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Uche Odoh on the 9-year journey to her award-winning film 'Hell Ride' [Pulse Interview]

The filmmaker talks to Pulse Nigeria about the challenges facing young filmmakers, from funding to distribution and the lack of platforms to support emerging voices.

Uche Odoh [Instagram]

Meet Uche Odoh, a Nigerian filmmaker currently based in the UK. She grew up in Enugu before moving to Lagos in 2007 to chase her dreams.

After a few years, she discovered her love for storytelling, which inspired her to acquire more knowledge and experience in the field working as a director on TV stations like Soundcity, Nigezie, and HIPtv, among others.

With many decorations from her previous works, Odoh eventually directed and produced her first feature film, 'Hell Ride,' in 2021. The movie has won several awards and is currently making rounds at several festivals, including the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF).

In this Pulse interview, the filmmaker talks about the challenges facing young filmmakers, the motivation and journey to putting out her award-winning film, 'Hell Ride.'

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let's talk about your filmmaking journey. You started out with TV, then you had your AMVCA-nominated web series. So, you have experience cutting across different parts of filmmaking. What has that growth and transition from working on the TV side to movies been like? What are the things you have picked up that have really influenced how much you have grown as a filmmaker?

So, my journey in film, or, let me say, the media, started like nine years ago. I came to Lagos from Enugu to be part of the Amstel Malta box office in 2007, and I never went back to Enugu. After Amstel, I stayed in Lagos to model, and I became interested in how things like film and television work. I have to mention that my cousin is Oge Okoye, and when I was younger, I used to go on set with her a lot. I used to act as her PA sometimes, and I'd seen them making films, so the interest was already there, but I didn't pay attention to it. When I finished modelling and I needed to do something else to pivot, I was like, "You know what? Let me go into TV production." Then I started working with Nigezie as an associate producer. I did that for a bit, you know. Then I worked with EME (Empire Mates Entertainment), creating content for them for a bit. Next, I went to Del-York and graduated with a post production diploma in 2011, and then I got a scholarship to go to Vancouver Film School. I think that was the turning point.

After film school, I moved back, and when I moved back, I was like, "It's not easy to get into any industry, but the film industry in Nigeria is so tight." If you don't know anybody, you might not even get into the industry. So when I came back, I reached out to Tope Oshin. I said, "See, this is what I know I can do. These are the skills that I have, and I'm ready to work." So, Tope Oshin, the director, was the first Nigerian director who gave me an opportunity. Starting off, I worked with her as a line producer, a first assistant, and as a production manager, and currently, even as of now, she's still my mentor because she was the person who gave me that way in to the industry. It's been like constant growth. As you can see from all of the examples I provided, you begin with entry points and gradually build your skills and experiences until you are ready to take the next step. After doing some assistant directing and being assistant director on some of her films like 'EVOL,' some films she produced; 'We Don't Live Here Anymore,' before doing 'Up North,' I just knew I wanted to take it to the next level. I felt like I know all these things now. Let me. I have a voice. There are stories I want to tell. I have my own perspective. So, let me make something.

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And that was how 'Life As It Is' was born. Even with my current business partner, we worked on 'Life As It Is,' We executive-produced it together. We pulled funds together. Then, after 'Life As It Is,' I directed some commercials and some music videos before 'Hell Ride.' The journey has been long and fun. As you go through all of these, you're gaining skills and experiences. So, when you are ready to direct, all these things come into play because, if you don't have those experiences, there are certainly problems you will encounter on set and you will not be able to handle them. The journey has been one of growth, to be honest. As if I'd just returned from there. So that's my nine-year journey in a nutshell.

Very exciting.

I've done everything. Like, I've been a cinematographer, I've been an editor, and I can write. As a director, I'm a full director because I can shoot an entire film by myself, and that's because of all these things I've done.

So, how do you define yourself as a filmmaker and a storyteller? Do you have any kinds of stories that you're passionate about? The type of stories that pique your interest

I realised that I'm a funny person, if I do say so myself and I like infusing comedy into anything that I do. I like comedy with a little bit of drama. I want to bring happiness to people. I want to make people laugh. Life is too serious, you know? So, I know I definitely want to make comedies and dramas or comedy-drama stories. I wanted to be a serious filmmaker and make artsy films. But nah, that's not me and I've embraced it now. But you never know. My filmmaking journey is still ongoing, so it will most likely be some time before I can begin telling stories in various genres. But for now, drama is enough for me.

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With 'Hell Ride' it seems like you're already having a very, very impressive festival run. How is that going?

Good, good. It's my first time actually doing a festival run with any of my projects or not. Actually, I've done it with the web series which we went for just one festival, but I have entered for more festivals with 'Hell Ride.' So, it's been fun. Earlier in April, we won Best Picture at the Zuma Film Festival in Abuja, and now this Toronto festival wants to happen where we won Best First Feature International. Then, screening in AFFRIF.

Let's talk a bit more about the film. What inspired it?

In November 2020, after the pandemic, I just needed something to kick off, to let the creative juices out, because I'd kept them in for so long. I wanted to capture how unpredictable and chaotic Lagos seems. Whenever you step out, you experience something new and different every single day. So, that is how the idea came about. I needed to release that creative juice, and when I got the idea, I just hit up my writer, told her what I wanted, and we started working on the script.

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That's exciting. That means your idea had something to do with the influence of the pandemic, right?

Not necessarily. The pandemic was just the push I needed to finish my first feature, you know, after putting it off for so long. It happened right after I was nominated for an AMVCA for my web series. So, if the pandemic hadn't happened, I would have just gotten right to work. But as the pandemic happened, that sort of slowed me down. And then I was like, "I have to do something before the year ends," and that's how 'Hell Ride' came about.

Interestingly, 'Hell Ride' is produced by your production company, which you co-founded with your partner. This is the first time you were doing a feature with your own production company. I want to talk a bit more about: is there something you hope to do differently with your own platform now, something that you didn't get the chance to do before?

Our film company's name is PROPA Studios, which is a combination of our names, Prosper and Patience. We are both young filmmakers, and we always look for opportunities, but nobody wants to give you one until you are big. So, we decided to just start our own thing. Let's just gather some funds and start our own thing, so our mission with PROPA Studios is to provide a platform for young and unknown film makers to create, similar to those who are not normally given a chance to create by studios. For example, our plan is to finance their films and distribute them on platforms that will reach a global audience. This is one of our missions. We want to tell authentic African stories and give opportunities to the next generation of filmmakers; that is what we intend to do differently. So, you don't have to have made three or two films before coming to us. As long as you have a good idea and it's something we see that we can push, we go for it. That's what we want to do differently.

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Speaking of giving young filmmakers a chance to put their work forward, I'm sure you were in that position with 'Hell Ride.'

Yes. Even though we're still in the position, it's not like we have all the funding or contacts we need, but as they say, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." So, this is our first step. Let's start with ourselves first, see how much we can push, alright? And then we'll bring other people on board.

Do you intend to go with a streaming platform or a theatrical release?'

We're not going to the cinema. We did not make a cinema film. We were specific with that. We made a film; that feel good film that we want to put on a streaming platform. That was our intention, and that's what we're doing. Even though we've gotten offers to go to the cinema, it's not a cinema film. This is not what we want to release in the cinema first, you know? So far, the most difficult challenge has been obtaining distribution. We're still in talks with some of Nigeria's largest distribution companies, We're hoping and crossing our fingers that we'll get something soon.

As a young filmmaker, what would you say has been your biggest challenge?

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Securing funding is always the most difficult challenge for any filmmaker in Nigeria, and sometimes all over the world. For example, when we made 'Hell Ride,' I actually took out a loan to make the film. That's how much I believe in my talent and my dream. So, funding is always the biggest challenge whenever we want to start a new project. In the long run, we're hoping that the government will step in and provide funding to Nigerian filmmakers. There are so many streaming platforms coming so we are hoping that we'll be commissioned to make films, and that way we'll get funding. But, yes, funding is the most difficult challenge. Even after we finished shooting, it took us, say six months to complete post-production, because a film doesn't finish in production. You still do a bunch of things. So yeah, funding has been a challenge.

You say you took a loan. Can you give me an average of how much it cost to make it right?

Let me do a quick math because I want to give it to you in hard currency. It cost us about $35,000 to make 'Hell Ride', and that was moderate because I did the film with my friends. I pulled together all the resources I had, and that’s how we made 'Hell Ride' happen. So, a lot of people worked for free on this project.

You mentioned the government helping film makers with funding. Last year, the Lagos State government announced some funding and named some actors to chair the committee. In fact, every other year, you hear, "Oh, there's this specific funding." How come a lot of film makers are unable to access that kind of funding from the government? Is it a problem?

To be honest, I’ve not seen or heard about any funding in Lagos State. If you can tell me which film they made with the money, I'd appreciate it. I don't know whether they just put out all that information there or whether I don't have access to it. But, I know a couple of people in the industry, and I'm not sure if anyone gets funding from anyone, or if they do, they probably give it to the more established film makers, which is understandable because everyone would want to give money to people they trust. So, it's probably going to the more established, and more popular film makers, not getting to the younger film makers. I don't really know, to be honest. They're probably getting it, but I've not gotten any grants or funding from anybody in Nigeria.

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Do you have anything you're working on right now or something we might see soon?

A lot of things are going on, you know. I would definitely like to make a cinema film next year. You know, proper studios would want to do a cinematic film. So I'm developing a bunch of stories.

Thank you. I mean, that's all I've got. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Not really, just to encourage other film makers to stop waiting for the big money. You know, just put together whatever resources and funds you have and go for it. Nobody will believe you unless you believe in yourself. People want to see what you can do before they give you money and trust you with it. So, just go for it. Stop stopping yourself. The only person stopping you is yourself, so, just go for it. That's what I would want to say. People should invest in film too. People in Nigeria are always saying, "Oh, I don't like this film." Put your money where your mouth is. So, whatever you want to see, invest in it. I'm encouraging brands, non-governmental organizations, and governments. We need to tell our stories, so invest in filmmakers so we can tell those stories.

Enjoy trailer to 'Hell Ride' here:

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