Nigerian filmmaker Ike Nnaebue discusses migration, Nollywood and his new documentary premiering at the Berlinale. It is a “Generation Africa” film – a project launched by DW Akademie and STEPS, supported by BMZ.
Interview by Wilfred Okiche
Wilfred Okiche: 27 years ago, you attempted to migrate to Europe from Lagos by road. Why did you decide to revisit this journey, this time on film?
I have always known that I was going to tell this story someday even from the moments that I was passing through the experience. I was only waiting for the opportunity. This is the kind of story that you want to share; it is not something you want to keep to yourself. And obviously since I am a storyteller and love telling stories, it is only natural that I tell this story that has made a huge impact in my life. And maybe somehow, I was also looking for some sort of closure.
"No U-Turn" is a film that is built around listening to the stories of the people you meet along the way. What were you hoping to learn?
Before the film I took some training in the art of listening without judgements or interruptions. This was important because I wanted to hear the reasons why in 2021, a person would want to embark on that kind of journey despite all the information that is available to them about the dangers on the road. The hope for a better life in Europe kept coming up as an answer, but I wanted to understand better the kind of hope that transcends the fear of danger. It became increasingly clear to me that the journey is more mental than physical. I was able to retrace my own steps and I realized it isn’t really about Europe as a place or physical location. It was more about finding a place under the sun that one can call home.
There are a number of characters from the film who are still in limbo, months or years later and yet to make the crossing to Europe still. Why is it difficult for migrants to go back home even when their journeys aren’t fruitful?
There is a lot of stigmatizations associated with migration particularly in West Africa. When you leave, you don’t just leave for yourself. You are expected to come back with a certain level of what society recognizes as success. Without this you are seen as a failure who wasted everyone’s time. Another sad part is that the people you left behind have gone so far ahead and catching up with them is difficult. Laura, who is in the film and has some hair styling skills told me she would rather remain a beggar in Morocco than go back to work as a hair stylist in Nigeria.
How did you come about the opportunity to make this film as part of the Generation Africa project?
When I saw the call out for the Generation Africa project, two things struck me immediately. It had to do with documentary films, and it was about migration. I knew in that moment that this was the chance to tell my story. I have always wanted to make documentary films. I have been making fiction films for Nigerian theaters, but I had never really gotten an opportunity to make a documentary, especially one that is cinematic and has a global reach. I did not want to make the regular type of - some people say - NGO or news reportage type of documentary. I thought it was a beautiful opportunity. I sent the synopsis in an email and forgot about it. I think it was two or three weeks later that I got a call back via email. I was invited to Ghana for a development training. That is how the journey started.
How was the experience of making this film different from the kind of style involved in making NoIlywood films which you have a lot of experience with?
It was quite interesting because up until now, I have been clamoring for global best practices in the way that we make films in Nollywood. I have held workshops to try to promote global best practices. I got fed up with the fact that we have amazing stories, original stories, but we aren’t really telling them properly. So, I have always wanted to champion that cause, to prove that we can follow global best practices and tell stories the way they're supposed to be told. To be involved in a project like this, it was like paradise for me, and it was something that I really enjoyed.
What are the major challenges of working in Nigeria and how did being part of an African co-production help facilitate solutions?
The obvious answer to the question would be funding. But that isn’t even the major issue, I think. The thing is there is no ecosystem that supports the creative process for filmmakers and that is why we are trying to build a network of creative hubs to create something for ourselves. I have been a Nollywood filmmaker for almost 20 years, and we are still expecting the government to build a structure for us. So, I decided to try something out with my team instead. Our business is built around social impact, meaning we want profits, but social impact is more important. We are trying to build a global support system for African creatives so that people are inspired to put in their best. Being part of a coproduction like this helps because you can leverage on the strength of the other countries. South Africa has a much more structured industry for example, but Nigeria is more connected to the audience. When you marry those two strengths in a project then the result is a film like "No U-Turn."
What impact do you think that a film like yours can have on social issues in Nigeria, particularly in terms of migration?
I am one of the people who believe that Nollywood needs to take stock of the type of content we have produced over the years. I feel like a lot of what is going wrong can be traced (in)directly to the power of the images we have put out on film. There is a relationship between migration and the type of films we have promoted in the past. We have made films that make it seem as if you need wealth from abroad to be happy or respected so people are inclined to do whatever it takes to acquire wealth. In a lot of our films the characters live in mansions and drive big cars, even characters whose background are supposedly working class. We do not see enough stories of everyday people just getting by and building their lives. These narratives have far-reaching impact, and we should think more deeply about what we put out.
Tickets for this and subsequent screenings during the festival can be purchased three days before each screening on the Berlinale website.
The film is nominated for the Panorama Audience Award for the most popular documentary and feature film and for the Berlinale Documentary Award funded by rbb.
"No U-Turn" is a Generation Africa film, a project that provides development funds and training for films focusing on migration in Africa. Together with DW Akademie, STEPS launched this project with support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
Generation Africa is a collection of 25 short, medium and feature-length documentary films from 16 countries in Africa, which aim to shine a light on the future of youth in Africa through the topic of migration. Produced by STEPS in South Africa in collaboration with production companies in each country, this project aims to give voice to African storytellers in an initiative that has built a strong documentary community across Anglophone and Francophone Africa. This ground-breaking collection introduces exciting young documentary voices to a world stage in order to shift the narrative on migration. All Generation Africa films will be screened by the French-German public broadcaster Arte in early summer 2022.