By Fehintola Adewale
07 October 2022 |
Rose Okeke is a writer, actor and a filmmaker. She is a creator who spent much of her childhood in the United States. She recently won the 2022 James Currey Prize for African Literature, a literary prize in cooperation with the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. In this interview with Fehintola Adewale,…
Rose Okeke is a writer, actor and a filmmaker. She is a creator who spent much of her childhood in the United States. She recently won the 2022 James Currey Prize for African Literature, a literary prize in cooperation with the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. In this interview with Fehintola Adewale, she gave instate into her life as an artist and the award, among several other issues.
Tell us about yourself as an artist
Rose Okeke is a writer, an actor and a filmmaker. I do so much more but I like to name those three because they are all-encompassing. Basically, I am a creator and a talented one at that. I spent most of my childhood in the United States where I grew up. During this time, I was an active child. I was in drama clubs and took part in my school’s theater productions. Yes, I was a theater kid. It is weird because I had crippling anxiety and stage fright. But I loved the stage. So, I stayed there and dealt with it. I took singing lessons and choir for many years. I even played the flute at some point and hated it. I danced too, a bit. I knew at my young age what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be an actress. Then, I returned to Nigeria at the age of 13, where I completed secondary school and university. I was pushed by my parents to be more science-inclined because of my advanced academic prowess stemming from early childhood. I didn’t hate it but it definitely dulled my drive for academics. I wanted to study theater arts and become a proper thespian. I am definitely making up for it now, though.
About the James Currey prize
I recently became the recipient of the 2022 James Currey Prize for African Literature, a literary prize in cooperation with the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. It is currently a fantastic moment in my life because writing is something I have been doing since I was a child. So, to be recognized by an international body and a prestigious one at that, sent me over the moon. It felt great to have my writing validated. A group of distinguished judges deliberated and chose my work for the win. That alone is an amazing feeling. In addition to the prize money, the award also came with a Fellowship at the African Studies Center at the University of Oxford. So, I am very excited to be an Oxford Fellow. I can tell you with confidence that it is the first of many wins for me.
You have experience in journalism, what made you go into movie production?
Yes, professionally, I started out in journalism. Actually, if we are being totally honest, I started out in Applied Biochemistry, which is what I studied in school and have a degree in. And though I love the sciences, I have always leaned more towards the arts. Immediately I finished school, I started out with a career in writing and journalism seemed the best way to go in that regard. However, it dawned on me that creative writing was more my thing and I began working on some ideas. I have been writing novels since I was a child. So, I already had this inclination. I also wanted to be an actress since childhood. Moving to Abuja instead of Lagos made this desire a little tricky to see through. Lagos is the entertainment hub, everybody knows that. But my life was in Abuja. So, I had to make it work somehow. I started going for auditions. I didn’t land any of them, most of the time because of my foreign accent. So, one day, I said to myself, “instead of attending auditions and not getting cast, why don’t I just write and produce my own film and then, cast myself? At that time, it hit me like an obvious idea. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? So, in two weeks, I had the script written and ready. I gathered a few friends of mine, we pitched in talents and in two months, my first short film, Things Come Together, was born. It was pretty amateur but at that moment, I was like, “Wait a minute. I am really good at this. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” And that cemented it for me. There is no going back now. The truth is that writing and filmmaking have always been my primary mission in life. I believe that. As children, we knew what we wanted to do in life. Society is what beats it out of us. When we grow older, we tend to circle right back to what makes us happiest and that is what I am doing right now. I am glad it hit me now and not thirty years from now.
As an upcoming movie director/producer, what has been your biggest challenge, how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges is funding. I think every up and coming filmmaker will tell you the same thing. It is a real struggle out here. I have so many great ideas, great scripts but when I look at the production budget, I just shake my head. Where is that kind of money supposed to come out from? This is where creativity comes in. How can you shoot a short film on a budget? It is very possible. I shot Things Come Together on a very limited budget. I shot Magicland with next to nothing, just transport fare and some change for food. So, as an up and coming filmmaker, I understand that it iis really time to get creative. There are lots of ideas that can be scaled down to an affordable budget and produced. Not everything has to be a big production. The time for that will come later. For now, it is all about showing what I can do and the versatility in the stories I tell.
The next challenge is still tied to this one – finding investors and producers, finding people who are willing to buy into your project. I feel like part of the reason this is so difficult is because the industry is so gate kept. It is a dog eat dog world. You can’t just say “okay, let me go and pitch this script to Netflix” because who is Netflix exactly? How do you find them? They don’t open their doors or reveal themselves to just anyone. They have a handful of people they work with and that is it. If you want to see them, you have to go through these people. Most routes are similar. Distribution agencies, production companies, all of them. I know how many emails I have sent, how many messages and inquiries and calls that don’t get returned. It is hard enough getting your shoe in the door as a young filmmaker. Realizing that you may not even find the door is another ball game entirely. But that doesn’t stop me. I believe that as long as I keep creating quality films that people enjoy watching, then I am on the right track. The universe must align for me as long as I am consistent and ruthless. You have got to be ruthless in this industry. It is not for the fainthearted, I can tell you that.
I have also learnt that it is more beneficial for young creatives to network across from one another instead of always looking to network above. Everyone wants to be friends with big directors and producers, people with solid footing in the industry but that is not always the way to grow because these people are usually occupied with their own projects and frankly, you can’t afford them. It is better to connect with your peers, those who are fresh just like you, who are new and hungry just like you are. These are the people you will grow with in the industry as time goes on. They are the ones you can work with right now and collaborate with. You can exchange talents and ideas with them because they are on your level. I realized this and I get better with each film I make because of the quality of people I collaborate with.
Have you produced any film yet? If yes, what have you learnt from that and how do you intend to improve?
Yes, I currently have two films under my belt and more on the way. I mentioned my first short film already. Things Come Together premiered at the Women’s International Film Festival Nigeria (WIFFEN) 2022. I was overjoyed. So, people watched it and liked it? I was excited that whole month. It gave me the external validation that I needed at the time; like a confidence boost. That was back in February.
Then, I heard about the TikTok Short Film Competition in April, just a couple weeks before the deadline. A maximum of three minutes for a short film to be posted on TikTok and entered into a global competition. So, I wrote a script and gathered a couple of friends again and we created Magicland film. I was thrilled. It is a very touching story. It was nominated for the fan favorite category. Right now, the film has over 36 thousand views on TikTok and hundreds of comments. People really loved it. It was different. It was new and refreshing. An unusual concept. It made me realize that people are actually hungry for new tropes, new stories. Magicland is currently selected to be screened on October 16 at the Silicon Valley African Film Festival in California. My latest short film titled Venj is coming out next year. The trailer is already out and I am excited about it because it will be my first film under the thriller genre. Venj has already started being selected for film festivals. I cannot wait for people to see what we have created.
What I learnt and am still learning about filmmaking and creating art is that above everything else, I have to stay true to myself and my vision. Authenticity isn’t something you can buy even if you have a million-dollar budget. As a filmmaker, the greatest compliment I can receive is knowing that my art touched my viewers and make them see the world a little bit differently. If I could create something out of nothing, something that people can watch and feel inspired, then, I have truly succeeded.
What are your long term goals and how do you plan to achieve them?
My long term goals include forming my own production company and producing some feature films. I have already written a feature film. So, all I need now is funding. The production budgets for feature films are larger than short films. So, I will have to snag some film investors to bring them to life. I also would like to produce something animated. I love animated movies and creating one would be a dream come true for me. I would consider it a serious milestone in my filmmaking career. I have been applying for some grants to be able to pull off some of these goals. Hopefully, you will see them come to fruition soon. I have also been making inquiries from distribution agencies and production companies. It is challenging because I know this is a competitive business and it is all business at the end of the day. So, persistence is key.
Have you ever had to handle a difficult conflict in your career? What did you learn from it?
Honestly, I cannot say there has been any difficult conflict in my filmmaking career so far. I am positive there are many conflicts waiting ahead for me. I do have many challenges, such as those I mentioned earlier but the only conflict I can say I have faced is the expectation to create “money movies” instead of authentic ones. I could write a script and pitch it to distributors, which is not an issue. But what happens to that idea after it has left my drawing board? Do I get a say in the creative direction of that film? The execution? No. It gets reworked and churned out to look exactly like the hundreds of other movies being released and forgotten after two weeks. I want us to understand that we can make quality films and money at the same time. Quality does not have to be diminished in order for money to be made.
What is your view about Nollywood? Will you say they are doing well compared to their counterparts in other countries?
I wouldn’t want to compare Nollywood to other countries yet because we all grow at our own pace and Nollywood isn’t doing badly. Nollywood is unique in many ways. I feel like filmmakers and writers are branching out more in terms of storylines and genres which is a relief. What I can say from my own experience in interacting with other filmmakers and distribution agencies is that I find it disappointing what they consider a marketable movie. The recycling of the same actors gets old and boring. The recycling of tropes and storylines gets boring and one-dimensional. When it comes to media, we filmmakers have the power to change and improve narratives, to shape the mindsets of our viewers and help them consider new things. I don’t think we are utilizing that power enough. I think there needs to be a shift from trying to infuse every film made with some sort of faux moral lesson, and actually make more unique movies that will touch people and make them think differently. Some people read my scripts and say, “Well, Rose, this has never been done before in Nigeria.” And I respond, “Yes, and so what? I will be the first one to do it.” We are too comfortable in normalcy that we are afraid to step outside of the box and that is what kills creativity. There is still a lot of work to do when it comes to inclusivity in Nollywood. I have had the privilege of meeting and working with so many incredibly talented creative people who have so much to offer; yet, there are so little opportunities for us in the industry. I feel that it is time to give young, independent filmmakers a chance, not only to create their art but also, to have a say in the process. I think Nigerian film industry will be better for it.
On the next step, getting my book published for the world to read is at the top of the list. That is the next step for my writing career. I will also like to see my book and its sequels made into films, but let us take it one step at a time. For my film and acting career, I have a bunch of scripts I have been working on that I would love to get seen and produced. Like I said earlier, it isn’t easy finding people willing to work with you on your idea but I have complete faith in the quality and importance of my work. I am excited about my upcoming film, Venj, set to premiere next year. Some people asked me how I managed to juggle being a writer and being in showbiz. Honestly, I don’t need to distinguish. They both work hand in hand and I don’t want to box myself up when I have many passions. I can’t wait to see what is waiting for me in the next chapter of my own story.