As curiosity about the Nigerian film industry and its popular offshoot, Nollywood spreads across the world, news of international co-productions continues to pop up. And from the least-expected places. Apart from playing host to a number of Nigerian footballers in the Ukrainian football league and being the city where Spain beat Italy in the EURO 2012 football final, the Ukrainian capital of Kiev is set to become more famous in Nigeria for a different reason.
Featuring in more recent news about Nollywood in ‘outer’ space is Feathered Dreams, a Nigerian/Ukrainian movie touted as the first film collaboration between both countries and in the whole of Eastern Europe. The movie is produced by Ukrainian company Highlight Pictures and stars Nollywood actress Omoni Oboli as its female lead. Andrew Rozhen plays the male lead and directs the film, which is based on the true-life story of a young Nigerian girl, who is forced to abandon her dreams of a musical career to study Medicine in Ukraine after her father’s death.
Kiev to Lagos
Phillip Rozhen, the film’s co-producer and brother to Andrew, talked about Highlight Pictures and its involvement in the Nigerian film market.
“Highlight Pictures was founded in 2010,” he begins. “By now, it has already invested in the production of three full-length films for theatrical distribution. Even large players on the Ukrainian film production market can be envious of the development level like that!” he says proudly. There is valid reason for his boasts as his company also produced Synevir, Ukraine’s first 3D horror feature film, which is also the country’s second-ever 3D film.
The collaboration between the Nigerian and Ukrainian film industries in producing Feathered Dreams is another feather (no pun intended) in the cap that Highlight Pictures wears with pride. “In fact, there is no precedent for the Ukrainian and Nigerian co-production, therefore the film Feathered Dreams should be regarded as the pioneer.” Speaking further, Rozhen reveals that the film’s investment cuts across not just two but three countries: Ukraine, Nigeria and the USA.
For the international film producers, Feathered Dreams is their first encounter with African/Nigerian film. It is interesting to find out how the relationship emerged. As Rozhen tells it, the idea for the film was borne out of his brother’s encounter with Phillipa Peter, the young Nigerian whose true story is central to the film’s plot and whose character is played by Omoni Oboli.
“The African culture aroused [Andrew’s] deep interest. We started hanging out with the Kiev-based Nigerians and got inspired by their ideology. The stories from their life sparked our interest.” Rozhen also credits Peter’s great help in contacting other Nigerians in Kiev toward the story’s overall essence. Peter herself is part of the film’s cast.
While the story is largely from a Nigerian in Ukraine’s perspective, the film’s funding came from a Ukrainian with businesses in Nigeria. “In December 2010, me and my brother Andrew met Igor Maron [a Ukrainian impresario]. In conversation over a cup of coffee, Igor mentioned his business interests in Nigeria and told [us] about the activity of the Ukrainian public organisation, Africa House Ukraine.”
It turned out to be an auspicious moment for Andrew to pitch his long-held idea for the film to Maron. Once the deal was finalised, a trip to Lagos swiftly materialised for Maron and the Rozhen brothers. Aside from negotiations with colleagues in Nollywood and the industry’s other practitioners, part of their mission to Lagos was to find a fitting talent for the role of the lead female.
Already on ground were representatives of the project’s Nigerian arm: film producer Austeen Eboka and Alexis Opara, vice-chairman of African House Ukraine. Based on their advice to do an audition, many had the chance to fight for the role that could only go to one person.
“Omoni Oboli was the best for us,” says Rozhen. “Not only because of her beautiful and emotional acting, but also [her] life experience. She has visited many foreign countries and lived there as a representative of Nigerian Diaspora – just as our film character went to Ukraine to make her dream come true.”
Although African films are relatively new in the Ukrainian market, the producers do not anticipate a cold reception. Rather they hope that the story’s universality will resonate with their audience around the world as it did with them. “We consider Feathered Dreams as a universal story that is clear to a wide range of audience regardless their nationality or race. We endeavoured to make our film interesting and high-quality and we hope the Ukrainian audience will appreciate our efforts, despite the exotic film subject,” Rozhen says.
The same is expected of their Nigerian audience. “We hope the Nigerian audience will appreciate the quality of our film and its extraordinary idea as its true value, after all, as far as we know, nothing of the kind was done before us.”
Since venturing into the Nigerian film sector, Highlight Pictures has seen a windfall of scripts for Nigerian films. “The screenwriters from Nigeria refer to us and offer their scripts all the time. We are sure there are a lot of interesting African stories in Ukraine, which are possible to release at the big screen. However, we got upon the idea of Feathered Dreams long before it turned into the serious commercial film project, and opened prospects for the international co-production.”
While Rozhen speaks with confidence on how far Feathered Dreams will go globally, similar co-productions will be consequent on the film’s commercial success.
“We can say without false modesty, that Feathered Dreams is the first Ukrainian full-length film in English. Therefore, we expect not only the wide distribution of the film all over the world but also the interest of the international film festivals. [Future co-productions] depend on the commercial success of Feathered Dreams very much. It goes without saying that not only our creative efforts were put into this film, but also the considerable sum of money, which we have to give back to the investor.”
According to Rozhen, available data shows that filmmaking is cheaper in Nigeria compared to Ukraine and Highlight Pictures might just shoot its next film in Nigeria. “It is rather early to tell about any specific project. I suppose our following film won’t be less original than Feathered Dreams. It is quite possible that we will create something in a mocumentary genre or the first Nollywood film in 3D,” he enthuses.
Feathered Dreams is scheduled for premieres across the US, UK and Nigeria between the end of this year and early 2013. While Nollywood enthusiasts can look forward to what the film will offer, there is already a highpoint for Highlight Pictures regarding the joint project.
“The modern tendencies in cinema, as well as in other art forms, are the evidence of the removal of geographical boundaries and the association of international cultural currents. The film Feathered Dreams is one of [the] first signs.” Rozhen concludes by describing the co-production as a “positive trend” that has no doubt opened doors for continued collaborations between both countries and beyond, like good cinema should.
*Published in the Daily Sun on Friday, September 7 2012.