I don’t make noise about my creating Nollywood – Okey Ogunjiofor
In 1992 Okey Ogunjiofor laid the foundation for the present day Nigeria movie industry, Nollywood, when he shot Living in Bondage; he opens up to The Nation's Stanley Okoronkwo.
Can we meet you?
My name is Okechukwu Ogunjiofor. I was born in Ameibu Ebenato in Imo State. I attended Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) College, Jos, between 1987 and 1988, where I read Film and Television Production. I came to Lagos in 1989, and after about three years of hawking, I pioneered the movie industry in 1992. I'm married, with four children; three boys and a girl. I'm the owner of Videosonic Electronics and Communicraft. I'm a filmmaker, an actor and a preacher of the gospel.
That's quite a full portfolio; let's talk about your career that built up, up to that point.
For the first time, I want to tell the story what culminated into Living in Bondage for the first time to the press; let me talk about how Living in Bondage came to be. When I first came to Lagos I worked for Power Mike Promotions as a general manager. Power Mike was Chief Michael Okpara, the first world wrestling heavyweight champion that Nigeria produced. I worked for him for about a year before he packed up and went to settle in the Eastern part of the country. While working for him I was given an assignment to cover an event at the National Stadium, handball pitch to be precise. I was billed to cover a cultural group initiation or something. At the event I saw the who is who in this country; after the job my crew and I were handsomely paid. Later on the man that gave me the link to cover the event, started wooing me to join the club, which he later confessed was a cult, in these words 'your life will never remain the same if you agree to join us'.
So when Power Mike resettled in the East and I had no job, that was when I started hawking wares in the streets of Lagos. But I had this feeling, I was torn between joining this club or continue this precarious living. Thank God I was able to resist the temptation. For almost four years he was pestering me to join this club of theirs where they make things happen for you fast. As God would have it, I met Kenneth Nnebue who gave me some money and I shot Living in Bondage which came as a result of my encounter with the 'cultural group'. Regardless of the argument the man (I will not like to mention names) had to take me to the cult and when the film came into market it was a blockbuster movie. So what I will say is that when I graduated from NTA there was no job. I really tried to get employment but none came and I ended up in the street hawking. Because the only alternative to it was to go into crime but my upbringing didn't permit that, even if I was given a lorry load of guns. I came from a very humble background, my parents were teachers; I remember what my father always said that there is dignity of labour. Whatever legitimate work you do, as long as it can put food on your table there is dignity in it. So I said to myself instead of into diabolical things I would rather hawk and save money. That one day I will tell the whole world my story. Peradventure I ran into Duro Dosun who took me to Kenneth Nnebue and I told him about my dream and my vision to make a movie; incidentally he was a marketer. He gave me his support and Living in Bondage was shot. Today you can say that Living in Bondage was the launching pad of Nollywood as a global phenomenon and I thank God for it.
Since Living in Bondage, where you performed excellently well, you have not been seen in any movie in recent time. Why is that so?
After Living in Bondage, I have produced Circle of Doom, where I played a very prominent role, I played Nwokedi. After that I did Nneka the Pretty Serpent; before it, there was another film that involved Dan Oluigbo and co which was the consultant, it is titled Ashes of Hatred. I did well in film. In Nneka The Pretty Serpent I played Tony, the film was well received and it was a big hit too, after which I did Brotherhood of Darkness; again I played a role. But you know most of the times I am the creator of the jobs that I do; I don't play prominent role because I produce, direct and if I did another burden of acting, it will wear you down so much that some jobs will be left undone. So what I do is that when I notice that a character or role is not well played, I take up the role. So what I can say is that I'm a producer not an actor per se but I act well. I have been acting and I play in most of these films and at a time I began to realise that people were judging us with the roles we played in Living in Bondage which was like a climate and when I began going deep and deeper into the things of God I began to choose the roles I play.
These are some of the reasons I'm no longer very active in acting now but when it comes to producing, directing, coordinating people's productions, shooting commercials, documentary, all these things give me pleasure and I feel that even if I don't act, with these things I still feel that I'm playing a very prominent role in the industry that I created. So these are some of the reasons people think that I'm no longer visible, but I am because beyond acting there are so many other things you can do still do to be visible in Nollywood.
Most actors think that faith has nothing to do with whatever role they interpret on screen, that it is just a make believe. Does your opinion vary on this?
No, the difference between an ordinary actor and a preacher who is an actor, there is a whole lot of difference between an actor who is a child of God, but is just an actor. When you compare with an actor who is a Christian and a preacher of the gospel, what you find is an ordinary actor who is not a preacher does not have to stand before audience to talk about God where people will be looking at from your stage acting. If you find yourself as an actor and a preacher, the first thing you get is that people will want to judge you and believe your gospel on whatever you are preaching when you are on a pulpit from the last movie they watched that starred you.
Can you imagine a situation you mount the pulpit in a gathering, where people who watched the film you starred in, where you played a romantic scene! It's a make believe quite alright but how many of them are mature enough to know that what you did in that movie was a make believe? That the pastor this morning is not the same with the actor they watched in the movie. It's bound to shake some people's faith. So why would you as a preacher not know that some people might change their faith because of that? Instead of that to happen, it's better you stop in order to win more souls into His vineyard. The bible says if your actions will make a lesser brethren fall out of faith then you should think twice.
So in that context I chose to let go acting for now until that time when I will find a role that will befit what I stand for and what I preach. To sum up, acting whatever role does not have anything to do with your faith; it's make believe. Some people out there who are not mature enough might not know where to draw the line and for those people I chose to quit acting for now until they are mature enough to know it is make believe that what they see on screen ends there.
Let's go back to Living in Bondage. When you set out to do that film did you ever envisage that it was going to develop into this ambitious industry called Nollywood?
To be honest and candid, I didn't envisage that but I knew I had a ready market in the East, I knew the Easterners will embrace whatever I did, because I was going to tell the story in my local language for my people. What I didn't know was that the whole world will embrace it the way they did. I didn't even know then as a young boy I was creating an alternative to film making; all I knew was that since I could not tell my story with celluloid because I couldn't afford it, let me tell it somehow even if it was with the 'crudest' equipment available. And the only one I could find was a VHF machine, which was way far, far away from resolution lines you get from the 35mm or Super 16. So I did that film not knowing that it will turn into a global industry like what we now have.
Don't you feel guilty when people criticise Nigerian films for lack of good equipment or not measuring up to celluloid, and the technicalities?
I thank you very much for this question. I will never feel guilty for whatever campaign that disparages this industry. In fact, some of ourbrothers here, some who call themselves cinema or film makers who shot on 35mm (millimetres) are against us; even globally the same thing is happening. But there is a reason why they have to fight because as long as this alternative I created is working globally, for as long as it works, celluloid is going to be out of picture, it is a matter of time, because the bible says 'God establishes the new when He has set aside the old, the old will be set aside in order to establish the new'. Celluloid was the only format obtainable globally before and it made it so much impossible for the youths and the future generation to make movies because of lack of capital and technical know-how. And I came out from school, I studied that film format but because I couldn't afford the fund to make that kind of film, I chose to make it with an alternative that was within reach.
In fact, if it were to be in recent time I would have made that same film (Living in Bondage) with a mobile phone. You understand because I can afford it. Then it was only super VHF that I could get. The film was well received locally for anybody to bring a digital camera and begin to compare it with resolution lines of 35mm; that person is out for mischief because two of them are not the same thing. However, all over the world people have stopped making films on celluloid, they are now making low budget films with digital camera, because it is cheaper, it's more convenient, less cumbersome and does not have all the inconvenience that comes with handling it.
So I am not ashamed to come up with a new format for making films.