C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi is Determined to Change Nollywood
By Alyssa Klein
Welcome to the first instalment of Storyteller Spotlight, a new series launching today on We Have Stories in which we’ll be spotlighting storytellers from historically underrepresented communities. Each week, we’ll get to know a rising artist—from filmmakers and comic book creators to puppeteers, playwrights and photographers—driven by the need for greater representation in media.
First up, meet C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi, a trailblazing writer-director on a quest to change the game for Nollywood cinema.
Growing up in a small town in southeastern Nigeria in the 1980s, Obasi was obsessed with movies and TV, from Knight Rider, Hammer House of Horror and Evil Dead to the popular to British sitcom, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, and not to mention the novels of Stephen King. Surrounded by diverse stories on TV, a young Obasi had a knack for drawing comic renditions of his favorite characters and superheroes.
Of course, back then his love for movies was just a hobby (though he did make some money selling his comics to friends). In college, he studied computer science, eventually embarking on a promising career as a web programmer in his 20s.
But something was missing. His friends were killing it with new styles of storytelling. Obasi wanted to be part of the action. In 2010, he got his first experience making movies with a failed low-budget horror mockumentary that never saw the light of day. It didn’t matter. Obasi caught the filmmaking bug. A year later he quit his nine-to-five in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja to move home with his parents.
Back in Owerri, Obasi had no plan, no formal training, no budget. But he had a passion. And just as important, he had the confidence. He wasn’t just going to make movies—he was going to change Nollywood as we know it. He bought a bunch of cameras and started shooting everywhere he went, a period he refers to as his “film school”. With no funding but armed with a gigantic vision, Obasi set out to make a groundbreaking movie—something of the highest artistic quality to completely blow moviegoer minds ala cinematic history’s greatest auteurs.
He didn’t come close. In actuality, his first attempt at a feature film, the Obasi-set horror, Jim & Joan, was “really bad,” according to Obasi’s own standards. Yet somehow, the unfinished movie was selected to close out the 2012 Eko International Film Festival. (Obasi was unable to secure the necessary funds to finish the project. To this day, it remains incomplete.)
Eager to learn from his mistakes, Obasi jumped right into OJUJU (2014), a zero-budget zombie horror/thriller set in a Lagos slum. He and his partner/producer had no budget, but they went ahead and made it anyways. Their bootstrap style of movie-making turned out to be successful. Obasi’s official debut went on to win Best Nigerian Film at the 2014 Africa International Film Festival, screen at more than 20 festivals around the world and garner excellent reviews by the likes of IndieWire and Hollywood Reporter.
Next up, Obasi set his sights on the crime-gangster genre. O-Town (2015) tells the story of an ambitious hustler at the center of everything wrong in Owerri (aka O-Town). Like his previous effort, it went on to have a successful festival run around the world.
Obasi followed it up with an afrofuturistic short based on Hello, Moto, the 2011 short story by acclaimed Nigerian-American fantasy and sci-fi author, Nnedi Okorafor. The visually spectacular adaptation, Hello, Rain (2018), tells the story of three scientist witches who, through a combination of juju and technology, create magical wigs that grant them supernatural powers, and the subsequent fall-out that ensues when power corrupts.
For his third feature, the forthcoming black-and-white supernatural thriller, Mami Wata, Obasi hopes to bring the mermaid goddess of West African lore to the big screen. But funding has proven difficult, perhaps stifled in part by the project’s progressive treatment of women and prevailing taboos and superstitions associated with its subject matter. Obasi, though, remains determined. It’s not like funding woes have ever stopped him before.
Below, ‘The Fiery One’, as he’s sometimes called, shares his thoughts on the need for more diverse storytelling and what inspires his own storytelling.
What kinds of stories do you want to tell through your work?
I'm not about any particular kind of story. But If I had to say what my stories have in common, I'll say “stories offering an alternative African narrative." There's already so much out there about what Africans are, or what African cinema is, and in my view, it's much too constrained. There's so much more that we are, and that our cinematic expression can be.
How do you perceive your role as a male ally trying to amplify stories of women?
It's a little weird because I grew up having strong women around me, so I've only ever known this way. I don't have to think about it. It just is. My immediate elder brother is six years older than I am, so I was the baby of the house. When I was born I was my elder sisters “pet project.” Besides my mother, those ladies raised me as their own child. And then I lost them both to sickle cell. You never really outgrow such a loss, and they're always with me, till this day. I guess you could say I've always been seeking an outlet to pay homage to those virtues that I saw and knew in them, as well as in my mother. I believe one of the greatest respects an African creative can pay is to help foster a multidimensional understanding of African women experiences, because truly, we don't have nearly enough of that going on in the way of cinematic representation.
What have been some of the biggest challenges for you in terms of getting your stories out?
Funding. But everybody says "funding." For me though, more than funding is the lack of open-mindedness one has to deal with, mostly in my country though. I've found, much to my dismay, that once I leave the shores of Nigeria, there's a fresh and contagious excitement for what I'm trying to do—something you never quite see in Nigeria. And then there's distribution. There just aren’t enough outlets for distribution of African cinema of any kind, really.
Why is it important to you to get diverse stories out?
It just is, isn't it? I mean, why is it important that African people have their day in cinema? Why should we care about how we are represented in cinema, or if our cinema form is a particular kind of way? What does it matter? It just matters. Black cinema matters—stories about us, talking about different things, told in different forms. We've had a hundred years of misinformed and skewed representations of us, mostly by people who are not us in cinema, so why not own the next hundred years, and show the world a new way?
What can people do to support your work?
Same way anyone supports any work they approve of, I guess. Help push it. Buy tickets, pay for streams, share it, like it, talk about it. Filmmakers gotta pay bills, too.