While some Nigerian movie makers in the United States are working on bringing Nollywood closer to Hollywood, Rahman Oladigbolu is bringing Hollywood closer to Nollywood. He spent over $100,000 dollars to make, In America: the story of the Soul Sisters.
It stars Hollywood actor, Jimmy Jean-Louis. His movie has been screened at International Black Film Festival in Montreal, Mid-Atlantic Black Film Festival in Virginia, Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, Roxbury International Film festival in Massachusetts, African International Film Festival in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the Cannes’ International Pan-African Film Festival in France and the African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York. Soul Sisters won the “Best Film” by an African in Diaspora at the 2011 edition of the African Movie Academy Award (AMAA). On September 8, it will premiere at the Genesis Deluxe Cinemas at The Palms in Lekki, Lagos. He is the author of the book, On Holy Pilgrimage: A Long Journey For Freedom. In this e-interview with Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo for Saharareporters.com, Rahman talks about his approach to movie making and the state of Nollywood. (Disclosure: This interviewer played a small role in the movie.)
SR: For those who do not know your story, could you briefly tell us how you became a filmmaker in America? Coming from Oyo, in Oyo state, how did you come by the dream and how did it carry you to America?
Rahman: If I could account exactly for how I came about the dream, I probably would add the title of "Chief Priest" to my name. I tell one story about this, my sisters tell another. What I know for sure, however, is that, first, I was impassioned for filmmaking after my secondary school education, which I did in Oyo. Secondly, that coming to America wasn't easy for me; in fact it was a long story on its own, one from which my family didn't know I could survive. And finally that God used this dream to carry me through, and it's been my wings since. This is a reason that making a movie about America and dream is not just about telling a story for me; it's also about living a dream and inspiring the dream. These are what you get when they go to see IN AMERICA.
SR: Your movie In America: The Story of the Soul Sisters is a story of the immigrant’s journey in America. Did you base it on a real life story? How much of it was from your personal experiences?
Rahman: As I've stated, the ideas beneath the movie came from my own personal experience and worldview. But the contents of the story were drawn from the lives and experiences of people I've met over the course of a decade that I've been in this country.
SR: What is it like making a movie in Boston instead of movie centers like New York, Hollywood or Toronto?
Rahman: Actually, Boston follows right after those three centers you mentioned. Boston is a fast-growing filmmaking center in the U.S., such that it has been dubbed the "Hollywood East". Many Hollywood films are now made in Boston; in fact I was competing with many of them when I was making my film, wrangling the actors and available equipments from film houses. But also, because, as of course you know, Boston is not yet there as the other three, that made it cost effective for independent filmmakers who may have to sell their belts to be able to make their movies. There are a lot of good actors and actresses in Boston, everything you need if you know what you're looking for and how to get them. And it's fun, crazily fun oftentimes.
SR: Soul Sisters won the “Best Film” by an African in Diaspora at the 2011 edition of the African Movie Academy Award (AMAA). What do they mean by An African in Diaspora? Did you for instance compete against movies made by African- Americans? What changed for you after you won the coveted prize?
Rahman: Well, the whole gamut of terms such as "Diaspora", "Nollywood", "Abroad" films are terms that I think would sort themselves out as years go by. For me, I just make films and it doesn't matter to me if it's Hollywood, Nollywood or Bollywood to you. My movie won the award for "Best Film for an African Abroad", and I think there was a separate "Diaspora" category. Nonetheless, it was a movie made in and about the Diaspora. There were films made by people from all over the world at the AMAA, which I think is a wonderful thing for AMAA and for all of us. And the same in my category, including "Anchor Baby" from Canada and "Mirror Boy" from the U.K. that we were all competing for the same award. And there were films by nationalities of other countries as well. The AMAA thus was a validation for me; it's one thing to receive recognition from entities that just admire your work and it's another to receive it from a legitimate entity of your industry, and one that's such international as the AMAA. The award has thus generated in me a renewed commitment to the Nigerian/African cinema. I see it as a challenge for me to work harder.
SR: In an interview with the Daily Independent newspaper, you said that you could not get a Nigerian to play Sade. How could that be with so many Nigerians actresses all over America?
Rahman: I think that says something about America, just as my movie tries to say with the story of Sade George. Yes, there are so many Nigerian actresses all over America, but there are also so many reasons why it's not always easy for them to get wind of such productions and for them to be able to make it. I auditioned for six months before I cast Mirlyne (who plays Sade). She walked in to the hall and I actually thought she was a Nigerian, until she introduced herself. And I worked with many Nigerians on this project; the Nigerian community in Boston were supportive, but it just happened that the right feet for Sade's shoes were Mirlyne's. And she's such a good actress and wonderful person that she won us all over. She blended with all the Nigerian girls on the set; they helped her with cultural things she needed to take into consideration, and they taught her to speak in Nigerian tongue. And that's what acting is all about; it's not about playing who you are; it's more about playing who you're not and playing it well. And she did it.
SR: You also used Hollywood actor, Jimmy Jean-Louis in the movie. He played a Nigerian taxi driver who is an uncle of Sade the lead actress. Is it cheaper and easier to use a Hollywood actor than a Nigerian actor?
Rahman: That's a relative idea; it would depend on the actor. Jimmy is not cheap to use, but it's an investment that's worth every penny you spend. Jimmy has played a Nigerian so many times that he may deserve a Nigerian passport now. He's a versatile and experienced actor that any filmmaker will be lucky to work with. And I was. He traverses all the "woods", more than many other actors you know in Hollywood.
SR: The relationship between Sade and his ‘uncle’ played by Jimmy Jean-Louis has a slight resemblance to the one between an uncle and a female immigrant in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story, You in America. What informed this similarity?
Rahman: It's not an uncommon relationship, anyway. The first few months for most Nigerian (and other African) immigrants in America are wrought with messy relationship with their host, which is more often their "uncle" or "aunt". My characters are based on real individuals; I only fictionalize the details to protect their identities and to tell the story in a certain way. So, as immigrant storytellers this will often come up in our stories, and it does a lot. The difference is often in the details - how we tell it. My version was partly influenced by Chris Rock. He made a joke one day about the relationship between the American system and black people, and referred to Uncle Sam (the U.S. government) as "like your big uncle who takes care of you but also rapes you." This makes me see Tai's action as symbolic of what the American system would do to Sade. It was also the reason I named the store owner as "Sam" - Tai's friend. I first named the uncle as Sam, but I decided not to make it that obvious.
SR: The financial requirements of each movie project vary. How much did it cost to make your movie? And how long did it take? What are the biggest production challenges you faced making Soul Sister?
Rahman: Cost and time spent on movies vary according to specific project and the specific situation within which it's being made. For this movie, the budget was $100,000, but the resources that completed it ended up being more. For all the participants, it was a labor of love, and that was how they handled it, rather than bill me formally.
SR: You wrote, directed and produced In America: The Story of Soul Sisters. You also played a role in it. Does playing all those roles enhance the project or diminish it? Critics of Nollywood consider the lack of division of labor as one of the reasons why the industry has not maximized its potentials. Is it difficult to work with others in the industry?
Rahman: Division of labor is not the problem that Nollywood is facing, it's dedication to execute assigned labor to the maximum perfection possible within the circumstances. Also, playing multiple roles on a project is common even with Hollywood productions. What matters is to know what one is doing and to do it well. One of the most widely watched movies in the world, and a very good movie at that, was made by a guy who wore so many hats on the project that I probably wouldn't be able to list them all. I'm talking of the South African Jamie Uys and the movie "Gods Must be Crazy."
SR: Do you consider yourself Hollywood or Nollywood? How are you perceived by movie makers at home? How does Hollywood react to your works?
Rahman: I straddle both industries. Besides, those terms are relative terms people use for whatever reason and from different viewpoints. And I occupy the position I occupy right now for a reason: to blur the lines between the two worlds. I see myself as a filmmaker, telling stories no matter where. But I'm particularly proud of what people in Nigeria have done with the industry; it's one of the great success stories of the 21st century.
SR: The personal lives of Nollywood actors and actresses mirror that of Hollywood actors and actresses. The divorce rate, the drama and the dalliances of the divas. What is it about actors and actresses that put them in those kinds of situations? What has been your experience?
Rahman: I don't think the personal lives of the actors and actresses are any different from the rest of the people. But the spotlight is so on them all the time, and that makes you see their underpants as you wouldn't the general people?
SR: What advice will you give to those aspiring to be movie makers? What is your primary mission as a movie maker? How do you choose the story to tell? Do you have any hidden message you’re trying to pass across?
Rahman: Though I don't use my camera to lecture, I don't think the intended message is hidden so to speak. I love stories, and I see myself as a storyteller, using the camera to tell my stories. I agree with Eli Wiesel that God must have created the world out of his love for stories. Our lives are just stories, and stories always contain meanings and messages. So, I select the stories that speak to me and which I believe people need to see to speak to them as well. Hence, if I'll give aspiring filmmakers any advice, it'll be to treat the story as the king. Everything else is to serve the story's purpose.
SR: Your movie will begin to play in Nigerian theaters in September. How do you distribute your movies? When do you expect movie lovers in America to be able to go to a theater near them and watch movies made by Nigerians like you?
Rahman: We're releasing it in theaters first in Nigeria. Afterward, it's coming to the theaters in the U.S. - although we've been having screenings and people have been coming out in troves to watch it. But it'll go into theaters by the end of the year.
SR: How do you deal with the perennial problem of piracy? Can the industry survive without a viable solution to it?
Rahman: The industry will always survive. The important thing right now is the cultivation of the cinema culture, through which films get to the
audience without risks of the kind of vulnerability they suffer in the strictly DVD culture. Following that, the technology is fast improving in such a way that there's hope against piracy.
SR: What should movie lovers next expect from you?
Rahman: People deserve excellence, and that's what they should expect. Preparation has begun for the next movie, another feature drama. I'm taking drama to a whole new level; it's been fun writing, and I'm eager to begin production. So, stay tuned.