My first contact with Umar’s work as a filmmaker was in a writing workshop: watching Tolerance in my room on a laptop, and Salt with other writers at the end of the workshop in a small screening. I also saw him at work, directing part of the same group of writers in an impromptu short film. He was gentle in asking for the input of others during the conception of the work, but also clear in his vision of its execution once a narrative was agreed upon. Under his direction, a goofy story became a noirish meditation on sacrifice and self-centeredness titled ">Kuku Kill Me.
Umar’s deliberateness is obvious in his writing and filmmaking, almost becoming a ponderous aesthetic that lingers on moments beyond which another artist would have passed, yet rising above that just enough to convey incredibly compelling stories. Salt tells the story of the start of the Ebola crisis in 2014 when Nigerians had to deal with their version of fake news spread by broadcast messages shared over social media and messaging platforms. It has a light mix of humor and careful holding of a mirror to the audience to view a low moment in the collective Nigerian experience. But it's also about the things we do for love, and how it drives us to irrationality. At the private screening and a larger screening at the Ake Arts and Book Festival, Salt was received warmly.
I spoke with Umar over email about his influences and experience as a filmmaker, and the making of his upcoming series.
IfeOluwa: What led you to filmmaking?
Umar: It began with the desire to tell a story. It was me watching Bambi or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Temple of Doom and being swept along by the headlong rush of story, being transported to another time and place, being lost in pure wonder. At least that is what hindsight tells me. I think the desire to tell a story has always lived inside me, and even though writing became the channel to let my stories out, film may be what planted that desire, because I got sucked into the world of films before I ever picked up a novel to read on my own. So, I started writing stories when I was fourteen, but it always seemed a given to me even then that I would somehow end up making films. It was always on the map.
IfeOluwa: There’s a solemnity, a quiet feeling in Salt. It could have been brash, yet it’s not. The characters are deliberate, slow even, up to the very end. Do you aim for this in all of you work or was it just peculiar to Salt?
Umar: I don’t know, maybe it’s just an expression of how I am inside. I tend to reign in my actors’ performances because I am a firm believer of less-is-more. Part of it is certainly in reaction to Nollywood films. There’s this theatricality that I work hard to avoid in my work. It’s almost like people operate out of the fear that the film has to be loud and overly dramatic to get the attention of the viewer. And that appears to be a default starting point for many actors. Some have a background in theatre, so there’s that. But there’s also this fear that if I’m not shouting or doing something “dramatic,” then I’m not acting. I come from the place where I believe the act of being can be as powerful a piece of acting as any, and I also happen to be naturally drawn to such situations when writing my scenes.
I remember after I finished editing Salt, I was suddenly gripped by this fear that it may be too downbeat, that perhaps I may have reigned in the performances and the humour too much. There was one performance in particular that gave me the most concern and, in that case, I seriously dialed the actor down, because being subtle and calm was not their default. So it was quite a surprise for me, and a pleasant one, when I watched the film with the audience at Ake – the first major public screening of the film I’ve attended – and the hall was erupting with laughter and emotion. I feel that my faith in the ability of an audience to “get it” has been validated, especially if it’s something that feels authentic to them.
IfeOluwa: In working on your new project, what are the ideas and goals that you held in mind as you created it, and how has working with other folks shaped that idea up to its execution?
Umar: So my new project is a limited series called Deviant. I conceived of it as this filmmaking experiment that combines elements of mystery and suspense with emotional depth. Films like Brick and Pan’s Labyrinth heavily influenced me at the conceptualisation stage. I wanted something with a high entertainment value that could also touch people on a much deeper level.
Deviant is about a dark and conflicted character who must do morally questionable things to discover who she really is. At the heart of it, she’s a child who’s just trying to find her place in the world. So I suppose I was trying to create my own version of Ofelia going off on her magical tasks. Much later, just before we went into production, I came across another film that became another major influence. It’s a Polish drama called Ida. Basically, that entire film is a series of still photographs, if you were to distill it to its bare essence technically. The camera hardly moved, but there was so much power and emotion pouring out of each frame. This kind of confidence really inspired me. There were also the superficial similarities between the stories, such as the main characters being teenage orphans who have no idea where they come from or who their parents are, and they have to go on a quest to find out. So I decided that I wanted Deviant to also have this deliberate look to it, photographically.
I spoke to Kagho Idhebor, my Director of Photography, about it and together we committed to moving the camera only when we absolutely had to, favouring wides, shooting through doorways and frames, we basically had a visual guide to what we wanted it to look like. On the set, in the heat of battle, as I like to call it, I would sometimes forget this commitment in the pressure of a moment and Kagho would be the one to remind me that I was about to make a decision that would negatively affect the look of this story. He also succeeded in getting us these amazing lenses that allowed us to get some great looking images.
With the actors, I think the quality of the performances sucker punched me. I knew while writing and preparing that I wanted good performances, but the humanity the actors infused into their work was so moving. I remember Wale Ojo coming on set on his first day, and he had all these ideas for his character that he was bringing, details, with the fingernails and the way he spoke and even pieces of prop, and it added layers of humanity that I couldn’t have thought up on my own. Malvina Patrick, who plays the main character, succeeded in making her character vulnerable and relatable and dark at the same time. The quality of collaboration was really a great joy for me.
IfeOluwa: Do you have mentors whom you worked with in your development a director?
Umar: While I was a student in Hawaii, USA, I took an intensive 3-month filmmaking course as part of my undergraduate studies. The program was run by an Argentinian filmmaker called Guillermo Navarro, who naturally served as a mentor of sorts to me and the other students, but not necessarily on a personal level—nobody really mentored me in that sense. Of course, as I returned to Nigeria to work on my first project, I had the support of filmmakers such as David L. Cunningham and Steve Gukas and Kenny Jackson, and as far as moral and technical support goes, that was a major support system for me. But my artistic development as a filmmaker was a journey I undertook alone, pretty much.
After film school, I began to watch more films, paying attention to the filmmakers behind them, always wondering why a director would make a certain decision and not another. I began reading scripts, watching, reading, or listening to anything I could find that would give me greater insight into the elusive aspects of filmmaking. I also continued to make them, short subjects here and there. I was obsessed with the question of what made a film good or great, what elevated it from being just a mechanical arrangement of images that served a specific function to art, how that could become true in my own work? My heroes and mentors were the creators of some of the most amazing pieces of cinema I was discovering.
I remember being so obsessed with Magnolia that I read and watched every interview Paul Thomas Anderson gave on that film, I repeatedly watched an in-depth making-of documentary about the film, I re-read the script and re-watched the film simultaneously, comparing the script version and the finished version and gleaning precious insights into the director’s creative process. It was the closest thing to being next to Paul and seeing him in action. I think it’s safe to say that Magnolia changed my life. I learned so much from that. And that was a major starting point for my engagement with film and filmmaking from the standpoint of someone who wanted very much to work in that field.
IfeOluwa: What, if any, has the formal training you're undergoing at the Vermont College of Fine Art's MFA in film program given you that you probably wouldn't have gotten from simply learning on-the-job?
Umar: An MFA is an advanced degree. It’s not really designed to teach you how to make films or art as much as to open your eyes to new ways of working and exploration. It’s really about artistic rigour more than anything else. At least let me speak for the program I’m enrolled in. It’s very tailored to fit the student’s needs, and also student-driven. I decided to take an MFA because I wanted to commit to the rigorous process of finding and honing my creative voice, of even understanding what that might be. And I wanted to do it under the care of artists I admire and respect. So it’s more about helping you understand the character and identity of your work as an artist and how that could set you apart and make what you do distinctive.
I think this has been my way of finding the kind of mentorship I’ve always longed for in my artistic growth. Also, to be able to have a filmmaker like Terence Nance, whom Richard Brody of the New Yorker said is “among the most original American filmmakers,” look at your work and express approval and admiration is just cool. So to revert to a previous question about mentorship, Terence has so far been the only mentor I’ve had, having only completed a semester for my MFA. But being in this program has given me the most affirming experience of my creative life as a filmmaker.
IfeOluwa: Film production is a capital-intensive endeavor, so how do you solve the money problem as a filmmaker?
Umar: This is the age-old question, the mother of all impossible questions. Is there a ready solution to the question of money for a filmmaker? I think there is an approach or strategy that one can take to help one along, and the approach would need to be specifically tailored to the situation at hand. Having an entrepreneurial spirit as a filmmaker is certainly essential. I am just entering a phase of my career where I hope to begin making films with commercial aspirations, and in such cases, filmmaking can be approached as a business just like you would any other business.
However, it’s an entirely different kind of game for perhaps the maker of short films or art films or concept films, whatever. And that has its set of challenges. But the bottom line is if the film is burning inside you to be made, then it must be made and it’s left to you to figure out what that might look like, and it may even go completely against good business sense. What sacrifices would you be willing to make in pursuit of that? What would be the consequences? Do you have the balls and the stomach for it?
A conversation I had with Terence while I was raising the capital to produce a pilot for Deviant has stuck with me and opened my eyes to see in a new way the significance of the work of the artist. He asked me if I had considered doing a Kickstarter campaign for the project. I was reluctant to do so, and my reason was that I had gotten tired of asking people for money to fund my projects. I didn’t say that I didn’t feel confident I had a wide enough fan-base that would allow me to reach my goal in time, or any of those practical concerns. I said I didn’t want to ask people for money any more. Terence immediately zeroed in on that and said, “Never be ashamed of asking people to support your work.”
The conviction with which he said those words made me realise how seriously he takes his work as an artist, and how vital he sees it as a major contribution to his community. In asking people to give, he believes the work that will result thereof will impart something much more valuable and precious than money, and it will hopefully be an enrichment of humanity. So in that way, he is performing a service to humanity. Terence sees his work as sacred and essential to the furthering of humanity as any other human endeavour worth pursuing, and perhaps that should be the approach we take as artists.
At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, making art can be said to be a sacred affair, and so perhaps the artist deserves to be supported. Grants and fellowships and endowments exist for these purposes, and I believe they exist because of this basic understanding of the importance of art to the human race. Ben Okri paints a vivid picture of the almost priestly role the artist plays within the community in Starbook. Filmmaking can be approached as a business, yes. But there are those films that will shoot holes through any business plan because of their ambition, of how they stretch the form to new artistic possibilities, and oftentimes, no investor wants to touch those projects. And sometimes it takes someone like a Megan Ellison to come along and put money into it knowing she may lose it, but humanity and film art are most likely going to be the better for it.
As far as I know, there is no solution the world over for the money problem as a filmmaker. Even great filmmakers at the height of their careers have faced it. Scorsese faced it in trying to make Last Temptation of Jesus Christ. Coppola faced it with Apocalypse Now. And you simply grab the bull by the horns and do what it takes to get your film made, and some cases may be easier than others, and you hope for the best. In Nigeria, it may not be so different either. You beg, borrow, and anything else (you didn’t hear me say steal) to get your project made. As far as making your money back goes, I think the evolution of technology has opened up new avenues for earning income, and it’s possible to have a smart mix of release strategies to tap into the various levels of your market.
Distribution is our biggest challenge in this country, and navigating that also requires the same entrepreneurial mindset you would need for getting the project made in the first place, and we would probably be shocked at what we may discover if we began to challenge the old ways of releasing films and found new ways more suitable to our own environment. Personally, one approach I take to the money problem is to write my scripts with a budget in mind I think may be feasible; it isn’t a solution, but it helps. It’s how I’ve made my short films. It's easier to raise a million naira than it is to raise ten million. Within reason of course, because story always comes first, and you don’t want to end up straitjacketing your story in the name of a budget.