Nigeria’s indefatigable banker-turned-film-maker Desmond Ovbiagele appears to have finally hit the big time with his searing depiction of the lives of two young Nigerian women taken hostage by extremists. Report by Gail Collins.
In 2019, Nigeria’s first-ever film submission to the Academy Awards for the Best International Feature Film category, was disqualified. The film in question, Lionheart, was predominantly in English, with only around 12 minutes of its 95-minute run time in a local language (Igbo), therefore falling short of the non-English quota criteria.
Roll on a year later and investment banker turned director, Desmond Ovbiagele, finally cracked it with his arresting and powerful film, The Milkmaid. It did not make the shortlist on submission, but it has made an impact in Nollywood and this year looks set to be released internationally.
Ovbiagele has always been passionate and interested in film but when he was younger did not have enough conviction to choose it as an industry to work in. He was soon on a career path that ended up in the investment banking world, with Citigroup and Standard Chartered Bank.
Restlessness began to set in and he started to write scripts. They were the first step on his journey to becoming a film director. He attributes his creative side to his mum – Nigerian author, writer and former Woman Editor at Vanguard newspaper, Helen Ovbiagele, and in true Nollywood style, a career was abandoned, and a dream has been pursued.
The Milkmaid is his second feature film. The first, Render to Caesar, was written, produced and co-directed by him. A crime thriller that was released in 2014 to mixed reviews, it nonetheless won Best Screenplay and Best Actor in a Supporting Role from the Nollywood film industry.
If Render to Caesar was a huge learning curve, The Milkmaid was to become a huge challenge in more ways than one.
The first test of any great film idea is finance. Luckily, his childhood friend Suen Sowemimo, a renowned bariatric surgeon by day in the US, was impressed and fascinated by the idea of the project and as a long-time patron of the arts, and of the belief that creativity can result in positive outcomes towards social issues, stepped in as executive producer.
This ultimately led to them forming Danono Media in 2018, which operates from both West Africa and the US, with a mission to “produce artistically compelling and socially relevant entertainment content”, which with The Milkmaid, they have succeeded in doing.
Ovbiagele wanted to make a quality international film and meticulously made sure that he had all angles covered. He brought in the bright, ambitious and skilful cinematographer, Yinka Edward, who trained at the National Film Institute of Nigeria and went on to complete a master’s degree at the National Film and Television School in England, bringing with him the experience of four previous successes – Dolapo Is Fine (2020), Lionheart (2018), A Love Story (2017) and 93 Days (2016).
The director himself read over 300 articles and interviewed people involved in extremism – its victims, aid workers, security forces and welfare agency staff – to fully comprehend the depth of what he would be filming, and used the beauty of the film’s stunning locations to disquieting effect, providing a stark contrast to the ugliness of insurgency.
The award-winning, multi-talented musician, film composer and music producer Michael Ogunlade was responsible for the movie’s evocative soundtrack.
He had previously composed the soundtrack for films such as Irapada, The Wedding Party and Render to Caesar. His task was to provide a score that would reflect the cultural differences within the film as well as the emotions and drama that unfurled as the story developed.
The Milkmaid tells the story of two sisters, Aisha and Zainab, who are abducted from their village on Zainab’s wedding day in a deadly attack. Inspired by Boko Haram, there was a deliberate decision not to name the insurgents in acknowledgement of extremism in the country transcending its most notorious group.
With the film’s use of three languages – predominantly Hausa, with Fulfulde and Arabic – Maryam Booth, a rising actress in Nigeria’s Hausa language film industry, was cast to play the character of Zainab and the film has taken her onto the international stage.
Playing second sister, Aisha, the talented Anthonieta Kalunta, in what is unbelievably her film acting debut, did not speak Hausa or Fulfulde, and was coached in the languages for her part.
An accomplished actor in the local Taraba State film industry, Gambo Usman Kona, plays the role of conflicted insurgent, Dangana, and is already being touted as one to watch.
I doubt many movies are made without mishap, but I doubt many can say they had members of their crew detained and beaten – which is exactly what happened at a checkpoint en-route through Taruba State in north-eastern Nigeria.
Two crew buses carrying cargo and props for filming seemed suspicious to local police and were apprehended. The situation was further fuelled when members of the local community believed they were insurgents and tried to lynch them. It took several days of proving and convincing to get crew members released and resulted in some of the equipment and props being destroyed.
Censors cut scenes
Over 50% of Nigeria’s population is Muslim and whilst the Nigerian Official Selection Committee announced The Milkmaid as Nigeria’s submission to the Academy Awards in 2020, the film was then temporarily prevented from screening within the country by the regulatory body for film and video content.
Government censors cut around 24 minutes of the film for fear that some scenes, particularly those depicting religion, would offend the Muslim population.
The full film was shown outside Nigeria in Zimbabwe and Cameroon and more recently, at its European premiere.
In a recent press release for the European premiere at the British Film Institute, Desmond Ovbiagele said: “The religious extremist insurgency that has raged in northern Nigeria for almost a decade has reduced human lives in the consciousness of the general public to mere statistics, typically nameless and voiceless.
“Inspired by the two Fulani milkmaids depicted on the Nigerian 10 naira note, I felt a strong obligation as a filmmaker to harness the considerable tools available within the medium of cinema to help give a voice to those, living or dead, who are not in a position to speak for themselves.”
The Milkmaid won five prizes at the 2020 African Movie Academy Awards, including Best Film and is further proof of a new focus in Nollywood, and another door-opener for innovative young filmmakers looking to bring real African stories to a global audience.