KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
The Trilogy of Eka Chris
American Africans go Nollywood
M. O. ENE:
Sunday, January 7, 2007
Before Mrs. Nneka Onyekuru embarked on her filmmaking foray into Nollywood, we talked about Nigerian movies: the plots, the pictures, the prospects, the successes, the challenges, the qualities, quantities, and the works. I had “met” her through a mutual acquaintance, who was doing a postgraduate fellowship at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. I use “met” because I have actually not met Nneka. We talked about the marketing problems facing producers in USA, especially the problematic pilfering pirates who steal the Nigerian movie industry blind, those who reap where they do not sow.
So, before moving into the moviemaking industry in Nigeria from her USA base, Nneka knew that the excessive portrayal of extreme religiosity of any shade was no longer funny. She heard me profess that guns and their uses are not mainstream African culture. Okay, check this out: You are an African woman; if someone snatches your man, do you go get a gun and blow off her head?! If you are a man, do you even tell your friends?! No, you take it like a man... suffering and smiling. Not even Hollywood encourages such scenes of extreme jealous rage. I still wonder why Nigerian moviemakers find the gun culture and violence so attractive. A good example: Connected Firm (1 & 2) is so unrealistic -- female drug dealers and gangsters living openly large, criminal cops, born-again freaks, and the entire jazz; no one foresees such scenes in any Nigeria city of Y3K.
Nneka knew that good scripts are the key to good movies and that finding the right actors can be trying. She also knew that the actual production can be a trying experience and that marketing can be a nightmare, especially when many marketers are shrewd businessmen out to snatch quick returns from blind investments with no guarantees. Yet, like a superwoman, she took all aspects of the industry in one swoop: scripting, directing, producing, marketing, and, oh yes, acting.
Enter Eka Chris.
BLAMES OF MEMORIES [BROKEN TABOO]
In her movie debut, Blames of Memories, Eka plays Ashley -- a supposedly village pumpkin who succumbs to her cousin’s charms and blackmails her way to USA. In the movies, she features alongside such experienced actors as surefire Ngozi Ezeonu, Peter Bunor, Pat Oseni, Enugu-born Shan George-Nwosisi, Mike Ezuruonye, Rykardo Agbor, and Emeka Enyiocha.
In the story, Danny is headed for ruination because of a curse placed on his father from a distant play-around past. Along the line, he sleeps with everything in skirt, including a near-miss with a ghost, and ended up with Ashley, his first cousin (a taboo, of course) and then on to her best friend. One thing leads to another, and prayers from Pentecostal Protestantism do wonders in revealing the source of the curse, in locating the curser, and in revoking the curse! Everyone lives happily ever after.
One thing is to script a soul-stirring story and make it as controversial as we want; another is to put it in a reel and produce scenes in living colors. Eka acquitted herself creditably for a first-timer playing a major role with such stars as darling veteran Ngozi Ezeonu, risen-star Mike Ezuruonye, and indomitable Shan George. Besides, Eka had other major production roles to play in pulling physical and financial logistics together. For a new-comer, the movie should get an “A” for effort and another “A” for quality packaging in a standard DVD format.
The rest we can debate.
Blames of Memories (Parts I & 2) by KaChris Productions has some memorable moments waiting to be discovered. If you wonder why the role of Danny’s sister Anita [Ify Arinze] was necessary, consider the attention-grabbing dialogue between her and boyfriend, Shady [Victor Emeghara].
She offers: “I missed my period.”
He: “What? That is to say you are pregnant?”
She retorts: “Do people miss period to get typhoid fever? Of course, I am pregnant.”
Anita has another interesting dialogue, making her otherwise unimportant role very memorable. In dismissing a kerb crawler, she mouthed: “If you can tell me the part of English you don’t understand, then I will know: Is it that ‘I am not,’ or ‘not interested.’ Don’t you get?!”
Then there is the special appearance by Big Freddy, who played Jim Iyke’s father in “One Dollar.”
The copyright-protected DVD format is great, even if persistent pirates find ways around the copy-protect technology. This production marks the beginning of “original” Nollywood DVDs straight from producers, not copied or transferred… presumably under some unverifiable contract with the owners. Nollywood aficionados should patronize the product as a collectable. Pirates should be prepared to deal with consequences of infringement, especially with a production outfit based here in the US. It will take a successful litigation to untangle the thorny threads in the messy tangle that is the world of Nollywood movie piracy in America. It is not as if the arrowheads are not known. Besides, the outlets (African stores) are easy targets.
On the duality of titles, I prefer “Broken Taboo” to Blames of Memories; it sounds more Nollywood and reflects the main theme of the movie: the taboos of avoiding married women and incest. Nonetheless, the choice of “Blames of Memories” shifts the blame for the breaking of the taboo to past sins of the father.
The title is not the major issue to be criticized about the movie. Emeka Enyiocha is a major miscast as an American returnee mouthing “Jesus Christ of Nazareth” -- as no one does in America -- and a fake American-ghetto accent that is convincing only to Nigerian village folk. Evidently, taking on roles one is ill-equipped to play, even with a galaxy of professionals can ruin an otherwise excellent movie.
Dedicated fan of Emeka Enyiocha will not be disappointed by his performance, but I would not have cast him in that role of Danny. His excessive use of “Jesus Christ” to punctuate almost every exclamation should have been eliminated or edited out, especially since the movie was also targeting an American audience, where such terms are so-called “swearing words.” His character’s exercise womanizing, even when designed to drive home the notion of a curse and to highlight “change of women like wrapper,” does not help him. Rykado Agbor would have done a far better job; he has a more believable been-to diction and looks a lot more convincing for the role than rough-and-ready Enyiocha.
Without taking away a thing from Eka in her debut, I sincerely believe she had her hands full of work from scripting to producing. I believe that ceding the main female character (Ashley) to Blessing Obi, who played Jennifer, the ghost, would have made a slight difference, especially in transition from the village to the city. In fact, Ms. Obi could have been portrayed any part a lot better than being a ghost and with an eye on making her a stable starlet of KaChris Production. This way, Nollywood will get a steady stream of top and budding actresses, not the repeated recycling of Genevieve Nnaji, Stella Damasus, Rita Dominic, Stephanie Okereke, Omotola, etc.
The second movie came out earlier this year and featured bigger-name stars. In Governor’s Wife, Eka (“Akudo”) features alongside Nollywood’s Denzel Washington, Ramsey Noah, Jr. (“Nnamdi”) and the Black Beauty, Stephanie Okereke (“Nkechi”). Stephanie is most natural, even while still suffering from the strains of her bad leg. Ramsey does not disappoint here, which is not surprising. He brings his years of experience from many movies and adds both color and art to the production.
The story is not complicated. Two girls meet during their after-graduation youth service, go their different ways on completion, marry, and life continues. Then, as in all movies, fairly unpredictable events bring them together, and the two friends take turn to become the Governor’s wife.
Eka improved greatly on her acting in Governor’s Wife. She is both housewifely on one hand and state-wifely in another breath. It is hard not to sympathize with her naivety. Torn between loyalty to her departed friend (“Nkechi”) and love for her husband (“Nnamdi”), Eka’s character Akudo makes the obvious decision, especially with an insistent Governor Ayodele Akintola (Rykardo Agbor), whose somehow foreign accent was misplaced here for even an urbane Yoruba-state governor. The part of a first lady is a delight, a lot better than the lowly housewife. The next time anyone wants a character for a state first lady or even female governor of a state, Eka should be a definite top-ten… up there with the likes of Onyeka Onwenu. [The ascendancy of Dame Virgy Etiaba of Anambra State will make a good Nollywood script.]
Again, the script veers a bit into the realm of paranormal. It does not require voodoo for a man to abandon his wife and children in Lagos for a groovy life in Abuja with a younger, single woman. In this case, Nnamdi has all the reasons: Things were not going great in Lagos with his wife Akudo and children; besides, Pat [Ine Ikpe] -- the girl who lures him away, is not a bad looker and needs no charms to turn heads upside down and hearts around! Nnamdi does not have to be “charmed” or “hypnotized” or "under a spell" to shack up with another women in Abuja and gradually relegate his family in Lagos to the backburner; sadly, it happens everyday!
In essence, there would not have been the need for whacky spiritual interventions that have no basis in reality. Nnamdi (Ramsey Noah, Jr.) does not need a spiritual hustler who speaks in tongues to wake up from his Abuja love nest and smell the coffee. Besides, his wife has become the first lady of a state (Katanga?), and his children are calling the man “Daddy.” That would have been enough wakeup medication for even the most chronic Casanova. It does not take a pastor of any parish to present the presence of reality to a man after just one year of romance, no matter how beautiful the woman! The lure of love does not take ten years to expire; reality soon saves romance.
Somehow and sadly, the gun culture slips back into the plot: No normal Nigerian will blow out his brains because his wife, whom he has abandoned, found love in the arms of a state governor. On the contrary, the man will find a way to benefit plenty from the situation and probably get a younger wife to cap the eventual material gains accruable from the new reality! It does not always have to be a win-lose situation; everyone should sometimes win, which was exactly what Eka accomplishes in her third movie: Where Envy Lies.
WHERE ENVY LIES
The last of the trilogy is titled “Where Envy Lies,” featuring even bigger actors. In a star-studded cast Olu Jacobs (“Mr. Ukonu”) is the father of omnipresent Rita Dominic (“Nkeiru”). Jim Iyke (“Dr. Tayo Philips”) plays Eka’s love interest, joining the long line of the likes of Emeka Enyiocha, Mike Ezuruonye, Ramsey Noah, Jr., and Rykardo Agbor. This is quite an impressive lineup in three movies within two years! In this role, Eka (“Sylvia”) takes on these seasoned actors like a pro she has become. Eka is probably her best in this movie, maturing like fine wine in a crystal. She appears to have admired the natural limp of Stephanie Okereke in Governor’s Wife that she shuffles half of the time in Where Envy Lies, a direct result of an accident in the movie’s plot.
The court scene leaves a lot to be desired, from the slight mix-up in names (Tayo/Taiwo) to the missed post-victory scenes. It is a scene where anyone who knows Eka should expect her to be at her brilliant best. You see, Eka is a lawyer by profession. It seems like acting the part of a handicap took the shine off her court performance. In fact, with the court scene properly presented, “Where Envy Lies” should have gone to Part 3 -- not Governor’s Wife, which did not require the spiritual components and unnecessarily lengthy flashbacks to campus life and the difficult beginning between Nnamdi and Akudo. The plot for the court scene alone will make another full length movie at which Eka should redeem her artistic and professional skills and showcase her mettle to her teeming fans.
The part of “Nkeiru Ukonu” in Where Envy Lies appears to have been written with ubiquitous Rita Dominic in mind. She is annoyingly uptown, obnoxiously stiff, socially spoilt, and justifiably envious. She defines the character like no other Hollywood star would have… well, maybe Kate Henshaw-Suttal or Dakoru Egbuson. Olu Jacobs, a rooted veteran, is great as “Mr. Ukonu.” Jim Iyke plays “Dr. Tayo Phillips” effortlessly, and this should number as one of his best performances. Ini Ekpe returns as more mature and maternal “Adaeze,” the girlfriend and eventual wife of “Mr. Ukonu.”
The inserting of bits and pieces of old Nollywood culture in the first two movies could have been avoided without taking out an iota from the flow of the movies. On the contrary, the movies would have cut out a pride of place on the shelves of instant classics. For example, Danny [Enyiocha} will have realized that that he has reached “the final bus stop” when he realizes how close he came to sleeping with a ghost; it does not have to take a curse and then a prayer ministry. Also, the idea of one person playing many roles takes away from destined quality. For example, besides his apparent guitar-playing skills, what else is the Director, Victor Emeghara (Mr. Meticulous), doing in Blames of Memories?
Nollywood has reached a stage where many actors are known for certain roles, and they should stick to such genre, not jump into any moving bus… singing, comedy, drama, musicals, etc. Those who should be behind the scene can accomplish a lot more by being behind the camera; that way, they get a better evaluation of the process. I watched Sunny Neji and Rita Dominic in a recent Nollywood home movie. Although Sunny did not do badly for a professional musician (“Tolotolo”), he could have provided better professional music consultations, not necessary act.
Nollywood is ripe for a major makeover. By bringing these three movies to the market, well-packaged and of improved quality, Nneka Onyekuru has added immense value to the movie industry. She has invested in “copy-proof” technologies, which does not mean that the activities of pirates are contained. No, at parties and even in shops, pirated copies of Nollywood movies are still sold openly. It will take the pirating of one of these US-resident producers to finally provoke an expensive legal action that will eventually put the pirating criminals out of business. Until then, buying only original copies from legitimate distributors remains the only way Nollywood aficionados can help Nollywood, especially now that US-based Nigerians are bringing Nollywood to Hollywood.
A shorter version of this piece was published as "American Africans go Nollywood" in African Market News of December, 2006. Retailers all over the US can contact Ben Abit @ (973) 522-0036 for the real deal. Very soon Nollywood@Kwenu may make arrangement to procure single copies for readers. Let us know.
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