Those of you joining us for the first time we thank you. We’d also like to welcome in a new audience to the 34th edition of the BUFF Blog. This month’s contribution is guest-written by Anthony Abuah, a previous winner of a Commonwealth Film award and the latest in a succession of British based playwrights who’ve made the transition from stage to screen with his debut feature 'Woolwich Boys' – the closing film of last year’s British Urban Film Festival. Regarded by many as a post-Nollywood movie, it is one of the few films (made in the UK) to have attracted critical acclaim away from its core base of West African audiences in what’s still regarded as the world’s 3rd biggest film industry. The post-Nollywood era is indicative of the growing sea change in the way that films commonly branded as Nollywood have been perceived by global audiences and appreciated in equal measure over the last 18 months.
Follow @buffenterprises @MrAnthonyAbuah @WoolwichBoys @TFTMProductions on twitter…
Unless you're female, making a film is one of the hardest things you could ever do.
Over 10 days, in October 2011, we shot my debut feature film ‘Woolwich Boys’, with unknown actors and a willing crew. We aimed to make a Naija version of (Martin) Scorsese's ‘Goodfellas’ simply because we felt Nigerians are just as interesting as Italian-Americans. We wanted to shoot in a neo-realist, documentary style in pidgin and Yoruba with English subtitles. Essentially, I wanted to make a film that I’d pay money to see.
Until then, I had written and directed a couple of shorts and plays that did pretty well but was yet to see any kind of mainstream success. I knew the industry was more likely to take me seriously if I made a feature - so we did.
I knew I'd be unable to take any time off my full time teaching job to film, so I looked to the school calendar and figured the best window would be to shoot during the October mid term break. This was June 2011. I began to revise a script I’d written from 2009 called ‘Flash 419’ and renamed it Woolwich Boys. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a quick synopsis:
Woolwich Boys focuses on the life of a young man who’s recently moved into the Woolwich area of South East London. He works hard but is unable to maintain himself as a student and is enticed, by his criminal friends, into a life of ‘419’ fraud crime.
It’s important to note that the story is based on real people and set in London nearly a decade ago. 419 is the Nigerian penal code for fraud and the phrase ‘419’ has been made synonymous with Nigerian criminals who defraud everyday people via the internet either through stealing their bank details or requesting large funds being sent to them in return for a much bigger reward. I’m sure most of us have come across these scams. I wrote about this subject because I had seen friends live this life and knew how it worked.
I enlisted my fiancé (now wife) as a co-producer and we began assembling the cast and crew. On cinematography duty was Louis Corallo. He and I made our first film together a few years before and had worked with each other consistently. We went about designing the style of each of the three acts and sourcing a good crew. I then wrote a fourteen page budget proposal to send to potential investors (i.e. friends with cash) but the truth is, I knew nobody. Fortunately for me, my father-in-law saw it and pledged to give us an amount and that was the bulk of our shooting budget. I like the challenge of independent filmmaking and believe a filmmaker’s talent should be judged by what he/she is able to do with little rather than with a lot. It’s incredibly liberating to know your limitations.
The closer we got to the shoot however, the more we realised that we wouldn’t have enough money for post-production. We proceeded anyway and managed to shoot 85% of the script and we were going through 8-10 pages a day. Immediately after we shot, I was back at work with my film, still yet to do edit, but I also needed to line up potential investors. I blitzed social networking, contacted societies, universities and distributors about possibly screening our film for them. You see, we were aware we didn’t have the funds to market it, so we focused on word of mouth from early on.
We had to get people seeing it and talking about it. We heard a lot of NOs but as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. We were invited to our first film festival in Stoke in February 2012, a mere 3 months after filming. Please, don't ever do that to yourself. The film was far from ready and was technically hideous. Despite this, we had a packed house and a good Q&A. Even my old history teacher from school came up. The story was pretty much there, but the technical aspects of the film such as the opening credits and the subtitles weren’t. Despite this, the reviewer still gave us a 6/10 which taught me a massive lesson; Your film is like a newborn baby. Don't be in a rush to show it to everyone, as it might not be ready to be seen. It's okay to show it to small numbers but not at a film festival.
I'm a big fan of Melvin van Peebles and Oscar Micheaux who are guys who loved creative control and believed so much in the films they made. They inspired me to at least try and self-distribute our film in the UK through Tales From The Motherland Productions.
We started hearing back from some of the universities we applied to and began screening the film around the country, much like how an up and coming music artist would. In some cases, we just hired out screening rooms and charged people to come and see the film.
Mr BUFF (Emmanuel Anyiam-Osigwe) got in touch and selected it as the closing film of BUFF 2012. The week we screened at BUFF, we were nominated for 2 Screen Nation Awards. Our screening was packed and nothing short of a success. We've since screened at the BUFF Spring season this past April and our film was listed in the London Metro’s top 5 films to see in London that same week.
At the time of writing, my wife and I came back from Nigeria a few days ago where Woolwich Boys was nominated for an African Movie Academy Award (AMAA). We didn't win, but we got a free all expenses paid trip and made some amazing contacts. I already knew there was an emerging market out there in Africa – but seeing it was incredible.
I met filmmakers from Kenya, South Africa, Malawi, Ghana, Nigerians who weren’t making Nollywood, distributors, festival programmers and other entertainers. I can firmly assure any of you wishing to break into the film industry that Africa is where it’s at. There is a wealth of stories back home which need to be told.
So 18 months on, I’m still not rich, but I've made a feature film - something that a lot of people talk about doing but make excuses. I'm glad I got to do it on my terms and I’m proud of the film we made, despite the financial limitations.
Filmmakers about to shoot an independent feature, try and allocate some funds towards screenings and festival submissions. You need to get your film in front of the right people and especially the right audience. That may be easy to identify in some cases, but in others you may have to endure lots of dismal screenings and rejections. This is harder to take if you've spent all your money.
Having no stars doesn't make your film unable to sell (in fact I prefer the authenticity), you just need to do a lot more work to try and sell it. Ultimately if your film is any good, someone will say so and recommend it. You just need to have faith. I credit my faith in God as the only reason we've even gotten this far as there've been some dark times these last 18 months.
I'm glad I stayed the course and appreciate the opportunity to share a little bit of my story with you. Naturally, I also have to credit my cast and crew, my family and my beautiful missus for believing in me through all this.
Follow me on twitter @MrAnthonyAbuah @WoolwichBoys @TFTMProductions
Woolwich Boys next screens on Friday 26 April 2013 at Oxford Brookes University Student Union. Come down if you're around.
© Anthony Abuah/BUFF Enterprises Ltd MMXIII (All rights reserved).
Those of you who would like to submit a script or a film for board consideration for this year’s British Urban Film Festival please visit the BUFF SUBMISSIONS 2013 page at http://www.britishurbanfilmfestival.co.uk