Didi Cheeka: Changing the face of Nigerian Cinema

Twenty years after it first took Nigerians by storm, the excitement over the Nollywood phenomenon is gradually waning. A new wave of filmmakers are reshaping Nigeria’s film industry and forcing the world to take notice, and this time for positive reasons.

Didi Cheeka is one of a new crop of directors, who have broken the mould with the stories they tell and their approach to telling these stories. Trained at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism and the National Film Institute, Cheeka is not new to international attention.

After a number of acclaimed productions that have toured film festivals and received international funding, his latest project In Silence & In Tears was selected for the 2012 Durban FilmMart at the Durban International Film Festival. In this interview, he talks about his work and his mission regarding Nigerian film. His responses are as interesting as the stories he chose to tell.

Cheeka’s film project ‘In Silence & In Tears’ has received local and international funding. Image courtesy Didi Cheeka

Gifts from Afar

Cheeka’s upcoming film In Silence & In Tears is a tragedy – his genre du jour – and he describes the film’s storyline thus:  “A young Muslim woman takes part in a mixed-tribe street performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the tribally-divided city of Jos, in a desperate desire to end the killings in the street. She is driven to madness by the betrayals and brutality of her family, her community, and the world outside. A re-encounter with her stage lover resurrects her murdered innocence and illusions, and catapults her into the most desperate of all desire –vengeance.”

An interesting story, no doubt, that has caught the eye of international funders and collaborative partners.  The story-pitch was selected for funding in a three-fold agreement involving the Nigerian Film Corporation, ScriptHouse and Babylon International.

“Now, In Silence is positioned as an international co-production. We have post-production partners/ sales agents attached, [and are] just trying to decide who to go with, which deal favours us the most.  Also, the [US-based] Sundance Institute sent us a special invite asking us to apply for its Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award/Screenwriters’ Lab.” The annual award, which was instituted in 2011, supports emerging filmmakers from four different regions each year. “This invite is like an artistic validation,” Cheeka says proudly, adding that someone is putting up completion bond while the film project still requires gap finance.

His producer Ikechukwu Omenaihe will also be taking part in the Rotterdam Lab, a producers’ workshop holding in the Netherlands city that hosts the world famous Rotterdam International Film Festival.

Cheeka can be forgiven for getting giddy and waxing poetic over all the attention that has trailed In Silence & In Tears. “Beautiful filmmaking is so like beautiful lovemaking,” begins his interesting reply to all that recognition.  “What I have for cinema is the tempestuous love a man has for a difficult and wayward woman. I live, I breathe, and if necessary, will die for my art, for cinema. It’s the last moments of dawn and my passion is growing, and my heart is aching as the dream of beautiful lovemaking comes true.”

The 2004 participant at the Berlinale Talent Campus is however adamant that In Silence, which received the Hubert Bals Special Jury Award at the Durban FilmMart, remains authentically Nigerian. “This film is an international co-production, but it’s going to be a film made mostly by Nigerian filmmakers, with financing mostly from Nigeria. I insist on this.”

 The Ultimate Tragedy

Until recently, Nollywood was infamous for its family dramas with a heavy focus on romantic themes. Here is another point where Cheeka, initiator of AlternativCinema – a production outfit focused on unconventional filmmaking – deliberately deviates from the regular plot. “In its most basic form, In Silence is about the triumph of the human spirit. It is about the tragedy of survival – to survive and go on living is the ultimate tragedy. The girl at the heart of this story inhabits not just my film. Salome (In Silence’s lead female character) epitomises the degeneration of life itself. She is found everywhere human insanity breaks beyond the barriers of sanity.”

In telling such stories, his intention is “not simply to tell a story, but to shatter reality, to deconstruct it, nail it on the cross,” a sentiment he has consistently stated at every opportunity.

Inspiration for the script seems to have come from a true-life experience, according to Cheeka’s narration. “One time, I knew a girl. She came to me from a corner, running from a life she refused. I watched her dragged away, bound and screaming. For days afterwards, I watched it all over in my head, as in a film sequence. I wondered about her life, her dreams and disappointed desires. I have carried her screams, which were her only protest, in my head, accusingly, these nine years.”

The script is now in its seventeenth draft. (“I keep pushing myself, and being pushed to step deeper into the narrative,” he says) The film is currently in the pre-production stage with ongoing work on locations, casting and extra funding. “Now, the camera is set to break the silence,” adds Cheeka. Potential actors can prepare their minds ahead of casting calls as the story is largely character-driven.

“The truth of this film will be carried by characters. In this regards, it’s not what the actor brings that really matters, but what I take and oftentimes the actor is unwilling to give this. And in this film the location is also a ‘character.’” One interview quotes Cheeka saying he would love to cast Ethiopian actress Liya Kebede as Salome after watching her brief appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve.

A new muse turns up however in the form of Youma Diakite, a Malian model and actress whom Cheeka describes as “a strange mixture of some wild, desert place beneath the faintest touch of tenderness and femaleness, so unashamed and sacrificial in her savagery and sexuality. Really, to come upon Youma Diakite is to come upon Salome in the grip of her despair and madness.”

Why no Nigerian female actor catches his fancy for the role is an obvious question that Cheeka gladly answers. “The role of Salome is a demanding one. She is a tragic figure, a young woman with everything – and I mean everything – stripped away: driven into madness by the brutality of the world, pursued to vengeance by forces beyond her control.

“To play her requires considerable emotional versatility: a delicate balance of tenderness and savagery; an effortless waltz from a teenage girl’s discovery of love, through the spiritual death of a whore, to the self-degradation and redemption of a half-insane beggar-girl pursued by the thundering hooves of charging horses in her head. There is no mainstream Nigerian actress who can play this role. Simple.”

On why no Nigerian face – known or unknown- can play Salome, Cheeka supports his argument by passing an interesting verdict on one of the probable reasons for the overdose of bad acting that characterises Nollywood. “Always, there is some false life, some fake values to uphold. As for ‘unknown’ ones, I will give them a fighting chance to audition for the role of the decade.”

Toeing a Different Line

With his eye on the film’s every single detail, Cheeka has interesting plans for the movie score – another area that is largely neglected by mainstream Nollywood directors.

“I had wanted Abdullah Ibrahim [Dollar Brand] to score this film for me,” he says, adding that “There is no film score in Nollywood movies. It would be good if I can get Keziah Jones, with Nneka or Asa doing vocals.”

His dreams for In Silence & In Tears are big. But many directors have preceded Cheeka spouting the same rhetoric about making the best film ever. How sure is he that this film will score a hit with the audience, especially with so much hype surrounding his numerous accolades from across Nigerian shores? Cheeka’s response is resolute and a pointer to his confidence in his ability.

“I set out deliberately to destroy the notion of what a Nigerian film looks like and how it’s made. My intention is to break away from every film that has been made on my continent, to push the boundaries – and not just in style. In this regard, my intention is not simply to tell a story, but to shatter reality, to deconstruct it, nail it on the cross.  And, for those who think my style too extreme there are no extremes more than the truth.”

His fascination with Greco-Roman tragedy And classical writers underscores this point well. With influences like Euripides, Racine, Orson Welles, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and many more dead poets, Cheeka has no apology being the artist that he is. “I am basically a tragedian. My films are salutes to doomed outcasts, people who challenge the limits of their society, risking their own destruction.

“The world may ultimately destroy us, but not till we say our say. I’m so fascinated by characters like Medea, Phedre, Electra, Antigone, Agave – women who love moves to tragedy, so intense and frightening, so unashamed and sacrificial in their love.” He continues the description of his leading ladies continues by paraphrasing the poet Warsan Shire: “Terrifying and strange and beautiful: women whom not everyone knows how to love.”

With stories that are bound to shock his audience and jar their emotions, Cheeka is proud to be tagged a misfit or – to borrow his words – a gypsy, a fact his family has since accepted.  “I’ve always been a misfit. By the time film came everyone has reconciled themselves to my gypsy lifestyle. I had long become the person my society warned me against.”

Interestingly, there was no ‘aha moment’ for him in becoming a filmmaker, rather it was a natural progression. “The encounters came afterwards, after I had become a filmmaker. I was born inside a TV set, you know, I just became a filmmaker,” says Cheeka, reeling of a list of TV series.

Prior to In Silence, Cheeka’s repertoire includes Lonely is the Night, his debut film, which received funding support from the Goteborg International Film Festival in Sweden,and Bloodstones, a selection of ‘LATITUDES, a pan-African Scriptwriting Workshop and Contest.’ The film was amongst others selected for funding by Goethe-Institut and Art in Africa Foundation.

Southern Trees

With work yet to start on In Silence & In Tears, there is another project in the pipelines for this 2005 participant at the Cape Town World Cinema Festival’s Sithengi Talent Campus. The project titled Southern Trees is set in South Africa. Keeping in mind his ‘tragedy’ mandate, Cheeka reveals that it is “about drugs, forced sex, and filmed rape.”

What he hopes to achieve through his art as a filmmaker however points to a yearning for unity in society. “Alienation seems to be the condition of existence of modern humans. I make films to oppose this anti-human condition offered the mass of humanity by class [-conscious] society.”

Via his works, Cheeka not only seeks change in society but in Nigeria’s film industry as well.

Whether or not his choice of the tragic genre will be a hit with the local audience is open to question.  “[Tragedy]is the joy we feel, that someone has measured her finite self against the seeming ‘infinite.’ It appeals to that part of us that slows down to look when we see a car accident and this appeal is universal.

“I’ve always thought of the Nigerian audience as part of world film audience–what attracts them is not the same as what worked in the past. I have set out, not to tell a ‘Nigerian story’ to a ‘Nigerian audience,’ but rather to tell a human story that connects a film with an audience: a compelling story, about compelling characters, told in a compelling way.”


*Published as “I live, breathe and will die for cinema – Didi Cheeka” in the Daily Sun on Friday,  August 31 2012.


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