Ovbiagele opens up on The Milkmaid
Nigerian director Desmond Ovbiagele, whose latest movie The Milkmaid was selected as the Nigerian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards, tells Content Nigeria about the movie, the inspiration behind it and the Nigerian film industry as a whole.
We know the Oscars have come and gone, but The Milkmaid will not be easily forgotten. Tell us how you felt about being the director of the first Nigerian production to compete for an Oscar.
For The Milkmaid to be selected to represent Nigeria for the very first time at the 93rd Oscars was a huge honour for me as a filmmaker and also obviously for our cast and crew. It will certainly be the highlight of our careers so far by a big margin for everyone concerned. A lot of sacrifices were made, particularly by the cast and crew, to shoot the movie for three months in north eastern Nigeria, giving up other jobs just to remain on set and get the job done.
To have those efforts rewarded with being the first Nigerian production to compete for the Oscar was a fantastic achievement. Obviously, Nollywood is the most prolific film industry in the world in terms of volume of output and, as an industry, it deserves its place among other countries in the running for the Best International Feature Film category.
So certainly it was somewhat overdue for Nigeria to be represented in that category, and we would like to express our appreciation to the Nigerian official selection committee for staging of a very objective and successful selection process that resulted in our being fortunate to have been selected to represent the country.
What prompted you to write and direct The Milkmaid and why did you choose Hausa as the main language spoken in the movie?
As a filmmaker, my philosophy is to conceive and bring to reality projects that speak to salient and topical elements in my environment. Clearly, one of the most topical issues in Nigeria is the insurgency that has been raging in the northern part of the country since 2010. Although the global attention reached a climax in 2014, when the Chibok girls were abducted, since then, the public outrage about it seems to have diminished, while the situation is still going on.
But you only have to look around at what’s happening today in the country to realise that it’s still very much a force of negativity impacting the lives of several hundreds, thousands and millions of people in the country, and it has even begun to spread to the southern part of the country.
So, it was important for me to find some way, through the medium of film, to speak about what was going on. I believe that, as filmmakers, we have these incredible tools at our disposal to be able to speak to what’s going on in our environment in a way that is both entertaining and educational.
In addition to that, we also have the opportunity to be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves, and I refer to the multitude of victims of insurgency both living and not living who have been impacted by acts of extremism. As a filmmaker, I have the opportunity through the medium of film to be able to tell their story. That’s the reason why I felt it was important for The Milkmaid to be made.
Why did I chose Hausa as the main language in the movie? That was a very natural choice. The Milkmaid doesn’t actually specify the country it’s taking place in. It’s set in a rural part of a sub-Saharan African country, but it wouldn’t have made sense for the characters to be speaking the Queen’s English because that simply is not the language that rural people tend to speak. Given that the acts of insurgency and extremism are taking place among primarily Hausa-speaking natives, it made sense that Hausa had to be the language spoken in the movie.
What is your view on insurgency and how it affects women and children in sub-Saharan Africa?
The insurgency is clearly a debilitating force that negatively impacts all those who are targeted by it. It seeks to impose its will, its interpretation of ideology on others forcefully and with no option. Any right-minded individual will find that’s an unacceptable way that has no place in a civilised society.
Obviously, that brand of ideology results in violence and will always impact the disadvantaged and the vulnerable in the society the most – women and children. So it’s something that needs to be addressed; it’s not something you can take your eyes away from and expect to disappear into thin air. It will not only remain but increase, as we have seen very recently. It should be tackled with all the honesty that the problem deserves if one is really looking for a solution.
With everything going on in the northern part of Nigeria, do you think the film industry can make an impact and solve some of the problems through movies?
I definitely do believe that both the media and the film industry have a huge role to play in contributing to solutions to the problem of insurgency in Nigeria and in Africa. And this is simply down to the platform these industries have in terms of access to the public and the high-profile nature of what they do.
The extent to which the media concentrates and focuses and provides in-depth reporting not just for a day, week or month but consistently, relentlessly on what is going on is the extent to which the general public and key decision makers will feel sufficiently motivated to find a lasting solution to what is going on.
And the extent to which the media decides to take its attention away from these difficult issues and focus on issues they feel have more commercial value is the extent to which the issues like insurgency will continue to persist. So the media and filmmakers need to recognise their responsibility and the role and power that they have to address the ills of society.
Is the Nigerian film industry is getting much support from the government in terms of acceptance and distribution?
The government has attempted to provide some level of support to the filmmaking industry in Nigeria. But with the exception of the Bank of Industry, which has a dedicated department for the sector, much more is needed for the film industry to fulfil the immense potential it has to contribute to the GDP of the country.
The government needs to incentivise and encourage filmmakers and investors to put their money into the industry and achieve the sort of returns they can earn in other industries that are better supported. This ranges from grants to every aspect of the value chain in filmmaking, cutting across development, production, distribution, exhibition, cinema infrastructure.. all those aspects need some form of support.
[This also includes] things like training, providing resources to ensure we have an up-to-date skilled, motivated and vibrant filmmaking industry that can stand shoulder to-shoulder with its contemporaries in other countries in the world. Those sort of initiatives need to be originated and implemented by the government in order for Nollywood to fulfil its potential. It’s very important that the government puts its best efforts, on an ongoing basis, into various ways to ensure that the Nigerian filmmaking industry is of international standard. Then you will see Nigerian films gaining far greater acceptance and entrance into other cultures the same way films from other cultures like Hollywood have such a dedicated following in Nigeria.
When will we be able to see The Milkmaid in cinemas, and will it be on Netflix soon?
The Milkmaid has not had a wide release anywhere yet. It had a number of limited releases in November 2020 to facilitate its eligibility to be considered for the Oscars, but it hasn’t had any commercial release yet. We are currently in discussions with a number of distributors and streaming platforms and, hopefully, in the next few weeks, we should be able to conclude one of those arrangements and make The Milkmaid available for viewing by Nigerians and the rest of the world.
Should we be on the look-out for something as powerful as The Milkmaid from you in the near future?
I’m always looking to give whatever projects I have in front of me my very best effort. I feel blessed by the traction and recognition we were able to get with The Milkmaid. I’m always striving to improve on my last effort. Certainly, I do have a number of projects in the pipeline, and I’m hoping to get at least one of them into production sometime this year.