VOICES OF PAN-AFRICAN CINEMA : Interview with Emmanuel Ikubese

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WHO IS EMMANUEL IKUBESE?

Emmanuel Ikubese is a Nigerian actor, model and filmmaker who has been in the industry for more than fifteen years, starting as an actor, and creating his own media company. Ikubese is not only known for his work in the cinema and media, but also for his humanitarian work for which he has been awarded prizes such as Peace Personality of the Year in 2015 and being nominated as an Ambassador for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in 2017.

Image taken from Dj-ACT Photography, https://olorisupergal.com/198752/news/emmanuel-ikubese-appointed-united-nations-millennium-development-goals-ambassador/21/05/24, 15:57

Ikubese first started as an actor in the show “MTV Suga”, going on to act in more movies and TV series such as “Shagayas and Clarks”, “Run”, “Ojukokoro”, “A Simple Lie”, just to name a few. He wrote and produced his first TV Show in 2018, named “Kyaddala”, an Ugandan drama set in a highschool, which explored “stories that affect young people, also highlighting issues of sexual health and reproductive health”. In his own words: “I love to tell Pan-African stories.“ 


In an interview with me for AAIFF Africa (The All African Independent Film Festival); Ikubese enlightened us through a wide range of topics with interesting inputs on subjects such as nigerian cinema, storytelling, cinema as a tool for social change, as well as a bit of his personal life and upcoming projects.

PORTRAYING AFRICA IN A POSITIVE LIGHT 

One of the first topics Ikubese delves into are his wishes and hopes regarding African filmmaking:

“I’m very passionate about seeing our African stories portrayed in such a positive light. Why we use storytelling? To highlight issues around Africa, (..), as a tool of learning from them and bringing change. I also feel telling our own story is such a good way to portray Africa in such a great light. I feel like there’s been a lot of negative narrative around Africa and we as filmmakers can do such a great job in promoting Africa in such a way that people begin to see Africa through our lenses, not through the lenses of the West.” Adding: “As filmmakers, as African filmmakers, it’s our own responsibility to tell our own stories. (…) So this is one of the things that I’m very passionate about. This is one of the reasons why I set up my own media company as a creative. And I have such a line up of amazing projects that I’m looking forward to.”

This well-spoken and on point statement by Ikubese could not be more accurate, since the representation of Africa by the “lenses of the West”, as he puts it, has been historically, a distorted one, and the importance of African directors representing themselves and their cultures is, as it has always been, fundamental. 

Using the statement of Ikubese as a starting point for a dive into this topic, I first want to draw a parallel between his and a speech from another Nigerian filmmaker, featured in the book “Nollywood: The Making of a Film Empire”, by journalist Emily Witt, which opens with a profound and impactful eight page monologue from Femi Odugbemi, where he states: “There were a lot of films in Nigeria through the years, but none spoke our voice. None recognized our existence as a distinct culture, as a distinct civilization, a distinct aspiration.” Going on to explain the history of Nollywood, and its importance: “People who were the consumers began to become the storytellers”. This speech, given by Odigbemo, in November 2015, in Freedom Park, Lagos, ends with a very powerful sentence: “The only reason it has not died is it became owned by the people whose history it was telling.”

Femi Odubgbemi, while simultaneously uplifting the importance of the representation of African culture by african filmmakers, depicting their own stories is vital in order to create authentic cultural expression, as well as preserving heritage and reclaiming identity and history, countering the erasure and misrepresentation that took place in the colonial era.

One of many possible examples of this historical repression and weaponizing of cinema could be the creation of the “Laval Decree”, by the French government in 1934, which was a law that controlled the content that could be filmed in its African colonies, restraining self representation, enforcing and disseminating colonial messages, and preventing any revolutionary content to be created.

Recently, in 2021, Unesco published a report named “The African film Industry: trends, challenges and opportunities for growth” which explores topics regarding modern African cinema, it’s trends, economic and distribution models, amongst other subjects, and it is stated that: “Regarding celluloid archives, the best surviving elements for historic African films are almost never found in Africa but in the national film archives of France, the United Kingdom and other European countries, and at various Western universities with African film departments. This means that these pioneering films are not available in educational institutions across Africa.” Although going through the topic of the theft of audiovisual archives by European countries, this Unesco report actually focuses primarily on “Africa’s booming film and audiovisual industry”.

THE POWER OF STORYTELLING

When asked about how being Nigerian influenced his storytelling in his creations, Ikubese stated: 

“First of all, as a Nigerian, we grew up telling stories. Our parents tell their stories to us every time they want to communicate to us, it’s always via stories, stories from their own childhood, stories. (…) Just different stories about life, how they were able to navigate through life. They always use stories as a way of teaching us. (…) And I feel like that’s why as a Nigerian we can tell stories for life, and it comes to us naturally because almost every Nigerian parent is a storyteller.” Adding: “So I would say as a Nigerian, storytelling has shaped our lives, even for me as a young man, if I want to speak to people, I always find a way to make reference or expatiate my points, or drive on my points by using stories, real stories, relatable stories, just so that people can see it, and it can make sense. (…) So yes, storytelling has shaped my life, and I’m not surprised that we produce so many movies out of Nigeria. (…) So that’s why we keep telling these stories and people keep engaging them. And we have a unique way of telling them, you know, Nigerian is unique in its own way. We have a very, very unique culture, we have a very unique language, we have a very unique set of ethnicity that we have embraced and we are proud of it. (…) We are so excited about it. So we are not afraid to tell our stories around our ethnicity, or around our culture, or around who we are as a people. So yeah, that’s why I believe we’re really good storytellers. “

This compelling statement by Ikubese reminded me of part of an answer given by Emilly Witt, in an interview by Elizabeth Flock, where she was asked how Nollywood became the “world’s second largest film industry in terms of number of films produced” in “such a short period of time”: “(…) There’s also a strong tradition of theater and storytelling in Nigeria — it’s a literary powerhouse. And there’s something unique about Nigeria in the sense that it has a really strong sense of cultural pride.”

When Ikubese speaks about Nigeria producing so many movies, this phenomenon is clear to see. Nigerian filmmaking is an ever growing industry, often referred as Nollywood, surpassing even Hollywood in terms of numbers of release, coming second only to Bollywood. Netflix officially entered the Nigerian market in 2019, and according to the previously mentioned Unesco research: “Netflix recently declared that its subscribers in Africa have grown to over 2 million, with Nigeria being a major market.”

CINEMA AS A TOOL FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

When asked if there is a strong relationship between humanitarian causes and cinema, Ikubese stated:

“(…) My career started from a project called MTV Sugar, and it’s a project set up and created by MTV Staying Alive Foundation for MTV Base and it’s done such a great job with trying to use storytelling to shed light on issues that affect us as Africans, and one of these issues at the time was HIV and AIDS and domestic violence. (…) And we did such a great job with telling real stories through their research. (…) This made the series very relatable to people, because people would begin to see themselves in their lives play out. So, for example, they see the end game of the journey they are (…) currently on and they’re like, you know what if I continue this journey? I’m going to end up like this character, right? So you know what I need? I need to pause (…) and examine my life. Which is why I believe projects like that create what is called behavioral change.”

THE FUTURE OF AFRICAN CINEMA

When talking about what he expects for the future of the industry, Ikubese acknowledges streaming platforms, applauding them for helping “bring African filmmaking to a particular place globally”. Adding: “Sometimes you’re watching the top ten in the US and you’re seeing an African film there, right? So it’s stuff like this that really excites me as a filmmaker”. Going on to say: “But I feel like we need a lot more support, and I mean support from funding to technical support as well. We need to see some of this technical support come in, most especially with how filmmaking is done in Hollywood. (…) Give us the kind of funding that we need to also be able to portray such films, so that we can also begin to tell our own stories from a global excellence perspective.” Furthering his statement by saying: “And I believe for you to produce excellence, you also need the capacity (…), and capacity means funding. Then we can begin to show the West the true nature of the kind of stories that we can tell.”

UPCOMING PROJECTS

Related to the previous topic, Ikubese is currently in the post-production phase of his next film, whose main goal is to raise awareness for the important issue of Sickle Cell disease, a life-long blood disorder, which attacks the organs, causes pain and a variety of health issues, reducing the life expectancy of its carriers. This movie is a Pan-African love story that sheds a light on how it is to live with this disease, and in the words of Ikubese: “It’s a film that I really want to take across Africa, passing on that message, letting people understand the stigma, the burdens of people living with sickle cell in Africa and how we can help reduce that burden, how we can help change that narrative, and stop the stigma.”

Regarding the cast of his upcoming movie, Ikubese also adds:” It’s a Pan-African film, I brought in stars from Africa, we have some of the finest actors from Nigeria and also from East Africa as well.”

We can expect this movie to be impactful, along with simultaneously elucidating and destigmatizing the people affected by sickle cell, as well as the disease itself.

Written by Léa Castro Neves

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