BY UDUAK ISONG
So I promised to bring you interviews of successful entrepreneurs to inspire you. It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m starting with Emem Isong. In case you didn’t know, the most famous Nigerian filmmaker is my sister. Yes, we played ten-ten together, pillow-fought late into the night, ate from the same plate and debated the best romantic heroes from the novels we read. Who is famous in your own family eh?
I know several people try to fight the attachment to a popular sibling or parent. Not me. I lap it up, put it to good use, leverage on it and milk it for its worth.
STRANGER: Hi, I’m Antebullum.
UDUAK: Uduak. Uduak Isong.
STRANGER: Isong, like in Emem Isong, the producer? Any relation to her?
UDUAK: Yep, precisely like Emem Isong, the producer.
STRANGER: Any relation to her?
UDUAK: Yep, she’s my sister. We all write in the family.
STRANGER: Wow, that’s awesome.
UDUAK: I know.
And Antebellum proceeds to buy all my movies because people think my work will be good simply because Emem’s is. They’re often right *snigger*.
So here’s putting my relationship with her to good use. No one’s been able to get her to talk about her marriage. Guess who succeeded?
Entry Into Nollywood.
Best known for her romantic comedies, Christian dramas and Ibibio/Efik thrillers, Emem has been in the industry almost from the very beginning. She wrote and co-produced an Igbo movie titled Jezebel in 1995.
“It wasn’t an easy task. This was a largely Igbo and male dominated industry. Movies were made in Igbo and here was I, a young girl who recently quit her banking job, trying to stake a claim where I didn’t belong. But I was determined. I liked what was happening. They were telling powerful stories. I knew it was a movement I wanted to be a part of so I hung on, eventually earning myself the nickname Nwanne Calabar,” Emem says.
The movie, Jezebel, got her noticed but producers weren’t running after her for scripts as she thought they would. It was a long and quiet year before she produced her first movie, Breaking Point, which was Stella Damasus’ break-out role. Her mother, anxious to see her daughter earn income, loaned her N50,000.
“It was the break I needed. A cousin of mine was visiting at the time. Together, we went to Mile 12 market to buy food for set welfare, borrowed clothes from friends and family for costume, and Tunde Kelani of Mainframe Studios – God bless his kind heart – was gracious enough to lend me his equipment at little or no cost. We paid for what we could and owed the rest.”
You’d think it’d be smooth sailing henceforth but it seemed her troubles had only just begun. Breaking Point was a beautiful film. At least, so she thought, so, why weren’t marketers offering good money for it? She got offers that didn’t cover the capital, creditors started visiting her flat. Fortunately, there were no phones so it was a lot easier to hide. But Emem was determined, so off she went to AIT seeking partnership deals. After several rides on molues every other day of the week, a deal eventually came through. Not as good as she would have liked but a deal was better than none, so she took it. She didn’t make any profit but she made a name. It was a start.
Emem made a few more films – A Minute to Midnight, Untouchable, Ekaette, Hit and Run, et al.
She barely made profit. It was just enough to get by and make the next film but she kept at it and slowly gained people’s attention. One of them was Remmy Jes, a successful film marketer. He bought the rights to two films she’d just made, Silent Tears and Play Boy. Both films starring Dakore, a young girl Emem met at a company, asked her if she’d like to act and a few years later, went to find her and featured her.
Emem’s stories, casting and production values continued to raise her profile but it was Emotional Crack, her first collaboration with Remmy Jes, that would skyrocket her career.
Emotional Crack told the story of a young woman being battered by her husband. The husband had a mistress on the side, whom he’d never laid a hand on, but eventually broke up with. The embittered Mistress sought revenge by befriending his wife and an affair ensued – between the two women!
It was taboo. This was 10 years ago. Lesbianism was only mentioned in hushed tones if at all and here was Ms Isong, daring to make a film on the topic. The press loved it, the International world noticed and Emem was invited for her first film screening outside Nigeria. Along with her lead acts, Dakore Akande, Stephanie Linus and Ramsey Noah, Emem flew to New York where Emotional Crack was screened to a multiracial audience.
We got a standing ovation. It was surreal. Just as the Bible promised, my work had made room for me, Emem remarks with a nostalgic smile.
Emem’s collaboration with Remmy Jes thrived. They churned out several blockbusters. If you saw her name on a movie jacket, it was a keep. Games Women Play, Games Men Play, Behind Closed Doors, Private Sin, Girls in the Hood, Promise Me Forever, Shattered Illusions, Traumatised, Men Do Cry, Enslaved, A piece of Flesh, Unfinished Business etc.
“People say I make too many films. My response is often with a question – are they good films? This should be people’s concern. Enid Blyton wrote over 700 books and I think that excludes the ones under the Pollock pseudonym. Some people are able to combine quantity and quality and I think I may be one of the lucky few.” Her business relationship with Remmy eventually ended but the two have remained friends. “He taught me many things, helped plant my foot firmly in the industry and till now, still remains a mentor. I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave me.”
“It wasn’t just time to be independent, I felt it was time to give back so I founded Royal Arts Academy where young actors and writers are trained.”
Reloaded was my first movie under the aegis of Royal Arts Academy. It was in conjunction with Desmond Elliott. It was very important for it to succeed and I’m grateful that it did. Royal Arts Academy is also a film distributing company and has several hit movies under its label. Some of which include Champagne, Kiss and Tell, Memories of My Heart, Bursting Out, I’ll Take My Chances and more.”.
This year alone, Emem has produced three TV series: Losing Control and Lagos Cougars for IrokoTV and Weekend Getaway for CoteQuest. She’s also produced SpotLight, a film project for the students of her academy and Code of Silence a collaboration with Nollywood Workshops, an NGO. Code of Silence challenges the silence expected from rape victims, the fear of embarrassment to the family while the victim is often ignored.
“I make mostly love stories. If you pitch me a story that has no romance in it, I’m unlikely to be interested. But I’m aware that as an African filmmaker, there are expectations beyond taking people to cloud 9. As well, Nollywood is a huge and powerful tool; there’s so much we can do with it. It’s also given me a voice and I’m trying in return to give people a voice. It’s on that basis that I produced Code of Silence. Code of Silence premieres this Friday, the 7th of August and will screen in cinemas nationwide.
Emem doesn’t write so much anymore. She sits in on writing conferences. Her role has become majorly supervisory. I think it’s just natural; I’ve come a long way. I work with a team of writers, directors and producers. Some of them might even be better than me but that gives me great pride. To have imparted knowledge and empowered even if a few, I believe this is the real success.
“I created so many Prince charmings, I think it was inevitable that I would one day find mine.”
No matter how hard I try, this is all Emem is willing to say publicly about her marriage. Sorry guys, I tried.