By Armsfree Ajanaku Onomo
THE gangling figure walked into the joint with the relaxed mien of a man in control of his world. He looked every inch trim. “I am Wale Ojo,” he says with flourish, a beguiling smile pushing more light into his animated face. Ordinarily, this man should need no introduction, but his long sojourn across the world in pursuit of his art has made him somewhat anonymous in his native land. That brings to mind the worn out cliché about prophets having no honour in their own home.
There is a sort of restlessness about him; the undying hunger for a canvass on which, some action could be enacted for the entertainment and the enlightenment of others. If one of the roles of an actor is to reflect the lives of others, by portraying their travails, and triumphs, whether on screen and on stage, Ojo has well made his mark.
Straddling the United Kingdom and the United States, he has had major roles in some well-received movies under his belt.
WALE OJO is back home now, not for Christmas per se, but in a professional sense. He sounds eager to make his own contributions, in a more robust and structured way, to the development of the film industry in Nigeria.
“I am at home now to produce and star in my own feature film, which is titled Streets of Calabar. It is a thriller set in the city of Calabar. It is being produced by Spirit Creations, which is run by Charles Aniagolu. The film is going to be a big feature; it is being supported by Cross Rivers State government, and it is going to be very interesting.” Tourism is at the heart of the matter, so the film is being used to project Nigeria as a tourist destination. “There is going to be a huge launch of the film, both here and abroad, and we just want to make it, not only as a film, but to showcase the country as a destination. We are filming in Calabar, which is one of the most peaceful places in the country. We are going to be using the backdrop of Obudu cattle ranch. We are going to attend the Christmas carnival; we are going to shoot part of the film against the background of the carnival. In the film, Wale Ojo would play the part of a returnee Nigerian who gets into trouble in Calabar, and then manages to wriggle his way out of it. “There is a lot of action in it, and it is set against a wonderful backdrop.
BUT before delving into the fine details of the project, he relives his experiences as a Nigerian actor on stage and on screen in the United States and United Kingdom. Compared to the environment abroad, the actor says, “Nigeria is always more interesting and challenging. As an actor abroad, one can be very pampered, but the thing about Nigeria is that it always brings up fresh challenges, and new adventures, and whenever I do a project in Nigeria, I always leave it very invigorated because the problems that come test you, and your ability to deal with situations. When I do a movie abroad, I am very pampered, but in Nigeria, I really enjoy the hullabaloo, the rush and the chase that goes with it.”
Although the screen is the medium he is more interested in at the moment, especially with regards to his return home, Ojo has done a lot of work on stage. He narrates his experience with a near nostalgic voice: “ I have done virtually all stage, including the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Exchange Theatre, and the Royal Court; I would say I have done probably most of the major national theatres in the United Kingdom. And I have done quite a few in Germany, Denmark, and in Sweden. One of my most challenging works on stage was when we did a tour of Germany in the dead of winter; we had to work with beer barrels because the play was set on the sea; it was very challenging. The play was in a massive theatre that could sit close to four or 5,000 people. That was indeed very challenging”
Similarly, he fondly recalls playing two roles in Wole Soyinka’s Beatification of An Area Boy at the West Yorkshire playhouse in 1995. The play was at the West Yorkshire playhouse, and for me, it was a wonderful experience. But the greatest memory I picked out of the production was when Professor Soyinka called me aside and asked if I could play a second role. And I said: “Oga, anything you say, I will do.” So I played the role of a military man who I made very much to be like (Sani) Abacha, and the other role was as a judge, who was like a vagrant. In one of the newspapers, I think The Times of London, they mentioned that the parody that I made on Abacha was quite strong, almost frightening. Doing The Beatification of An Area Boy was great, and for me, it was one of the times I worked closely with Prof. Soyinka, who has always been my big Oga”.
Ojo’s sterling performance in that play created more opportunities to work with the Nobel laureate on other productions. Thus, he took part in 2001 production of King Baabu in Cape Town. “ We (Ojo and Soyinka) traveled together to South Africa to work on King Baabu, which we did in Cape Town, and it was great because it was a time when apartheid laws had gone down there, and Prof also gave a lecture, and we took the play to Lesotho, and other countries in Southern Africa. And of course, I was there when he did readings of Samarkand, his new book of poetry at the time. I was also in Death and The King’s Horseman to celebrate his 70th birthday at the MUSON Centre in 2004. I have always put Soyinka as my number one inspiration.”
Wale Ojo talks passionately about films and works on screen, and of all he has done, he talks glowingly about one of them. “There is a film I just shot in Durban, South Africa, called The Philanthropist; it was shot for a Hollywood studio; the NBC Universal shot this series, and I liked the way that they formulated it. I played the main guy in that episode. I played the part of the leader of the Niger-Delta militants. The whole story was about a white guy who was a philanthropist; he went around the world, being philanthropic, so when he came into the Niger-Delta, I asked my boys to kidnap him, and they brought him to the camp…In the process, he sympathized with our cause and came to our side. It is a great script, well written, and James Purefoy played The Philanthropist, and I played Chief Bankole, who was the leader of Niger-Delta militants.”
For a film that focuses on Nigeria’s troubled Niger-Delta region, expectations would have been that it be shot in Nigeria. Ojo reveals he actually wanted the film shot anywhere near Yenegoa in Bayelsa State. “But it wasn’t possible, so we had to go and find somewhere that looked like Bayelsa in South Africa. The country (Nigeria) missed out on that, in terms of what could have been gained. The Philanthropist did very well; it aired in America some months ago, to great acclaim; I would probably say it is one of the jobs that I am proud of doing, because it was great working with a lot of Nigerian actors in talking about a subject that is important.”
FOR someone who has made his mark abroad, there are no chips on Wale Ojo’s shoulders when he talks about Nollywood. Rather, he hurriedly waves aside criticisms of the industry, choosing instead to focus on the its potentials and strong points. His words: “Right now, the Nigerian film industry is raking in close to $300million a year or more. That ‘s probably a very rough estimate. If an industry is making that kind of money, it means that something right is being done. As for the question of quality or whatever, I like a lot of the Nigerian films that I watched. I have always wanted to work with a lot of Nollywood actors on Streets of Calabar.”
To raise the bar, he thinks it important for actors in the Diaspora to connect with those in Nigeria. “Nollywood has a lot of talents and advantages that we don’t have, and we have a lot of advantages that Nollywood needs. We could bring both together. That can only contribute to the growth of the Nigerian film industry. If we work together, we can even better develop what we have already.”
He continued: “In any industry anywhere in the world, there is always room for development. There is no single film being shown in London today that you can say is a hundred percent perfect. I have done films abroad, and after seeing the rushes; I said no, there is more work to be done here in terms of plot and character. There is no way I can tell you that we have reached the top level of professionalism in Nollywood, but I won’t sit here either and denigrate what has been achieved already. What has been achieved is great; we just need to achieve more of it. I am going to set up in London what I call a day of vintage Nigeria cinema, we would do a day in London and a day in Lagos, to celebrate our 50 years of independence from Britain. We will put the best quality films by filmmakers like Tunde Kelani, Eddy Ugboma, Ola Balogun, and Hubert Ogunde; those are classics, and hopefully, Streets of Calabar would join them as well.”
On the issue of government efforts to regulate the distribution of films through the Nigeria Film and Video Censors Board, Ojo says government focus should not be on regulation alone. He thinks that funding the industry is equally critical. “Don’t forget that when Nollywood started, there was absolutely nothing, so people were making movies from the scratch. I remember that there were actors who would make films, put it in a van, and drive around to sell. They still probably do it now. If government now sees it as a very profitable business and want to regulate the market, that is fine; it is the same thing they do abroad, but the governments that regulate that market abroad, also fund the industry. There is a national films board; it funds films. Government should give money to develop screen writing, the technicians, actors and other people behind the screen because they nurture the industry. There are lots of budding young talents that we don’t even know in this country, and they need to be developed and encouraged. To do that, we need funding. If the government wants to come in and legislate, please it should also come in and help in boosting the industry.
In spite of what has been pointed out as deficiencies, Wale describes the impact that is being made by Nigerian films abroad as very powerful. “I understand that people say that there is a complete mishmash of films, but I can’t really comment on that because it would be unfair for me to do so, since I am not on the ground. All I can say is that we should have more film festivals, so that we can bring in people to discuss; we should bring in the filmmakers and marketers here to discuss, let them sit down and explain why they shot a film this way, and then we would have workshops; that is how the industry can grow, because we will get to discuss and compare notes. Not by pointing fingers or saying negative things about the industry.”
BEYOND the shooting of Streets of Calabar, is Wale Ojo going to put in place structures to sustain the making of good Nigerian films, or this is just a one off? He reveals that a structure is being built to raise the bar in the industry and ensure sustainability.
“There are a lot of people who have been working on the ground, but they are not really known to the Nigerian public. One of them is Frank Adekunle Macaulay, a fantastic director of photography. He shot a film called Dangerous Men and another called Area Boy, and those films were so wonderfully shot. There is no way I can utilize the kind of talents I want to use in Streets of Calabar; Frank is going to be the first Assistant Director on our project, and the whole point is to ask, where do we go afterwards?
“I don’t think it will be right for us to do it as a one off. At the moment, I am putting plans and investment in place to say we need a commitment to making such films continuously, and that is where the government, other writers and other filmmakers can help. I think it is no longer the time for me to just come to Nigeria, make one film and get off again. After Streets of Calabar, I want to move on to the next project. I want to be able to go to other writers and ask if they have other ideas; I really want to work with other Nollywood actors. I want to be able to facilitate workshops for directors, writers, and actors, through my own company; create a structure get a corporate body that is going to be based here in the country. Streets of Calabar is not a one off; it is the beginning of a series of films we are going to shoot in Nigeria.
Again, Wale does not see the peculiar challenges of the Nigerian environment bogging him down. He draws a lot from his involvement with theatre in Nigeria, since he was a child. “I then went abroad, came back, and I have been going and coming ever since, so I am not new to the challenges of the Nigerian environment; in fact, I welcome those challenges. I think that is what makes me a better and a stronger actor.”
In all of these, what is Wale Ojo’s motivation? He attempts an impression: “I think the motivation is my mother; she was an actress, and she brought me up in Nigeria, and she has always instilled in the importance of remembering where you came from. A German man might live here for long, but he will always remember to perform Bertolt Bretch at the operas. I as a Nigerian will always remember Baba Sala, Soyinka and others; so that fuels my creativity. What I gain from London is not the same as what I gain when I come to Lagos. I get different influences, which are also spiritual as well. There is just something about Nigeria that fuels my own creativity. At the moment, we live in a very global world, and I carry Nigeria with me wherever I go. Nigeria is always number one, anywhere I go in the world.”