Even though Nigeria has a flourishing film industry called Nollywood, 2020 was the first year that the country entered Oscar’s international film race.
Nigeria had submitted a film the previous year, but it was deemed ineligible. This year, the country pinned its hopes on “The Milkmaid,” written and directed by Desmond Ovbiagele. Even though the film didn’t make the Academy’s international film shortlist, it is making the rounds on the festival circuit. “Milkmaid” will play at the Pan-African Film Festival in the U.S. until March 14.
Nigerian investment banker Ovbiagele expanded into film when he started to feel “the stirrings of creative expressions,” as he puts it. After making a couple of movies, he was inspired by the kidnappings of the Chikbok schoolgirls by Boko Haram to direct “The Milkmaid.”
Filmed with mostly non-pros, “Milkmaid” centers on two sisters, one of whom has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists, which sends her sister on a search for the missing sibling.
While Ovbiagele had never even written a short story before entering showbiz, he has creative roots. His mother is a “properly published writer in Nigeria.”
The schoolgirls’ kidnapping in 2014 got a lot of worldwide attention, but it seemed to die away. “I felt the need to remind the world, so to speak, that the situation was clearly not going away,” he says in a Zoom interview from Lagos. Even last week, there were reports of other children being kidnapped by the group.
Production was not easy. In order to be authentic, Ovbiagele wanted the dialogue in Hausa language, but finding actors who spoke it was an issue.
“It took twice as long to shoot the film,” Ovbiagele says, since he did not speak “a single word” of Hausa. “I had to work through translators, just trying to make sure the actors were speaking the lines as it was written in the script.”
While most of the cast had performed before, they hadn’t worked in a production “of this magnitude,” he says. As for Maryam Booth, “this was her first foray as an actress. She had never acted in a film before.”
Aside from language, there were other hurdles, he adds. “We were waiting for the last group of our crew to join us, who were making their way from the southern part of the country to the north” where the shoot was. Unfortunately, the bus was stopped at a checkpoint along the way. Zealous guards didn’t believe that the costumes and props were for a film shoot and thought the crew were part of the terrorist group.
“The checkpoint had been attacked a couple of days prior to that,” he says. “Word spread quickly among the locals that these were the people who had attacked them two days prior and they wanted justice.”
Following several frantic phone calls to local security officials, the crew was sprung. “They were locked up in the police station for their own safety.”
In order to get an Oscar-qualifying run, the film had to get government approval, which proved problematic. The authorities were afraid of ruffling the feathers of Islamists. As a result, an edited version played in Nigeria. However the director’s cut was submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Since the film couldn’t get into all the details that Ovbiagele wanted to, he is now working on an adaptation for a TV series. This way, he says he can get into further characters and their experiences.
“That is on the front burner for us, for this year.”
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