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We are determined to emerge as the eventual winner with The MilkMaid at the Oscars – Ovbiagele

Desmond Ovbiagele, an investment banker-turned filmmaker, is the producer of The Milkmaid, which has been shortlisted at the Oscars. In this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, Editor, Ovbiagele spoke on the inspiration for the film, the choice of language, the effort put into the production, and the determination of everyone associated with the movie, to clinch the coveted award. He also spoke on his other exploits in the film making industry. Excerpts:

What differentiates The Milkmaid from other films that had been shot on the insurgency in the northern Nigeria?

I am not aware that there are many films shot about the insurgency crisis in Nigeria. Certainly, I am not sure that they are as many near the films that have been shot about the holocaust to cover it in such great details and so many times. When the Milkmaids was being contemplated, the idea right from the beginning was that we wanted to take a look; do a forensic examination of the mindset and motivations of the perpetrators, to understand how they came about the decision to do what they do. In addition to that we wanted to take a look at the experiences and the trauma experienced by their victims. So, that was our approach; we could have done it as an action film just to titillate people; and have also some special effects and action. But that really wasn’t the focus of the film. We felt that would distract from the story we wanted to tell. We wanted something a bit more measured and something more contemplating. Something that would give cause for thought. So, that informed a kind of story that we set out to make with the Milkmaid.

Why the choice of Milk maids instead of school girls that have been the major victims of the Islamist sect nefarious activities?

The abduction of the Chibok School Girls caught a lot of world-wide attention, but, we of course, realised that the profile of victims of the insurgency transcends just school girls. Every demographic of society in that theatre of conflict, particularly the rural area, is affected; a lot of them, perhaps, the overwhelming proportion of them being hardworking men and women just going about their normal lives, many of whom are not educated; they are involved in some form of subsistence living or the other and they get caught up in the crisis to a devastating result. We wanted to go in a direction, which has perhaps, not been covered quite as intensively in the media. We just wanted to talk about people who, even though they were not educated, certainly have the right to live; to go about their daily lives without fear of attack and without fear of oppression; irrespective of their age; gender, or whatever it is. So, that was our approach; and then I was inspired in terms of writing the story by the iconic maids depicted at the back of the ten naira note; and I got the thinking that they represented an aspect of the society, who were not particularly educated but certainly were involved in an occupation of dignity; an occupation that is great value to society, and what could happen if these two girls at the back of the ten naira had been caught up in crisis in one way or the other; what would their lives had been? It was a creative imagination of what could happen to these particular girls if they were caught up in that situation; because those girls living in the Northern Nigeria could very well have been victims of attacks. So, we wanted to give a look at those victims in the theatre of conflict. That informed the portrayal of Milkmaid, essentially representing that category of society, not particularly educated, but jut going about their daily lives; and their lives being disrupted by the crisis.

Couldn’t the film have been shot in any other language than Hausa since you were targeting a global audience?

When putting the Milkmaid together, we made a decision from the outset that the language of the film has to be non-English, predominantly Hausa and perhaps, one or two other languages that would be realistic to the mode of communication of the characters in the story. The story itself is not set in any particular country in rural sub-Saharan Africa; typical in the North where language is like Hausa and Fulfulde are widely spoken. We thought it was a bit strange to have characters in such a setting speaking Queens English. We wanted as authenticity as possible. And that informed the choice; the decision that Milkmaid will be Hausa-speaking film in terms of sound-track and dialogue. The other reason is that Hausa Language is just a beautiful language that I was really motivated for that to represent the dialogue in the film. I felt it would add more poignancy and legitimacy to the story we are trying to tell. And we also wanted to, as much as possible, showcase the African Culture; we spent a lot of time watching films about other cultures and felt that in a project of this nature it will be a good opportunity to also project to the world an element, and aspect of African culture that have perhaps, not been widely viewed. That’s also informed our decision to shoot in Hausa Language.

What particular qualities do you think made it scale through the Oscars selection?

From the outset we were really quite determined to do justice to the weight and importance and gravity of the story that we wanted to tell; we wanted to make sure that it was realised the best quality possible just because the story deserved it and the real life characters that the story represented also deserved their story to be told in the most impactful way possible so; that led us to seek the most experienced and talented hands in the Nigerian film industry, in every department of film making; be it cinematography, the production design, costume design, make up, sound – we really wanted to get the best hands as many as we could to do as much justice to the story as possible.

Once we did that, to allow the end product to speak for itself. We know there are lots of other film makers out there doing great and wonderful works, but we wanted to make sure that the story we were telling, we were faithful to a full realisation of its power as possible.

We are grateful that the Oscars selection committee somehow saw the effort that we had endeavoured to put into the story and acknowledged it with the selection as Nigeria’s entry to the Oscars. So, we really appreciate that.

Do you see your movie emerging as the overall winner at the Oscars?

I think it would be a little bit arrogant and disrespectful of me to say that I see our film just like that to be the overall winner of the International Feature Film category at the Oscars. Clearly of course, we would like it to be; that would be very brilliant and wonderful; but we are also aware that the competition for any category at the Oscars is extremely intensive. You are competing with the best films around the entire would and just to be nominated to represent your country is a great honour itself. Beyond that, there is still a journey between that and winning the Oscars itself. You have to make the shortlist, a preliminary shortlist of 10 and that whittled down to shortlist of five; and at every step of the way, the competition gets tighter and tighter, and more intense. But despite the process, we are determined to go through to emerge as the eventual winner. What we would like to do is to present our film; and its reason for being; to as much wider audience as possible, and particularly to the relevant stakeholders in the process, and leave it to the decision as to who emerges the winner. But we also know that all the films will actually be doing the same thing; so, no guarantee of anything really about emerging as a winner. All you can do is to be as faithful and as true to the prospect of your film as you can.

Your film is also believed to do well at AMAA 2020; how optimistic are you about winning in the categories you have been nominated?

From the beginning, it was our intention to shoot the Milkmaid in such a way as to make it as competitive as any award situation that we are fortunate enough to find ourselves. So, we are therefore, very gratified, very excited to receive the news of eight nominations from the AMAA, being one of the most prestigious award platforms in Africa, showcasing the best that the continent has to offer in terms of film making. So, we were very quite excited to have those nominations. We think we will cherish the awards. We will certainly like to see the efforts of our cast and crew being rewarded; but we are also aware that other films are vying for the same honour. These are very accomplished films as well. So, we just have to allow the decision makers in that respect to make their decision as to which film deserves the honour. As I said, we did what was within our power to at least, give ourselves a fighting chance, and we are grateful at least to still be in a situation that this film is being considered. We look to see what happens come December 20th.

As the director, how has it been with the many nominations and why the nominations?

From the beginning, our overarching vision for the Milkmaid was that we wanted it to be of international quality; we didn’t just want to make a film just to stick inside the theatre, collect some money and move on to the next project.

That could have been nice, but we wanted it to be of international quality, and that meant a lot of money; a lot investment in terms of time; and in terms of energy. That was very clear from the beginning; and we endeavoured to commit ourselves entirely to that vision of international quality for the film.

So, it has been a long rough journey from where we are coming up to this point. There have been ups and down; so many challenges to get to where we are. I guess, perhaps, in terms of the nominations that seem to be happening at this time; the film time has come for it to be presented to the wider audience; and for the wider audience to have a say in terms what the film is; and what it represents. If that has translated to nominations, we don’t have any issue with that; we are grateful for the nominations and we pray continuously. I worked with talented and committed cast and crew who were very, very inspired, and because of the nature of the story we were trying to tell, we put in our absolute best efforts, going over and beyond their requirements and responsibilities. We spent three long hard months shooting the film in North East Nigeria; not all of which was entirely without risks. So, any nomination we could get now to acknowledge the efforts of the cast and crew is highly appreciated.

Is the industry going to see more from your creative ingenuity, and when again?

I would certainly, by the grace of God, continue to put out new projects out there in film making. I would like to continue to hone my craft, learn and improve in terms of what I do. There are several more stories I would like to put out there for the world to digest and hopefully enjoy.

There are number of projects that we actually have on the front burner right now which I would like to get into production in the very near future. That is actually setting a strong focus for me right now which is moving, or leveraging on the film we have just made to continue to make films; continue to contribute to the development of Nigerian film industry which is very enterprising; and has so much potential with the quality and wealth of resources that we have. I will like to see the country achieve its greatest potential through my project and those of my colleagues in the film industry.

How has the Coronavirus pandemic impacted your business?

It goes without saying that the Coronavirus pandemic has been extremely disruptive to all businesses around the world, film making included. So, certainly in terms of what I do; in terms of trying to realise some of the projects that I have in my mind, that tempo, up till now, has considerably been slowed down, because despite all the precautions and measures required to be taken in order to give projects a green light. I am hopeful that notwithstanding those challenges and restrictions; we will still find a way to do what we do, because we believe in the importance of film making. It is gratifying to see that in some places the world is opening up and attempting to regain a semblance of normality. We are going to take a full advantage of that to keep things going. But it has been tough here; it has impacted in a number of fronts. Particularly, in terms of work flow, but it has been a silver lining to the cloud. For me personally, it has enabled me to double down on some those ideas, the normal rhythm of life had not allowed one to really focus on. But the series of lockdown and all that have actually helped me to articulate some of the ideas I had been nursing for sometime; and those are some of the ideas I am hoping to push out very, very soon.

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