filmmaking. The result was the short film Vision. It has three directors: C. J., Abba T. Makama, and Mike Omonua. Each of them directed a segment revolving around the same character. In the first segment, “Shaitan“ by Abba T. Makama, a young woman holds a discussion on spirituality and visions with her best friend; in the second, “Brood“ by Michael Omonua, she re-imagines an argument with a boyfriend; and in the third, “Bruja“ by C. J., she dances with witches or “brujas“—a Portuguese/Spanish word which C. J. says has origins in ancient Yoruba traditions.

C. J.: “We explore three different visions, inspired by dreams that we had about how we would like tell our stories. I kept seeing this core image of women decked in white on a sandy beach—a dancing séance of witches, replaying in my head.”

The manifesto seems to be putting some distance between Surreal16 and Nollywood.

C. J.: “When you say ‘Nollywood’ you think of a particular kind of film. It’s become a genre. To use it to describe every film that comes out of Nigeria is a bit of a stretch.

“I know how the word Nollywood came about. Some journalist came to Nigeria, saw a bunch of guys making films and he thought, ’This is a cute this little thing they have going, so I’ll call it Nollywood, based on Hollywood or Bollywood.’ For some reason it stuck. But to describe an entire industry and every filmmaker from that country as Nollywood is a bit of a stretch.”

I tell him how the discussions that led up to the creation of the Nommo Awards talked about having a Nommo Award for best African SFF film. But everyone said no, we’d be swamped by Nollywood producers. And at this he laughs. “Dreadful, dreadful.”

I ask him about his background in computer science. Thinking of Uganda’s Unbound Media interview, I ask him if he can do his own CGI.

C. J.: “I’m not that kind of computer expert. I used to be really good at web programming, though. It helped me learn film editing real fast. When I decided to make film, I left my nine-to-five managing domains and servers in this large ICT infrastructure in Abuja.

“A good job, but I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel fulfilled. I didn’t want to wake up in ten years, married with 2.5 kids and a Space Wagon. I eventually left and went back to my parents’ house in Owerri. Funny, I thought they were going to scream at me, ‘Why did you leave your job?’ But when I told them I wasn’t happy, that was it. They welcomed me.

“I had some HD cameras, I had some money saved up. So in that period I used it to shoot stuff. Whatever I could shoot. If you invited me to your wedding, I would shoot it, if you invited me to an event, I wanted to shoot and edit. I had a laptop. I wasn’t very good but I installed the software. It allowed me to edit. I shot a lot of short films that no one will ever see because they’re terrible (Laughs). That was my film school. Watching a lot of films and shooting stuff. And YouTube videos. That made up my film training.

“I left the nine-to-five in around 2010/2011, and I’m turning thirty-two tomorrow. So I was twenty-six or thereabouts.

“I used to draw. I had my own comic version of Voltron. It’s so unfortunate my parents didn’t help me keep these things. I used to draw a lot. Star Trek, Twilight Zone. I had like comic renditions of all my favourite shows. Knight Rider. They used to have all those shows on the local TV.

“My first introduction to literature was Stephen King. He ruined me—in a good way. I read his first novel when I was three, going on four. My elder siblings tricked me into reading Stephen King. Before that I was reading Enid Blyton. I started reading very early. This particular story was The Gunslinger. My brother had bought a hardback, illustrated edition, very exclusive. I remember how proud he was of it. ‘Oooh, it’s got pictures!’ (Laughs).

“I remember the very first line: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. Until today, it haunts me. It did something to my young mind. It opened up my imagination.

“I wanted to read everything I could find by Stephen King. I didn’t understand the books really, but they had imagery. They were very descriptive and I could see them when I read them. And that was the experience I was chasing. I wanted to read them and see things. Every year my elder brother would get me a Stephen King book for my birthday. He was a great brother. Is.”

We talk a bit about the new film version of It and the previous TV version, and how the book makes you feel that the town as a whole is behind the creation of the monster.

“That’s one of the things I connect with. I grew up in a small town. Every time I read a Stephen King book set in a small town in Maine, I was able to make connections between Owerri and Maine, where his stories were always set. This small town, that seems like a sleepy town, not much happening, but under the surface a lot is going on.”

C. J. then shows some of the footage, without post-production, of “Hello Rain.” It’s immediately colourful and striking.

C. J.: “The most important thing in doing any work is being passionate about it. Even if the movie sucks, nobody will be able to deny you were passionate about it. That is what I use to gauge success as a filmmaker: when they can’t deny you put in your blood and sweat. They will always know you’re being truthful and honest—at least I hope they realize that.”

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Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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