Over the last few years, Nollywood has welcomed a class of filmmakers keen on exploring filmmaking beyond cliché themes and one of such filmmakers is CJ 'Fiery' Obasi.
Although Obasi denies consciously avoiding the bandwagon, his movies are persistently not for the cheap humour seeking crowd. However, in-depth filmmaking sometimes at the expense of local acceptance did not find wings overnight.
Growing up in the Maine-like city of Owerri and to Stephen King's fictions, Obasi knew even from an early age that he would find fulfilment from telling stories.
"I grew in a small town Owerri, and though I had a lot of friends and neighbours growing up, I was a big daydreamer. At times, I would draw parallels between Owerri and the small towns in the books I read; for example, like the small towns of Maine from Stephen King novels – where it seemed like everyone knew each other and nothing ever really happens, just like Owerri at the time.
"However, underneath the surface, real darkness and evil lurk. I remember how suddenly, a small, seemingly cheerful town like Owerri almost overnight became a town synonymous with blood rituals and beheadings of young women and children. If I had to point to a time in my life where I knew definitively I would tell stories for a living, it was probably this time", CJ says.
This experience explains Fiery's first foray into film making. With a Computer Science degree from the University of Nigeria, the storytelling enthusiast opened the Fiery Film Company, alongside his TV/film producer wife, Oge Obasi and screenwriter Benjamin Stockton.
In 2014, the budding filmmaker released his debut film 'Ojuju', a Zombie themed horror movie that received international acclaim. Following the horror clip's critical acclaim, Fiery wrote and directed 'O-Town', a crime thriller inspired by the city of Owerri.
Despite the international acclaim, the local audience appeared ignorant of the filmmaker's giant strides and Fiery opines that his was a problem of the industry's film distribution challenges.
"My films may not have been distributed properly in mainstream Nigeria, keyword being ‘properly’, but that is not of my making. That speaks more to the way distribution works in the country. My films have found a home in various other ‘mainstream’ platforms outside Nigeria over the years".
Fiery's films may not be box-office kings but the prolific writer has earned his place with credits to some history-making Nollywood productions.
During the pre-production stage of Genevieve Nnaji's directorial debut, 'Lionheart', Obasi was contacted to direct and rewrite the script's first draft written by Emil Garuba and Ishaya Bako. However, Fiery's script which was predominantly in the Igbo language was released in 2018 without this key highlight. Ironically, the movie was disqualified from the Oscars for this very reason.
As a screenwriter, Fiery admits that while he saw the story as a good Oscar contender, he primarily saw an Igbo story and wrote it as it was.
"I saw an Igbo story, which I connected with. I knew these characters growing up in the East. And it was my job as a writer to represent them in an authentic a fashion as possible. But also, I saw the potential for it to be an Oscar contender. I really did. And the idea of an Igbo language film going the Oscar road tickled me, I must confess".
Fiery's journey to his second AMVCA was pretty much the same. He was contacted by the Ramsey Nouah led team to rewrite the first draft for 'Living In Bondage: Breaking Free' and in 2020, he snatched AMVCA's 'Best Writer' award alongside Nicole Asinugo.
Recently, Obasi unveiled a poster for his upcoming Anthology feature film. One of the first of its kind in Nollywood, 'Juju Stories' produced by Oge Obasi consists of three stories written by Obasi, Abba T. Makama and Michael Omonua.
" 'Juju Stories' is an anthology feature film comprising of three stories written and directed by a member of the Surreal16 Collective, and produced by Oge Obasi. The first is 'Love Potion' by Michael Omonua, followed by 'Yam' by Abba T. Makama, and finally 'Suffer the Witch' by yours truly.
"It’s a French-Nigeria co-production which we were lucky enough to finish the principal photography for, just right before the lockdown was effected. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we have been rethinking our release strategy, and will make announcements when the time is appropriate".
Other film projects on Obasi's list include 'Mami Water' which has been in production since 2016 and the Akin Omotoso created Netflix's original series which he will co-direct with Daniel Oriahi.
On Netflix's presence in Nollywood, Obasi shared, "Obviously, I think their presence in Nigeria is amazing. It’s what those of us who have been doing our own thing, our way have been praying and hoping for. Hoping that a global entity such as Netflix would finally come here and open up the market to new possibilities.
"We’ve always known our potential, and the potential for our stories. But up until Netflix came on board, that’s all it was, “potential”. Netflix are the ones to actually take the step, put their money down, and quite simply kick the door open. Everyone else coming after will be trying to replicate what they’ve done and are doing".
For his final words, CJ Obasi talked making blockbusters films.
"Nollywood is the style of films from our industry, which isn’t an industry as of yet, but more an umbrella term. In this sense, yes some films do well in the box office. And quite simply, I do and will make a film that will be distributed in the Nigerian box office. Whether it becomes a blockbuster is up to the audience. My job is to try to make a kickass film. And I try to do that with everything I put out anyway".