By Chinelo Ude
It was just a little over a year ago that I was witnessing history in the making at the premiere of the movie “Mystery of Birds;” a two-night movie premiere with tickets sold out for both nights that at the last minute another theater had to be added to accommodate people that did not buy their tickets pre-show. It was a great two nights indeed, the highest number of attendants for the producers and the movie that will win the 2012 African Movie Academy Award for best movie by an African in the Diaspora.
This win early in his career goes to show that Andrew is truly our modern-day Shakespeare with the influence of Achebe and Ekwensi combined. Andrew is a legend in the making.
What I love about his work is that he uses very important and much needed cultural comedic antidote from generations past to keep the audience betrothed throughout the movie.
His work is neither all American nor all Nigerian; rather it is the combination of the two. He stays true to our African origin core values while embracing the good the Western world offers us. All his work is a must see for all.
I could not resist myself from asking academy award winner Andrew for a post-interview after his win because after all it was only a little over a year ago I was singing praises of his latest movie. This is just the beginning for Andrew Madueke; the horizon is endless. A sit down with the writer, producer, actor, director and now Academy Award winner revealed much about him and his work process and history; so many titles for one man.
You are now part of the best. You have joined the leagues of African Movie Academy Award winners. What did it feel like to be at the AMAA to be among the best and to now be one of them?
It felt great to be at the AMAA awards and also a bit overwhelming. There I was in the presence of seasoned stalwarts of the movie industry, players from both Hollywood and Nollywood most of whom I’d watched on TV, thespians like Morris Chestnut, Isaiah Washington, Lynn Whitfield, Chinedu Ikedieze, Uche Jombo, Majid Michel and a host of others. To receive the award before such royalty is an event that I will cherish forever. I walked up to Lynn Whitfield at the end of the event to have a picture taken with her and she instantly recognized me, and called me the award winner. I was thrilled. I knew right then that our toil had paid off, and that regardless of all the difficulty and challenges involved in putting the film together, regardless of all the long days, and long nights, we would do it all over again.
Last year your movie the Okra Principle was nominated but did not win but this year you took home the award to the movie I call my favorite, how did it feel?
It felt great. Many inspirational artists would tell you that they do not need to be validated by awards and accolades but I can tell you that it does feel good to be recognized for your work. In this case, AMAA had judges from prestigious film festivals like the Berlin International Film Festival and the Pan African Film festival which is based in Los Angeles. For such people to pronounce my work the best in a very, very competitive category, what more can I ask for?
I believe the hardest challenge was in pulling resources together to finally make the film. It takes a lot to put these films together especially since we are an independent shop and funds are pretty limited. Whenever we were able to get together and shoot, it was always great. The magic was palpable. We knew we were working on a good film. We had a great time. But just the process of making that happen, pulling everyone together was tiresome for all of us involved. I’m very grateful to all those in the production team for staying focused during the whole process, for believing. I’m also grateful to all the actors especially the actress Nene Nwoko and the actor Allen Warchol for being pools of inspiration from which we could all drink.
Why name the movie “Mystery of Birds?” What is the significance to the name? The idea and name “Mystery of Birds” came from a poem that I wrote about eleven years ago titled “Infiltrate”. In this poem, the subject is bent on infiltrating birds to find out their mystery, to know why they seem to have God’s favor, why they don’t sow but reap, why God’s eyes is so much upon them even though they are not the ones created in his likeness. This poem was crafted during a turbulent and uncertain period in the life of someone that I knew. I usually reach back to some of my old writings for ideas and inspiration. Sometimes I’m inspired through them and sometimes I’m not. This is one situation where I was inspired.
With this win do you now feel pressured to produce another great film if not even greater than Mystery of Birds?
No, I do not feel pressured to produce another great film because that pressure rests mostly on my producers, my brother Felix especially. The pressure is on them to find the money and all the resources that we need to make that next film possible. As for me, I only create when it comes to me, I never force it. For that reason, I’m never pressured. The ideas or at least majority of them have to flow seamlessly or else the story will be boring and uninspired. I’m very patient. If I have to wait one, two, three years to find a great story, then so be it.
During our last interview you stated you started writing at age 7, this moment seems like the perfect moment to ask did the 7 years old you see you winning an African Movie Academy Award for best movie this early in your career?
No, I never envisioned myself winning an African movie Academy award at that time. Most of my writing then was out of leisure. Some instances in my life however made me start to think I should take storytelling seriously.
The first instance was the day in high school when unknown to me, my short story was read in several classes by my English teacher. I remember that it gave me a different feeling when the gist eventually reached me through other students; it gave me a thrill, especially because crafting that story had come so easily to me. Then I began to think that I could really move people with my pen and that if I continued on that path, maybe one day I would move a generation.
The second instance was in 1995, during my freshman year at the University of Texas in Arlington. I had scribbled some words on a piece of paper, rehearsed them for a few hours, borrowed my uncle’s drum and also borrowed a Vietnamese friend of mine to beat the drum for me in representation of Africa during the University’s International Students Week’s talent show for that year. Let me paint the picture again; it was me, a jaded drum, a few words on a rough piece of paper and a friend from Vietnam against student groups from other parts of the world who were much better costumed, more organized, better funded and meticulously rehearsed. So you could imagine my total shock when after the huge awards banquet the next night, an Indian friend of mine ran into the cafeteria where I was working to inform me that my performance had won first place. My name had been called at the banquet and I had not been there. I had not done it thinking I was going to win first place, I had just wanted Africa to have a representation. But the judges had been moved by the words, they had been touched by the beats of the drum, by my swagger as I tried to interpret the words. I do not remember those words today, I had discarded the paper I scribbled them on right after the performance, but I still have that trophy. That experience again made me start to slowly believe in the ability to touch people.
Another instance was in the year 2000 when on the nudging of someone close to me at the time, I crafted a short-story titled “Dearest Vanessa” for Ebony Magazine’s short story contest. I’d forgotten all about that story months later until a Fedex delivery man rang my doorbell with an envelope, a notification from Ebony that my story was one of the five selected out of about two thousand entries. I also received a check for one thousand dollars for that effort, money that I definitely needed at that time.
And now, after winning an African Movie academy award, I still do not know how to visualize myself as a serious storyteller. I keep thinking I need to grow dreadlocks or something and speak in phrases that only a learned few would understand. I desperately want to get better so I try to study storytelling, to know the technicalities. But then I also don’t want to get too mechanical or too crisp to where my stories lose their rawness and fun. At times when I feel I’m losing those, I go back and re-read works from certain writers like Ekwensi, Achebe and Onadipe whose stories influenced me as a child.
What advice would you give to aspiring movie producers in the Diaspora struggling to connect the two worlds?
I would advice aspiring movie producers in Diaspora, especially the African ones to set high bars in storytelling, to place their stories next to great American and foreign films and be sincere enough to identify their shortcomings, and then to aspire to overcome those shortcomings. As a storyteller, I still don’t feel I have arrived. I have studied many award winning films like Salaam Bombay by Mira Nair, Children of Heaven, The color of Paradise both by Majid Majidi and I have identified the tremendous, ten-fold gulf between those works and mine. My aspiration is to bridge that gulf with my next ten films and perhaps one day, God willing, get an American Academy Awards nomination.
I would also advise them to not force it or try to do it because someone that they know is doing it. Talent is never by force. It is either you are born with it or you develop it over a period of time by training or learning. You cannot cheat it, eventually, you will be found out. If a producer’s motive is driven by money or fame, then the outcome of his work will be different from the producer whose motive is driven by talent and passion.
The question I have been waiting to ask are you working on anything right now? And if so when will it be released?
We are in Pre-production for “Take the spotlight”. Hopefully, it will be released in 2013.
Please tell our readers how they can get copies of your movies?
Be on the alert for more from Academy Award Winner Nnaemeka Andrew Madueke because this is just the beginning.