So I promised to bring you interviews of successful
entrepreneurs to inspire you. It shouldn't
surprise you that I’m starting with Emem Isong. In case you didn't know, the most famous Nigerian filmmaker is my
sister. Yes, we played ten-ten together, pillow-fought late into the night, ate
from the same plate and debated the best romantic heroes from the novels we read. Who is famous in your own family eh?
I know several people try to fight the attachment to a
popular sibling or parent. Not me. I lap it up, put it to good use, leverage on
it, milk it for its worth.
STRANGER: Hi, I’m Antebullum.
STRANGER: Isong, like in Emem Isong, the producer? Any
relation to her?
UDUAK: Yep, precisely like Emem Isong, the
STRANGER: Any relation
UDUAK: Yep, she’s my sister. We all write in the family.
STRANGER: Wow, that’s awesome.
And Antebellum proceeds to buy all my movies because people
think my work will be good simply because Emem’s is. They’re often right *snigger*.
So here’s putting my relationship with her to good use. No
one’s been able to get her to talk about her marriage. Guess who succeeded?
Best known for her romantic comedies, Christian dramas and
Ibibio/Efik thrillers, Emem’s been in the industry almost from the very
beginning. She wrote and co-produced an Igbo movie titled Jezebel in 1995.
It wasn’t an easy task. This was a largely Igbo and male
dominated industry. Movies were made in Igbo and here was I, a young girl who
recently quit her banking job, trying to stake a claim where I didn’t belong. But
I was determined. I liked what was happening. They were telling powerful stories.
I knew it was a movement I wanted to be a part of so I hung on, eventually
earning myself the nickname Nwanne Calabar, Emem says.
The movie, Jezebel, got her noticed but producers weren’t
running after her for scripts as she thought they would. It was a long and quiet year before she
produced her first movie, Breaking Point, which was Stella Damasus’ break-out
role. Her mother, anxious to see her daughter earn income, loaned her N50,000.
“It was the break I needed.
A cousin of mine was visiting at the time. Together, we went to Mile 12
market to buy food for set welfare, borrowed clothes from friends and family
for costume, and Tunde Kelani of Mainframe Studios – God bless his kind heart -
was gracious enough to lend me his equipment at little or no cost. We paid for
what we could, and owed the rest”.
You’d think it’d be smooth sailing henceforth but it seemed
her troubles had only just begun. Breaking
Point was a beautiful film. At least, so she thought, so, why weren’t marketers
offering good money for it? She got offers that didn’t cover the capital,
creditors started visiting to her flat. Fortunately, there were no phones so it
was a lot easier to hide. But Emem was determined,
so off she went to AIT seeking partnership deals. After several rides on Molues every other day
of the week, a deal eventually came through. Not as good as she would have liked but a deal was better than none,
so she took it. She didn’t make any profit but she made a name. It was a start.
Emem made a few more films - A Minute to Midnight, Untouchable,
Ekaette, Hit and Run, et al.
She barely made profit. It was just enough to get by and make
the next film but she kept at it and slowly gained people’s attention. One of
them was Remmy Jes, a successful film marketer. He bought the rights to two films she’d just
made, Silent tears and Play Boy. Both films starring Dakore, a young girl Emem
met at a company, asked her if she’d like to act and a few years later, went to
find her and featured her.
Emem’s stories, casting and production values continued to
raise her profile but it was Emotional Crack, her first collaboration with
Remmy Jes, that would skyrocket her
Emotional Crack told the story of a young woman being
battered by her husband. The husband had a mistress on the side, whom he’d never laid a hand on, but eventually
broke up with. The embittered Mistress sought revenge by befriending his wife
and an affair ensued – between the two women!
It was taboo. This
was 10 years ago. Lesbianism was only mentioned in hushed tones if at all and
here was Ms Isong, daring to make a film on the topic. The press loved it, the
International world noticed and Emem was invited for her first film screening
outside Nigeria. Along with her lead acts, Dakore Akande, Stephanie Linus and
Ramsey Noah, Emem flew to New
York where Emotional Crack was screened to a multiracial audience.
We got a standing ovation. It was surreal. Just as the Bible promised, my work had made
room for me, Emem remarks with a nostalgic smile.
Emem’s collaboration with Remmy Jes thrived. They churned out
several blockbusters. If you saw her name on a movie jacket, it was a
keep. Games Women Play, Games Men Play,
Behind Closed Doors, Private Sin, Girls in the Hood, Promise Me Forever,
Shattered Illusions, Traumatised, Men Do Cry, Enslaved, A piece of Flesh,
Unfinished Business etc.
“People say I make too many films. My response is often with
a question - are they good films? This should be people’s concern. Enid Blyton
wrote over 700 books and I think that excludes the ones under the Pollock
pseudonym. Some people are able to
combine quantity and quality and I think I may be one of the lucky few.” Her
business relationship with Remmy eventually ended but the two have remained
friends. ‘He taught me many things, helped plant my foot firmly in the industry
and till now, still remains a mentor. I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave
“It wasn’t just time to be independent, I felt it was time
to give back so I founded Royal Arts Academy where young actors and writers are
Reloaded was my first movie under the aegis of Royal Arts
Academy. It was in conjunction with Desmond Elliott. It was very important for
it to succeed and I’m grateful that it did. Royal Arts Academy is also a film
distributing company and has several hit
movies under its label. Some of which include Champagne, Kiss and Tell,
Memories of My Heart, Bursting Out, I’ll Take My Chances and more.”.
This year alone, Emem has produced three TV series: Losing
Control and Lagos Cougars for IrokoTV and Weekend Getaway for CoteQuest. She’s also produced SpotLight, a film project
for the students of her academy and Code of Silence a collaboration with
Nollywood Workshops, an NGO. Code of silence
challenges the silence expected from rape victims, the fear of embarrassment to
the family while the victim is often ignored.
“I make mostly love stories. If you pitch me a story that
has no romance in it, I’m unlikely to be interested. But I’m aware that as an
African filmmaker, there are expectations beyond taking people to cloud 9. As
well, Nollywood is a huge and powerful tool; there’s so much we can do with it.
It’s also given me a voice and I’m trying in return to give people a
voice. It’s on that basis that I
produced Code of Silence.’ Code of Silence premieres this Friday, the 7th
of August and will screen in cinemas nationwide.
Emem doesn’t write so much anymore. She sits in on writing
conferences. Her role has become majorly supervisory. I think it’s just natural;
I’ve come a long way. I work with a team of writers, directors and
producers. Some of them might even be
better than me but that gives me great pride. To have imparted knowledge and
empowered even if a few, I believe this is the real success.
‘I created so many Prince charmings, I think it was
inevitable that I would one day find mine.’
No matter how hard I try, this is all Emem is willing to say
publicly about her marriage. Sorry guys, I tried.