A suitcase, a box of films and a dream.
That’s all Ikechukwu Onyeka had with him when traveled thousands of miles from his native Nigeria and first joined the Colorado Film School sight-unseen in 2012.
“It gets to the point in your career where you think you need to move into the next phase,” Onyeka, better known as I.K., said of his original enrollment after consulting with Frederic Lahey, the film school’s director. “I think I got into that point back home and decided I really needed to move forward from where I’d been. … We got something going, and here we are today.”
What Onyeka eventually got going not only profoundly affected his skillset. He helped coordinate and influx of his fellow Nigerian filmmakers into Colorado. So, by the time he returned this March, 22 of his colleagues were in tow. His government had established an economic development grant entitled Project Act in order to finance the trip.
The overriding goal, both for many of the participating individuals and the country itself, was to lift the artistic level of the world’s third-largest content producer to new heights.
Nigerian films are well-distributed – at times producing 1,000 titles a month, trailing only the U.S. and India -- and are widely purchased around the globe. But these works are mainly CD and DVD quality and fall at a technological and cinematic level on par with corporate video and television production.
The vision of the Nigerian contingent, which packed 44 one-hour learning packets into 20 days through April 18, was to return home not only having improved their craft – but to start a startling transformation of their film industry.
That’s no small task. But it’s one that the Nigerian group feels better prepared to attain, given the extraordinary leaps made in a short time in their personal skillsets as well as the fact that they intend on spreading the word to other filmmakers upon their African return.
“It’s going to be a revolution,” vowed Andy Amenechi, president of the Director’s Guild of Nigeria and one of the on-site contingent at CCA over the last month. “I foresee a different style, a professional input into filmmaking, from this program.”
There is no doubting the enthusiasm of the group as they take on reams of content in a short time span. “At the same time they’re a little overwhelmed,” said Tony Pfau, an adjunct instructor who teaches 16-millimeter HD, production management, and other courses at the college. “They’re thousands and thousands of miles away. Experiencing a new culture. Experiencing a new way of thinking and doing things. Trying to adjust. But I love these guys. I asked them if they could be in my classes every semester. It’s more like we’re trading our craft. I’m bringing something to the party, and they’re showing me a thing or two.”
Paul Apel had never even heard of Colorado before Onyeka first returned to Nigeria after his initial film-school experience. In Abuja, his nation’s capital, Apel had a pretty good thing going in the industry. He’d acted in some TV programs and a few movies. He was an adept editor and owned his own facilities for that purpose. He also had written and directed four films, while having financed six other scripts and a short film.
Demands for his services were very high. But after talking to Onyeka, he realized there also was a gap in his knowledge base. “I wrote certain things that are good, but I didn’t know why I wrote them. Now, I know why I’m writing these things and even know more to add to my stories and how to give them a face, a storyline. It’s been cool coming here. It’s something I can’t explain. If I hadn’t come here, I would have been really in the dark.
“I’m naturally gifted, but this is taking it to the right competence,” Apel added.
When Onyeka first told him about Colorado Film School, Apel said he was intrigued, especially when it was mentioned that the plan was to lift the level of the entire industry. Onyeka, though, knew he couldn’t take on that Herculean task without help. Apel quickly signed on with the others.
“From the very first day of script class, I gave (I.K.) a hug and told him he brought me to the right place,” Apel explained. “It was like I was reborn.”
As Amenechi put it, Nigerians are famous for being “storytellers for generations … imparting knowledge of their people through tales by moonlight to children.”
The skills they’ve acquired will help infuse those stories with technical and story-telling know-how heretofore unknown.
“It’s a great opportunity and a great privilege to be able to affect the filmmakers of West Africa. And what I.K. has told me is that Ghana is next, and he said all of West Africa is going to be coming here for training,” Lahey said with a laugh.
The film school had to navigate just how it was going to condense two years of study into a four-week period for the Nigerian group. It helped that these filmmakers weren’t beginners. It also helped that the faculty and staff were willing to construct a best-possible scenario academically.
Training has included such facets as script writing, story structure, character development, writing dialogue, directing actors, eliciting reality behavior in performances, moving the camera, and lighting.
“Filmmaking is about doing the right thing,” Amenechi said. “There is no Nigerian, American or Taiwanese filmmaker. There are international filmmakers, and there are certain specifications you need to make films. And if you want to compete in the international marketplace, you must have those standards. There’s no left, right or center about it. So we have decided to be on the path of international best practices so that we can compete in the marketplace.”
For Lahey, the Nigerian visit fits the film school’s original vision of providing democratic access to the means of expression.
“One of my main slogans is, ‘Why hold onto good if you can be better,’” Onyeka said. “I attach that to everything I do. I always want to see how to get better. Besides that, at the end of the day, you’re trying to fall into the global market or the mainstream of filmmaking, and you need to be in tune with what is happening and what’s going to happen. You don’t do that by being reclusive but by reaching out.”
Onyeka cited the model set by “Bollywood,” the Indian filmmaking industry. His studies showed that while that country has invited the technology of Hollywood, it’s made little impact in terms of “the disposition or idea of filmmaking” in terms of the stories it’s telling.
“We have stories that are true to life and one can relate with, not science fiction,” he said. “So, for me, it’s about being able to tell our story in the quality that every person will be able to identify with – quality production, paying attention to details and every product that makes Hollywood movies stand out. That’s what we’re trying to do. And it’s paying off.”
I.K. initially chose the Colorado Film School because of its seamless combination of academics with hands-on training. It didn’t hurt that the film school was voted one of the top-25 such institutions in the world. “Our goal is to be an enabling institution,” Lahey said. “The ideas, the creativity, still have to come from the individuals themselves. But what we can do is give them a structure, a method, and a forum with which to pursue it and hopefully a perspective from which to see their own work.”
Apel’s vision already is clear. He sees an increased Nigerian film presence by next year.
And while the types of budgets that produce Hollywood summer blockbusters aren’t likely to be available, they don’t have to be.
“I know for sure that we don’t have what it takes to do some of those films,” he explained. “But we can tell stories that tour the heart.”
That tour then could potentially be followed by another detour, at least that’s the hope of the students who gathered at CCA.
“People need to watch out,” Onyeka said boldly. “Nigerian film is coming to the Oscars – soon. Trust me on that. … I’m positive.”