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“I am a Perfect Symbol of Limitlessness”: Ebuka Njoku in Conversation with Afrocritik

“I am a Perfect Symbol of Limitlessness”: Ebuka Njoku in Conversation with Afrocritik

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“Maybe my theory of Yahoo Plus isn’t right, but, at least, when people watch the film, it will make them question their existing belief of what it is about…”

By Seyi Lasisi

Film critics, in a bid to deeply reflect on the expansive list of films produced in a year, curate a yearly listicle. The aim is to spotlight the “best” films of the year using varying metrics. Expectedly, the titles of these listicles, unmindful of who is curating it, is repetitively similar. The adjective, “best,” is always smuggled into the listicles’ title. In the Nigerian movie industry, one of those films that was unarguably agreed upon, in 2022, to make the list was the Ebuka Njoku-directed Yahoo+.

Yahoo+ is Njoku’s debut feature-length directorial project. Prior to its first appearance in the cinema, it had acquired critical acclaim in the annual The Annual Film Mischief film festival. With its non-mainstream cast members, the film, on its appearance in the cinema, attracted a snail-like acceptance. This slow-paced acceptance gradually morphed into a fast-paced acceptance as evident in Yahoo+ being one of the most favourable films of 2022.

In this exclusive interview with Afrocritik, Ebuka Njoku, ahead of Yahoo+ debut on Netflix, spoke about his life experience that inspired the writing of Yahoo+, his infective affinity with literature, and his definition of success.


Congratulations! Yahoo+, your first feature-length film, is coming to Netflix. How does this make you feel as an indie filmmaker?

Great! The initial dream for Yahoo+ was for it to land a direct-to-Netflix deal. It’s just that fate had other plans. So we explored cinema first. That doesn’t mean there weren’t times of doubts. Some people even told me I won’t be able to strike any form of distribution deal in Nigeria. So, it feels great that it’s happening. I’m just a little anxious about how it’d be received by the world.

The story of this project is rather interesting. From its journey in film festival circuits, to its acquisition by a distribution company. Can you walk us through this journey?

The funny thing is this: Every now and then, I meet with up-and-coming filmmakers, and they ask me how I got my film to the cinema and also on a streaming platform. The truth is, I learned on the go. And I don’t want my words to sound like the words of an expert.

However, what I did, which I think is smart, was understanding the audience I made the film for. The initial distribution plan for the film was to take the international film festivals route and possibly get a distributor. But, when we finished shooting, we didn’t have enough funds to apply to enough film festivals.

I remember reading somewhere that the best way to get a good deal for your film is to get it released within 12 months after its production. Initially, I felt FilmOne, one of Nollywood’s most prolific distribution companies, wouldn’t give us an audience. I looked through their catalogue, and up until then, FilmOne hadn’t distributed a film of our budget. So my thought was that the distributor that would work for us would be a mid-level distributor. I approached a number of these distributors, but the deals they offered weren’t comfortable for me. Luckily for me, last year, Neec Nonso, who is the cinematographer of Yahoo+, invited me to African NXT. Before this invite, I had been writing a horror film for a month at home, and so I needed somewhere to go as an escape. I decided to attend the event. I got there during a panel discussion handled by Moses Babatope and Peace Anyiam-Osigwe (of blessed memory). From the conversation, I observed that Babatope was passionate about distributing films. We spoke after the session. I collected his card and later sent a copy of the film to his mail. We started talking until we found a deal that worked for everybody.

Before we discuss your project, let’s talk about the genius mind behind Yahoo+. Who is Ebuka Njoku?

I am a perfect symbol of limitlessness. There is nothing I can’t do. When I say this, it often comes off as me being proud. But, what I mean is, I feel I have the power to do all things. For me, it is about choosing what to do at a specific time and doing it. In the next ten years, I am not sure I will still be a film director or scriptwriter. I might be a producer or an executive producer. Filmmaking is a phase for me. My interest spans media, fashion, other forms of design, and tech (I went to a technical school during my secondary school days). The best answer I can give to this question is this: Ebuka Njoku is Ebuka Njoku.

You mentioned in an interview that you wanted to become a Theatre Arts lecturer. How did the earlier dream of becoming a lecturer morph into being a filmmaker?

Well, I am still a lecturer. Filmmaking started before I gained admission into the university. Days before writing my Post-UTME at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), there was a strike and the school was shut down. This strike action delayed my admission. So, before I got it, I started questioning my respect for the institution. Then I got into the institution. Some weeks in, I realised that Esiaba Irobi, a lecturer whose work I had been a fan of prior to being admitted, was having issues with the academic institutions. During this period, too, I was being mentored by the then-young writer, Onyeka Nwelue. I discovered he had dropped out of school. Why? It was at this time I heard about Irobi’s issue with the academia. When I started enjoying Wole Soyinka’s work, I discovered there was a time he, too, wanted to leave academia.

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Ebuka Njoku

When I finally started attending lectures, I realised I didn’t really like theatre performances. I loved reading them, but theatre performances weren’t my thing. But then, in school, the way the lecturers talked about films made us feel theatre was superior to film. On reading more, I discovered that theatre didn’t give enough tools to express things happening in a story. It dawned on me that if William Shakespeare was born in the same year as I, he may not have been a playwright but a filmmaker.

As someone who sees Shakespeare as one of the greatest storytellers that has ever lived, I started asking myself what I could offer my generation. I discovered that the answer was film. Also, in school, I discovered people weren’t so interested in learning, and that lecturing would be a waste of my time. To clarify, people are interested in learning, but not in the school pattern. Filmmaking is also my process of becoming a lecturer. It is an interaction.

You left filmmaking to pursue other businesses. What catalysed this move? Why was the break from Nollywood necessary?

I entered the industry with a sense of entitlement. For some filmmakers, the sense of entitlement is gotten from film school. Others get it from reading film-related textbooks. You read that if you do certain things in America, certain benefits will come to you. And you feel that since you are talented, other filmmakers should positively respond to you. Gradually, from feeling I was the best writer Nigeria ever had, I began to wonder if I was not good enough. Frustrated that I wasn’t getting what I felt I should be entitled to, I left Lagos and filmmaking.

When I left, I was lost. I was changing jobs. I lost focus and couldn’t concentrate on anything. At one point, I got a job in a bar. This job, one of the greatest experiences of my life, made me realise that filmmaking is all business. I started seeing films through the lens of why an average Nigerian watches films. As a bartender, the conversations I had with customers felt like the kind of stories you watched in Old Nollywood.

Film is what gave me joy, and it is something I understood. In 2019, I decided to give Nollywood a second chance; this time, with a different approach, seeing it not just as an artist but also as an entertainer. I am not just making film for myself, I am also expressing. Working in a bar changed my life.

Yahoo+ is partly autobiographical for you, and it’s your experiences during your hiatus that inspired the making of the film.  Can you walk us through the many journeys the film passed, from its conception to its debut on Netflix?

First of all, getting the idea was its own journey. There was a time when the film was just about female sex workers. Then, the more I reflected on the idea, the more I discovered that I didn’t know much about sex workers. Why would I want to tell a story from their perspective if I don’t have sex worker to ask questions? I decided that since I knew more about “Yahoo Boys,” I could tell the story from that lens.

There is this sync that great films have: they turn a simple story into something universal and complex. I was aiming to achieve this in my films. Thus, anytime I write, I try to find that sync. This was a major challenge for me when I started writing Yahoo+. ”What’s the story about?” I interrogated myself. It was when I listened to Flavour and Umu Obiligbo’s “Isi Onwe” that I knew what the story was about. The film is also a story about Nigeria. The song made it possible for me to connect all the dots in the story.

Keezyto, one of the lead characters, was your junior in the university. You both studied Theatre Art at the University of Nigeria. What drew you to him for a potential lead role for this movie?

I wasn’t close to Keezyto while in school. I have a writer friend whom Keezyto was very close to. I was hanging out with Chekezi, a friend of mine, and Keezyto years after leaving UNN. The plan was for a 30-minute meeting. But we ended up drinking and discussing from about 7:00pm till around 11:00pm. Prior to that discussion, he had played a cameo role in one of our short films in school. But it was that long conversation that made me realise Keezyto knew stuff. I had seen him perform his songs on stage (he is also a musician). So, when I was writing Yahoo+, I wrote it with him in mind. Luckily for us, he brought his A-game to it.

In an industry where social media followers and popularity are the metrics for casting actors, your film has relatively unpopular faces. What influenced your casting decision?

A couple of things. One thing about me is this: I know the kind of films I want to make. And who I am making it for. In 2020, I attended a Producers’ masterclass. After the class, I started researching the best films of my favourite filmmakers. What I discovered was that in their debut films, they used a mostly unknown cast. The films were written for a targeted city, and it had a targeted audience. I was trying to replicate all these with Yahoo+.

The targeted audience for my film is young Nigerians (between 16 and 35) who understand Igbo. So I had to look for those who could speak the language and actors that the target audience would want to see. Basically, it was about using what was available to me. I also wanted the film to feel fresh. I didn’t want a situation where the audiences judged the actors based on what they had seen before. I wanted the audiences to first enjoy the story first before they know it was acted out.

We are getting to that point in Nollywood when the old system will give way to the new. For us to do that, we have to be brave.

The frustration that comes with pursuing one’s dream is one of the themes of your film. What are you hoping to communicate with the film?

My storytelling career can be broken into different eras. I am still in my filmmaking era of showing Nigerians what we look like. This phase is to teach and tell Nigerians to take off that fright and look at ourselves. For me, Yahoo+ is an attempt to achieve this.

We have Nigerians who believe that making money through spiritual means is possible. We have Nigerians who are “Yahoo Boys.” What we don’t really have are people who are curious enough to research the issues of ritual killings ascribed to these people and inform us what “Yahoo Plus” is all about. Maybe my theory of Yahoo Plus isn’t right. But, at least, when people watch the film, it will make them question their existing belief of what it is about.

We make a lot of things sacred in this country, and curtail our ability to learn. As Nigerian artists, there should be no topic we should be scared of diving into. Those scary topics are the kind of things I want to dive into as a filmmaker. The idea behind everything I do as a filmmaker is to make you understand that at this point in Nigeria, you can make whatever you want.

Yahoo+ is your first feature-length film. Prior to it, you worked on numerous short films. As an indie filmmaker, can you share some of the lessons you learnt within this period?

The basic lesson, which is a conversation I am always having with myself, is to understand your dream. Be very realistic about the resources available to you. If you know you don’t have access to a limousine, don’t write a limo in your script. If you don’t have a certain amount of money, don’t try to tell a story and hope that you will manage it with the money you have.

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I tend to make my films with limited sets. The resources available to me influence this. I know the resources I have, and I put it to good use. That is the most important element of being a successful indie filmmaker.

When people look at my film and respond by saying they wish more funds had been available to me, I consider myself to have failed. The idea should be that when you watch the film, you forget about the money because the story is so good that you forget that it was made up. Be brave. You just have to be brave. Nobody knows a film that is going to be great. Although there are metrics to check what will make a blockbuster movie, most times, they don’t work. Once you realise that, you tend to have more faith in the kind of film you make. That faith is what will make you discover who you are.

In one of our short-lived conversations, you spoke about your definition of success. You mentioned two metrics: A film that becomes a classic and also gives you financial returns —you reference Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. With the critical acclaim and box-office return your film has garnered, do you consider your film a success?

I judge success in a lot of ways. I don’t judge it by what I gain now. The dream goes beyond how many years I will be on earth. In that respect, I think Yahoo+ is a success. Film isn’t the kind of business where you expect immediate returns. Maybe, at this moment, we haven’t gotten the financial returns, but over time it’s going to come. I told the story I wanted to tell using the approach I wanted to use, and the resources available to me. I am proud of the film for what it means to me, Nollywood, and the people from where I come. I will call that success.

The characters in your film have a preference for Igbo and Pidgin. Why did you opt for these as opposed to the widely conventional English language?

The beauty of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is the language. It is written in such a way that anyone who understands the English language can relate with it.

Part of the major challenges black people have is what I call “Story or Historical Inferiority Complex.” Colonialism made us feel inferior about our culture and language. If you are to ask the average Nigerian about the best Nigerian lyricist, they are going to mention musicians who use more English language in their lyrics. It doesn’t mean that the musicians who use the English language are better; it just shows that we have attached English language to intellectualism.

Before I started reading plays, I dabbled into prose. I read Chinua Achebe, and I observed how he infused Igbo into his works. In Soyinka’s plays, the praise singers use Yoruba. When I started writing plays in secondary school, I wrote in Shakespearean English. In UNN, I had a friend who helped in checking my writing. And he asked me if I knew why Shakespeare wrote the way he did. He told me that Shakespeare wrote that way because that was how the English language was written in his own time.

I have to write in a way that enables the next generation understand the times I live in. I need to give them a reflection of the time. I am trying to communicate in a way that shows how the average Igbo person of my time speaks. That is the only thing I can leave for the next generation. I don’t believe that the Igbo language is superior to other languages. I used it because it is a language that I understand. It is my history. I can’t speak a language I don’t understand. I am making myself available for my ancestors to communicate through me.

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Credit: Neec Nonso
You mentioned to me that you are working on a film. What should we be expecting? And what is next after the Netflix debut?

The next film I am making is for my mom. I noticed that she didn’t like Yahoo+. She was too nice not to mention it. This next film is a love letter to my mother and everyone I am in love with. It is not going to be as dark as Yahoo+.

I don’t have many films and TV series I want to direct. I look forward to being an Executive Producer or Producer. I think that the greatest challenge of Nollywood is the lack of creative freedom. Writers and directors hardly enjoy creative freedom. This limits the kind of stories we can tell. A large number of stories we watch in Nollywood are producers’ ideas. It is always a struggle to get an artist to tell a story they want to tell. A lot of writers in Nollywood will spend their whole career not writing an original story. What they do is writing commissioned stories from producers and never writing a story they are truly passionate about. They spend over 20 years as a director in Nollywood and none of the stories they direct are ones they want to tell. Part of my mission is moving towards investing in filmmakers to make films without censoring them. That is how we can build a fearless industry where filmmakers can boldly tell stories.

 

 

Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: seyi.lasisi@afrocritik.com.

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