Monday, 20 April 2009

Mr. Tinsel goes to Memphis

Odugbemi on set

I WAS in his Gbagada office that afternoon to grab a chat with him before he jets out for the Memphis Film Festival, running April 23 through 26. His two films, Bar Beach Blues and Ibadan – Cradle of Literati, have been scheduled for screening. But as it turns out, my meeting with Femi Odugbemi lasted longer than expected.
Oh, but the experience is worth the time spent.
Odugbemi has little patience for theories. For the former president of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria (ITPAN), action speaks louder than words. The original plan was actually to have a chat with him, but we ended up watching Bar Beach Blues on his laptop; we were also in his studio to see his five-minute film. But for time, we would have also watched Ibadan- The Cradle of Literati.
“I don’t like people writing about my films without seeing them,” he says.
From all indications, Odugbemi is very excited with the invitation to attend the film festival, and having his two works screened to the audience.
“This is the 10th anniversary of Memphis, so, for two of my works to be selected for the event, is a great honour to me. This is an opportunity for me to take the Nigerian film industry to international platform.”
Aside from his films being shown on the last day of the event, Odugbemi will also sit through a question and answer session on his films.
“I’ve been informed that I will be hosting the session and I will be glad to explain in details, the concept of my works to the audience.”

WHILE Bar Beach Blues is a metaphor on the corruption in the society, Ibadan-Cradle of Literati, a-26 minute film, is a documentary on that monumental part of our country’s history that we often don’t pay attention to.
“It occurred to me that almost all the great writers, whose works have put Nigeria on the international map in literature, at one point or the other in the 60s, were from Ibadan. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, JP Clerk… the list goes on and on. So, the documentary is a video biography of the city and how it has encouraged creative minds.”
For him, filmmaking goes beyond commercial viability.
“I do a lot of work that is not meant for mass audience because of their contents, which are dear to me. There are things I’m interested in as a filmmaker because I view filmmaking as my voice. For me, the whole process is not about me, but about my target audience.”
Odugbemi belongs to the rare club of concerned Nigerians, who strongly believes that training and re-training are very vital in the effort to put the country’s films on the global platform.
“What this training awareness that ITPAN initiated some 10 years ago has done is that both the filmmakers and the audience, we have raised the bar. You cannot tell me that the quality of Nollywood films has not grown,” he muses. “The truth of the matter is that ITPAN started the film festival and the Lagos international film forum. Now, there are film festivals all over the place and the people have approached it also with a commercial intent.”
Notwithstanding, Odugbemi sees a positive light in the latest trend.
“The consequence is that filmmakers have also focused more on rising above the pack. AMAA, Abuja films festival…all these festivals now in Nigeria came as a reward for excellence. When we have this reward system for excellence, people will strive to be excellent. At the end of the day, I think what we are looking for is for the filmmakers to be excellent in their storytelling and production.”
Topmost in Odugbemi’s dream is to see a Nigerian production win the Oscars.
“For me, this is the time to identify opportunities in the international film world. A South African film has won an Oscar, an Indian film has also won it; I don’t see why a Nigerian film cannot win it.”
To the filmmaker, the most viable tool for re-branding the country is film.
“We have the stories, the talent, and the people. But we still need the commitment and the training for the quality to rise.”
On the way forward, Odugbemi says, “we need to seriously focus on excellence in filmmaking, having in mind that it is a global language. We have a story to tell; our people are telling it. We need to expand our training, get serious with it, and then find collaborations. What I think is drawing us back right now, is the division within. In different camps, we are using film festivals to reward mediocrity.”
He continues: “We need to start collaborating within ourselves. What stops Amaka Igwe from collaborating with Zeb Ejiro if they find a good script? Both of them don’t have to be directors. Amaka is a fantastic writer while Zeb is a good director. What stops Tunde Kelani from combining with others? That is the lesson we are trying to pass on with Tinsel.”
The success story of Tinsel, according to Odugbemi, could be attributed to the collaborative spirit of the parties involved.
“Jaiye Ojo, Lemi Adegboye and I are known producers. Lemi has a lot of experience as an international person; he brought a lot of that experience in; Jaiye has experience in producing television programmes in Nigeria; he also brought that in and I brought in my experience as a director.”
“One lesson in Tinsel is that everybody is humble enough to agree that we want to create something of international quality. We don’t want to do a Nigerian soap; we want to learn how other people do it. So, we gathered ourselves — 20 people — to South Africa, London… to see what they are doing.”
And you spent time understudying them?
“We spent a month,” he harps. “We took the people that will do it there, then we came back and we all went into LTV 8, formed a very strong bond as a team, and as Nigerians, to proffer solutions that work. Nigerians have an intrinsic desire for quality; almost everyone that saw it confirmed that it’s a superior production to what we had done in the country. Tinsel has established that Nigerians can achieve anything they are determined to do.”

MEANWHILE, the filmmaker has just rounded up his most recent work, Bariga Boys, a documentary film that traces the origin of the Crown Troupe of Africa; a theatre troupe led by Segun Adefila. The film, which was recently screened for two days at the National Theatre, Iganmu Lagos, for so many reasons, is dear to Odugbemi’s heart.
“I’ve followed Segun Adefila and the Crown Troupe for over three years; I first saw them at CORA event. I’ve always gone to CORA events and they are like a constant there,” he notes. “I’ve watched them at NANTAP event, I’ve watched them perform for Steve Rhodes. At some points, I decided to take a look at what drives them. I’ve always thought they were heavily funded.”
But to his greatest surprise, despite the creative ingenuity of the leader and the quality of its production, Crown Troupe of Africa largely survives by the little money they make from their shows.
“I thought they got grants from places until early this year, when I was invited to their rehearsal in Bariga. The context and the environment in which this art emerges from is totally uncomfortable.”
In case you’ve seen the troupe in one of their productions, especially the one with political undertone, then you’ve seen the true-life experience of Adefila as a young boy growing up in Bariga.
“During my visit to their rehearsal ground, I realised instantly that the work of Adefila is actually directly connected to what he sees and lives every day. It is not an academic exercise,” reasons Odugbemi.

IF there is one man Odugbemi has so much respect for in the arts in the country, that must be the late Steve Rhodes; his pictures with the late music impresario were conspicuously placed on the wall. Little wonder Odugbemi did a documentary on the musicologist shortly before he passed on.
“I learnt a lot by watching him closely; I had the privilege in his latter days, to be his son and disciple; and to watch him work.”
To Odugbemi, Uncle Rhodes’ life is a good example of an artiste.
“ He never told me the way to excellence; he showed me. When Uncle Steve gives you an appointment at 9am, he will be there five minutes to the time. When he gives you his word in an agreement with a handshake, he will live by it even if it will kill him. Basically, as a human being, he showed me how integrity is the only value in life. As an artiste, he showed that commitment to excellence and to the highest level of the craft. I don’t know how I could have done the documentary,” he says.
Though a lot of people have reservations about the depth of the documentary, which screened during a special Art Stampede organised by CORA in honour of the late composer, Odugbemi, still puts his head high over the work.
“Some people told me that they were planning to do a documentary on Steve Rhodes; some said the one that I did is not full enough; others said it did not cover Steve Rhodes Voices while some are of the opinion that it is not comprehensive enough. But if that documentary is the only thing I could do to thank him, then I’m gratified that God gave me the chance to do it because, I think it would have been much harder if it wasn’t done and he died.”
“The tragedy of Uncle Steve’s life was that France gave him a distinguished National Award as a creative icon while Nigeria never remembered to honour him; it saddens me each time I remember that,” he says with a sober mood.
“This is a man that put in over 60 years of creative excellence in the arts; he was the mark at which excellence is musically graded. As a TV producer and as an art entrepreneur; he did everything. There’s nothing we are doing today that he had not done,” he declares.
“In that documentary, you can hear him reflect on his life and his country. He loves this country; he loves the art. He was working until the last day of his life. In the latter part of his life, he was growing a new crop of big band musicians, who could read music; who could play Nigerian music to international quality of musicianship.”
Though his role model is gone, Odugbemi is still keeping his relationship with Rhodes family alive. He is closely working with Uncle Steve’s daughter, Gloria, to set up a Foundation in memory of the art impresario.
Aside from preserving the legacy of Steve Rhodes, the Foundation also aims at perpetuating his work in terms of research into Nigerian musical instruments; sustaining the Steve Rhodes Orchestra and to have his type of music available for people to enjoy. “I’m confident that Uncle Steve’s legacy will not die; Steve Rhodes cannot die, just as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti cannot die. All I can say is for everyone, who loved what Uncle Steve stood for, to always look forward to supporting the Foundation.”

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