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Nollywood is here to take over the world – Onyeri

Obinna Robert Onyeri is a professional filmmaker with several years’ experience in the film industry and three years of experience in Civil engineering and general engineering courses. Onyeri is passionate about earnest and unapologetic storytelling, photography and volunteering schemes that make an impact in people’s lives and the way they view and interact with others of different backgrounds. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE, he speaks about his experience as a film maker and how he got into UCLA’s MFA Film programme.

Could you tell us about yourself and experience in the film industry?

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. I lived in a home rich in culture that blended both the traditional and western ways of life. It was in such a warm and vibrant home I became inquisitive about stories that reflect the past and present, stories that people can relate to, stories with strong and dynamic characters, and stories that will evoke change either through sincerity or laughter.

As a final year MFA film student at the prestigious UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, one of the top three film schools in the world as ranked by The Hollywood Reporter, and being the only African accepted in my program, I have worked on several film productions. I wear the cap of a director, writer and producer. With the vast skills and in-depth knowledge that I’m currently gaining from UCLA’s MFA programme, I will be able to achieve my goal of growing my own production company, directing and generating films that will promote the right conversation on issues that relate with minorities and the disenfranchised, stories that evaluate and express divergent aspects of the human condition – affliction, love, persistence, hope, empowerment etc. Each film will leave a significant impact on the emotions of its audience, for emotions are the language by which all individuals across cultures can communicate. I’m proud to say my last two films I personally directed and wrote have been able to attain this goal.

To me, Film is a very powerful tool for social change and a voice of empowerment and valor.

Would you say your upbringing contributed to your passion for filmmaking? If so, how?

Yes, my upbringing very much did. My family, though science and business oriented – just your typical Nigerian family, has been avid consumers to the art that is filmmaking, especially my mother, who is my biggest supporter and my first movie buddy. I remember the time my mom and I watched a Nollywood movie that was split into six parts. A lot of Nollywood movies did that back then. Oh, the fun and the torture.

At what point did you decide that a lucrative career in engineering would not do? Didn’t you have any fears about taking the deep leap into filmmaking and starting all over again as a student?

I won’t call it starting over but rather a metamorphosis. My past experience in engineering shapes the filmmaker I am today, especially problem solving. You can’t be successful at anything by playing it safe and never taking risks. I always say, ‘Filmmaking chose me.’ That may sound cliché or even a bit pretentious but it’s my truth. The incident that sealed the deal for me and made me arrive at the aforementioned conclusion was when I got into UCLA MFA film programme because getting in wasn’t an easy task. I told myself if I got in then this is the path for me.

How did you get accepted into UCLA’s MFA Film programme? What difference has it made in your life so far?

I got into UCLA’s MFA Film programme by applying and also making sure that I stood out from the rest of the admission pool. UCLA TFT has this saying that one can always be taught the tools of a filmmaker, but one needs first to have a voice. Every true filmmaker has their own unique voice, that’s something that can’t be learnt, it’s inbuilt in you and fashioned through your life experiences. Out of over 400 people that applied for the programme the year I did, I guess the admission board heard my voice loud and clear.

You were awarded the ‘HFPA Directing Fellowship’ from the award body of The Golden Globes. What does this honour mean to you? How has it opened doors in your career?

It meant a lot to me that my work/talent is being appreciated by such a well renowned and impactful international organisation that is the HFPA. Has it opened doors for me? Well, I’m having this interview with BusinessDay. I’ll say that’s one door.

What are the major challenges of film making in Nigeria and how can we navigate some of these challenges?

I do not look at the challenges being faced; my focus is on the resourcefulness and creativity at play here. It’s truly inspiring how filmmakers in Nollywood do great work even without the infrastructure available in Hollywood.

Nigerian filmmakers are already navigating these challenges. I’m looking forward to seeing more Nigerian and African work on the global stage and I can’t wait to be an active part of that discussion.

You’ve said you have plans to return to Nigeria for a feature film project. Can you tell us more of what this means? What kind of movie would this be and who would you work with?

I plan to return to Nigeria this summer to shoot a ‘short’ film that’s been in pre-production since the start of the year. The short film is a proof of concept for a feature script I wrote last year. The feature script has gone through multiple rewrites with plans to make in the nearest future. The film is a drama that tells the story of an underrepresented sect of people in Nigeria. I could tell you more, but I’ll need you to sign an NDA first.

Tell us more about your process and what makes an Obinna Robert Onyeri film. You’ve said your specialty is comedy and drama.

Unapologetic story telling is what makes an Obinna Robert Onyeri film.

What advice would you have for young talented Nigerians who intend to start a career in filmmaking?

I’m a young talented Nigerian myself. What I’ll say to my peers is to keep persevering, keep creating, keep collaborating with other cinephiles, and keep honing your craft. That big break is just on the horizon.

Tell us more about your upcoming projects.

Apart from the short film to be shot in the summer, I have three feature scripts that I wrote that are out to producers. I also am looking forward to entering the 2022 film festival circuit with my short film, ‘Exciting times ahead.’

What’s your plan for Hollywood? Do you intend to build your career there or are you planning to come back to Nigeria and join the new Nollywood cinema boom?

I’m international.

What’s your opinion on today’s Nollywood in a global context? Do we have what it takes to make our mark globally?

In any sector ‘Naija no dey carry last’, hence the film industry is no different. There are so many Nigerian filmmakers killing the game both at home and internationally. Nollywood is here to take over the world.

What would success mean to you career-wise? At what point would you be able to say I have made it?

Having an audience member(s) walk up to me after the screening of my feature film in the theatre to tell me how much of a positive impact my film just had on them. That will truly be something special.

What is your assessment of filmmaking in Nigeria and how do you think it can be better?

Young Nollywood filmmakers are doing a phenomenal job in reinventing the Nollywood wheel, breaking from the norm, crafting fresh narratives and style on how we tell our stories. It would do Nollywood a lot of good to foster and not stifle these young filmmakers.

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