Film

Talking to DESMOND OVBIAGELE – Director “The Milkmaid”- Nigeria’s 1st Eligible Oscars Submission


THE MILKMAID, is the second film by Ovbiagele a film which he wrote, produced and directed prior to a career in film he worked for over a decade in investment banking before he decided to follow his passion for film production. He wrote, produced and directed his debut feature film, RENDER TO CAESAR, which was selected to screen in official competition at FESPACO, Africa’s largest film festival, in 2015, as well as at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. It also received awards for Best Screenplay at the Nollywood Movies Awards and Best of Nollywood (BON) Awards respectively, in addition to the award for Best International Feature Film at the Nile Diaspora International Film Festival in Kampala, Uganda.

The Milkmaid his 2020 film about the jihadist insurgency in #Nigeria has been put forward as an Oscars contender, a moving and emotive tale, combined with great performance and beautiful cinematography. A debut feature role for Anthonieta Kalunta, it tells the story of two sisters who are abducted from their village during a deadly attack by militants in northeast Nigeria. It has been submitted by Nigeria as its entry for international feature consideration at the Academy Awards. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce nominations for the Academy Awards on March 15. Ahead of this exciting prospect ALT caught up with the director all the way in Lagos.

ALT
Why did you decide to become a film director?

D
A very interesting question. I was an investment banker for several years. , I guess I had an inner leaning towards the creative arts. Perhaps I got that from my mom, who was a fairly prominent fiction writer here in Nigeria. Particularly in the late seventies, early eighties. I didn’t quite think I had such inclinations until I was far advanced in my investment banking career and I started to feel perhaps a little restless and the thought came to begin to write scripts, which is actually how I started. I started writing scripts and I guess from there probably a natural transition into trying to get those scripts realized, through production and actually directing them. So, in a nutshell, that was the journey.


ALT
Did you go to film school?

D
Nope. Nope. and it’s self-taught, I guess.

ALT. Congratulations on that film. can you tell us  what was it like releasing a film during lockdown in Nigeria?

D
Yes. Well, the film hasn’t actually had a wide release in Nigeria. What we’ve had is a limited release in Nigeria, as well as in Cameroon and Zimbabwe. And that was strictly to make the film eligible for consideration for the Oscars.



ALT
There was a bit of controversy in terms of the release of the film in Nigeria what actually happened?
D
Well, you know, in Nigeria, like anywhere else, you’re required to get a certification from the national census board, which we applied to do. Well, the census board, took a rather, conservative approach, to classify the film, the elements in the field, which they were, concerned might be an issue, in terms of the portrayal of a particular religion and in view of the prevailing security situation in Nigeria. So, there were some elements that although authentic, they wanted managed so to speak and we had a fairly robust, back and forth with them on that. But eventually we managed to arrive at a version, which they were satisfied with.

ALT: For anyone who doesn’t know. what is The Milkmaid about?


D
Well, The Milkmaid essentially is a film that seeks to shine a spotlight on the victims of insurgency. At the start of embarking on this journey with The Milkmaid. One of my perceptions was that there was a lot of talk and public discourse on the actions or inactions of either the government or of the extremists, but there was very little attention being devoted to who the victims of the insurgency were apart from the statistics, as you read about in the papers, but in terms of who these people were, what their lives are like and what they went through and what they continue to go through for those fortunate enough to be alive. What I sought to explore through the medium of film was to try and put some flesh, some backstory to the typical victims of insurgency. We know that the Chibok girls have gotten a lot of attention in 2014 and rightly so, but, again, the research, you know, turned out that the Chibok girls, that demographic, was probably a minority in terms of the actual victims of insurgency who do not tend to be educated. These are typically uneducated people, young and old men and women, typically going about their daily lives as best they can farming, fishing , hawking selling, you know, and those are the sort of characters, we sought to portray in The Milkmaid.

ALT
Who is your main protagonist? .

D
Well, there’s a couple of sisters that essentially Fulani sisters, the Fulani tribe actually is prevalent across several West African countries, not just Nigeria. we sought to follow the story through their eyes. The youngest sister is getting married and in the middle of the wedding reception, it gets interrupted by an attack by the insurgents and they get abducted and taken away and a new way of life and philosophy is imposed on them, which they have to either accept or reject.

ALT
Where was the film shot?

D

It was shot in Nigeria and a single state in Nigeria. We shot it in Taraba is a state in North Eastern Nigeria, which actually is a theatre of conflict and its borders are some of the state’s most affected by the insurgency. So, we shot right in the Northeast and we chose that both for authenticity and also for the visual look of the place, Taraba state also happens to be one of the most beautiful locations in the country.

ALT: Do you think people will perhaps prefer to go back to the conventional way to view movies through the cinema cinematic release?

D
Well, it’s interesting to the extent that people actually have a choice. When before  the decisions were made by others for them by the studios or by the owners of the content and the owners of the platform. So I would hope that, cinema screens retain some play in how people watch, because obviously as a filmmaker, you make films to be seen on the big screen. But I think it would be, perhaps unrealistic not to expect that a shift has not taken place. And to some extent you may be looking at a newer model of exhibition, via platforms and on the big screen.


ALT: What makes a good director? What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out?  

D
I guess hopefully one has, an innate interest as well as some foundational skill in terms of directing, that’s important and then in terms of training, in addition to formalized training through a film school or university program, just updating and making yourself aware of the wide gamut of films out there, the various styles, the various narratives, the progression of film. You should look at some of the best directors, all of them, to a man or to a woman are students of film history,, and that’s not by accident. You know, you do gain a lot from understanding where film has come from and where it’s going to and developing your unique voice out of that knowledge.


ALT: Does Nigerian government support filmmaking, what is in place funding wise do you have things like the BFI film fund?

D
Well, that’s a very easy question. There’s no equivalent. We simply don’t have one. It’s basically every man and every woman for yourself, when it comes to filmmaking, the government in times past has tried to institute a number of, support mechanisms via facilities. But these haven’t had any longevity, particularly with transition of administration. So, at the moment, we still are left to fend for ourselves to a very large extent,

ALT: Let’s  talk about The Milkmaid’s  Oscars entry how has that made you feel?

D
Well, it’s been, it’s been humbling. It’s also been gratifying. You spend three months shooting a film, you’re putting your best efforts, your cast and crew put in their best efforts. obviously, there’s no guarantee that those efforts would receive any sort of acclaim. If you can even come up with a coherent film, we are grateful if that film, managed to get some, acknowledgement, or recognition, but even the better, if it is the platform of the Oscars, then obviously you’re in a fairly, very good position. And that’s how we feel about The Milkmaid. You know, a lot of sacrifices went into this film, it wasn’t a riskless film to shoot we shot,  in a region which, has experienced a certain level of, activity, so to speak, so to come out from that, scenario, with the opportunity to represent your country is indeed very humbling and  we’re very happy about that.


ALT: Did you shoot the film during the pandemic or was it before the pandemic shot?


D
We shot before the pandemic.


ALT
What were some of the challenges and what were some of the things you learned while making this film?


D
Well, one of the challenges or shoots in the field with a non-English language, I only speak English and this film was shot in Hausa, which is the language of Northern Nigeria, largely, and fufudaya, as well as some elements of Arabic. none of which I speak. So, first of all, the script needed to be translated from English to those languages. I needed to ensure that the translation was accurate and then needing to direct actors and actresses in those languages, several of whom did not, actually speak English very well. So that made us take probably twice the amount of time to shoot this film as it would have if we’re shooting in English. In addition to that, we’re shooting in the extreme Eastern part of the country and needed to transport,  cast and crew and resources from the West, which is where it was based, it was a challenge because logistically you need to truck all those items out to the Eastern part of the country and going through various territories and country that some of which are a bit risky to go through. And we actually did have an incident where our truck was apprehended at a checkpoint, props and costumes were offloaded. And, because of the nature of the film, we’re shooting, word got around the locals in that territory that, our crew members who are on the bus, where the insurgents who attacked the village a couple of days prior. And unfortunately, they were actually about to lynch them, thinking that they were terrorists, so the crew were actually taken to a police station for their own safety, where they spent seven days while the police were trying to unravel the mystery of how these boys were going around with, these costumes and these props. So that was fairly traumatic for us as a production. We couldn’t shoot anything for a week whilst we’re trying to get that situation resolved.


ALT
As a director what kind of stories do you like to tell ?


D
Well I like to be able to tell stories that have some element of social commentary, because obviously there’s so much going on.  With The Milkmaid, I guess  what excited me and inspired me was the opportunity to just speak out, to be a voice really, for those who typically can’t be a voice. So, I mean, right now you have the victims of insurgency, certainly several of whom are languishing in various internally displaced camps around the country. And they can’t speak for themselves in terms of what they’ve been through and what they’re going through. So as a filmmaker, you have a responsibility and an opportunity to actually speak on behalf of people whose voices can’t really be heard. So, I guess I tend to gravitate towards those sorts of narrative and after The Milkmaid, I probably look for something similar to that.

ALT
Do you see yourself making a film about the pandemic?

D
Oh, there’s so much to be said about a pandemic. I’m sure there’s so many projects in the pipeline and  already out of the pipeline about the pandemic. So, if I can find a unique angle with which to address it, I probably will, but I probably would not  address it just because it’s a pandemic because there are so many other people also angling to do exactly the same thing.


ALT:
for anyone who hasn’t yet seen The Milkmaid, summarize the story for them and why they should see it.

D
Well, The Milkmaid is a story that follows two sisters, and it seeks to explore the impact of the disruption, of insurgence and extremist attacks on them. It’s does seek to take you into the mindsets of the extremists that you hear about, but don’t really understand where they’re coming from or why they’re doing it also seeks to help you understand what it’s like to be taken away from your normal, happy day everyday existence, to be taken to a camp of strangers and to experience, what it’s like to be forced into a way of life that you’re not accustomed to, and that you probably don’t agree with and how you can manage to survive and keep yourself sane under such a scenario. So, it just helps you to be immersed more in the minds of these people who you read about, and typically trying to understand where they’re coming from and what they have been through.


ALT: In Nigeria, are you currently on lock down and what has it been like during the pandemic?
D
Well, we’ve had a couple of lock downs in Nigeria, but not withstanding a second wave. That seems to have hit sometime around Christmas, last month. We are not currently in lockdown there are strict regulations from the government in terms of how to dress and all the sanitizing mechanisms in public places. But other than that, basically we  go about our business. Our schools actually just resumed earlier this week. But Nollywood being Nollywood  it’s difficult to keep it  down in terms of shooting. So even during the pandemic or shortly after the pandemic lockdown was eased in May last year, shooting has been going on and I would imagine it hasn’t stopped since then.

The Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, are awards for artistic and technical merit in the film industry. They are regarded as the most famous and prestigious awards in the entertainment industry. Ceremony date: 25 April 2021

#TheOscars #TheAcademyAwards #Nollywood #desmondOvbiagele #TheMilkmaid #Nigeria #Insurgency


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