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Michael Omonua is Telling African Stories in the Language He Wants

Michael Omonua is Telling African Stories in the Language He Wants

Omonua Michael

“I also mostly just create the stories I want in the manner I want. I think it’s important for each individual to find their own voice and tell their stories through that lens…”

By Seyi Lasisi

There are a few things you know about Michael Omonua. First, Michael Omonua is one of the directors of Juju Stories streaming on Prime Video. Also, Galatians, his second feature film, got selected for the La Fabrique Cinema du Monde set to take place at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Michael Omonua is the first Nigerian filmmaker to achieve this feat. What are the not-so-obvious details you don’t know about the award-winning filmmaker? Omonua, who enjoys nature and long walks, has an answer: “I enjoy entrepreneurial activities, and it’s my goal to build things in that mold. I like the idea of the artist being a builder of things outside their art. Someone like Michaelangelo, who was a painter but also could design architectural structures, build buildings and sculpt things.”

Before my physical contact with Michael Omonua, I had met him twice: in an interview and through his films. Before our physical meeting, which took place at the Surreal 16 film festival, I hadn’t seen the highly-recommended Juju Stories, a three-part film he made with C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi and Abba Makama. They are the trio that make the S16 collective. A British accent (relics from his growing up and schooling in the UK) was present in his speech while we spoke. Thirteen years after migrating back to Nigeria, the accent hasn’t worn off. This noticeable accent aside, his responses to my questions were accented with insightful comments. Months after our short-lived conversation at the indie-focused S16 film festival, the conversation we had became the blueprint for an essay I wrote.

The filmmaker, who with Obasi and Makama had been given the appellation, ‘festival filmmakers’, has gone on to continually build his resume as a Nigerian filmmaker with international credibility. This year Omonua is among the four Nigerian filmmakers at Berlinale film festival. Although “festivals can be physically draining especially when you travel from far. They’re also really refreshing because you have so many like-minded folks in the same place,” Omonua said.

Migrating from the United Kingdom to Nigeria

In 2010, the British-born Nigerian filmmaker visited Nigeria. The visit which he intended to be temporary segued into a permanent one. Thirteen years after, Omonua who humbly said he is “still very much at the beginning,” has written and directed some groundbreaking projects. Rehearsal, his 15-minute short film, had won an Oscars qualifying award. Despite his education at the University for the Creative Arts at Farnham and his exposure to cinema from different world cultures, Omonua said, “I did feel like I was starting over as I knew nobody here at first.” However, the writer-director has carved out a niche for himself. “I’ve cultivated a voice, and that’s all that I ever wanted to do,” Omonua told me.

(Read also: The S16 Collective: Who are these Nollywood Indie Filmmakers?)

Michael Omonua
Michael Omonua

The Nigerian film industry has carved out an international identity for itself. It is common knowledge that Nollywood is the second-largest film industry in the world in terms of films produced. Omonua echoed this when he spoke about the disparities between the UK film industry and Nigerian film industry. “The Nigerian industry is bigger in terms of the number of films made but the British industry has more money in it. The quality of the technicians is much better in the UK.” The Nigerian film industry is friendly and open to Nigerians hoping to make films, unlike the UK where there is a higher barrier to entry. “In Nigeria, anyone can pick up a camera and get their film into the cinema. That’s simply never going to happen anywhere else. Or at least it’s much harder.”

There are subtle changes that the Nigerian film industry has undergone, Omonua said. The filmmaker who has taken “the short film approach to learning his craft,” when I asked him about the disparities between the UK film industry and Nigerian film industry had something revealing to say. “In the UK and much of Europe, filmmakers need government backing from grants, etc to get their film made. Budgets are bigger there but that’s only because budgets in Nigeria are small.” Filmmakers in the UK, more like their Nigerian counterparts, have to rely on private funding as it seems governments in both countries are apathetic to investing in films.

With more and more African filmmakers getting selected for international film festivals, noticeable inclusion and diversity are being ingrained into festival selection. Speaking about the level of diversity at the Berlinale and the advantages it has for African filmmakers Omonua said, “one of Berlinale Talents’ goals is to bring people from all over the world, to make it truly international and it did feel that way.” A train of thought he continued by saying, “I also feel like it is important for major festivals to spotlight cinema from countries where the arts aren’t really paid much attention to. I feel like Berlin, from my experience, does a great job of that. I mean, I was meeting people from Iraq, Italy, and Panama so it was great.”

The prospect of networking aside, film festivals are a haven for collaboration and generation of investments. While you gulp down a cocktail, a future investor might walk up to you. Ema Edosio had a similar experience. After rejections from exhibitors to show her riveting-to-watch Kasala!, in cinemas, Edosio took the film festival route, a decision that got her film to Netflix without a mediator. In hindsight, when Michael Omonua told me that “there are a lot of events, meetups, dinners, and workshops to attend at festivals so the chance of just bumping into someone that could be a potential collaborator is high,” Edosio’s unique experience came to mind.

Omonua’s Filmmaking Manifesto

Characters in Omonua’s films have a preference for indigenous Nigerian languages for their dialogue. This language choice is influenced by the Surreal 16 manifesto. “As part of our Surreal16 manifesto, we encourage ourselves to use more indigenous languages in our films. That aside, during the course of developing my voice, I found using Nigerian languages as something that appealed to me more than characters speaking English.” Omonua, however, concluded by saying, “ultimately the language choice boils down to the situation and characters in the film.

On influences, the bespectacled filmmaker, like most creatives, has influences miles away from the Nigerian border. Omonua’s films often pay homage to cinematic movements and conventions from the Japanese New Wave, amongst others. Yasuzo Masumura and Yuzo Kawashima are filmmakers whose styles often feature in Omonua’s films. There is a cross-continental influence that went into his building as a filmmaker. “I have a lot of influences and steal little things from the filmmakers that I like. I grew up in the UK and my film studies teacher at school loved the 30s/40s British Propaganda war films. I had to watch a lot of those things at 15 but even then I was always in the DVD store in the world cinema section trying to find something new and fresh.”

The Nigerian indie filmmakers’ preference for producing critically-acclaimed films has continually kept Nigerian cinema in the loop in the international community. From the New York Times listicle of horror films to be streamed, where Juju Stories got featured, to Africa Ukoh’s win at the United Solo Theatre Festival for his play, 54, to Obasi’s win at Sundance, Nigerian indie filmmakers are constantly redefining Nigerian cinema. As important as their films are, these filmmakers have less spotlight in mainstream Nollywood.

“I think the industry is growing and changing every year. There are many avenues to audiences nowadays that may not have existed a few years ago. There are also more opportunities opening up internationally as more of our films travel to festivals and gain success.  I believe that soon, films here in Nigeria that travel to festivals and have a good balance between art and commercial will have mainstream appeal here. Or at least figuring out how to market such works will have to be done,” Omonua said.

With Juju Stories touring festivals of repute like Lucarno, British Film Institute, and FESPACO, it’s hard to conceive of why it got less “mainstream push.” Omonua when speaking about his goal said, “my goal for the industry is making the sort of work Africans can watch and enjoy but [which] could also play well in front of a Berlinale audience. It’s not the easiest balance to get right and won’t be for every project either. But I believe we’ll start seeing those films that balance between art and commercial appeal more often than not in the coming years.”

(Read also: Leading Conversations on Inclusivity, Babatunde Apalowo Takes First Nigerian Queer Film to Berlinale)

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Michael Omonua
Winner of the Grand Prize at the Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, an Oscar-qualifying festival. Via Eduard Meltzer / IKFTW.
Telling African Stories in Vocabulary He Prefers

Omonua is hoping to shape new African narratives by telling African-focused stories in African languages. “There are a lot of stories in Nigeria that are yet to be told, especially in a vocabulary that I like. So the idea of shaping narratives, old and new, in a specific kind of vocabulary is what I mean.  I also mostly just create the stories I want in the manner I want. I think it’s important for each individual to find their voice and tell their stories through that lens.”

Filmmaking is a collaborative art. This collaboration between different filmmakers with a distinct approach to filmmaking could lead to certain compromises which affect the initial vision of the director. When I asked Michael Omonua how he convinces the crew and cast members he works with to bring his vision to life, the filmmaker has an interesting point to say. “I think over time you know what you want and become more confident in your voice. Some actors may not necessarily understand everything, but if they feel they’re in good hands they’re usually happy to go along on the ride. It also helps that I have a body of work, especially shorts that I can show as a reference for the type of work I do.  Having work to show is in fact the easiest way to get collaborators, especially a producer. If they see what you’re capable of and like what you do, they’re much more likely to jump on board.”

Robert Daniels, in one of his educative reviews, said: “Some shorts exist solely as a premise, others play like a dry run for a feature, and others are just well-constructed examples of the form.” Daniels’ sentence captures Omonua’s opinion about short film’s potential for a feature. “I do like the idea of using shorts as a place to explore ideas. They don’t necessarily have to be a short version of a feature film but could be something in the same tone or theme. It’s definitely the best place for you if you are looking to develop a voice.”

(Read also: Nollywood and the Need to Pay More Attention to Short Films)

Omonua has developed a distinct voice from his earlier short films, and he is exploring the idea of turning one of his short films into a feature. Following Rehearsal’s successful premiere at the Berlinale, someone reached out to him asking about the potential of a feature film based on the screened short. The future feature-length project, Galatians, is based on his short film, Rehearsal. However, the feature project is distinct from the short film that influenced its creation. “Galatians is very different from the short. Whereas Rehearsal is ambiguous and plays out over a series of vignettes, Galatians is very narrative-driven.”

Omonua’s Twitter account has a pinned tweet that bears testament to his numerous achievements after his almost two decades return to Nigeria. Omonua hints at the possibility of a return to the UK. This time, it is to make a project. “Eventually I’ll go and make some projects in the UK. I’m writing stuff for that territory and will hopefully be working out of both industries. Let’s see how it goes.”


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:

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