Opukeme wants to investigate everyday situations in very intimate and personal ways.
Jack’enneth Opukeme grew up weird and didn’t feel like a normal person.
To bring the stories in his head to life, he was the child who talked loudly to himself — to the fascination of, and worrying glances from, others.
Adding a dramatic spin to a vivid childhood experience put him at the genesis of Battle on Buka Street, Nollywood’s highest-grossing film of all time.
Only one year later, his first solo writing project to land on the big screen is something he hopes becomes a modern classic.
Here’s the story of how Opukeme created Adire, FilmOne Entertainment’s first original film.
What’s the first interesting thing you remember creating?
Aba Blues, easily. It’s this post-Biafran Igbo love story about this woman, her husband and her ex-boyfriend. It was greatly inspired by Half of a Yellow Sun and almost every Eastern literature I’d read, and my stay in the East. If there was ever a feeling that “I am Jack’enneth, and poverty and lack had nothing on me, and as long as I had life I would shake this world,” it was Aba Blues. It was just beautiful in terms of how the characters spoke, fell in love, got hurt, and dealt with pain and their past issues. I’d never seen something quite like it on stage — the modern telling of the psychological effect of love and how something that beautiful can break you.
How did you become the person who could create that?
I’ve always been a storyteller since I was a child. While in Cross River State, where I got a first-class degree in theatre at the University of Calabar, I staged plays like August Wilson‘s Fences and A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Fences is a good example of the power of rhetoric, the power of well-crafted dialogue and the depth of storytelling. One thing I loved about the stories was they dealt with everyday people — the type of people you would not associate with intellect and would normally dismiss as being illiterate. These people are captured in a way that seems human and wholesome. I think that kind of shaped the artist I believe I am today. I enjoyed reading Chimamanda Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Helon Habila, Lola Shoneyin‘s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, and Richard Wright‘s Black Boy.
How did those books shape you?
I think what they did was help me appreciate the beauty in small communities. Everybody says to look and think outside the box, but I’m big on looking inward because I feel like sometimes we haven’t done enough to tell the stories of the grandmother who lives by the road and has no family members, so everyone calls her a witch. I’m really in that place where I want to look inward and investigate everyday situations in a very intimate and personal way. I work with that consciousness in telling my own stories, especially when I have the freedom to tell the stories I want.
How much did the communities you grew up in contribute to who you are as a creator?
I grew up in Bayelsa State, but the three years of my senior secondary education were in Imo State which I feel is a huge part of my life because it just exposed me to another set of people. I stayed back in Calabar after graduating from university because I didn’t want to go back home where I wasn’t sure exactly what was there for me. Those three places have impacted my life and how I see the world. I feel my final year of university mattered the most because directing A Raisin in the Sun opened up something in me. The play was difficult to make because it was an all-student cast and was a lot of work. Imagine Nigerians trying to be African Americans.
This is so random because I acted in a theatre production of A Raisin in the Sun in my first year of university, so I completely understand what you mean
You did? What character did you play?
Travis. It was only natural I played the 10-year-old character because I was carrying around a baby face at this point in my life. I remember it was tricky for everyone to sync with the African-Americanness of the characters and sell them convincingly to the judgemental audience. We were really envious of the other drama groups that had to perform Nigerian plays for that course
Oh my God. Now, I feel a kinship here. But the production of A Raisin in the Sun was so successful and memorable to me that nothing felt impossible. I decided to do some more theatre, so I did Fences. I did it well too — acted and directed. My professor came and was madly impressed especially since he told me I wasn’t going to pull it off. After that, I decided to try my hand at writing my own and finding my authentic Nigerian voice in storytelling. That’s when I wrote the Aba Blues play — Onyinye Odokoro (Domitilla: The Reboot) played the lead character. It just opened some hunger for more African storytelling because it was so well-received and well done for a play. I later wrote The Face You Saw in the Fire, another play set in some fictional African country. What kept me in Calabar was the constant need to create — I just wanted to write, direct and act and I didn’t have the resources to go to Lagos.
Until you eventually ended up there
Yes. I had a couple of friends who had moved earlier and would pressure me to move too, but there was no one to accommodate me. During the pandemic lockdown, I started talking to Mimi Bartels (Head of Production at FilmOne Entertainment at the time). She saw a clip of one of my musical stage plays and reached out to ask if I had written it. We kept talking and she was super kind to me — I would reach out and she would even apologise if she replied late. After the lockdown, she said someone was going to reach out to me for an internship that paid a stipend. I said yes before even thinking about the consequences of moving to Lagos without serious money. Luckily, a friend decided to accommodate me so I was squatting in her living room for 11 months when I moved.
Welcome to Lagos
When I came to Lagos, I had a very artistic consciousness just because of the type of drama I used to do in theatre. But Lagos made me start thinking about commercial stories too. A couple of months into my internship, I had an idea of these mama-put sellers who were rivals. My mother owned a shop on the same street where this other woman had been selling for years, and she never forgave my mother for it. I always thought about it in a dramatic sense, so I reached out to Mimi and she immediately sent it to Moses Babatope (Co-Founder and Group Deputy Managing Director of Filmhouse Group). He read it and said it was the hit we’d been looking for. My goal was to tell a very dramatic funny story with a lot of heart in it and that idea became Battle on Buka Street. When Funke Akindele read it in its rough state, she said she would like to invest in it and co-develop it, and that was when everything started. The privilege I had with it was it wasn’t taken from me and I was part of the development.
Battle on Buka Street went on to become the highest-grossing Nollywood film of all time
I was speechless. To be a part of history is no mean feat. At the same time, I was relieved because when you have a Battle on Buka Street do so well, you don’t feel that sense of pressure when you start trying to make Adire. When I created the story, I was just paying homage to the woman on my street stressing my mother. I didn’t expect it to be a mega blockbuster.
How did you go from Battle on Buka Street to creating Adire?
The period I conceived the ideas for both of them is actually not too far apart because I used to pitch a lot when I came to Lagos. So, in a dream state while napping in my friend’s living room, on one of these secondary school sized mattresses, a woman walked up to me with a briefcase — like she was travelling somewhere — and said, “My name is Adire. Can you tell my story?” I did not have the fullest picture of what it was this woman wanted to tell me, but I knew that was the day she spoke to me. By the time I had a sufficient grasp of what the story was going to be, I told Mimi and she loved it. When I wrote the first draft, I dropped it somewhere until there was a demand for Adire one year later. We were going to make it for some company but it didn’t work out, so my boss said we should just make it since we believed in it.
That’s quite the journey
Right? I wanted the story of Adire to be told by a good person, and I was a production assistant on a set when I met Adeoluwa ‘Degzy’ Owu (director of The Griot). I wasn’t too familiar with his work beyond being a director of photography but I felt he had a really good heart and a decent person who was beyond skilful. Mimi had been speaking about wanting to work with him, so it was just easy. He read the rough draft and he knew he wanted to make it — you couldn’t tell him anything to change his mind. Having an external person believe so much in the script was all the push I needed to work really hard on getting it right for filming.
I’m curious about how much the spirit of your initial Adire vision was preserved once the script left your hands
By the time it was about to be made, Mimi said I needed to be the creative consultant on the project because she felt I knew the story better than anybody and had been obsessing over it for over a year.
You were there every step of the way?
I was involved from casting to crewing and was on set working hand-in-hand with the director who has always been a kind and accommodating person. Degzy could have thrown me out, but he just believed in me and could tell I knew what I was saying. Our visions for the film were also not too far apart so the whole process felt like a brotherhood. When I say Adire is my baby, I mean it in every sense of the word because I was there when almost every decision was made. I think the only time I could take a break was when I was acting, playing Tunde.
Yeah, how did playing Tunde happen?
I should shout out my friend, Stephen Oluboyo (content development coordinator at FilmOne, and co-writer of Battle on Buka Street), for that. He always knew I loved acting and that I was always scared to ask because most times I never really got any roles. He said the Tunde character looks like me — I have this thing they call bombastic side-eye and it’s my 9-to-5 face. He asked me to push for playing the character so I told Mimi and Degzy if I could and they both agreed.
How did you feel stepping in front of the camera?
I wrote the character so I thought he would be easy to play, but I was nervous because his first speaking scene was like the first or second scene when filming started and I thought it was too early. The actors looked committed and I didn’t want to be the one they would say spoilt the film because I’d not done any serious acting in a long time. But the crew knew how many hats I was wearing, so they would always remind me to breathe and forget about production stress and step into Tunde — everybody helped. I knew it was my moment, and you can’t fuck up your own moment that you prayed for.
What do you love the most about your creation?
Adire feels picturesque; like you’re reading an old book as it was intended. People loved it at the premiere but I hope audiences also really like that aspect of it because it was intentional to make it feel so nostalgic and entertaining, and so literary. You’ve seen the film, what do you think?
I believe we had the conversation at the private screening about how the film feels like you know the characters who are in simple stories that feel familiar and you can connect to. Connection to the story is something the modern Nollywood audience struggles to feel just based on how the stories play out. This leads to my final Adire question: what are you trying to sell here?
For me, it’s let’s start to look inward and make stories that break our hearts. I want more filmmakers to absolutely tell stories they have convictions on, that are a part of themselves. It’s important to tell stories you know — just look inward. It’s good to make a blockbuster film and have very big ideas, but what about the personal ones and really intimate stories dear to you? You have to love the material so much that it shows when it’s made.
For the audience, the message is clear about being accepting of people, not being judgemental and re-evaluating the dangerous values we hold in the name of religion, faith and culture. I did not set out to write Adire to vilify anybody, the goal was not to say everybody in the church is bad but to show diverse types of people in communities and help people see who they shouldn’t be and who they could emulate.
That sounds like a great place to leave it, but a final, final question: what does the future look like for you as a creator?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’m never overconfident in the sense that “Oh, I did Adire and a lot of Adires will come.” But I hope to make Aba Blues next year, by myself if I have to. I love it so much and I’m tired of talking about it, so I want people to see it. If God says, “Jack do this one thing and you can leave the world,” I might choose Aba Blues. It means the world to me.