“A Lot Of Bad Names Have Been Given To African Gods,” – Filmmaker/Attorney Oliver Mbamara in Sahara Reporters Interview

Oliver Oscar Mbamara, Esq., - Many faces, many calling, multiple careers

“A Lot Of Bad Names Have Been Given To African Gods,” – Filmmaker/Attorney Oliver Mbamara in Sahara Reporters Interview

Oliver O. Mbamara is to Nollywood what James Franco is to Hollywood. He is a filmmaker, an actor, a poet, a playwright, a producer and a lawyer. He is an Administrative Judge in New York State and an alumni  of the New York Film Academy.


Oliver Oscar Mbamara, Esq., - Many faces, many calling, multiple careersOliver O. Mbamara is to Nollywood what James Franco is to Hollywood. He is a filmmaker, an actor, a poet, a playwright, a producer and a lawyer. He is an Administrative Judge in New York State and is currently attending NYU Film School.

He is the author of POEMS OF LIFE. He played a lead role in an off-Broadway show titled “THE PRISONER OF KALAKIRI” by Prof. Chudi Uwazuruike. He directed and also played the lead role in Zulu Sofola’s WEDLOCK OF THE GODS. In 2004, he wrote and directed, THIS AMERICA, his first movie where he played the role of an immigrant who had just arrived in the United States. He has since made a sequel to the movie called, ON THE RUN AGAIN.

Other works of his include the epic feature film, SLAVE WARRIOR (based on true-life experiences in a typical African society during the coming of trans-Atlantic slave trade www.SlaveWarrior.com). He also wrote and directed the SPADE movie feature film series; THE LAST ASSIGNMENT and THE RETURN OF SPADE, which address the issue of artifacts and human trafficking, slave labor, and forced prostitution (www.SpadeMovie.com). He created and directed the television comedy drama series titled CULTURES, staring Chika Okpala, Chief Zebrudaya of the famed New Masquerade. , and followed with several more feature films and television drama series. He recently concluded the making of a suspense drama feature film titled The ADOPTED, and is also currently filming an African Cultural Documentary Series. He is the current president of the Nollywood Producers Guild, USA.

In this email interview with Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo for Saharareporters, Oliver O. Mbamara explains how he does what he does and the future of Nollywood.


SR: For those who do not know your story, could you briefly tell us how a lawyer, an administrative Judge became a filmmaker?

Oliver O. Mbamara: Indeed a long story but to summarize, I will say I always loved the creative arts from when I was young and I did take part in school “concerts” from very tender age. As I grew, I naturally got more involved with stage writing, acting, and eventually film-making even though I continued to pursue and practice my career as a Lawyer.

SR: Since you made This America in 2004 so many Africans in America have gone into film-making. What is driving the trend? Has the influx of filmmakers made it any easier?

Oliver O. Mbamara: It is gratifying to know that after we made and released THIS AMERICA, a lot more Africans in Diaspora (not just the USA), delved into film-making in Diaspora. The driving trend has been a blend of various factors. For instance, the fact that a bunch of regular Africans doing regular 9 to 5 jobs could come out with such an interesting film like THIS AMERICA was enough to encourage other Africans in Diaspora to take up film-making. Secondly, Africans have a lot of stories that are not being told by mainstream Hollywood and other Western film industries. With the advent of Nollywood, it became natural for Africans in Diaspora to grab the opportunity to tell these “untold” stories. Regarding the influx of filmmakers, one would say it has been both tough and easy depending on the perspective from which one looks at it. The industry and the audience is large enough to take the influx, yet the influx has to be organized and controlled in a way to improve the content and quality of the films, as well as compensate the filmmakers for their efforts. A good test case is the trouble we now have with piracy as well as the devaluation of these films both out there in the streets and in movie stores.

SR: In This America you dealt with the issue of what immigrants confront in America. In Slave Warrior, you got the African immigrant to flashback on Slave Trade. How do you choose the story to tell? Do you have any hidden message you’re trying to pass across?

Oliver O. Mbamara: A number of things come into play towards my choice of which story to tell, but most importantly there has to be some question(s) for the audience to take away at the end of the story. The answers would definitely vary as perspectives do vary. I respect and take it that the audience has its own intelligence and I leave it to the audience to find these hidden messages and answer some seemingly unanswered questions. My understanding is that in any given audience, there are different levels of consumption, acceptance, and understanding. Therefore creative content has to presume and recognize the variance even though no single work of art can appease everyone.

SR: In the TV series, Cultures, you brought in Chika Okpala, a/k/a Chief Zebrudaya, to play a role similar to the one he played in the New Masquerade. In it, you have a character named Mr. Falana playing a role similar to that of Jegede. What inspired that series? What is your plan for it? Is it showing on any TV channel?

Oliver O. Mbamara: Yes, it was an honor to work (and still be working) with the legendary Chika Okpala, alias Chief Zebrudaya. The role of those early actors, comedians, and filmmakers like Chika Okpala, Herbert Ogunde, Eddie Ugboma, and others in laying the foundation and framework on which Nollywood eventually thrived cannot be overemphasized. Incidentally, many of them have been forgotten and some are not getting the help and recognition they should be getting. My belief and insistence in the relevance of those early artists inspired me to seek out people like Chief Chika Okpala as a step towards reintegrating their talents and values in the entertainment industry today as there is much we could still learn and enjoy from them. Thank God, it turned out to be a good move as the response to CULTURES has been tremendous. We are still accepting bids and sponsorship from interested television stations and sponsors.

SR: In your movies, Spade and The Return of Spade, you tackle the serious matter of the stealing of African artifacts. How did you research that work? Did you get the implicit support of the gods?

Oliver O. Mbamara: Interesting question. The Spade movie series is a humble effort to help preserve the values and relevance of African heritage in line with the sustenance of life and the realization of man as soul and a child of the “Almighty God.” We cannot simply dismiss or forget the identity of who we are and where we are coming from if we want to know where we are and how best to get to where we are going. We have to be careful while addressing this topic so as avoid perpetuating the false notion that Africans were mere idol worshipers before the coming of western civilization. A recognition of lesser or subordinate authorities in divine hierarchy referred to as “gods” does not mean a disregard for or an exclusion of the almighty Supreme “God.” Rather, it suggests a reference and recognition of the supremacy of the Almighty God called by various names under various African dialects.

Western scholars have condemned the artifacts through which our forefathers related with various hierarchical gods. They were dismissed as evil while the practice of communing with these gods was regarded as idol-worshiping.  In a piece I wrote many years ago, titled “WE WORSHIPED GOD BEFORE THEY CAME” I stated that although our forefathers were not without their weaknesses as human beings, they mostly lived lives of honor, value and respect for each other and the larger society. Granted, like in the case of ancestors of many other ancient communities around the world, some ancient practices of African ancestors in those ancient days may deserve to be discarded as of today. Yet, African ancestors mostly lived strictly by what we today call the principles of karma or justice. They recognized a higher almighty supreme being (GOD) and related to the supreme GOD through elements like the river, the sun, the rain, the wind, artifacts, etc. whom they referred to as “gods” to differentiate them from the Supreme Almighty God. An example today would be the way religions of today commune to GOD through paintings, scriptures, sculptors, carvings, artifacts, or other symbols of their saints and spiritual leaders. Why must the case of Africa be different or outright evil?

In Spade, I tried to bring to light the fact that these artifacts being condemned in Africa as “idols” are still being preserved or sold for huge value and displayed for profit in several museums across the Western world. Wouldn’t it be appropriate in the principle of fairness for Africans to be allowed the choices and freedom to make their own evaluations of their heritage and beliefs without the influence and pressures of Western ideologies and beliefs or doctrines? But of course, the real challenge is that many Africans have so accepted western education and beliefs that they will defend them with their lives and even against their own brothers and sisters without really thinking through the rationale. And unless we Africans first recognize our right and freedom to our own spiritual and socio-cultural self-determination without simply accepting hook line and sinker whatever the West sells or throws at us to the detriment of our ancestral values, it will remain a tough battle. We have to wake up and do some thinking by ourselves and for ourselves.

SR: The financial requirements of each movie project vary. How much, on the average, does making a movie cost you? And how long does it take? What are the biggest production challenges you face making a movie in New York and in Nigeria?

Oliver O. Mbamara: Cost is one of the mostly asked questions in independent film-making and yet one of the most difficult to answer. The fact is that there is no fixed amount of time or cost for making a movie. However, the budget you have determines what kind of movie you will be able to make and that may also help determine how long you would take to complete it. Having significant funding to enable one do a movie of high value is one of the biggest challenges of independent film-making whether in Nigeria or New York.

SR: In most of your projects, you have been the star, the writer, the director and the producer. Does playing all those roles enhance the project or diminish it? Critics of Nollywood consider the lack of division of labor as one of the reasons why the industry has not maximized its potentials. Is it difficult to work with others in the industry?

Oliver Mbamara: There is no doubt that division of labor leads to efficiency in many cases but you also have to realize that when you don’t have the convenience of delegating the functions, it sometimes becomes only natural for one to go ahead and play more than one role in the process. An example is, you can write a good script and have the directing or acting ability to bring the character to live, but if you don’t have the sponsorship or funding to produce the movie, what are you going to do?  Sit down and chase people around endlessly for funding without success or go ahead and invest your own money to produce it?

SR: Do you consider yourself Hollywood or Nollywood? How are you perceived by movie makers at home? How does Hollywood react to your works?

Oliver O. Mbamara: Interestingly, Hollywood perceives filmmakers like me as a blend from Africa while those at home in Nigeria (Africa) perceive us as African filmmakers in Diaspora. The variance is evident in the fact that there is no clear and agreed name to classify African filmmakers like me, at least as of yet. Some call us Nollywood USA, some simply call us African filmmakers, and some others call us Nollywood in Diaspora filmmakers. Regardless, the fact is that filmmakers like me fall in the category of that blend of filmmakers bridging the gap between Nollywood and Hollywood. Today we have a guild of film producers in the USA called the Nollywood Producers Guild, USA. The objective of the guild is to bring together willing Nigerian and other African filmmakers in the USA and North America to work together and speak with one voice towards improving, promoting, and protecting African content in the area of film, television and news media while finding improved production and distribution for such content in the United States and other parts of the African Diaspora. More information on the guild could be found at: NOLLYWOOD PRODUCERS GUILD, USA

SR: The personal lives of Nollywood actors and actresses mirror that of Hollywood actors and actresses. The divorce rate, the drama and the dalliances of the divas. What is it about actors and actresses that puts them in those kinds of situations? What has been your experience?

Oliver O. Mbamara: When one is in a situation where one has to make every decision of one’s personal life and relationship taking into consideration what the public (and fans) would say or think about it, one is bound to make decisions that weigh toughly on the relationship. It is a matter of time before the relationship begins to suffer the weight of such persistent scrutiny and pressure. Also, the fact that most actors and actresses are always working apart on different sets for weeks or months does not make it easy on the relationship and intimacy.

SR: If I’m not mistaken, you have made four movies now. What advice will you give to those aspiring to be movie makers?

Oliver O. Mbamara: Actually over six movies and more in post-production as we speak. It is hard to come up with advice that would work for every aspiring filmmaker since every situation is different. However, I would generally say to any aspiring filmmakers: you have to make sure you love film-making. The love and passion is what will keep you going through the hard times. Additionally, be tolerant of criticism as you will never do a movie everyone would like, but be not discouraged either. Always take a project as a learning experience for the next better project you would do.

SR: What is your primary mission as a movie maker?

Oliver O. Mbamara: To entertain, and in the process create awareness and understanding that would get people thinking and having a dialogue about certain relevant things they could have easily ignored or misconceived.

SR: Movie making is a form of business. How is the business part of it going? What is your best selling movie to date? How much did you make from it?

Oliver O. Mbamara: Well, the big check is yet to arrive but the business is growing, although piracy has not allowed us to say we are “best-selling” yet.

SR: How do you distribute your movies? When do you expect movie lovers in America to be able to go to a theater near them and watch movies made by Nigerians like you?

Oliver O. Mbamara: There is yet to be a unified structure or distribution network that could strictly regulate the distribution of African movies in Diaspora except the usual African movie stores and shelves you see here and there. Those who pirate the DVDs or stream these movies online for free without compensation to filmmakers continue to do the industry a lot of disservice.

SR: How do you deal with the perennial problem of piracy? Can the industry survive without a viable solution to it?

Oliver O. Mbamara
: The marketers must have a unified body to regulate movie distribution while filmmakers have to come together and vouch for the protection of their rights and works. To combat piracy and ensure that filmmakers get their returns, we hope to launch a protected website or channel for filmmakers to stream their movies online. I will urge fans to always remember the industry’s survival depends a lot on them so they have to embrace new distribution and/or broadcasting arrangements that make sure the filmmakers get reasonable returns for their content. That would ensure that Filmmakers make better films and get the appropriate distribution and returns to enable them make more improved quality films.

SR: What should movie lovers expect next from you?

Oliver O. Mbamara: We are at the post-production stage of a new feature suspense thriller, titled THE ADOPTED, which is a movie about a specially gifted adopted child with paranormal abilities who become the principal suspect when family members begin to drop dead around her. The movie makes a case for a review of the option of adoption in today’s families. I am also working on an African Documentary Series aimed at exploring and gathering African cultures, traditions, and heritage, and making them available and sustainable through audio and video recordings for the interest of the present and future generation. Please continue to check my website www.OliverMbamara.com  for updates.

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