The theatre was filled with thunderous applause as the credits rolled. The event was the private press screening of Mildred Okwo’s new thriller La Femme Anjola, held in Hall 3 of EbonyLife Cinemas in Victoria Island, Lagos, on Thursday, 11 March.
La Femme Anjola follows Dejare (played by Nonso Bassey), a stockbroker by day and saxophonist by night, who begins a forbidden affair with band leader Anjola (Rita Dominic), the wife of a very dangerous crime lord.
After the screening, the journalist Niran Adedokun, who would moderate the panel, welcomed onstage the cast and crew, including stars Rita Dominic, Nonso Bassey, and Shawn Faqua, as well as director Mildred Okwo, writer Tunde Babalola, and production designer Kelechi Odu.
The Q&A session revealed interesting details about the difficult process of getting the film made, mental health in Nollywood, and Okwo’s hopes for the film’s commercial and critical reception.
“You are a Bastard!”: Mildred Okwo’s Hilarious First Reaction to the Script
Okwo was ill when she first received the script in 2015 from Tunde Babalola, who wrote her previous film The Meeting, also starring Rita Dominic. She sat on the ground for comfort and read the script from start to finish.
Intrigued by the numerous twists in the plot, Okwo immediately put a call through to Babalola. “You are a bastard!” she screamed comically through the phone.
She was also fascinated by the nod to 1940s film noir. “It was interesting to me to see how I could apply that in Nigeria,” she said. “Tunde writes world-class stories all the time and he leaves the director to adapt it according to who you are and where you are from.”
The Film Had Been in Development Since 2015
Despite loving the script, Okwo could not begin shooting immediately. “We waited a while to get the money. We waited almost four years,” she said.
She stated that although she could not give an exact figure, it is a very costly film.
Considering the efforts put into bringing the film to fruition, she is confident of the eventual positive reception: “I feel that we have tried. You people will sing our praises. We are just hopeful.”
Filming in Nigeria and South Africa Took Just Six Weeks
Shooting in Lagos and Cape Town took roughly six weeks to complete. This was far from the 11 weeks the director had planned, but the lack of funding forced the team to speed up production.
“A film like this should not take only six weeks to shoot,” Odu said. “That is unheard of. It was intense for everyone.”
The Roles were Emotionally Challenging for the Actors
A student of Alfred Hitchcock’s brand of film noir, Tunde Babalola’s script maintained the grit and cynicism of the early classics. The unintended consequence was that the actors were stretched thin interpreting the technically challenging roles.
Even Rita Dominic, an industry superstar for almost two decades, was also emotionally affected by her role. There was a particularly dark scene that included a lot of violence and chilling dialogue. “The week we shot that scene, I couldn’t sleep at night,” she said. “I would wake up with jolts. It was depressing. I felt like my character.”
Okwo was paying attention to the cast. She noted which scenes made Dominic sad enough to alienate herself from the rest of the cast on set.
Another emotionally-charged scene, involving a confrontation with Femi Jacobs’ character, caused Nonso Bassey to break down crying on set. In yet another, after shooting an assault scene, Bassey went home and his “legs gave way.” He couldn’t walk. “I crawled to bed and started hearing voices,” he said.
“All the actors are like my children on set,” Okwo said. “We must learn that these actors are human beings.” She paid for extra time for the actors to detox and mentally dissociate from the characters after shooting. Some of the actors could not take up roles for months after filming.
Nonso Bassey Was Nervous Meeting Rita Dominic
Appearing in his big screen debut was an exciting moment for lead actor Nonso Bassey, and he prepared earnestly, including learning to play the saxophone. Still, the Battleground star and The Voice Nigeria alum was unnerved by the idea of starring opposite Nollywood icon Rita Dominic.
“The director set up a meeting and I was very nervous,” he said of his first encounter with the actress. “Rita just came floating in and everybody in the hotel lobby stopped. My mouth was dry. But she was very warm and very kind. I feel like she knows the effect she has on people, so she works to put you at ease. It was such a dream working alongside her. She is very professional.”
Kelechi Odu Built a Major Part of the Set from Scratch
Odu, a seasoned architect and production designer, worked with the director for almost two years to conceive of the film’s architectural aesthetic.
“We didn’t think anybody would give us their house,” Okwo said, stating that the decision to build from scratch was borne out of necessity.
To execute a technically complex rainfall scene, Odu had to build the major sets used for the film. He aimed to actualize the director’s vision of a “very Nigerian film noir…in an authentic way.”
La Femme Anjola hits theatres on March 19.
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a journalist, social critic and literary enthusiast. He is the recepient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant and the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He is the founder of SprinNG, a platform dedicated to the development of young African writers.