“As a way to channel my anger and pain due to that incident, I started exploring the theme of family bonds and retribution in the context of a revenge crime thriller.”
By Jerry Chiemeke
Migration always comes with its effects, and for creatives in particular, the decision to leave their home country has a way of reflecting in their craft. The tone of their stories changes, the themes change, and even the artistic voice experiences some adjustment. It is commonplace to find Nigerians in the diaspora struggling to keep in touch with the authentic flavour of their home country as they churn out new work and walk into bigger rooms.
But that is not the case for Nigerian-Canadian filmmaker, Lonzo Nzekwe. The writer and director, who taught himself to make films by reading books and watching documentaries, has been away from Nigeria since 1997, but he still tries (successfully) to keep in touch, as evidenced by his storytelling. In 2010 he released his debut film, Anchor Baby, a thriller drama starring Omoni Oboli and (the late) Sam Sarpong, which won the award for Best Film at the 2010 Harlem International Film Festival. In 2016 he put out a short, Meet The Parents, which clinched the Best Short Film Award at that year’s Africa Movies Academy Awards (AMAA).
Nzekwe’s latest effort is Orah, a revenge thriller set in urban Ontario and contemporary Lagos. Produced by IronFlix (Nzekwe’s independent production outfit) in collaboration with Toronto-based production companies, Circle Blue Entertainment and Freddie Films, the movie stars Oyin Oladejo (Star Trek: Discovery), Somkele Iyamah-Idhalama (The Wedding Party), Oris Erhuero (Sometimes in April, Redcon-1), OC Ukeje (Brotherhood, Potato Potahto), Emeka Nwagbaraocha (Far From Home), Femi Lawson (Because We Are), Lucky Ejim (The Barber of Kigali), Tina Mba (Isoken), Ruby Akubueze (Ijogbon), and Kelechi Udegbe (The Trade, Mami Wata), among others.
Orah follows the story of the titular character, a Nigerian woman who seeks refuge in Canada after getting her hands dirty, and places herself at the mercy of a crime lord. But loses her marbles when her son is murdered and embarks on a revenge mission. It was screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as part of the Industry Selects Programme, and had its official premiere a week later at the Cinefest Sudbury International Film Festival.
In an exclusive interview with Afrocritik, Nzekwe shares insight on his filmmaking choices, exploring the subject of migration in his stories, and drawing inspiration from personal tragedy to create his newest masterpiece.
Between Anchor Baby and Orah, your films touch on the theme of migration, either directly or as a sub-theme. What influences this, and do you think this subject has not been explored enough in Nollywood, especially considering the recent “japa” wave?
I’m mostly influenced by stories I have experienced directly or vicariously through other people. Although the stories in the movies you mentioned have migration as part of their themes, they also have other major themes I explored there. In the case of Anchor Baby, I have themes of betrayal and trust at its core, and in Orah, it has revenge, redemption, and family breakdown as some of its core themes.
When I set out to write a story or direct a film, I don’t really pay attention to what everyone else is doing to know whether a subject has been explored enough or not, I just go ahead and tell the stories I want to tell, and hope that people receive them well.
(Read also – Zambia is Courting Continental Attention with Can You See Us?: Afrocritik in Conversation with Kenny Mumba, Director of the Country’s Netflix Debut)
You identify as Nigerian-Canadian, given that you have been away for at least two decades, but you’ve done a great job of keeping in touch with what plays out back home. Do you feel like filmmakers in the diaspora may struggle to capture the Nigerian zeitgeist in their stories? Does being far away reflect in the tone of the screenplay, when you consider situations like the screen adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun?
I identify as Nigerian-Canadian because that’s the core essence of who I am. I was born and raised in Nigeria before leaving the country, and later becoming a Canadian citizen. I visit Nigeria on a regular basis and that’s how I stay on top of things.
Being far away can have both positive and negative effects on a screenplay. It just depends on the writer and how they research the subject matter they’re writing about. Sometimes, someone who’s never visited Nigeria, but has done a tremendous amount of research and consultations on a particular Nigerian story/subject matter, may do a better writing job than someone based in Nigeria who didn’t do their research well.
What drew you to the idea of a revenge thriller? What inspired the screenplay for Orah, and how did you get so emotionally invested to the point of birthing a feature?
It started off with my desire to make a crime thriller genre film, right after the release of Anchor Baby. I was fascinated by family dynamics and the lengths people will go to protect their loved ones. While I was developing the script, my family suffered a huge loss when one of my younger brothers was murdered in Nigeria by a team of corrupt SARS police officers. As a way to channel my anger and pain due to that incident, I started exploring the theme of family bonds and retribution in the context of a revenge crime thriller.
Your film includes a star-studded cast. What were you trying to capture, per your casting decisions?
I was looking for the best actors who’d bring the script to life. The people that make up the cast are actors that I admired their work prior to meeting or working with them. We had open auditions in Canada and Nigeria. A major fact about the casting of Orah is that every single main actor you see in the film auditioned for their part, and earned the role they played in the film.
(Read also – Film Editors as Architects Of a Film’s Vision and Goal: Biyi Toluwalase, Notable For Editing Gangs Of Lagos and Sista, in Conversation with Afrocritik)
Orah was principally shot in Ontario, with some production happening in Lagos. How do you view collaboration prospects between African filmmakers and filmmakers in the diaspora? We’ve heard of the recent success of The Black Book; how do you think Nollywood can harness resources and partnerships to make this feat commonplace and not just a one-off?
The cross-border collaboration challenged me as a director to navigate different production environments. The collaboration prospects are huge and should be encouraged more because they create jobs and opportunities, especially for African-based filmmakers. I’m a big advocate of our Nigerian government setting up co-production treaties with Canada and other countries around the world to enable easier collaborations between Nigerian filmmakers and filmmakers in the diaspora. We had an industry panel discussion about this topic during the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where Orah was used as a case study to highlight the importance of transnational cinema and the need for a Nigeria/Canada co-production treaty. It was a great panel, with Heritage Canada officials and the Nigeria High Commissioner to Canada in attendance.
Orah will be screening at the Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto on 5th November, 2023.
Jerry Chiemeke is a communications executive, film critic, journalist, and lawyer. His works have appeared in Die Welt, The Africa Report, Culture Custodian, and Statement Africa, among others. He has been selected for international film festivals like Berlinale, Durban International Film Festival, and Blackstar Film Festival in Philadelphia.
Jerry lives in London, where he writes on Nollywood, African literature, and Nigerian music. He is the author of Dreaming of Ways to Understand You, a collection of short stories.