Samantha-Israel Iwowo is an award-winning filmmaker and Ph.D. student of Film Studies at the University of Bristol, England. Her screenplays Oloibiri (2015) and One Out of Several (2014) won Best-Screenplay at the 2015 edition of the NAFCA Awards in Hollywood, the San-Diego Black Film Festival (2016) and the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival, respectively. Oloibiri is also considered to be her first Nollywood film of impact, as it provoked a former Head of State of Nigeria, General Gowon (rtd) to apologize to the people of the Niger-Delta for a series of government neglect. Several of Samantha’s films centrally reflect socio-cultural issues: One Out of Several is an abuse-survivor’s story; her most recent directorial piece is an M-Net commissioned film titled, After the I Dos, which also highlights cultural pressures on matrimony as experienced by three Nigerian women and a man. Her first transnational drama series, Till You’re 16, highlights the culture shock of a diasporic Nigerian family raising an errant child in Canada. Samantha has also written several episodes of M-net’s Tinsel. She has eight other screenplays, including three for AfricaMagic Original Films: Just a Maid (2014), Time Knocks (2014) and Wind Chasers (2015). She is the creator of the annual edition of the Anti-Runs Project, as well as the screenwriter and one of the two producers of its docu-drama series, R.U.N.S.
Alongside filmmaking and research study, Samantha has also recently been invited to lecture on Nollywood at the London Southbank University, in the United Kingdom. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Assistant Arts Editor, centred on Oloibiri, Iwowo highlights how the film, Oloibiri, lends its voice to the burning issues in the Niger Delta, as they relate to the people, the environment, the multinational oil companies and the Federal Government
The film, Oloibiri, is largely a metaphor for the worsted communities in the Niger Delta on account of oil exploitation by oil giants and Nigeria’s government. How did it come to you as a filming project?
In 2013, a chance-appointment in Nigeria with the producer, Rogers Ofime presented the opportunity to first attend a focus-group retreat on the subject of Oloibiri film project, which he was working on. Thereupon, I was contracted to write it.
How much of Oloibiri community did you project into the writing of the script? Did you visit Oloibiri?
Yes, we did. In the company of the producer and research team, I took a trip from Yenegoa, visiting communities leading up to Oloibiri, including Otuoke, Otuabagi and Ogbia. The essence of this was to: through sample-study of select communities, glean the commonplace realities of oil-exploitation in the Niger-Delta.
You are quite right – Oloibiri film is metaphoric for the horrors borne of mindless oil-exploration. To this end, therefore, we sought to make the film mirror these devastations from a perspective different from what previous films about the issue had raised. Beyond the visible unsightliness of the spillages upon the waters, which previous films address, we focused primarily on the health and socio-economic devastations that remain from these, decades after.
Some locals of Oloibiri complained about respiratory-related and other opportunistic diseases suffered from drinking from the rivers in the absence of pipe-borne water – this is the community, which availed Nigeria its first commercial-quantity crude oil. Most glaring to a visitor – of Oloibiri in particular – are the unemployed youths: on the one hand, they are largely academically and/or otherwise unskilled for city-life resourcefulness (only one run-down school exists there).
On the other hand, their land and rivers still suffer vestiges of environmental pollution from former explorations and therefore, they cannot settle into commercial-scale agriculture. An elderly local interviewed spoke about the anguish felt at how ghostly the community has become in its post-oil boom. He wishes he had actively challenged the government of the time to do right by the people and its land. In writing the script, thereupon, I injected these truths.
Your depiction of militancy as a failed enterprise may not sit well with the marginalised people of the ravaged region. Why did you go through that route? Were you not being politically correct, aligning with the larger Nigerian expectation so oil activities can go on unhindered, while lives in the region continue to get decimated?
To a large extent, rather than embody political-correctness, I reckon that the film, Oloibiri, provokes unprecedented impact via a neo-realistic re-presentation, which seeks to critique a society exactly as it is. Already, in an unprecedented move in the history of Nollywood, the film has provoked a formal apology from a former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon (rtd). Upon watching Oloibiri at its premiere, he apologized to the people of the Niger-Delta on behalf of the Nigerian government for a series of neglect. By this commendable gesture towards restitution, the movie has achieved a significant level of what academic research exemplifies as ‘impact.’ Although much more needs to be done, the apology mirrors that Oloibiri cast and crew got the story to effectively confront Nigeria’s leaderships, past and present!
By presenting the story of Oloibiri’s now and then, as realistically as feasible, the production invites the viewer to make a value judgment based on what is seen. I found the need to point out the truth – that militants also do belong in the victim category; that Gunpowder, in his tragic persona, symbolizes the psychological fracture that could emerge from abuse. While I argue in favour of his resort to lethal militancy, however, it is only fair to include likely extremes that such anger can culminate in – e.g. self-destruct. In presenting these facts, the question of ‘what next?’ is potentially provoked. This is where avenues for government-community dialogues arise and I do hope this does materialize.
No doubt, the film is a strong advocacy project of sorts for action to be taken to enhance living conditions in the region. But given oil companies and government’s posture, do you not think this is wishful thinking? Will change come?
In the character of artistry, Oloibiri unearths the Niger-Delta crises significantly more, thereby adding to the much-needed, ongoing conversations in local and global spaces. It further fuels the agency of this cause, and though change may be slow-coming to the victims due to socio-political undercurrents, but like the U.S. Civil-Rights movement, we are approaching that height where it becomes an utter national embarrassment, and that Nigeria sees the crucial need for the sort of prompt redress devoid of lips-service.
Ogoni clean up was supposed to have started months back yet no government action so far. How can a film like Oloibiri possibly be the agency for prompt action?
Oloibiri forms a fraction of a wider discourse about oil-corporations/governmental neglect of the Niger-Delta. What would likely provoke urgent attention is the conscious continuation of this conversation through different forms of advocacy – more films inclusive – till it becomes rhetoric too loud to be ignored.
Oil exploration stopped way back in 1978 in Oloibiri and moved to other parts of the Niger Delta with attendant disastrous consequences. What real influence can the film wield among oil multinationals for a humane way of dealing like it happened in the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S.?
With strategic Integrated Marketing Campaign tools, the thematic essence of Oloibiri, for instance, oil-multinationals’ irresponsibility and neglect – can potentially gain a word-of-mouth agency in the socio-fabric of Nigeria. The corporations would be wary of ignoring this sort of ubiquitous awareness; I reckon each would be quite hugely concerned about how extensively it could mar its brand-reputation. This sort of marketing approach though require significant funding, which takes us to talks about the financial hamstrings plaguing Nollywood.
What other projects do you have up your sleeves?
My current Ph.D. programme takes most of my focus; it is in film aesthetics at the University of Bristol, England.