May 25, 2024

Oba Erediauwa was always watching our movies… correcting us in some of the Benin historical movies, says Ogunmu

  • April 30, 2024
  • 9 min read
Oba Erediauwa was always watching our movies… correcting us in some of the Benin historical movies, says Ogunmu

‘Somehow, Harrison Asia’s death was the beginning of movie artists’ association in Edo State’

By Anote Ajeluorou

IT is sometimes ironic how tragedy unites, attempts to heal wounds and even galvanises action in particular directions. Harrison Asia, a lead actor some years ago in a Benin language film, Ighayevbuebo (literally meaning ‘I like to travel abroad’), died while travelling on the perilous desert route to get to Europe and away from his home country he thought had no hope for him, like millions of others. Not even the film he lent his talent and voice to make, ostensibly to discourage others from such perilous trips, cut it for him. His art and act in it weren’t skin-deep enough, as he plunged headlong to his death. But that would be a prelude to a great awakening among the colleagues he left behind for the start of a unifying body for all movie actors in Edo State.

And the man who recalled the tragic incident recently while featuring on GallaxyTV prime time celebrity programme is veteran filmmaker Mr. Best Ogunmu, a graduate of English and Literature of the University of Benin, Benin City. Ogunmu is now based in Europe still plying his art of filmmaking and making entertainment generally. Although he’d been trying to rally his colleagues back then to organise themselves to make the fledgling film industry in Edo State better, it was Harrison’s death that became the battle cry for unity.

The UK-based artist recalled that tragic moment thus, “Well, before then I had been trying to bring the actors together under one umbrella, but the responses I got were not encouraging. When we got the news of the death of Harrison, I called for a mourning procession. Lots of my colleagues responded. It was during our preparations for this event that I reminded them of the need for an association. This time everybody spoke with one voice. We all agreed. Somehow, his death was the beginning of Edo Artistes Association of Nigeria (EAAN), although it was initially called Edo State Artistes Forum (ESAF). As for the mood at the announcement of his death, it was really a very sad one. We were devastated.

“So we came together for about seven or eight months. I was the organising secretary. One of our elders at Edo State Arts Council, late Mr. Brown Etiemwen, was our chairman. I was the one really making everyone to come together. We now had election, but I didn’t want to contest. But there was pressure from everyone. That was how I became president and we now had a strong voice to also discuss with marketers and executive producers. I was urging executive producers to give artists what they merited; we started pushing. We were now fully recognised.

“We went to see the Oba of Benin, Oba Erediauwa; he was always calling on us, because he was watching our movies. He was correcting us in some of the Benin historical movies we were shooting. We now decided to always take our scripts to the Oba for us to get our historical stories correct. The Oba had people he always asked us to meet. They are the encyclopaedia of Edo customs, culture and traditions. So that was how we began to make our Benin historical movies better.”

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Best Ogunmu

As pioneer president, Ogunmu said he put in immense amount of work to get things going, because he had a big vision for the industry. In spite of his efforts at ensuring a better industry in Edo State though, Ogunmu said he wasn’t paid much, add, “But I wasn’t getting paid much. In my first film I was paid N4,000. As president I was always making sure that things went well. I was paid little, but I was driving actors to locations, putting everybody inside the car, some will sit on the bonnet and we will drive to location. But I’m so-so grateful to God for what Edo movie industry is today. It is bigger. We’re even planning for a lot of things. The association is holding elections in May. Joseph Uhunmwangho is the outgoing president. But I don’t interfere in their elections since I left as president. Those making movies now are bigger, because they’re making money from the business.”

His role as president before he left Nigeria in 2006 included interfacing with movie marketers who held the aces back then unlike now where streaming platforms have since replaced VHS and VCDs that movie marketer traded in. This interface took him to Upper Iweka Road, Onitsha, Anambra State, where he met resistance to get investors for Edo moviemakers. But when he decided to look inwards for investors, one man took the challenge and a boom began to happen that drew others into investing in movies in Edo State.

“As a pioneer president, I was always discussing with marketers then,” Ogunmu recalled. “At a time, I went to Upper Iweka Road, the centre of movie marketing in Onitsha, to source for investments and funding for our movies. But the Onitsha marketers categorically told me they could not take their money to make movies in Benin. Of course, the industry was very much in Lagos at that time, not even in Onitsha or Asaba as we have it today. But after that encounter in Onitsha, I came back to Benin City and started talking to people to fund our movies. Only one man heeded our call, although he’s late nnowMr. Monday Ezekiel Osagie of Soul2Soul Nigeria Ltd. He came into the business and brought out some money. But the guy made so much money in ROI, return on investment. The first movie he sponsored he made millions, bought cars, bought expensive cameras. It was then other people started coming into the business with money.”

But there were other teething problems apart from lack of funding, which their doggedness helped overcome with time, as Ogunmu explained, “There had been problems with locations, where to shoot. People didn’t want to give us their houses to shoot. I remember someone telling me that if people saw his house in films, thieves would go and raid it. Then people were criticising us that the locations we were using were not fine. I remember someone who made this criticism. I told him okay, the next time I’ll shoot I will use his house. But he said, ‘no, do you want thieves to come to my house?’

“But things have changed. People volunteer their houses for us to shoot in. People even give us their cars to use; we still hire cars, but most of it is gotten for free. My people in Benin still call me to request fellow diaspora people to allow them use their houses and cars. I’m proud of myself and proud of what my people back home are doing to make movies and promote our film culture to make it grow.”

Long before Ogunmu entered the University of Benin, Benin City , he’d been active as a thespian in the city’s theatre space. It wasn’t a surprise therefore that the fledgling film industry would drew him in like a magnet. And then he yielded himself to it, and as they say, the rest is history.

“I started acting in NTA’s children to youth programmes – acting, singing, etc. But one person stood out at that early stage of my acting career. He’s Mr. Femi Adewale; he taught us the rudiments of acting. I can boldly tell you that majority of us went through Adewale. Adewale is currently an independent television producer. That man was too much; he brought us into the main thing. He bought us up. I learnt a lot from him. I go a lot of things. We started from there; that was how the Super Movie thing started from NTA Benin. I will continue to honour that man till I die, because whatever I’m in the movie industry today, it was Femi! He made it happen. He didn’t play when he was working. I was shuttling between my theatre group and work at NTA.

“So when movie started being made in Lagos, I said why can’t we do this in Benin City? We started urging ourselves to come together and get our acts right.”

Weighing in on how the industry has fared since going abroad, Ogunmu simply said, “I left Nigeria in 2006. In some aspects, the industry is better now. But there are still some aspects that we have to look at. Before I left we were still struggling with equipment, but today it’s better. Way back majority of our stories and screenplay were better. Then it wasn’t just you writing a script and going to shoot. Back then we sat down and did script conference to make sure everything is alright – we added and subtracted. So some aspects of the industry are better, some are not.

“But there’s significant improvement now from when and where we started. I remember when we started as some of the pioneers of the movie industry. I can boldly say I was one of the first actors that veered into moviemaking in Benin City. Before movies, I had been acting on stage and on NTA Benin. We actually started with the VHS tapes; not many are conversant with that format now in the era of livestreaming. And because funding was so low, most times we shot a movie in two days! We hurried a lot of things. Some scenes we were supposed to shoot in the morning, but because we had no time, we shot them in the evening, also because of funding challenges.”

Ogunmu reaffirmed his affinity with home in spite of living and working abroad, as he hopes to set up a moviemaking office in Benin City soon, adding that he would “be home later this year for a movie project with my people. Whenever I am home, they invite me for movies, but time is not always on my side. I am setting up an office in Benin City very soon. I already have all my movie equipment in Benin City.”

Some of Ogunmu’s Edo language movies include Osegbe (What Goes Round Comes Around), Idala (New in the Game), Igbovo (Jealousy), Agbonsalo (The World Is not Enough), Ilawe-Agbon (The Mysteries of Life) and Okaegbe (The Family Head). And in the diaspora, Ogunmu has also made Double Cross, Different Sides and The Pastors, among other movies.

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