Popular and respected filmmaker, director, and photographer, Femi Odugbemi, speaks , about his career and other issues
Can you recall your most memorable childhood experiences?
I was born in the 60s in Lagos and life back then was perhaps simpler and slower than now. I grew up in Fadeyi, Mushin area of Lagos, and went to school in Surulere. We trekked to school most of the time by ourselves and the streets were safe. I remember spending a lot of time playing football with my peers, as well as watching plenty of Indian and Chinese films at Super Cinema, Shitta, Surulere, which was right behind my school. Those films influenced my ambition to become a filmmaker. We enjoyed the escapades of the popular Indian film characters of that era and knew the stories of the films by heart even though they were in foreign languages and some of them were not even subtitled. From an early age, I experienced the cultural power of a well-organised cinema industry. I also encountered a photographer who had a studio in the same building as our house back then. My fascination with cameras came from the allure of watching him take portraits and family pictures. I learnt the power of storytelling from the perspective of camera lenses from being his unpaid assistant and running errands for him. Lagos city in those days was less developed in terms of infrastructure and of course, we didn’t have access to many of technologies that are available now or social media, but we had a real community where children were safe. Public schools were strong because teachers cared for their students to learn and I think the fabric of family was sturdier.
Can you take us through your educational history?
For my elementary education, I attended Government Demonstration School at Onitolo, right behind Super Cinema in Surulere. I attended Apostolic Church Grammar School for my post-elementary education; and I ended up at Montana State University in the United States of America, where I studied film and TV.
When was the first time you knew you wanted to be behind the camera?
Very early. There was a photo studio in the building where I was born and grew up. The photographers then were very dramatic. They had old Kodak cameras that had a black hood, with which they covered their head behind the lenses. There was such a romantic mystery to the whole process. They had dark rooms where they developed the images onto paper. It was all very intriguing for a young boy of my age at that time. While other children asked their fathers for bicycles back then, I just wanted my dad to buy me a camera.
What other childhood ambitions did you have?
I suppose if I hadn’t become a filmmaker, perhaps I would have being a writer or journalist. Certainly, I would have been in the creative sphere. I am from Oke-Igbo, Ondo State, and more interestingly, I come from the family of the famous Yoruba author, D. O. Fagunwa. Practically all my uncles were inclined to music.
Have you ever nursed the idea of being an actor?
Fortunately for everyone, I have always been clear about my limitations. I have zero talent for performance, and having worked with actors over these many years, I know how hard the work is. Many people think acting is easy but I know different. If it is done right, it is perhaps the hardest work anyone can do.
Some people believe that producers aren’t often celebrated, do you agree with this?
I believe producers find fulfillment in many different ways. To conceive a project and be able to bring all the skilled professionals together to bring it to life, and to manage the budgets in such a way that you don’t break down along the way is one of the satisfying feats of any creative enterprise. The finished work is your gift to the audience. And if you are lucky that the audience accepts and enjoys the work, then you are already in the seventh heaven. I think the crave for celebrity status is often tied to the desperation to stand out and be seen. That may be part of the demands of performers in front of camera but for producers, I consider it indecent to struggle for the limelight or elbow your actors for recognition space.
What was your parents’ reaction to your career?
I was lucky that my parents were liberal in that they did not stop any of my siblings from becoming whatever they wanted to be. My father had only one rule which was simply that you had to work hard to be the best in whatever profession you choose. Today, that has proved helpful in the work-ethic of my siblings and me.
What are some of the earliest challenges you faced in your career?
I had a lot to learn and I am blessed that my mentors and influencers help me to learn. As I always say to young people, the greatest gift anyone can give you early in your career is not money. It is opportunity. And when they give you opportunity, you must possess the humility and patience to actually learn by serving them. Apprenticeship and mentoring is a time-honoured process in the creative industry. Unfortunately, that humility to learn is what is missing today in a lot of the young ‘creatives’ around. Google does not have all the answers, as some of them might imagine. Real life and real world choices demand wisdom and experience for you to be effective with your talent. A lot of the challenges young professionals face today have nothing to do with the industry itself, equipment, finances to make a film or any other such thing, it has to do with their individual characters and the fact that they begin from an attitude of ‘I already know everything.’
What do you consider the breakthrough in your career?
I may not be wealthy in money, but I am rich in experiences. For me, the greatest part of it all is that I am in a place where I can find people who believe in me enough to support the work that I do. These people are the real heroes because without their support, all I would have would be ideas. So yes, I am grateful for the likes of Multichoice, through Mnet and Africa Magic, who gave me the opportunity to do my early works like Mama Put and Abobaku. They also supported me and my colleagues to bring landmark projects like Tinsel, to the screen. Today, they are still supporting me with my current project, Battleground.
What inspired the documentary, Bariga Boy?
One morning, I went to Bariga, and I was shocked by what I saw. These guys were living in an area without water or electricity, and their streets got flooded during the rainy season. I understood that their art was their voice. It became imperative to give them a platform to widen their exposure so that as many people as possible would hear that voice and appreciate the passion and power of the art to foster change. So I shot the documentary. Fortunately, God smiled on the work and it went on to win AMAA for best documentary and many other international awards.
What would you say are the qualities that aided your rise to the top?
I believe I am still on my way to the top. My goal is to continually be better today than I was yesterday so I am not keen on any undue feelings of accomplishment or success. I believe in staying humble and I always learn something from everyone I meet. I also separate myself from the work so that my ego and my work can find separate paths. Finally, I believe in God and the grace that His mercies and favour bring.
Which is the most challenging project you’ve worked on?
Perhaps, my current work Battleground posed the biggest challenge because it also had the biggest opportunity in terms of what it could possibly achieve. Our goal was not only to meet up in terms of standard but to carve a niche for ourselves.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learnt in the course of your life?
You must understand your purpose and know that God is at the heart of your purpose. You also need to understand that you, not God, must work hard to achieve your purpose. I learnt very early from my mentors not to work for money but to work for legacy.
What advice do you have for young ones who want to become top producers like you?
I always tell them three things. One is to work to learn, before you earn. Find everything you need to know and learn it. Learn to go the extra mile because talent is not enough. You should also have mentors. Put yourself under the anointing of someone who has been to where you are going. Their advice and support will save you many mistakes.
What other skills and interests do you have?
I do photography for fun. I recently had an exhibition of my photographs at the Freedom Park, Lagos, during the Alkebulan Art Festival. I also love to read and I have a nice library of great books. I love music too; especially classic jazz and I am a devotee of artistes such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and many others.
How do you like to dress?
I dress comfortably. I am just an artiste, so I have nobody to impress.
How do you relax and unwind?
I travel a lot and I visit museums, art exhibitions, jazz music festivals, and other such activities. I also enjoy the company of good friends. I don’t have many, so the few I have, I work hard to keep them.
What will you like to be remembered for?
I hope I am remembered as a man who fulfilled purpose, lived simply and laughed a lot.