Weekend Magazine: You were recently invited to become a voting member for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Was this something you imagined would happen one day and how did you receive the news?
Femi Odugbemi: How did I receive it? Well, with much surprise. I was sitting in my office when I got the email and that was it. But it wasn’t anything I have ever sat around wishing for. I have always considered it enough of a blessing just to be able to do the kinds of films and productions that I have done over the last half a century of my career. Of course there is a lot of personal satisfaction in being so recognized internationally but in the end it is honour for Nigeria’s film industry and a calling to excellence for everyone in Nollywood. The world is waiting for us to create magic and to make that film that will seize the imagination of the world. I believe we are capable and it is a challenge we must unite to meet.
WM: Which has been your most difficult movie yet to create?
Odugbemi: Maybe ‘Maroko.’ We made this feature film almost a decade ago about the plight of old Maroko residents who were displaced during the military regime of Colonel Raji Rasaki in Lagos in the 90s. It was difficult because we didn’t have a huge budget to make the film properly. Yinka Ogun wrote and produced and I directed. It was a very low budget but it was a story about people, whose lives had been totally upended by an autocratic government, using maximum force that they could not fight. It was really heart rending for me to see their lives totally destroyed, the insensitivity of people in power to people who have no power. All of that really affected me in making the film and I thought it was really important whether there was money or not to make the film at whatever quality. Sadly for me, the problem is still unsolved. Everybody who was taken out of Maroko is still not rehabilitated. The trauma of that sort of story makes it very difficult for me whenever I remember. There is such imbalance in access to the resources of the country. It makes filmmaking a calling to be able to put these stories out there and hopefully challenge the better angels of our government and political leaders to do something.
WM: You have insisted that you are not a spokesperson for Nollywood but in many ways you seem to be an intellectual for the industry. What do you say about this?
Odugbemi: (Laughs) I’m not sure about being an “intellectual.” But seriously, I honestly think that my responsibility as an artiste, as a creative entrepreneur is to articulate to the best of my ability the potential and possibilities of our industry regardless of the name we call it. My career in the film industry in Nigeria predates Nollywood. So I watched the industry emerge practically from nothing to the multi-billion Naira industry it is today. It is an unusual artistic movement that deserves appreciation and applause because it grew organically and hasn’t stopped growing. It needs to be articulated in the proper way or else we lose its meaning and its power. That is why I study it like everybody else across the world and I articulate what I think are its trends, its emerging new generation, its economy and its power to change Nigeria and Africa’s socio-economic story for the better. So yes, I believe in Nollywood but nobody has appointed me a “spokesman” for it and neither am I interested in such a job. I do believe that we need to find a better way to brand and articulate what Nollywood represents because it has power to do important things for our country and very important things for Africa’s film industry.
WM: What’s the feeling when you see people like Vanessa Nzegwu who have gone through you, going on to attain the heights that they have?
Odugbemi: Oh it makes me so proud!! And so happy. In the end though it’s more a tribute to fantastic young people like Vanessa Nzegwu than to me when they succeed and find their own creative voices. It means they have put in the hard work and passion it takes to reach their dreams. Nothing is more fulfilling than to see them find their feet in the industry and begin to create powerful work. Of course every professional industry relies on its veterans to mentor the young and provide opportunity for them to flourish. We all owe it to our industry to pay it back or shall we say pay it forward. The more successful we all are, the more we owe a hand up to a younger professional. For Vanessa’s film, it was beautiful for me to be there to see the premiere and how deft the storytelling was. So that was a very exciting moment.
WM: You seem to be getting all the Africa Magic projects. Could you tell us how these came about?
Odugbemi: Don’t I wish that were true. But it is absolutely not true. Africa Magic original production has many channels featuring English and local language productions that are either commissioned or licensed. How is it possible to run even one channel with productions from just one person? There are several producers working on commissioned content and hundreds whose works have been licensed by Africa Magic. Besides, while I was one of the founding producers of TINSEL over ten years ago, I did not make any productions with Africa Magic until 2017 when we began making ‘Battleground.’ That’s 10 years later. So many other people were working for Africa Magic in that period. My collaborations with Africa Magic and MultiChoice have always been to create platforms that provide young professionals opportunity. The MultiChoice Talent Factory our current collaboration is not about me. It’s about developing capacity in the industry and giving something back to the young people of our industry.
WM: Were you hesitant to have the return of ‘Battle Ground’ especially because it was a series that was concluded?
Odugbemi: As a daily telenovela series, ‘Battleground’ had gone full circle with 260 episodes over the course of 9months and we had actually told a riveting story with a climatic finale. On our final episode, both our protagonist and antagonist had fallen. The protagonist was shot and the antagonist arrested, so it was a nice simple way to end the saga. So I would have been more than happy to let the tale of the Bhadmus family rest there. So yes there was reluctance of my part about dragging out a story that had run its course. But then the idea came to see if we could collide the world of ‘Battleground’ and another hit TV series ‘Hush’ to make a new series. And that for me represented an interesting challenge. So if you ask me, I will say to you that the combination of those worlds which is currently showing as ‘Battleground Final Showdown’ is a new show in its own right even though it’s featuring familiar characters from our two series shows. It’s been an opportunity to continue to thrill our audience with great entertainment that is Nigerian but of international standards. I’m very excited because we’re doing something to build our TV industry, we’re creating home grown shows that are gripping and interesting enough to reward our viewers for all their support.