By Lanre Ajeboriogbon
Chike Ibekwe is a writer and filmmaker. His first feature film, Eternal won Best Film award (Ecrans Dór) at the 14th Ecran Noir Film Festival.
In this interview, he talks about the future of Nollywood as well as his new movie, Chartroom, released recently to wide acclaim on afrocinema.tv. Here are excerpts:
You seem to enjoy being at the background, always behind the scene. Is it deliberate?
I’d say maybe it’s the nature of the job, though I am a quiet person and I enjoy my private space a lot – it allows me ample time for imagination and re-imagination. And that does not mean I don’t go out, I do, but you won’t necessarily see me at every event. I’m that kind of person that prefers to watch a football match on TV rather than be in the stadium. Some people like it the other way but for me, staying indoors and watching allows me to see the actions from different angles, including slow motions that are fed into the broadcast, something live audience often don’t see. So, I tend to like the in-the-background thing.
Is that why you don’t act?
Acting was really never something I was keen on. I give it to those who do it. Not that I’d never acted before. Remember, it was on the set of a stage play –‘Woe onto Death’ by Fred Agbeyegbe that we first met. We performed the play at MUSON Centre, Lagos years ago. I remember posting a picture from that show as a throwback on my Instagram page recently. I had always figured myself a writer, then a director and producer, and ultimately an executive producer and that is enough work right there. But the only constant thing in life is change, so I might be doing cameos on future projects.
Two years after its exclusive screening, Chatroom, a movie you directed and produced by your wife was released on April 15. Why the delay?
Chatroom was ready in 2019 and was billed for release in cinemas in March 2020, a week after the exclusive screening at the residence of the British Deputy High Commissioner, but incidentally that week the nationwide lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic came into effect and everything was brought to a halt. However, when the suspension of economic activities was lifted and businesses resumed, our project partners and funders advised we route the release through the streaming platform.
Chatroom seems to have a special place in your heart as a filmmaker. Why?
As a creative person and filmmaker, the story has to have something about it that strikes; whether it tickles me or it challenges me, the story has to be elevated, call it a high concept if you may and that’s the case with Chatroom. The urge to develop Chatroom into a movie came from a place or resistance, I like to call it creative activism – I heard this story that really troubled me then and I thought; what can I do to at least change the course of the narrative, to empower the victim, to sweeten the sour taste that it already embodied? The story is already a sensitive enough narrative. That inspired the desire to tell a unique and interesting story based on the initial story idea. Secondly, I have always been intrigued by what goes on inside the control room of a reality TV show, perhaps because I haven’t been part of any before, like, how do the crew react to the statements and actions made or taken by the housemates, what goes on in the closet that the contestants and even the audience don’t get to see?
Again, why did you choose the reality TV show style to tell the story?
Setting the story against the background of a unique and contemporary reality TV show was something I haven’t seen around, and I thought it would be fascinating to place the story in that space. I wanted a platform that would serve as an effective dramatic vehicle to heighten the suspense and the conflict, and the TV show tool sufficed.
Before now, you did a feature length film titled, Eternal. Would you say the film was as successful as you expected?
Eternal was successful on different fronts. First, the story – the short film version – was my entry into the maiden edition of the now defunct MNET New Directions screenplay competition, and it earned a selection as a finalist. Following that, I developed it into a feature length script and it received international acceptance with a production grant from a European body with which I made the film. The film was screened in a number of film festivals in Europe and Africa, and finally it won the best film award (Ecrans Dór) at the 14th edition of Ecran Noir Film Festival. This was the early days of the cinema and so it didn’t go to the cinemas; but as a first feature film, it earned reasonable international critical acclaim, and that was an assurance for me that I might actually be in the right profession considering the fact that I studied something totally different for my degree.
What were the peculiar challenges encountered in directing Chatroom?
Chatroom, like other productions, had its peculiar challenges, especially moving some cast and crew to the East where there were some security concerns. But we pulled through, thankfully.
So, what have you been doing since then?
I’ve worked on a TV drama project for a client. I’ve also written a number of scripts for clients as well as copy writing, while also developing my next film and TV projects. I have equally finished work on my first novel that I plan to publish this year. I am currently building a tech start-up that will be launched very soon.
What is your opinion about the Nigerian movie industry?
Frankly, the industry is not young anymore and we cannot continue to give excuses, we need to rise above whatever limitations there are and commit to take the industry to a deserved glorious height. As a matter of fact, the industry has been democratised with the influx of different content genres like comedy skits, web series, and equally different broadcast channels like online streaming giants – Netflix, Amazon and even YouTube. It’s up to us to individually and collectively commit to continually raise the bar to a prestigious level worthy of global commendation, and also institutionalise a proper structure that eradicates greed, selfishness, lack of professionalism, and instead birth collaborations locally and internationally.
We need to begin to unlock and harness the tide of global co-productions and production treaties. Imagine a time when a film project, the magnitude of Black Panther, is done here, or at least emanates from here with huge local input – it is possible, but we have to be ready. We’ve got to individually and collectively dream it, prepare well for it, and activate the institutional dynamics and roadmaps to make it happen. It’s already happening in the music industry, we have to make it happen in the film industry too. We need to keep improving in various departments such as screenplay, cinematography, production design, sound, direction, distribution and others until we can comfortably say we’ve gotten it right.