‘We need to teach our children the right values’
A graduate of History and Strategic Studies from the University of Lagos, Chioma Okoye is a Nollywood actress and producer. Since year 2002 when veteran actor Pete Edochie introduced her to the movie industry, she has so far featured in over 100 productions. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, the actress, who was born and raised in Kaduna, spoke on her latest TV series Anyanwu Ututu and the mission to promote Igbo culture, especially among young people.
You recently released your latest TV series, Anyanwu Ututu, what actually inspired the project?
Before I let you into that, I need to explain something to you. The Yoruba people actually blazed the trail in filmmaking, but when Igbo people got involved, the game changed. Today, most leading filmmakers in Nollywood are from southeast and majority of their stories are centred on Igbo cultures and traditions. But unfortunately, most of these stories are very negative; they don’t represent the true culture and tradition of Ndi Igbo. As a child, I grew up in the North. In those days, my father would introduce me to visitor in our house and say, ‘This is my brother.’ Now that I am grown up, I have come to know that these people were in no way related to us; the fact that were Igbo made them family members.
Over 50 people that relocated to the North used our home as transit point; if you come into town and you ask for elder Okoye, people will bring you to our home and you will be welcomed. That was the spirit then, but now, you don’t get to see such. This is what Nollywood has done to us; it painted Ndi Igbo in a very bad light. So, I said, ‘no, tis is not the Igbo I know.’ The Igbo I know are so compassionate. Back in time, you will see a brilliant child from a poor home get scholarship through communal effort and even travel abroad; no child is raised single handed by his or her parents. I now said, ‘ok, we need to show our morals, our culture and our tradition.’ That informed my decision to produce the TV series, Anyanwu Ututu.
So, it’s largely about projecting Igbo culture and tradition?
Oh yes. The truth is that Ndi Igbo are so versed; we have lots of things that bind us together. We have different kinds of dances, foods, traditional wrestling… we have our unique way of living. We have different types of dialects; I think we have up to 623 dialects. But today, a lot of Igbo people, especially the younger ones, no longer speak their language. I felt we needed to go back to our foundation; we need to teach our children the right values. If we don’t get back to our roots, our children will have no anchor and they will suffer. There’s need to go back to our culture; we need to return to our roots. It was on this basis that I formed a team with the aim of using the film to reawake Igbo consciousness.
What’s Anyanwu Ututu all about?
It’s a love story that shows how an ideal Igbo family should train their children; how united they can be. It shows how the communities develops and grows, as well as showcases our culture and tradition.
How was it like getting involved in such as major project?
The project is so huge. In fact, I will say God and my passion saw me through; my passion was so intense that it affected my team. We first did a market survey to know how much the project will consume. We visited all the DGs in charge of each state TV stations in the southeast; we spent one week in each state, talking with them and knowing their challenges. In the end, we discovered that, to have a successful shoot, there are people we needed to bring on board.
How did you come about 623 dialects in Igbo land?
In the course of our research, we found out that the Igbo nation actually has 623 dialects. For example, I’m from Anambra; I may meet another person from Anambra and we won’t speak the same dialect. My culture and food are also different from yours; the festival activities are all different. We now said, ‘let’s do it community by community.’ Anambara has 21 local government areas, but we decided to start from the first village in Anambra, which happens to be Omambala; that’s where Ayanwu Ututu focused.
How did you assemble the cast?
From our research, we discovered there are many actors from Omambala; we listed about 22 directors and actors from this community. However, we decided not to use all; we are interested in discovering new talents and empowering the youth from this locality. We contacted seven directors; three for the auditioning, two for the training and rehearsals, while the other two directed the series. We had to tour the villages with a vehicle and public address system; we went to the nooks and crannies inviting people to attend the audition. We did not charge anybody for attending our auditions. We actually had a five-day audition until we got what we wanted.
How did you cope working with inexperienced actors?
Well, we had to train most of them and after weeks of training and intense rehearsals, everyone was camped at Tourist Hotel Aguleri and started filming. Where we needed a market, we built one and populated it with our own actors. Where we needed a church, we use our extras and fill the church to capacity. For traditional marriage scene, we used our crowd; we didn’t manage crowd. Though it was difficult doing that, we took our time to shoot this work. In all, we spent three months and two weeks filming on different locations.
Do you have plans to cover other states in your next series?
As we speak now, we have an advance team in each of the states; we have sourced and screen played stories for Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo and Abia. We equally have the data of movie people in each of the states; our research team is with the list of actors, directors, makeup artistes and the rest. Yes, we are going to cover those states and we will use people, who can speak and interpret the dialects.
How did you source fund for the project?
When we did our initial costing, we reached out to potential sponsors. Funny enough, our first supporter is a Yoruba man whose grand mum is from Onitsha. When we told him about the project, he loved the idea; he loves Igbo food. He told us he loved our passion and eventually supported us with the sum of N15million; that money energised us and gave us the desire to forge ahead. Because of this project, my team and I relocated back to the East; even before getting his support, we had already made up our minds to relocate. We firmly believe that running the campaign in the southeast will be far more effective than running it from Lagos. We did a campaign on Facebook and other platforms, urging our youth to come back home and create jobs for themselves, instead of staying in another man’s land and be doing nothing.
Aside from that initial fund, were you able to raise more money?
Funny enough, ‘no.’ We managed to reach some of them and after listening to our presentation, they said, ‘Fantastic idea, this is it.’ But when you go back, you will meet their gates locked. After weeks of frustration, we stopped going. Any additional money that went into the project, we sourced by ourselves.
Now that the series is ready, how do you intend to screen it?
In all the regions in Nigeria, the Igbo are perceived as the most backward; our tradition and culture are steadily being eroded. In entertainment, our TV stations all over the east are not creating contents. We need to create entertainment; we need to create more stars. Igbo people own many companies in Nigeria; we need to produce adverts in our indigenous language and get it aired on our stations to support them. If our TV stations are working, it will be a vehicle to promote our language and culture. If our TV stations are functioning efficiently, our work is half done. I firmly believe Anyanwu Ututu will rekindle interest in the television stations.
What drives you as a filmmaker?
I have taken a candid look at the Igbo nation; I don’t like what I see. The direction the Igbo nation is drifting towards is nothing to write home about. I’m still a youth in my 30s and I know that this is going to affect my generation and future generation if nothing is done. We are severing the very fabric that holds us together; we are losing our language and culture. My heart bleeds for the next generation. What will they see? How will they cope? That is why we have to form a team to fight this cause; we need to make them realise that this is a worthy cause. We need to alert our people that things are drifting apart.
How will you assess the progress of the project so far?
We are really progressing; we had sought and got audience with Anambra Council of Traditional Rulers. The Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Afred Nna emeka Achebe, who also doubles as their chairman, was very helpful. We Premiered Anyanwu Ututu for them in Awka and they endorsed the project and pledged to help us. They further asked us to intimate them on the area we need their intervention; we have communicated our need to them and we are waiting for their response. We have also written to Ohaneze Ndigbo and the Southeastern Governors Forum about the project ad our challenges. I believe Anyanwu Ututu will open the floodgate and others will follow. We don’t want to sell the series to Africa Magic; our purpose will be defeated. We want it to get to the grassroots.
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