Not a lot is known about the Nigerian film industry and its popular offshoot, Nollywood, but buzz is growing – largely due to international co-productions. And those collaborations are occurring in the least-expected places. Feathered Dreams could be billed as “Nollywood and Ukraine meet” and represents the first joint venture between Nigerian and Ukrainian filmmakers. As unlikely as the partnership seems, truth can be stranger than fiction – this film is based on a true story.
The Plot Thickens
Feathered Dreams is based on the true-life tale of a Nigerian girl – Sade (played by Nollywood actress Omoni Oboli) – who comes to study in Ukraine after her father’s untimely death. She is forced to abandon her dreams of a musical career by her mother in favour of studying medicine in Kyiv. During her time at the Medical Institute of Kyiv, she faces numerous difficulties, before, ultimately, finding love.
Produced by Ukrainian company Highlight Pictures, the film is a family-affair. Andriy Rozhen, who plays the male lead, co-produces (with his brother Phillip) and directs the film, as well as having also co-authored the script with his father Alexander, a well-known local screenwriter. While the story is largely from a Nigerian in Ukraine’s perspective, the film’s funding came from a Ukrainian with business interests in Nigeria – Ihor Maron, who was inspired to invest due to the number of Nigerians he had encountered in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, who had studied in the former Soviet UNI0N and spoke both Russian and Ukrainian. What transpired was the idea to shoot a film about foreigners in Ukraine, but also capture the universal experience of being strangers in a foreign land.
Rozhen says the premise of the movie was to focus on a problematic issue in Africa. “If children want to follow an artistic career, their parents don’t allow them to because the most popular professions in Africa are lawyers or doctors – the type of professions that are more likely to earn money. The point of this film is to get parents thinking about what could happen if they take money out of the equation and consider that their children would be happier doing what they want to do.”
Philippa Peter, whom the character of Sade is inspired by, experienced this. As she tells it, she was sent to Ukraine eight years ago to study medicine and then switched to something she enjoyed more, namely, business management. Ultimately, however, she dreams of becoming a successful entertainer/businesswoman. “It’s quite common back home for parents to have a huge influence in their children’s career path, most of the time they actually decide what their children should study. I thought it was a great idea for the Rozhens to shoot a film on this ‘hot topic’,” Peter says.
Rozhen had no acting experience prior to starring in the film aside from the acting lessons he had taken during his years in drama school. His stepping into the shoes of leading man was out of necessity as 90% of the film is in English. “It’s not because I wanted to, but it was necessary. In Ukraine, we don’t really have any English-speaking actors. It’s a big problem here.”
Experience was not an issue for actress Omoni Oboli, as she is also a filmmaker and one of the top five actresses in Nigeria. Oboli says she was able to connect with her character immediately due to the fact she too studied abroad for a year while in university. She has also lost a parent and was able to draw on that experience. What does she hope audiences will gain from the film? “I hope they will be thoroughly entertained, first of all. I also hope they will relive Sade’s experience through me and get a better understanding of what people go through sometimes when they have to go to school or work in a country other than theirs own.”
Racism – Problem or Not?
While the film does include a scene with a racist attack, Rozhen says it’s more for dramatic effect than representing a typical experience. “While making the film, I wouldn’t say that we encountered racism,” he says. According to him, the biggest problem in Ukraine isn’t racism but ignorance to other cultures. “People who live here are very unaware of foreign students here. Our aim is to make locals see that they’re young students like us – just from another country. We want to bring awareness and maybe higher tolerance.”
Oboli had heard about racism in Ukraine before coming here but personally had no negative experiences. “It showed me a different side of Ukraine and Ukrainians. I got to see how great and fun loving they are!” Peter agrees: “So far so good. I’ve experienced being treated ‘differently’ because of my ethnicity/skin colour, but since I’d mentally prepared myself I didn’t pay attention to it that much. I’ve met many lovely and kind people here, I love them dearly and that’s what matters most.”
Nollywood is currently the second largest film industry in the world in terms of the number of film productions churned out per year after Bollywood. Hollywood is the third largest. Now, Ukraine is claiming a little slice of the lights, camera, action producing a feature-length film for the African and international film market. The Rozhen brothers are more known for their accomplishments in music videos and advertising, but with this project they thought outside the box – they thought big.
Andriy Rozhen emphasises the importance of cooperating with other countries and how venturing into unknown territory could change the path of the Ukrainian film industry. “I’m probably one of the first directors in Europe to make a feature film for Nigeria, for Africa. It’s important for cinematographers, to know that in Africa there’s also a big market.” His brother Phillip agrees and cites the statistics: Nigeria produces 1,100 films per year, Ukraine only 2.5 per year. The Nigerian appetite for film is insatiable, he says. “Of course the quality of movies is low.” However, given the rapid pace Nigerian cinematography is developing, he believes that quantity will soon give way to quality. The brothers plan to tap into opportunities in the Nigerian film industry in future.
The Rozhens were set to present Feathered Dreams at the Odesa Film Festival last July as a work in progress, but opted not to as it was very near completion. Now, the film is tipped to premiere in May at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (15–26 May), though not in the competition programme, rather in the Film Market, or Marché Du Film. A release in Nigeria’s most-populous city, Lagos, will follow before wider release. If all goes to plan, the brothers hope the film will also be shown in 2,000 cinemas in the US. Peter, as the film’s inspiration, believes it will be a success. “My hope and prayer is that people won’t just see this movie as pure entertainment but they’ll connect to the story, be inspired, learn something positive from it and apply it to their lives. Everything is possible, don’t stop believing.”
Feathered Dreams is set for its official premiere in the Ukrainian Pavilion at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival on 21 May in the Palais Theatre at 17.30. In addition to various Ukrainian films in progress, as well as 12 shorts, this is the only finished feature-length film that will be shown. Good luck!