I have always felt very safe in Lagos – Towolawi
Niyi Towolawi, UK-based Nigerian film maker is ready after months of planning, to shake the Nigerian movie arena with his movie, Turning Point. The young but experienced movie maker who started out with a career in the banking industry, says the premiere of the movie in March, will set new standards. In this interview with Adedayo Odulaja, he bares his mind on the terrain.
How soon do you hope to do the cinema release?
We are planning to premiere in Nigeria in March. Essentially, it is the distributors that will make that decision, but if we premiere in March, the earliest the film will come out will be April or there about. It is not my decision, unfortunately.
What influenced your bringing this movie to Nigeria?
I did the film, Twisted in 2007. People now talk about a new Nigeria cinema and they mention that, as being the first Diaspora movie in Nigeria. It was the first film to actually do a UK release and it was a very small, humble film. Other people built on that platform. In terms of expectations, I am hoping that everybody sees it and it makes lots of money so I can buy a Hummer.
How did you handle working with a star-studded cast led by Patience Ozokwor and Jackie Appiah?
It was very delightful. I would work with all of them again. When I work with people I have not met before, I focus very much on the story and the character as opposed to the actors, but having worked with all of these people, they are the type of people that with my experience, I can actually write characters for. The production style of Hollywood and Nollywood are very different. We had Hollywood days and we had Nollywood days and obviously the chemistry was different.
What is the idea behind having a multicultural cast for the film?
Film generally is a mirror of reality. I lived here as a child so there is that comparison that I actually have. Something is very much prevalent in Europe and America now. It is the plight of the black person in the Diaspora. Setting the film in America gave us an extra dimension because there is a disparity between Africans and other black people. In America, Africans like education and we get rich from that, but a lot of African-Americans are apparently more likely to end up in prison than in college, so they look down on Africans. They see Africans as immigrants who are meant to be dirty so there is that tension and that conflict. If the film had been set in Europe, the tension would be on a racial level.
Ddn’t you consider it a gamble using an unpopular face like Igoni Archibong as your lead character especially when he had to play along side the popular Jackie?
Every single person, myself inclusive, agree it was definitely a gamble but, it paid off. We had about five press screenings in the UK before the premiere and people said Jim Iyke would have played that character better and I would make more money from it.
That is true, but ultimately it is about the stories, the character and getting it done the way it needs to be done and these were the actors that seemed the most qualified and they were the most visual depictions of the characters that I dreamt of.
Did you enter the movie for the upcoming AMAA?
Sure I did. I entered the movie and I am very hopeful that it will pick some awards.
What attracted you to the script?
I wrote it myself. Twisted took about six months to write and they were done five years apart. There are millions of Africans that live in Europe and America and they are extremely under-represented in the media. If you Google Africa today, chances are you will find pictures of an Ethiopian child with kwashiorkor. That is the image that is being created of Africa.
Was it difficult getting the Hollywood crew to come to Nigeria?
I wasn’t in Nigeria at all in the 90s. I was an army brat as well. I knew when the Buhari coup happened, I knew when the Babangida coup happened. I was at school then. I can name a lot of the barracks in Lagos for instance. Lagos for me, has always been a safe haven.
I came into Nigeria in 2006 with 30,000 pounds and I didn’t know a single person. From the airport, I took a taxi to Surulere with a Ghana-must-go bag full of money and nothing happened to it. I have always felt very safe in Lagos. I have gone to a lot of countries and Lagos is actually very safe.
When they were getting their visas, they were told not to go. The CIA has a very comprehensive website that talks about the risks in Nigeria. It says something like they were 70% more likely to be kidnapped, tons of diseases and threats. It took me two months to convince these guys that Nigeria is a safe country.
How did you finally convince them?
One of the crew members knew someone who came to shoot a commercial here and he said it is the best place he has ever been to. That convinced them a bit, but again, if the CIA told you that if you come to this country, you would die, you will have second thoughts. Besides that, the equipment that was brought into the country was worth $200,000.
They could not get insurance in the US to actually bring it into Nigeria and I could not get them in Nigeria as well. I had to convince them to bring them. They didn’t know I am Nigerian anyway. Eventually, they came and they loved it. They ate Suya every day, went to Kuramo Beach and enjoyed eating noodles and fried eggs.
What issues would you say the film seek to address?
There are a lot of ethnic prejudices in the film. I can be Nigerian when I want to be, I can be British when I want to be. Also, the whole arranged marriage thing is becoming prevalent now in the West. When you have parents who moved abroad and raised their kids there, they still want them to have some sort of identity back home and the easiest way to retain that is to make sure that they marry someone who is from there. I think that is the biggest issue in the film, but personally, it is not really my story.
Basically, every single person has it within him or her to be good and bad at the same time. For instance, Adolf Hitler killed over ten million people but he was a very loving father. I don’t know how that is possible. I am drawn to that sort of thing.
As an investment banker, how did you handle the transition to movie director?
I am constantly writing. I have grown a lot as a writer. The thing that inspired me more than anything else was the opportunity. I have spent the last 10 years working in Investment Banking as a software person so I understand how traders and investors actually work. Our lead character is that.
How much of your culture is still in you?
My parents basically speak Yoruba. Speaking English was banned in my house so I speak the language and I know a lot of proverbs and idioms. My Yoruba is actually very clear.