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Nigerian Film Boom Reaches Oakland
by Juliet Torome
Lisbon Okafor, a Nigerian whose name suggests a career in Portugal, is also well suited to work in Oakland - indeed, his new film is "Oakville."
Lisbon Okafor's geographic, indie and commercial journey is an epic of its own.
Before becoming a commercial and independent filmmaker in the Bay Area, Nigerian native Lisbon Okafor thought all he needed to make movies was a camera and some creativity.
"That was partly ignorance," he said, smiling broadly. Bespectacled, bearded and recently 40, Okafor is a modest and teddy-bear kind of a guy. "I didn't know you were supposed to work your way up the ladder."
"Ever since I can remember, I've always wanted to make films," he continued, recalling his high school days in Northern Nigeria (he's from a village in southern Nigeria). "It's the one art form that gives one access to people and places that you would otherwise need many lifetimes to experience."
"I hope to tell stories about Nigerians and Africa as a whole some day," he said, adding with another broad smile, "And I promise to include the wildlife." Joking aside, Okafor has worked hard to live his dream.
Like many filmmakers, he started by experimenting with Super 8 cameras, beginning shortly after he arrived in Texas to attend university. Although he studied visual communication, his only formal film training was one USC workshop in 1993.
Within a few years however, Okafor had achieved remarkable success as a director of commercials. He served as the creative director of broadcast for Macy's West/Federated Department Stores for three years before signing with Venus/HSI Productions in 2000. After a short stint with Coppos films, he moved to Greatguns USA. All told, he has directed a couple of hundred commercials for clients such as Nippon, Guess, Electrolux, Frigidair, Sears, and Verizon, as well as Macy's.
Although impressive for a self-taught immigrant, it was not enough for a cinema dreamer like Okafor, and he decided up the ante, risking savings and credit ratings for personal projects. His first feature "Jujuluv," 104 minutes long, is a romantic drama about two sisters-in-law dealing with the loss of the man they both love. Although he completed production, the project suffered in distribution.
"I thought finishing the film was the end of the journey," Okafor explained. "I didn't have the energy to take it any farther - to knock on doors and push and make sure the film got distributed." Exhausted and in debt, he entered "Jujuluv" in festivals and hoped for the best. The film was well received at the 2004 Mill Valley Film Festival but didn't garner much traction outside the Bay Area.
Okafor's current project is a feature called "Oakville." Set in Oakland, and shot within a one-mile radius of Lake Merritt, it is about two interracial couples after the Obama victory. The narrative goes something like this: there were four friends - a black guy, a white girl, a white guy and a black girl - all hanging out and comfortable in their roles until Obama ran for president and they began to look at each other cross-eyed.
What if he wins? Will affirmative action be a thing of the past? Will white people try to kill him? Black people? Can I tell my friends that I'm dating a white guy? Would my black friends hate me if they knew I was supporting Hillary? After Obama's victory, they are even more confrontational, with frictions accentuated by the economic downturn. But out of the confusion, they get their groove back and ask new questions.
Considering that Okafor (pronounced "Oak-a-fore") hails from a country where a good name is considered crucial for good luck - indeed, the current acting president is Goodluck Jonathan - he seems perfect to become a "For Oakland" brand. He certainly loves Oakland's diversity, cultural heritage, political struggles and positive romantic side, all of which he puts to good use in "Oakville." For all those bewildered by the times, the film provides catharsis.
As he gets older, Okafor finds that his plots, themes and structures owe more to Nigeria then he previously imagined. In addition, his current distribution plans include his home country, where film has been booming like crazy over the last decade and a half.
Lovingly labeled Nollywood, Nigeria has been called the world's third largest feature producer - in sheer numbers - after Hollywood and Bollywood. Although the Nigerian industry's estimate gross is only about $250 million dollars a year, it employs thousands of people.
Since there are very few film theaters, it's all in video, with an astounding 200 productions being completed each month. An estimated 50,000 DVD and VCD discs are sold weekly, in shops and open-air markets throughout Nigeria, for as little as one dollar, making it accessible to many. The average production costs around $20,000 and is shot in just a week but can sell up to 200,000 units in one day, making it very profitable.
That Nigerians took the lead in African filmmaking is no surprise. They are some of Africa's most sophisticated people and very artistic; local television is crap; and Africans are hungry for their own stories. In Kenya, where I come from, Nollywood movies are considered very interesting because they highlight what goes on in African society. A Guinean acquaintance noted Nollywood is huge in his country. Nollywood narratives are often about tribal history, romance and gangsters - not surprising considering the phony funds-transfer scams for which the Nigerian Mafia is infamous.
"I believes the future of the Nigerian film industry is very bright," Okafor said. "I have no doubt the industry will eventually reach its full potential. Nigerians are much too resourceful and relentless to be held back," especially when one considers how far Nollywood has come in just over a decade. "It's a fitting question for the established studios," he added. "How much longer will they wait and see?"
Okafor is currently finishing "Oakville," working on the music and hoping to have it completed by the fall, a difficult task since he is now the proud father of a three-year-old girl.
When I asked about mistakes he made as a filmmaker, Okafor told me, "I've learned that you will make the same mistakes again, but so what? That is your story, both the mistakes and the learning from them."
Certainly, Nollywood would profit by having talented sons like Okafor return with advanced expertise and ideas. Conversely, and just as importantly, we need African storytelling, immigrant determination, and other abilities to enrich California as well as Oakland cinema.
Posted on Mar 01, 2010 - 01:58 PM