In defense of the troublemaker.
By Victor Omojola
There is a scene in Troublemaker, a short film by Olive Nwosu, SOA ’22, in which the protagonist, Obi, demonstrates true resilience. On a day that has seen the 10-year-old scolded for making faces at his mysteriously silent grandfather and embarrassed by an older neighbor for making light of the solemnity of war, he tries for one more misadventure. He returns to his grandfather and launches firecrackers at his feet. He watches with curious fear as the patriarch is thrust into a PTSD-induced flashback, exclaiming that soldiers “have come to kill me.”
The film does well to reject recent claims that Nigerians are a people free from generational trauma. It also functions in conversation with There Was a Country, the divisive 2012 memoir by the late Igbo Nigerian literary great, Chinua Achebe.
Achebe begins the book with the following Igbo proverb: “A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” The book is a recounting of the Nigerian Civil War and its tragic consequences for the Igbo people and Nigeria as a whole. It has been simultaneously praised for its masterful storytelling and genre-bending knowledge production and criticized by other giants of Nigerian literature for its questionable exigence and unmindful nostalgia. If anything, however, the work is a reminder of the uncompromising forcefulness of the past and the futility of trying to forget. It’s a book about the rain.
Nwosu, too, has a lot to say about the rain. An Igbo-born, British-Nigerian film artist, her work often explores the reverberating effect of colonialism and the Nigerian Civil War on contemporary generations of Nigerians living in the country and abroad.
Nwosu is a BAFTA Pigott 2020 Scholarship and a 2020 Alex Sichel Fellow. She is the most recent winner of Sundance’s prestigious NHK award, which honors a filmmaker for the combined merit of a past work and a screenplay for a future feature film. This upcoming project is just one of the many topics that Nwosu and I discussed. We also talked about her time in Morningside Heights, the challenges associated with screening queer films in Nigeria, and the Nigerian presidential election, which experts are calling the most consequential in the nation’s history.
Despite the seriousness of our conversation and the fact that Nwosu reads (at least to me) as an especially mature filmmaker, I get the sense she values the unique sensibilities of a childlike outlook. She misses playing, wishes Nigerian youths were given more space to cause trouble, and her most recent film, Egúngún, is all about putting on costumes.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: In five or 10 years, people might say that Egúngún or Troublemaker is your first film, but in reality you worked on lots of projects before that. I was watching The Fabelmans recently and I was thinking, how does Spielberg categorize those early home videos he made in his catalog? Was there a moment when you recorded something on an iPhone or other device and thought to yourself “I just told a story”?
Olive Nwosu: I mean, I’m old enough that we didn’t have iPhones when I was young, especially in Nigeria. But it’s funny when you say that. I’ve never thought about it.
When I think about it more, we had this camcorder when we were kids that my dad bought and I remember shooting—it was hardly a story—but just shooting stuff with my brothers. I have four younger brothers. I would shoot them talking, us playing. I remember we’d hook it up to the TV and watch and that was so fun. That’s probably the first time I did anything in moving images.
But between that and then college, I did a lot of photography. In a way, that actually feels like how I fell in love with images. I bought a Canon 5D and was taking a lot of photos throughout being a teenager and into college, and then I moved to film.
B&W: Do either of those things affect the way that you tell stories now? Growing up with four brothers or the background with photography?
ON: I think, definitely, photography did. I’m very visual and for me the frame is so important; I’m very anal about framing and thinking about where the camera sits because I think I have quite a specific eye and a way I see things and it’s important for me to convey that.
B&W: Where did you do your undergrad, and did you also study film?
ON: Gosh, it’s a long story. I did my undergrad at Oberlin College in Ohio and I actually went to study engineering—so I was a very typical Nigerian child—and it was great. It’s an amazing program, a very liberal arts college. I took a film class just to fulfill the arts requirement and honestly just fell in love with film.
I called my dad and was like, “Hey, so I’m gonna study film now.” He lost it, basically. He was like, “Explain what film is to me,” and I had to explain. He still doesn’t fully get it, to be honest. It was very intense knowing that I wanted to do this thing. And so I switched my major.
B&W: It is a very Nigerian story.
At Columbia, I think I read somewhere that you taught screenwriting as well. What’s it like to teach the conventions of something when you’re an artist who, quite evidently, is interested in breaking and challenging conventions?
ON: Good question. I also teach with Sundance and I really enjoy it. I really encourage people to lean into their own interpretation of the rules because I think the best work and the best art is very personal. Whether it’s a personal story or not, it comes from a very personal point of view. And so, for me, it’s always about developing that point of view but then alongside knowing the history and context and tools of your art form and then making them your own.
B&W: Do you have any favorite memories from your time studying here? A favorite place you liked to frequent? A restaurant?
ON: We used to make these little exercises in directing class where you’d go off and make a three minute film. You’d cast classmates and the crew is classmates and there were such low stakes. I remember we shot this one that was basically on the street right by 120th, which is where I lived down Riverside Park and it was just so freeing. Everyone’s having a good time and we’re still just playing. Those are the things I really miss because now, I mean, it’s amazing that I’m progressing as I am, but as budgets get bigger and you have more stakeholders, it can feel more difficult to just play. I really miss playing and not being afraid to fail.
I like to hang out. Hmm … restaurant … honestly, that whole area has such bad restaurants. Sorry. Like it has such bad restaurants. But I really love Riverside Park, Morningside Park. Morningside Park is great actually. It’s one of my favorite spots for sure.
B&W: I mean, no pressure. There doesn’t have to be a favorite place.
I saw Egúngún at Sundance, virtually, last year. Going into this interview and rewatching that, I also watched Troublemaker for the first time and I was personally really moved by it. It’s a really lovely demonstration of the effects of the civil war through generations of Nigerians, particularly Igbo Nigerians.
I think that, as young Nigerians, especially abroad, we often look at our parents and our elders and wonder why they’re reticent to speak about things that happened in the past, but the film proposes that they’re still processing this trauma.
I’m curious if you’re willing to share any personal experiences relating to this phenomenon that inspired Troublemaker.
ON: I’m Igbo and I grew up in an Igbo family in Nigeria. It was amazing to me how little I knew about the war and how little it came up because my dad lived through the war and my grandma, his mom, basically had nine kids that she had to take care of and were refugees and had to move through the war. The only thing my dad ever said about it was—and he would laugh about it—having to eat lizards and rats. I was like “that’s not funny.”
And same in school. I did up to high school in Nigeria and we never got educated about the Civil War. And that really blew my mind. It wasn’t until I’d grown up and was in the U.S. that I learnt that history, which really bothered me.
As you begin to understand it, you start to feel shades of what the silence means. Silence began to have a weight to it.
My uncle, the youngest of my dad’s family, had some special needs and I’m only realizing this now. He worked for my dad’s company because I think he couldn’t work anywhere else. My mom told me some years ago that he had had kwashiorkor which is the disease where you have no protein sources … They have all these awful photos of Igbo children during the war, basically starving, swelling-bellied. It affects mental capacity as well. That was probably what happened to my uncle. Again, you know, it’s such a direct consequence—I mean, apart from the history and the loss of property and lives. It was just never really spoken of. It felt very visceral and that was really what I was trying to capture.
B&W: It’s also really easy to read Troublemaker as a film about an annoying kid who gets put in his place. But I think that it’s interesting to think about that term, troublemaker, not in that pejorative sense, but in the role of members of society that try to unlock the past by provoking. Do you see Obi, the protagonist of the short, as someone who was simply trying to do that?
ON: I think on a subconscious level. He’s a curious kid and will prod and poke where he can sense something is. Often in Nigeria many kids get labeled as troublemakers or naughty. The idea of a precocious kid doesn’t really exist. And I think actually that is what it is: an intelligence and curiosity and a kind of mischief that is trying to find its place because everything is too tight or too secretive for them. I think it’s essential actually to ask questions and to prod. Provoke is a good word.
Chidera, who plays Obi … really is that boy. We went to the village, Ugbenu, and basically type-cast. We went around asking the people who live there, “Who’s the naughtiest boy in this community?” and hands down, they were like, “It’s Chidera.” When you met him, you could see it in his eyes … he just had that twinkle.
B&W: I do want to move on to the other film, but we are talking about the derivative effects of the civil war and there’s an election happening in Nigeria soon. I was gonna ask if you had any comment about the upcoming presidential election. Feel free to say “no.”
ON: What do I have to say? This is the least optimistic I’ve felt about Nigeria ever. I was back last year and it just feels like there’s been such a disappointment of government, over and over again. So it does feel like this is a kind of pivotal moment where something has to give and there is a hope that Peter Obi could be a new … direction if he wins, if he’s allowed to win.
It’s a wild time, I guess, is my summary.
B&W: I was joking around with a couple friends and I was telling them that the argument against Obi by a lot of politicians right now isn’t even policy level. It’s just that “it’s not his turn yet.”
ON: I know. Well, that’s the thing, right? … What does Peter Obi actually stand for? He’s just better than the rest. That’s where we’re still at. I do believe in staying optimistic and putting things in context. Nigeria is what, 60-something-years-old? In the grand scheme of things that is so young and it always takes a long time for a country to figure itself out.
It makes me understand that time is long and these are the early years. They’ll always be tumultuous until things can calibrate. That’s what I try to remind myself of.
B&W: I like that. That generally made me more optimistic as well.
ON: I know. I told you: I need optimism in my life.
B&W: I’ll shift to Egúngún now. The title of the film Egúngún means ‘masquerade’ in Yoruba. What can you say about the festival that takes place yearly in Nigeria for Blue and White readers who aren’t familiar with it?
ON: I’ve always loved masquerades for so many reasons: the artistry of the costumes and the beauty and attention to detail.
Historically, the masquerades were basically the ancestors coming back to reckon with people. There are different masquerades for different occasions and different cultures in Nigeria have their own masquerades. Egúngún is the Yoruba masquerade, which is a specific tribe in Nigeria. We’re Igbo and we have our own. When I would go back to my dad’s hometown, there would be loads of them on the street and they have these canes and people are terrified of them because they’re basically the spirits who come to our realm because—and this is what I love—this idea that there isn’t that big of a divide between our realm and the spiritual realm. It’s all permeable.
But then these are people in costume as well. So for me, that kind of symbolism … this idea of kind of hiding behind a costume … and the protagonist really feeling like she’s done this most of her life.
B&W: Are there any characters from films that you looked to as you constructed Salewa’s subjectivity and the way that she was going to perform?
ON: There are a few films that formed good references for me. First is Touki Bouki, which I returned to over and over again. It was the first time I saw an African character who had style. I remember watching Touki Bouki and feeling like all the other African films I’d watched, there was always this kind of put-upon quality that the characters had. And I knew that I didn’t want that with Salewa.
Moonlight is another one. Just thinking about a queer character who is moving through space and, as you say, performing. I really just love how that was handled. The moment of revelation in the third chapter and [he] goes and sees his old flame. That connection still stays with me.
Then the third film I thought about a lot was I Am Love, the Guadagnino film.
B&W: Those are all really good films.
What can you say about the screenplay for Lady, which you just won an award at Sundance for?
ON: I started writing it in Screenwriting III or IV at Columbia. It’s about a taxi driver in Lagos called Lady who has been saving up money to skip town and move to this island where she dreams of buying a house and getting out of the crazy hustle and bustle of the city. She gets roped into driving around a group of sex workers to make some extra cash to do this. One of the sex workers is an old friend who convinces her to drive them around at night to their clients. And so she gets involved in this kind of underbelly of Lagos life and has to deal with her own repressed desires and come to terms with how to be intimate and have close female friendships but ultimately deciding whether to follow her dream of leaving Lagos or staying. So it’s a crime drama, light on the crime. I’ve been developing it for almost two years now, and we’re going to shoot—fingers crossed—later this year, which is really exciting.
B&W: That is super exciting. I will be one of the first people to watch that film for sure.
B&W: Because Egúngún is a film about a queer Nigerian woman, I wanted to make sure we talk about the reality of the experience for the LGBT community in Nigeria. Though acceptance is growing, it’s still not an easy thing to be queer and living in Nigeria.
Recently, you have young storytellers like Akwaeke Emezi assertively denying the nonsensical suggestion that there aren’t queer Nigerians, that there’s not a large community of such individuals. I’m curious how you see cinema playing a role in the struggle to be seen and heard for LGBTQ Nigerians and then also what it was like making a film about someone with that marginalized identity with this context.
ON: I mean, I think there’s a long way to go still. Before we made Egúngún, I was aware of only one film called Ìfé that’s about two lesbian women in Nigeria, and I know that they struggled to get that film shown in Nigeria because of the very real discrimination and fear that exists, still, in the country.
I think the film industry is actually quite liberal and open in Nigeria, at least the one I’m a part of, and people were very excited to make this film and it felt like a safe space to do it. But—and I don’t know why for sure—we haven’t screened in Nigeria. We applied to a couple of Nigerian film festivals and haven’t got in. It’s that question of, even when films are made, do they get seen by the people who need to see them? Making the work is very important. The question that I’ve been asking myself is how to get it seen and how you really do that. Egúngún has done well with film festivals internationally, and I’m very proud of that, but at the same time I’m aware that it hasn’t shown back home still.
B&W: This has been a really awesome conversation. I’ll ask one more light question just before I let you go: What’s the worst film that you love?
ON: I don’t know if this is a terrible film, but I was talking to my friend about Legally Blonde recently, and how that was one of the first films that I remember as a child watching. I still love Reese Witherspoon, I will stand by that, but it’s also such a weird capitalist film that’s like “Women, you must go and be like men exactly. But wear pink. And be great.” I rewatched it recently and I was like, “Oh my God. This is definitely stowed away in my head somewhere as this model of what to be,” which is very distressing, but I also think it’s hilarious.
Egúngún premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021 and screened at Sundance in 2022. Both Egúngún and Troublemaker are available to stream on the Criterion Channel.