“Don’t make this movie!! It will kill you”. Those were my exact words to Adonijah Owiriwa. The movie was 76. It was 2009. We were dealing with the harsh reality of trying to finish the problematic Kajola. A lot of money had been spent already. We had now become family and always trusted each other’s opinions. I wasn’t going to allow him waste money again. I was determined to talk him out of it. I failed and boy I’m so glad I did.
By the time I met Adonai, that’s what we call him, he had already invested in two movies. One didn’t see the light of day, the other never got to the market. Mine was the third. Something was common with the three. They were either debut movies from the directors or had something uniquely different about them. One of the movies, Smoke and Mirrors, was the first Nigerian movie shot entirely on greenscreen and it starred Olu Jacobs and Bimbo Akintola, Directed by the bold and brilliant Ehiz Ojesebholo. Mine was the first Nigerian futuristic Scifi movie with lots of CGI. While he was doing all this, he had a music label, Adonis records and had some artistes he was promoting in portharcourt. He had organized shows both in PH and Lagos. None of the artists ever became mainstream. Lots of Young untamed energy in all these projects but none made money. I had to assume this man must be an Oil Magnate or a prince who inherited a huge fortune or a corrupt Nigerian politician.
When we got to Port Harcourt to start post production work on Kajola, I remember it was a Sunday, we couldn’t believe our eyes and ears. He told us he had to resume work on Monday. He was a salary earner. He wasn’t even in the highest position at work. He had just one car, a Toyota corolla. He lived in a family house and was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. This couldn’t possibly be the man spending all these money investing in people he had hardly met. I was determined to get closer and understand his mind. This one is not your regular Nigerian and I was determined to give him all the support I could. I was genuinely curious. He defied all logic.
Adonijah Owiriwa graduated from Yaba College of Technology with an HND in Mechanical Engineering. He was obviously one of those children who really had a passion for the arts but…Nigerian parents. While doing great at his work at shlumberger and rising through the ranks, his eyes never left media and entertainment. He was always in all the major events in port Harcourt and even loved making interesting fashion statements at red carpets. His major interests were singing and acting. He was always looking for a chance to act even if it meant he had to finance the film. But the irony that comes with being good at your work meant you were given more responsibility and the more he dreamt about acting, the more stuff he was trusted to handle at work and the farther that dream became.
While we were on kajola, he told me he had financed a movie titled Nnenda. He had met Izu Ojukwu and liked his work. I wasn’t sure I knew who Izu Ojukwu was until I realized he was the guy behind “Across the Niger” a movie I really enjoyed watching back in 2005 but wasn’t thinking about directing or even knew what it entailed. He brought me a trailer of the film and wanted my opinion. The movie was about a nurse who helped save an orphanage from getting torn down by Government officials. A very emotional story. I immediately saw a potential to create an awareness campaign with the movie. We talked about using the movie as a tool for change. He bought into it and even made it bigger. He met Prince Tonye Princewill, who had a strong political career and had contested for the River State Gubernatorial position in a previous election and talked him to be a part of it. This was also how I got to meet Izu Ojukwu in person. Calm demeanor but a very intelligent person. We talked a lot and you couldn’t miss his passion for filmmaking. I decided to understudy him and see all his works. He’s undoubtedly one of Nigeria’s finest.
While looking for extra material for the campaign, we found an orphanage home, Lifetime orphanage, that actually shared the same fate as the orphanage in the movie. It was a great coincindence. Tonye Princewill was going to bring the press and lots of government officials to Nnneda’s premiere. Before the movie would be screened, I decided to make a documentary to make the government people feel bad about destroying a real orphanage. I shot the documentary and Adonijah arranged to have all the kids at the premiere. It was a success. The government decided to relocate them to a bigger space. We had used a movie and a documentary to save an orphanage. Adonai and I believed we had found some calling. We decided to make a reality TV show with all the orphanages in the country. Adonai came up with a cool tagline “when last did you visit an orphanage” We also talked about cool stuff we could do together in Rivers state. I became a port harcourt boy. Kajola was still on…Money was still being spent and no profits. Adonijah was loosing money. I got worried. How do you stop someone from loosing money without killing their passion.
He sent me the script that eventually became ’76. It was called “The Lions of 76”. It was a page turner. Great story, beautiful characters. I’m a visual person so I was reading and seeing all they needed to make the period piece. As a man of math and science, I started adding figures in my head. This was a great idea that I knew would be handled well by Izu Ojukwu but this isn’t the movie for Adonai. I felt he needed to take a break from movies for a while. The DVD market was crumbling to piracy and we had just two cinemas. I begged him to kill the project and be reasonable. I told him to wait until there was a strong assurance of recouping funds. The film couldn’t be made low budget. It would become a joke. You either went high or forgot about it. He would always come to me for advice on such but for some reason, he refused to allow me talk him out of it.
Anyone who knows Izu knows he pays great attention to detail. This movie too meant a lot to him. He was ready to put everything into it. I remember they spent almost a year trying to get the Nigerian Military to approve the movie. It was a crazy process. The Army scrutinized every word in the script. They insisted that every part of the story had to be accurate. Every filmmaker knows that accuracy is boring so there was a lot of back and forth, artistic license versus historical accuracy. The filmmakers found it even more interesting that the military would be so involved. It was a delicate story. The military head then assigned top officials to work on the project with them. They insisted that they wanted the actors to become soldiers and hence must undergo rigorous training. The production hired a retired colonel as a consultant on the movie. The actors had to learn to move, talk and think like soldiers.
They decided to set location in the army barracks in Ibadan. The first month was spent just leaning all the drills that made soldiers soldiers. It was hard for the filmmakers to determine how long the shoot would last. Adonijah had to rent an entire building to host key cast and crew and keep filming. Izu believed a period piece like this would best be shot on celluloid. I didn’t think it was a good idea. The 4k cameras had started coming and I thought they could shoot with the RED ONE then and create a film print later. I still wish they took that advice then but this was years ago and the digital workflow wasn’t well understood. Also, a lot of film-school trained filmmakers don’t consider their filmmaking journey complete if they have never shot on film. Shooting on Film meant they had to constantly wait to process the film stock in order to view what they had shot. They shot on Super16mm Arriflex. There were no existing film labs in Nigeria (shame) so they could only do it abroad. They decided they would send footages every week so they can see what had been shot. This posed a problem, Film stock can’t be exposed to light or any form of radiation and the NDLEA at the airport must scan anything meant for flight (X-Rays are a form of radiation). You also needed to keep film stock at a particular temperature. This meant they shot 76 blind. They couldn’t play back dailies so this meant they had to shoot as much as they felt would cover the film. This extended the shooting period greatly and postproduction abroad with all those shots meant more money. Adonijah had to also build a cold room to store the film cans for the period of the shoot. More time…more money…salary earner.
While the production of 76 was happening, Adonijah had already committed to the reality TV show for orphans. I was handling that in port Harcourt. We housed over hundred children in a hotel for 2 weeks. It was then I realized Adonai has had to sell a lot of his properties to keep the project going. He had also borrowed money from family and friends. I was worried for him. He was stressed but wouldn’t let it show. Kajola had been a disaster but we had counted our losses, learnt our lessons and moved on. I was the only one left in PH from the team that made Kajola. Adonijah was also a key cast in 76 and it meant he had to fly from Port harcourt every Friday evening, get to Lagos, Then take a taxi to Ibadan, shoot his scenes on Saturday and Sunday while keeping the morale of the crew high and spending money. Then Monday, 5am, he would drive to lagos to meet the 6:30am flight back to Por-harcourt and he would walk into work as if nothing happened. He did this for 6 months. Superman!!! Its also important to mention that while doing this, he was a father of Five children…Yes..five children!!! Ikwerre man!!
The project got tougher as they went on, he was running out of funds so he talked to a collaborator and friend Prince Tonye princewill, who we had already gotten to commit almost 20million naira prize money for the reality show, to invest in 76. Tonye Princewill or PTP as he’s fondly called saved the day. A brilliant gentleman and astute businessman, most people don’t know how much PTP loves movies. Infact I don’t know a lot of cinephiles who have the film pile that matches PTP’s. He loves movies more than anything. PTP’s commitment at that time was simply a case of putting your money where your mouth is. While they weren’t sure how they would make the money back, He encouraged them to push the boundaries of the film so that it will appeal to an international audience and generate cool distribution deals.
In the 182 days spent on set, two actors got married, almost everyone had their birthdays on set. The experience changed everyone especially Adonijah. He realized making movies and investing in entertainment was a calling he could never hide from. As I was watching them win the AMVCA, I thought to myself, this film, a super 16mm film (not even 35mm o) won in a category that had films made recently with the latest of cameras and gear shot in glorious 4k and all. This film made many years ago still beat all these other films. Not to belittle the other ones but to prove a point I always make on this blog. The equipment and tech doesn’t mean shit if you aren’t going to put your passion into the film. A great story is a great story anytime. A story well told will transcend time. 76 was well received at the TIFF and BFI. It has gotten really good international deals. It’s now on African magic box office. It made history and made plenty money. It got good sponsorship deals from Nigerian breweries and a grant from The Ford Foundation.
This is also a great lesson in putting your money where your passion is. Stop waiting for someone to believe in your passion project. Stop waiting till you get that big money. People will always connect with the passion you put in a project. Also, once you have started, burn the bridges behind you so you have nowhere else to go but forward. Finally, the most logical advice is not necessarily the best one. Sometimes great advice is just fear. I’m very proud of Adonai. Imagine if Nollywood had ten people like him, we would be the greatest filmmaking force on the planet. And he’s not even stopping, he’s just told me about some cool stuff he’s working on. We can learn a thing or two from this story. What’s your excuse today?. Shut the fuck up and shoot!!!.
Also Adonijah just joined IG so you can all follow him on @adonaio1. Share your passion with him as well.