At the recently held 76th Venice International Film Festival, Nigerian filmmaker, Joel ‘Kachi Benson emerged winner of The Lion Award in the Best Virtual Reality (VR) category. His documentary film, Daughters of Chibok, earned him the honour. He thus became the first Nigerian and African to win the award.
Daughters of Chibok came five years after Boko Haram abducted 275 girls from their school located in Chibok. The 11-minute film focuses on the mothers of the abducted girls, revealing their struggles in the face of economic hardship.
The Abia State-born producer’s experience in filmmaking spans a decade. In 2017, he ventured into VR content making out of a need to tell a much-rounded and immersive story that brings his viewers closer to the reality of the subject he focuses on, who, often times are separated by sheer distance and other limiting factors as insurgency.
Shaped by his humble beginnings, Benson is relentless in his quest to tell stories that have psychosocial impact on the society, and the continent at large. His hunger for telling stories using a holistic approach explains his unique palate for stuff from unfamiliar climes.
In this chat, Benson walks us through the processes of making the documentary, his journey to Venice and using the platform to help highlight the plights of the Chibok community. He also reveals plans to empower the victims. Enjoy it.
Why make the film in virtual reality?
I got to know about VR two years ago, in 2017. So, I’ve been making documentaries for about 10 years now, I mean regular documentaries. Most of my work has taken me across the country, but I’ve been doing lots of work in the northeast, documenting the impact of the insurgency on women and children, especially. On one of those trips, I was in an IDP camp, and we were making this documentary and someone walked up to me and said, ‘ah, do you have this camera that has… it’s like a camera all around it’. And I am like ‘no, why?’ And he said, ‘with that camera, when you shoot with it, when people are watching it, they can watch it with this device (VR headset), and it is like they are there, it is like they are in the actual place. They are even using it abroad now; the United Nations uses it and all of that’. I said, ‘well, I don’t have the camera, this is the one that I use, and I think it serves the purpose’. I probably forgot about that discussion. A year later, that was last year, a lady whom I have done a lot of work for, called me up; her name is Damilola Ogunbiyi, and she said she wanted to make a 360 video of a project in Kano. I was like, ‘ma’am, I don’t do…’ But I said, ‘okay, what’s a 360 video?’ She said it is this video where you can see things in 360 (degrees). I was like ‘I don’t do that’. And she was like, ‘go and figure out how to do it. I want you to do it’. Out of respect, I said, ‘okay, I’ll go and do my research’. But I remember one thing she said to me when I was about leaving her office that day. She said: ‘I want you to explore this; it will change your game’.
I went back home and started researching about virtual reality, 360-degree video and all that. The more I researched about it… and then, it was online, it was just a computer. I went on YouTube and I saw videos in VR. What intrigued me was that I could do stuff like this. This is something that could be interesting; it really intrigued me. And then, I decided to start searching around the country, like, ‘who does it?’ I couldn’t find anybody who had the camera. So, I decided to travel out and learn how to use it, to create this video for her. I flew to the (United) States, and that was the first time I wore a headset. It was then I understood what that guy told me in 2017. I think the first piece of work I ever saw in VR was a concert by Coldplay, and it was like I was in the concert; it was a different experience. I understood then what the guy was saying about being able to transport people to different places.
What’s the motive behind the focus on Chibok women?
As a storyteller, you want to get to the root of the matter, and that was my main attraction to doing a story on Chibok, to find out the truth for myself. Like, were these girls really abducted? Does this place called Chibok truly exist? I wanted to find out the truth for myself, and so, I had to go to Chibok. It was a story that I have always been curious about. And I also wanted to make it in VR, because for me, with VR I can take people to Chibok. So, Chibok is a place that a lot of people have heard of but very, very few people have been there. It is far, it is high-risk, and it is wrapped in all these mystiques, this mystery. I felt that with virtual reality, we could demystify this place, and take people there, let people see it as it is.
The focus of the documentary is Yana. How did you get to meet her? How did she agree to be in your documentary?
When we got Chibok, my first question was that I wanted to meet the people; I wanted to meet these women; I wanted to speak to them. We were introduced to a couple of women. Yana was introduced to us as the women’s leader. She was our first interface, and she took us around different places, telling us different stories. Through her, we met other people. Originally, my story was not meant to be on Yana. The story started with Yana’s daughter, Laraba, the stepsister of Rifkatu that was kidnapped. So, I started with Laraba. We spent the first day filming Laraba, followed her to school and all of that. And then, when we got back from the school, I said to my guys that I wanted to go speak with Yana, let me just interview her. Before she started speaking, I knew I had been barking off the wrong tree. I knew this was my character. It wasn’t a hard decision to make at all. That was really what happened.
How did you know she was the right person for your documentary?
First of all, it is her daughter that is missing, so the connection is there. And from a story perspective, you want your story to connect with your viewers, or you want the viewers to connect with your story. When emotions are displayed in their raw form, they connect. And that was the thing about her. She is such a complex character. On the one hand, she is this strong woman who is a leader in the community, a leader of women, but she wasn’t born a leader, she was just a regular woman, but tragedy forced her to be a leader. In the leadership role that she is playing, it is also complex for her because she is the one that sort of interfaces with the government. Whenever any of the girls are released, she is the one that goes, welcomes them, hugs them, hug their mothers. And she still has to go home and ask, ‘where is mine?’ she is just a multilayered… from a storytelling perspective, you couldn’t have gotten someone with more complexity than her. It was a no brainer for me.
Winning the award must be a good feeling. Weeks later, how has it affected the way you view your filmmaking process?
The award ceremony is only for winning producers or directors; no other person is invited, right? So, I already knew. But you see? Before we left Nigeria for Venice, we had proposed in our hearts that whatever happens in Venice is an opportunity to amplify the voices of these women. I told you in the beginning that the project started as one born out of curiosity, we’re halfway through the project; my focus shifted. It became a campaign for the women because I saw things there that no one has spoken about; no one has talked about these women, everybody talks about the girls. One thing is: those women are living in abject poverty. They don’t have any form of psychosocial support, they don’t have any form of therapy, and I felt it was wrong on so many levels. And they are the ones in that community who are the pillars of their homes: they are the ones who go to the farm, they are the ones who take care of their children, they are the ones who send them to school, pay their school fees, and then they are the ones who have to bear this burden of the loss. I felt it was really, really wrong on so many levels. I resolved in my heart that the film would be used as a vehicle to get support for the women – that was what I resolved. And so, when we were nominated to go to Venice, I felt this was an opportunity to take that message to the world stage. One of the things that the women told me was that in the beginning, it seemed like everybody cared, but now, the world has moved on, and it was important for me to mention that to the world: ‘you cannot move on from this tragedy because it is not over yet. The book doesn’t have a closing chapter; a hundred and twelve girls are still missing. We can’t afford to move on’.
What were the positive feedbacks you got for the documentary?
Everybody kept saying ‘thank you for reminding us’. It was interesting. I had people from Taiwan, Korea, Brazil, Australia, all over the world, everybody, without exception. Everybody from across the world had heard about Chibok, they knew about Chibok, but like what the women said, ‘some of them had forgotten’. So, the film serves as a reminder and everybody seems grateful for that. And not just remind them, but also takes them there.
Why did you focus the film on women, what about men in the Chibok community?
What I saw in Chibok were the women; they play a very prominent role in running their families and in taking care of their children. If you want to impact those children, if you want to ensure that those children get an education, then you have to empower their mothers. My agenda for making the film was to show the plight of the women. I felt and still feel they are the ones… and, just as it is in any act of terror, it is women and children who are the most affected. That was the reason I chose to focus on the women. Some of these women have eight children, nine children, so it was some men that did it.
Out of all the entries from other countries, what do you think made your work standout? Also, does making documentary films pay?
What made my film standout? I honestly don’t know, and I don’t want to worry my head about it, because if I do that, I’m going to get bogged down with details, unnecessary details that will impact on the quality of my future productions. I aim to tell my stories honestly, I pour my heart into it, and I do it with all my strength. I have a bit of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). So, until the story is right the way I am want it, I won’t stop; I will never be satisfied.
On whether making documentary films pay, I don’t know how to answer that question, but I don’t see myself doing anything else. I’m perfectly comfortable, we have a sizeable staff, we don’t owe salaries, and we love what we do. I travel around, so I would say that is not a consideration. For me, it has been always a case of, if I love it, I will do it. What I do is go online and Google successful filmmakers. And if Google gives me names, I’d say, ‘okay, no wahala, my names will join these guys. Whatever it is that they are doing, and it is successful, then no problem, that means some people have done it, and they are making a living out of it’.
What distribution outlets are there for the documentary?
It is still touring the film festivals, and then, we are in discussions with distributors who are interested in taking up the distribution of the work. We are also getting calls from all parts of the world, people who want to watch the documentary. I mean, when you win The Lion Award, it is a validation of your work on some level. And then, when it comes from a place like Nigeria that has never featured in the award, then it is a big deal. .
Do you see yourself training people in the field of VR?
Yes, I am big on training; I’m already doing that. I train filmmakers on regular filmmaking, so this will just be another form of expression in terms of training. We will train; we are already training ourselves right now because it is early days. All of us are learning from each other. And one of the things I did was taking one of my assistants with me to Venice. He was shocked because he wasn’t expecting it. I felt that it’s important for him to see what is going on out there, and when we come back and we are talking, we’ll be speaking the same language. And then, he will also cascade that information to the other guys because it can’t all revolve around me.
What goes into producing a VR film? What kind of cameras do you use?
We use a special camera called 360 degree. It is a ridge that has cameras all around it. The one that I use is called Omni. It has six cameras – one facing up and others facing the sides, everywhere. All those six cameras are filming simultaneously. And then you bring the camera to special software that stitches. It stitches it into one image, and then you start editing. It is quite a time consuming process, but I love it.
Do you intend going back to Chibok to support these women socially?
We have not supported yet; our plan is to support 112 women. This award is the beginning of our campaign. We are going to use this award to draw attention and raise money so that we can support them. That is the point of this. I remember telling her (Yana) about the award and she was like, ‘oh, thank God, my son’. So, she calls me her son now. It is an interesting relationship she and I have.
What other talents do you have?
Somebody told me recently that I should be on radio… I was just laughing. Filmmaking is the only thing that I know how to do; at least, to the best of my knowledge. But if you say that now, they would say that you are limiting yourself. I’ve done music before; as a member of a band, I write songs. I do a bit of writing as well, like prose. But I’m very active in the creative space. I manage talent, I produce content, and I script my content. Once in a while, if we can’t find a voice-over person, I will do the voice-over, we have the studio here. If the opportunity presents itself to express myself creatively, regardless of if I’ve never tried it before, I’d give it my best shot, which is what I always do with everything that I do. I give it my best shot. If I make a mess of it, yeah, at least I tried. But if I do it well, carry go na.
Do you have any formal training in filmmaking?
Yes, I went to Central Film School, London. I also did filmmaking courses in the United States, but I like to say, to a large extent, I started out self-taught. The formative years of filmmaking for me was mostly on my own; learning from my mistakes, watching videos online, watching lots of videos before I started making money to travel.