Meet Meet Nigeria’s ‘Maverick’, filmmaker James Omokwe who’s pushed Nollywood to new levels

By Jerry Chiemeke
Posted on Thursday, 20 October 2022 12:06

Filmmaker James Omokwe

If there’s one word that could describe Nigerian movie producer James Kalu Omokwe, it would be 'Maverick'.

The UK-born filmmaker, who is the founder of the production company Feemo Vision, started out as an actor, but transitioned into film production after graduating from the New York Film Academy in 2010.

Stamping authority

Omokwe, 38, is widely regarded as one of the people pushing the new wave of storytelling in one of the world’s biggest movie industries, and has directed two of Nollywood’s best-received TV series in recent years: Ajoche (2018) and Riona (2020). Both period dramas, the two shows aired on Africa Magic, spanned 260 episodes each, and provided platforms for the discovery of previously unknown Nigerian actors.

New grounds

On 6 September 2022, Omokwe teased a trailer for Diiche, an upcoming psychological thriller and the first Nigerian Original limited series from Showmax. Written by Nigerian screenwriter Ifeanyi Barbara Chidi, the limited series is co-directed by James Omokwe, Tolu Ajayi, Fiyin Gambo and Ifeoma Chukwuogo.

The cast of Diiche is a mix of emerging acts and industry veterans, including Daniel K Daniel, Efa Iwara, Uzoamaka Onuoha, Frank Konwea, Uzoamaka Aniunoh, Kalu Ikeagwu, Chinyere Wilfred and Gloria Anozie-Young. The show, which premieres on 29 September 2022 follows the story of a popular actress who must face her dark past when her fiancé turns up dead, putting her in the line of questioning as a person of interest.

Creative process

Ahead of release day, I caught up with Omokwe on a Wednesday afternoon via Google Meet. He had been battling the flu, but was still eager to have the conversation, and he was joined on the call by Nneka Ezealor, the production manager at Feemo Vision.

When asked what motivated his decision to produce a thriller, Omokwe says it was the desire to create authentic African stories.

“With Ajoche and Riona, we discovered a niche, and from a business perspective we felt that there was no need to change a winning formula, after all, both shows were successful. However, it doesn’t mean that we didn’t want to tell different kinds of stories.

“When we first pitched this show, it sounded too similar to previously done Hollywood whodunnits, so we sat down, developed the story and added some uniquely African elements, in line with our vision to be authentic. We paid a bit of homage to Old Nollywood, because we wanted to stay original. For me, in particular, I didn’t want to be placed in some ‘King of Epics’ box.”

Key decisions

When asked what influenced his casting decisions, Omokwe reveals that a lot of significant changes had to be made.

“We had been in development for about a year, and we had drawn up a list of actors to take on the various roles, but we kept shifting the shooting dates because the script needed reworking. Every time we rescheduled the shoot, we would find that one or two actors had pulled out from production. However, it turned out well in the end because the guys we had on board did an amazing job. I think that no one could have interpreted the roles better than the people we ultimately got to work with; they are perfect for the show.”

You can’t entertain each guest with the same size of yam.

Omokwe proceeds to tell me that in making Diiche, what he found most challenging was the scripting.

“We started development in May 2021, scripting took two months, and we started building sets in July 2021. We were supposed to shoot in October 2021, but then we had to pause because the story needed redrafts. After a second rewrite, we felt that we would be ready to shoot by February 2022, but we weren’t satisfied until we had churned out six drafts. We finally started shooting in May 2022. The delays were frustrating, and we had to pay extra money for equipment, but I see it as a learning process.”

Nneka Ezealor, the show’s production manager, adds that bringing Diiche to life was demanding from a technical standpoint.

“For the crew, the long hours of work were gruelling. We had to move around a lot, sometimes having to travel. We had to keep up and make sure that at the end of every day, we bagged all the scenes, and there were a lot of technical scenes to be shot. It’s a limited series, and we had to pack the punch in each episode, so we were under pressure to deliver. There was also the part of catering to the needs of each actor on the set; to borrow an adage, you can’t entertain each guest with the same size of yam.”

Catering to an evolving audience

On social media, Omokwe is usually vocal about public perception of Nollywood, so he finds it easy to answer my final question, which dwells on the demands of Nigerian film audiences.

“Whether it’s film or TV, the issue here is content. You have to always look at things from a product perspective: people are paying money, and the question is, is your product good enough for the paying audience? You’re in a consumer-based market; it’s not about you and the films that you make. The worst thing that can happen [to a filmmaker] is to make a product that ‘abuses’ the target market of that said product.

“The Nigerian audience is evolving; people hold Twitter Spaces where you hear what people have to say about your film. Imagine that you’re a chef, then you invite people to eat, and they feel that your food is trash, but you start claiming that they don’t have taste. For film and TV, consumption style is the same, and only one question matters: did they enjoy it or not? As producers, we need to look at what kinds of stories we want to tell, stories that can be pushed locally and internationally.”

‘Diiche’ premiered on Showmax on 29 September 2022.

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