PODCAST: Why Steve Gukas is very afraid for the future of Nollywood, and why you should probably be scared too

As our conversation begins, Gukas reveals that he directed the movie, Keeping Faith in 2002, and suddenly everything made absolute sense to me.

If you truly know Nollywood, then you know that Keeping Faith was a movie far ahead of its time. At a time when the industry seemed set to collapse into clichés, this popular and critical success assembled the best of the industry then (and, sadly, now still – because great actors are rare to find in a New Nollywood generation) – Bimbo Akintola, Funlola Aofiyebi, Ego Boyo, Joke Silva, Richard Mofe-Damijo – and delivered a stemwinder of a film, that the industry still benchmarks again till this day.

So, finding out that the director of the cinematic perfection (that I gushed about in an extensive review here) that is 93 Days was also the director of that film made it all come together.

“Film started for me when I started watching the Silent Movies, Laurel and Hardy, then graduating to all the Westerns; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, then graduating from there to Birth of a Nation, the Spielberg early movies, and all of that,” Gukas – who also owns a radio station in Abuja – tells me, and I am not at all surprised. “So really it’s been way back.

“My love for movies has been a fascination with how it’s made, not being in it, so from the get-go I was very clear that – these people that make this thing… how do they do it?”

I am interested in why he went into film – because, perhaps we can extract that gene, and widely distribute in an industry today high on hype, premieres and brand new cameras, but slight on stories that don’t disappoint heavily.

“I wanted to be able to do films that are not excused as you so rightly said, but judged on their merit – along with any other film,” he said. “I’d like for you to see my film and not say it’s a Nigerian film, but to be able to see it and place it in the same pedestal of judgement as you would any other film.”

As fascinated as he was by film, his career kicked off somewhere else. “I was doing a lot of commercials, I had an advertising agency based in the North that was making a lot of money working for corporates. Then, in conversations with my friends including (filmmaker) Femi Odugbemi, they said to me “you know you’re going to be able to wake up one day and find out you’ve done advertising and you’ve done quite well with advertising but have never done what you really wanted to do most.

“So I sold off my advertising agency, which was then the biggest in the North, and went on to film school in the United Kingdom.”

His first film project was Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation in 2007, as producer. Then he introduced himself officially to the new Nigerian viewing public with A place in the stars, as producer and director.

To cut to the chase, the big-budget Dora Akunyili biopic didn’t do well – critically at least (commercial numbers are unavailable). Or actually, the story is a bit more nuanced: critics loved the idea of the film, respected the director of the film, but someone came up supremely disappointed in potential unrealized.

“The story with A Place in the Stars is that – a lot of what should be in didn’t get in,” he explains, narrating a series of unfortunate events that led to 60 per cent of the film (shot from 2005 – 2007) completely disappearing and having to be re-shot. “I had to then go and find money then come back to shoot the second 40 per cent – even the second 40 per cent was shot twice.”

Well, no matter, by the time he returned to 93 Days, he has finally dispelled everyone’s doubt – delivering a project that has been uniformly praised by every critic I have seen. In the one place where people have expressed criticism, it is usually because they didn’t get enough of Adadevoh’s story.

And much of that power derives from its acting – a constellation of Nigeria’s brightest stars from everywhere. Pure magic, I tell you (you have already been warned, on this film, I gush).

“One person had a sure bet space in 93 Days, and that’s Bimbo Akintola,” Gukas says of the actress he worked with in Keeping Faith. “Because even when I was discussing the story idea I couldn’t see any other person. For my money, Bimbo Akintola is far and above… many metres, the best actress in Nigeria. Without a doubt!”

I also ask about Gideon Okeke, widely panned in ‘Stars’ but uniformly praised in a breakout character here. “I like Gideon’s work ethics, when he commits to a character he does everything he can for that character and that is not common with most actors. Most actors are quite flippant about the character that they represent. Gideon understands that you have two contracts: a contract with the producers of the film, and a contract with the character you play.”

Then there was the film’s true revelation – Somkele Idhalama, who carried this film with heft and elegance, shooting fast from an actor whose roles have always been slight to a roaring powerhouse whose future in film is surely now secured.

“Somkele was a risk,” he smiles. “But what I like about Somkele was an eagerness to learn and a willingness… I sensed malleability. And for me that was important for the Ada character.”

93 Days just hit Nigerian cinemas last week – having blown away audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival and now selected (a big deal, to be sure) for the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival.

Yet, Gukas (who calls himself an ‘incurable romantic for Nigeria’) is tired. And not just by the sheer amount of emotional and financial (according to him, he committed some part of his money at the of the project to re-shoot certain parts) energy it takes to create a spectacle like this one, but because he isn’t sure about how much of a popular success it will be.

“I have gotten to a place where I have nothing to prove,” he says, and there is no hint of arrogance in his voice, just statement of fact. “If this thing is not making money for me then I have to re-evaluate my participation in the industry. Ultimately, this project has everything aligned in it that actually makes people want to see it – if they don’t see this one what’s the guarantee that they’re going to see any one?

That’s scary, I say. And he understands – so he explains it for me.

“I am scared for the future of Nigerian film industry. Unless the industry grows to the point where the film maker can get returns for his work and justifies his continued existence – what’s going to happen is that we’re going to have stories of doused brilliance where people will come in, do something really fantastic and you think ‘here’s a new original voice that you want to see grow’ and they move on.

“I believe 93 Days, properly marketed, has the potential of making N1 billion in this market… but even the marketing budget that was put forward does not reflect that ambition. Which for me is a statement of the distributor’s faith in what is possible.”

This is frightening. Let me explain.

Filmmakers like Gukas are rare. Who understand the beauty of the Nigerian story, and who understand how to tell these stories exactly as it should be told. There are many more storytellers like him who are looking to see if Nigerians are truly interested, beyond slapsticks and celebrity showcases, in stories that have depth, that have soul, and that can compete, without needing special concessions, with the rest of the world.

A future where the only films available are poorly made accidents of low budgets is a dystopian future that an increasingly educated and demanding audience can scare afford.

And so I said to Gukas on Conversations with Chude this week: “I beg you to find a way not to give up on this industry.”

And to the reader: “I’m begging people who are listening to this podcast, you have to go and watch 93 Days. You have to, and you have to tell friends to watch it so that we might have a multiplicity of stories in this market, and a multiplicity of voices and we can tell more stories that enrich the Nigerian spirit, and its character and allow us have hope – eternal, if you may – in ourselves, and in our capacity to change our own narrative”.

So help us God.

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