Izu Ojukwu’s Lion of 76, An Arduous journey to Celluloid
Despite being a 19-year veteran of video, Izu Ojukwu considers ’76, which he is currently shooting in Ibadan, to be his real debut as a director. In this rare but exhaustive interview, conducted on the set at Mokola Barracks, Ojukwu explains why, to J.K. OBATALA. He also retraces his tortured evolution from child-puppeteer to director of best-selling videos, such as White Waters, Cindy’s Note, Eleventh Hour and the award-winning Sitande. Though self-taught, Ojukwu is a master psychologist on the set. The Lagos-based bachelor shares with this writer some intriguing insight into his methodology. This seminal work in progress, is an historical drama, inspired by the assassination of Murtala Muhammed, the popular Military Head of State, in 1976.
WHAT is the thrust of this script you’re filming?
Well, ‘76 tries to see the Army from another perspective. We often don’t acknowledge the stress, the problems, the predicament and the ordeal that officer’s wives go through.
So the film deals with that.
As far as I’m concerned, the wives are the real soldiers. They are the ones who suffer from whatever decisions their husbands make—whether on the battlefield or within their office complexes.
So the film x-rays and explores the travails of military wives…the women who are left behind to live with the agony of loss and the responsibility of raising children alone…
‘76 then, is less about Murtala Muhammed, than the wives of those involved in the conflict?
Is Murtala Muhammed’s wife central in the plot?
No…We just took a soldier, just an ordinary officer, who could have existed at that time, who could have been either involved or indicted wrongfully. We just took a soldier and weaved the story around his wife.
It’s a story told from a duel point of view—from the soldier’s patriotic perspective and from that of the officer’s wives…
Since you’re filming here, at Mokola Barracks, can we assume that the Army has approved the script?
Yes. The script was with the Army for seven months. They vetted it and did the investigations and questioning they needed to do. They’ve now cleared us and are providing all the support we requested.
The Army is supporting us one hundred percent, logistically. They’ve assigned a drill instructor and other personnel to us. A retired Director of Army Public Relations, Col. Ayo Olaniyan, is our consultant on this project.
Does religion come into this scenario at all?
No. Religion doesn’t come in. That’s because…1976 is just six years after the Civil War — a time when tolerance is king. It’s a time when people are trying to play down religion and see themselves more as brothers and sisters. It’s a time of reconciliation…
The film deals heavily with intertribal marriages. We want to break down tribal barriers. So religion wasn’t played up in the scenario.
Tribe does come in. The coup against Murtala Mhuammed’s Government was obviously one-sided. It came more from the Middle Belt—i.e., the actual coup of 1976.
Overall though, we try to go beyond ethnic and religious boundaries in the film and preach a message of tolerance.
I’m sure you knew this was coming. But I hope there is nothing in ‘76 that will offend Boko Haram!?
(Laughing) No. Like I’ve said, the film has nothing to do with religion. I think you see more inter-tribal and inter-religious marriages in the Army than in any other organisation in this country.
I have two friends from the North, for example, who are married to Christians—Muslims married to Christians. They’ve been together, without problem, for the longest time. In fact, the wife of one of them has just given birth a few weeks back.
I think, sometimes, our differences are deliberately exaggerated. I believe some of the religious crisis we’ve been having are highly political.
(A man in military attire walks pass). This man I’m looking at now—is he a soldier or an actor?
He’s an actor. He is an actor. Yes.
How long was ‘76 in the making?
This is the third year…
Why so long?
What took so long was, first getting the Military approval and support. Actually, we could have shot without the Army. We needed their cooperation, because we wanted to get everything right.
Secondly, when approval eventually came, we discovered that some of the things we would need were no longer available…We had to search for them…
Thirdly, we had to make arrangements to be sending our prints abroad and then waiting for their return before we can view them.
Was that because you’re shooting on 35millimeter film?
We’re shooting on Super-16… not 35 mm. The challenges arise because we’re using a film format, instead of video. But while these challenges may scare other filmmakers, we have decided to brave them…
Fortunately, I got the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) involved. They gave me a reduced rate on…the Super-16 camera and some other equipment we’re using…
Why did you choose 16 mm film over 35mm?
We wanted to use 35mm, at first. But we discovered that the ground-glass of the camera is bad…That’s a glass located beneath the camera. We cannot afford to gamble… So we had to go with Super-16…
Nevertheless, the movie will still be screened in 35 mm frames. We’ll make the adjustment in post-production.
What difference will this make to viewers—whether the movie is screened in 35 mm frames or video?
A lot … I mean, the quality of the crew we’ve assembled… The quality of the camera we’re using and, of course, the story itself…Our approach to the story is different than it would be if we were shooting in video.
We want ‘76 to be competitive with any film made anywhere in the world. That means shooting on either 16 mm or 35 mm film—because these are the two main types of projectors in use around the world…
What is different in your treatment of the story?
Filmmakers working in video don’t need to pay as much attention to detail, as we have done. For example, we have refurbished eight period cars—vehicles that would have been seen on the roads in 1976—for this film.
This will undoubtedly carry older viewers on a nostalgic adventure. Younger ones can see what this country used to be like…. 1976 was a time when you had constant electricity, a time when you could still drink a cup of water from the tap—and feel safe…
We chose this period, to show the younger generation what Nigeria was like 35 years ago…. That should give them hope. What we’re saying to them is, “If Nigeria was like this before, it can be that way again—hopefully better”.
So the setting, in 1976, is a kind of metaphor?
Rumors and conspiracy theories abound, about foreign involvement in the assassination of Murtala Muhammed. Are these issues reflected in the film?
(Laughing) Yes, they are. You cannot run away from them… You must deal with all the rumours — although we cannot say, factually, what happened…
In the film, we play them the way they are—and then leave it to your discretion. It’s like a cliff-hanger. We all have to make our own individual judgments today, about whether the CIA or other intelligence agencies were involved…
What do you think?
(Laughing) Well, imperialist domination in Africa has been an issue. It’s still an issue. I try to leave it that way, you know…
How did you prepare, for the shooting of this film?
I had to do a lot of reading and research, for several years—which included talking to scholars.
I actually have this fantasy for the military—you know, to make military movies. I’ve followed virtually all the coup stories, as well as I can remember. I followed them physically and analytically…
Is this your first time shooting on film, instead of video?
Yes, it’s my first film. This is what I’ve been working towards. All of my work in the movie industry has been to get me to the point where I can make a real movie, a film. And if I had to do it, I wanted to take historical material and explore.
It’s an opportunity that I cannot blow: Doing what I’ve always fantasized about and then, getting a story… that can tell us where we’re coming from and where we begin to get it wrong… where the future of this country was determined…
Are we going to see blood and gore? Will the assassination itself, for example, be graphically depicted?
…I try to portray violence off-camera. It’s a family film. I’d like for people to concentrate on the story and not get pissed off, not get distracted by violence.
The assassination is the key to the plot. But the buildup of tension, the mystery surrounding the assassination, is more important than the act itself. The assassination is not something that you would enjoy watching over and over again. So we are doing it off camera.
Even the execution of the coup-plotters is depicted as off-camera violence. It is seen through the facial expression of the woman involved. Everything—the gunshots, etc.—are all seen as expressions on her face…
I’ve read so much about temper tantrums on movie sets; and you’re directing some big stars. Have you had this problem?
Well, maybe because of my nature, you know, I have firm control. If you respect the actors, they will respect you—if they can trust you. I don’t work with actors who cannot trust me and whom I can’t trust.
Before I get an actor involved, I must be sure of his ability to deliver. And then, I must be sure that he can trust me, as a director—that he can hand his career, his life, over to me. That is the key.
If an actor believes in your ability to deliver, they’ll trust your judgment. There are some, of course, whom you will have problems with…who won’t see things from your perspective.
It is your job, as director, to make them see it because, if they don’t, their interpretation will not work. But as soon as they grasp it, they’ll give you what you want…
It’s not always rosy… Sometimes, you have to put pressure…
(We are interrupted. Daniel K. Daniel’s Army uniform is wrinkled. He wants it properly ironed, to look crisp and fresh as it did the day before. Ojukwu refers him to the costumes department.)
You were saying now…
Yeah. Sometimes it’s necessary to put pressure on an actor. A scene might require some level of aggression and he or she is not there yet. Then, the director may have to do some play acting himself. He may have to become unpleasant…possibly shout.
The idea is to get the actor pissed. Sometimes, only anger will produce results. And then you’d better be prepared to make up, as soon as you are done with the scene! (Laughing)
I faced a situation, many years ago, for example, in which a very good actress couldn’t bring out emotions. She couldn’t cry.
I realized that she is a very proud person—and that, in order to get what I wanted, I’d have to tamper with their ego and puncture it.
How did you puncture her ego?
I left that scene for last and made sure I congratulated all the other actors on the set—and never said anything to her. I also called for more takes of her other scenes than was necessary.
I cut her down, so that she now became conscious of pleasing me. If, after a scene, I say, “Cut! Thank you,” it means I’m happy with the acting. But when I say, “Cut!,” and there is no “Thank you,” things are not quite right.
Actually, she was an incredible actress… But I made sure she wasn’t happy with me…She never got “Cut! Thank you”; and I embarrassed her repeatedly, in public.
Finally, on the last day, when I wanted to shoot the scene, I said, “I wonder how you got to where you are!” With my cameras rolling, I went on-and-on-and-on and kept humiliating her.
Suddenly, she sat down; and before everybody, tears started falling from her eyes. We quickly built the scene; and she took it. As soon as we were done, I gave her a big hug. I had bought gifts for her, earlier on, which I presented…
Can you tell us who it was?
No! I don’t want to say it! (Laughing)
Is there any actor you hate to see coming—but you know you have to work with him or her, because they are a strong box office draw?
Yes. But honestly, I don’t feel it’s safe for me to mention names. Definitely, there are actors you wouldn’t want to work with again.
In fact, there are some actors I would even pay not to work with! (Laughing) Yes, because nobody wants unnecessary stress on the set. If you have to battle with anything, let it be a fight to actualise your vision of the movie—not somebody taking you off the rails.
I learned, from the Executive Director, that you sent the script of ’76 to the U.S.A. for criticism or commentary. What was the purpose for doing that?
Yes. One reason is that, film language is universal. I don’t feel that, as a director, I should be making movies just for the local market. Film should have international appeal.
I have a writer-friend, Susan Stern, who was nominated for an Emmy—the most prestigious award for U.S. television productions — in 2006. She was nominated for her documentary, “Self-Made Man”. O
Is she Black?
No. She’s White. She has been of great help. She was the one who copy-edited the script…Bruce Dickson, who is also an American… has been, like, our consultant—photographic consultant—since we started.
Why are you dealing with Americans, when African countries like Burkina Faso and Senegal have long filmmaking traditions — and some of the best directors in the world are there? Why not liaise with individuals in those countries?
…I’m not “liaising” with Americans as such. I’m looking for a wider market. I’m looking for acceptability. I’m trying to see how the film will be viewed. The story is not controlled by anybody. It’s just their perspective I’m after.
What we want to know from our contacts in the U.S.A., are things like: “How do you see this story?”; “If this were to be a movie in your cinema, would you pay to see it?”
Conversely, I am also working with Susan on one of her scripts—seeing it from our own perspective, here in Africa. So it’s like a cultural exchange programme…
Then too, I’m collaborating with some Sierra Leoneans…in the U.S.A. Isaiah Washington—a prominent black American actor, who recently traced his ancestry to Sierra Leone—is also involved. Washington, a TV and film star, has written about his experience in Man From Another Land…
Would you consider looking eastward—to places like Japan and China? There are also markets in the South Pacific.
Well, I haven’t considered that. I’m looking at where I already have contacts. A bird in the hand is worth 20 in the bush. People that I’ve come in contact with and worked with are invaluable resources. When I have a project and need their inputs, I get them.
I have an African friend who grew up in Dubai, for example. She has also been part of the script. She’s from Zambia… And she’s a very good script-writer.
Do you watch film from other parts of the world?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I grow up watching Indian movies…
Were you influenced by them?
Yes! I made a film with Indians, in 1997. It’s called, A Home Too Far. I made it with the help of the Indian Ambassador…I made that film because of my exposure to Indian movies. As a youth, I spent most of my time at the cinema hall watching them…
How did you get into directing?
My first film was a church production, called Ichabod. I made it in 1993, for the Catholic Biblical Movement, in Jos…
No. I’m Pentecostal. But I directed the film for the Catholic Church. That was my first job. Then I followed it up with a production I did, entirely on my own… It was an Igbo movie, entitled Moment Of Bitterness…
Was it one of those films, in which you see intestines coming out of bodies and that kind of thing?
(Laughing) Naw, naw, naw! It wasn’t bloody at all. I’ve never done a ritual film…
Yes. I used to make puppets at home, to entertain my dad and the younger ones—especially during the rainy season. In Jos, where I was born and grew up, it’s always hot during the rainy season… So, that was how I got started.
I’d tell one brother, “You move from here to there,” and the other to “Move from this point to that place,” etc. Then I would tell them how to react. I never knew I was building a career!
You simply found it enjoyable?
Yes… And then, gradually, when I was in secondary school, I realised that I had a passion for art. So I painted portraits and made greeting cards. I paid my own fees in senior secondary school that way. I would paint portraits of notable personalities and take it to them; and they would pay me.
So I was making money. I was independent. I had responsibilities. When I left home, I took over the task of supporting my family.
How did you get from painting portraits to directing a film like ‘76?
When the Nigerian Film Institute was established, I went there—and found that I couldn’t afford the fees. By that time, my father was already out of a job; and I was sustaining the family.
But I was determined to push my career forward. So I went to the library of the Institute and requested books. They said I couldn’t borrow books, unless I was a student. But there was no money for me to enroll.
I’d gone to every other library in Jos—but I saw no books on “film production” or “script-writing”…
Desperate, I refused to leave the Nigerian Film Institute’s library. They notified the Director who, at that time, was Hyginus Ekwazi. He summoned me to his office and asked what my problem was.
“I need books,” I told him.
“Why don’t you enroll?” he suggested.
When I explained my plight, Ekwazi offered to arrange a scholarship for me. But I knew that wouldn’t work, unless they were going to pay me. School hours are, like, seven-to-seven every day. I’d be left with no time to run around; and I had mouths back home to feed.
Scenes from the Movie Below