by Lekan Olanrewaju
There are two things you need to know about Mildred Okwo. Well, there are several things you need to know about a woman as veritable as her but we’ll go with two for now. 1.) She doesn’t suffer fools gladly – or at all for that matter, and doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind on issues she feels passionate about (which are quite many, just so you know.) 2.) She knows her onions. ‘Onions’ in this case being film and everything related to it, particularly in Nigeria.
The filmmaker behind the recent box office hit The Meeting and the widely praised (but not as well known) 30 Days, speaks to YNaija in this exclusive interview.
You’ve been in the industry for quite some time now, but word has it you started out as an Entertainment Lawyer in the United States before coming back to Nigeria.
The thing with people saying ‘entertainment law’ is, entertainment law is really contract law. Entertainment is a very weird area, the way we do business is not like the way others do business. We still go through common law but there are some things that are peculiar to entertainment contracts. But when I first started practising law in the United States I could not just go into entertainment law immediately, I was doing employment litigation before I started getting into the entertainment side of it but the bulk of my work was with employment litigation – things like discrimination, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, I used to love those kinds of cases.
One day I was sitting in a court and watching the prosecutor talking, and thinking ‘can you even do this in your own country? What do you have in your own country?’ and that’s the story of how I made my way back home.
And when you came back did you ever practice law here or you went straight into film?
Filmmaking straight away. My first degree was in theatre arts. I got my first video camera in the early 1980s.
So you always knew
I always knew but I was more afraid because we weren’t really doing anything. We were not brave enough. I was studying law, trying to be ‘legitimate’ as they say. But ideally I would have been brave enough, gone to America, studied it, you know, but I ended up starting out with law there, and then came back, as you know.
What year did you move back?
I came back finally, in December of 2006, so I’ve been here for quite a while and I refuse to go back because I feel if I go back I won’t come back (laughs)
So when you worked on your first movie, 30 Days, everything was done here?
No I was still living there when I made that film. I shot it in 2005. I co-produced it with Ego Boyo. Then I thought. I was looking at it as though everything is the way it is in America; you know there is a structure and all that. Then I came back and there was nothing. I was asking questions and they were looking at me like I was mad. I thought, “Are you kidding me?” People were not selling the way they were claiming to be selling. There was no structure. People calling themselves producers didn’t know how to make a DVD or what a DVD should be; what they did to produce and sell outright to the marketers. So basically the people handling everything were the marketers. They knew everything from raising the money to getting everything done to making a DVD. So after studying it I could not even release my ’30 Days’. Because you will go to them and they’ll say ‘I’ll give you this amount’ for a film that I had just spent a lot of money doing. So I said I would wait. I felt I was ahead of my time, so I started figuring out what the industry around.
So what inspired the 30 Days movie?
I came back in 2003 after having been away for like 18 years and I was just angry with the country. I turned on the TV one day and they were having a wedding. Maybe it was a governor’s daughter or somebody but it was on TV and practically everybody was there and if you had blown up that building, Nigeria would have been at a standstill. Everybody who was anybody was there. And I was just wondering, are these [people even aware of the security breach that was going on. And they were spending a lot of money, for a wedding. It was a bit of an eye-opener for me because all of a sudden, where you call home has changed so much. So I said I had to write about it.
We haven’t seen the movie, but there are clips online which we’ve seen and something that really stood out to me was, it seemed like there was some martial arts going on
Oh yes. A bunch of girls in the movie were just going around, killing people. And the actors had never had any experience with martial arts. We had to train them and they looked so good doing it. That’s one of the first things I noticed when I came in; the actors are good. But there is so much that goes into making a film; it’s a collaborative effort. If your director is not good, if your producer is not good, if your editor is not good, if your writer is not good, the actor will just look like a fool. That’s why when some people watch my film they will go “oh this guy can act!” and then they go and see the same person somewhere else and they go “err…”
I know Achebe, a while back got into trouble for his book, A Man Of The People, because he predicted a coup. Were you not concerned when you were making the film that some feathers could get ruffled?
I would simply have run now (laughs). I used to tell them on set while shooting that I would just claim American citizen and run and they would need to figure out what to do with themselves (laughs)
But a movie like The Meeting, now, that takes a very clear stance and doesn’t beat about the bush with its portrayal of government and its officials
And you know the thing? That’s the beauty of democracy. That’s what I really know that we have now that we didn’t have then. During out premiere we invited government. We wrote all the letters we needed to write and they actually responded to us, once we were able to give them what it is they wanted to show that it was up to a certain standard. The President sent a delegation the vice president sent a delegation, and they actually watched it, and enjoyed it. I actually have a recording where Mrs Diezani (Petroleum Minister) says that Nollywood is one of Nigeria’s biggest exports.
If you get closer to these people you will realize that a lot of the stuff we fight about, they are fighting it too.
When you were running around inviting these people, did you meet Clara Ikemba’s (Rita Dominic’s character) anywhere?
(laughs) It was my co-producer, Rita. She called me one day and said “Mildred I’ve met myself today oh!’ (laughs).
Watch out for the concluding part of this interview tomorrow, where Mildred tells us about the problem that nearly prevented the release of The Meeting.