NATIVE Exclusive: How Editi Effiong’s beliefs and curiosity netted him a blockbuster
"I think storytelling is very important. If we do not tell our stories, we lose ourselves."
"I think storytelling is very important. If we do not tell our stories, we lose ourselves."
Editi Effiong would not object to you calling him a nerd. As an adolescent, rather than go play outside, he preferred to be locked up in a library, dedicatedly going through the contents of encyclopaedias. Growing up in a house filled with books, he craved knowledge with a rabid curiosity – knowledge that was abundant inside books. “On average I knew more than anyone else in my class,” he tells The NATIVE. “I knew so many things, I knew everything. I knew the past, I knew the future, I knew the present.”
With an ever-increasing bank of knowledge came an affinity for the arts. “When I read, I started writing,” he says. A self-proclaimed descriptive writer, Editi approached his stories from a vivid, visual angle. That meant making films was always on the cards, and he had some early practice from producing plays as a young boy in church and as a budding creative in University. Ditching his quest to get an Environmental science degree – “It was boring” – he found his way into tech, writing code for years, before switching to the marketing and sales side of things. For someone with a myriad of interests, it was only natural that he’d jump into diverse endeavours, but he would still eventually find his way back to his first love: storytelling.
Effiong founded Anakle, a digital agency that merged his passions for tech and marketing, working on creative advertising visuals for corporate companies and brands, amongst other things. In there is also Anakle Films, a production company that helped Editi wholesomely indulge in his lifelong passion for filmmaking. As part of his résumé as a writer and producer, there’s ‘Up North’, a coming of age story with a gorgeous rendering of Nigeria’s northern region as its backdrop. There’s the short film, ‘Fishbone’, a gripping portrait of karma that doesn’t always happen in Nigerian society.
In both films, Editi Effiong taps into the fabric of social issues from a humane perspective, which also informs his most ambitious filmmaking attempt till date. ‘The Black Book’, his debut directorial feature, follows a man who attempts to find justice for his son’s extrajudicial killings at the hands of a special police unit. In the process, he has to grapple with Nigeria’s deeply flawed system, dabbling into the political underground to make for an action thriller that motions towards Nigerian history.
Exciting, if a little unwieldy in scope, ‘The Black Book’ is a bonafide blockbuster, reaching global popularity in the few weeks since its late September premiere on Netflix. Executed by a star-studded cast headlined by the great Richard Mofe-Damijo, and a crew of over a hundred across seventy locations, it’s as big budget as it gets in Nollywood. “We didn’t set out trying to make the most expensive film,” Editi Effiong says, explaining that the rumoured million dollar budget was mainly a byproduct of trying to make a really good film.
‘The Black Book’ is a reflection of Editi’s beliefs and curiosity. Over the years, he’s been very outspoken about social issues, providing information during the EndSARS panel proceedings and generally being a voice of reason on social media. His directorial debut combines his passion for social justice with his readiness to create at the highest level possible.
Our following conversation with Editi Effiong has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
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NATIVE: So, your early introduction to film and the arts, how did it start?
Editi Effiong: I watched films, that’s my introduction. My dad made sure we watched films, and it wasn’t so we would make films. I remember one of my dad’s favourite films, ‘Windmills Of The Gods’. That wasn’t the beginning actually. ‘Gone With The Wind’ is a classic. I watched [the film] when I was ten, eleven, twelve years ago. I watched it again when I was 15, watched it again when I was 20, and I watched it again recently. I watched it a few times.
My dad has a masters degree in linguistics, so I grew up in a house full of books. I grew up reading books, a lot of books, and then when I was ten I started writing. Towards my fifteenth birthday, I wrote a 200-300 page book. It was the best thing I’d ever created then. All my siblings read it, my dad refused to read it because my dad wanted me to be a pure scientist, he wanted me to be an engineer. Anything that was art, I grew up in a community where we had a public library, well stocked. I read whole encyclopaedias, I learned to play chess from an encyclopaedia without seeing a chess board. I would lock myself in the library and read.
That’s very nerdy.
Well, on average I knew more than anyone else in my class. About the world, about shit, I knew so many things, I knew everything. I knew the past, I knew the future, I knew the present. I was just voracious in the consumption of knowledge. And so when I read, I started writing. I was very descriptive with my writing so people could describe the things I wrote, the emotions in the things I wrote, the pictures I painted. I write in pictures. The reason was that my memory is photographic in many ways. So, I never wrote for people to be able to read, I wrote for people to be able to see so I was always going to make films.
And of course I grew up in church, I used to lead the church drama group, and I produced plays. I remember when we produced ‘The Crucifix’, we made realistic Roman and Jewish costumes, we made props, we had a proper cross made and when we nailed my best friend to that cross, blood flowed as we nailed him. How did we do it? By just making blood and putting it in small bags so that when you hit the nail the blood just goes, and the women fainted in the church. When Jesus was stabbed with the spear, we just put a tiny little bag of blood at the bottom of a cardboard and stuck it to the tip of the spear so it looks like the spear, so when you hit the guy, the cardboard collapses and the bag breaks. And so the blood flows from the staff. We were 10 years old.
So it has been a long time coming?
Yeah. When I went to university, I was in a dance club and I produced drama on stage. It was in school that I met so many creative people. Where I was as a kid, it was just me and my siblings doing things, but in school everybody was creative, always just creating things. And so, I always wanted to make films but I didn’t know how. Fast forward, I work in tech, I was a programmer, product designer, and then I now created a marketing company, basically merged my tech and marketing passions in a digital agency, outside of making short videos for brands, shooting short films for brands, advertising and ads for brands you know. You build that experience, you write scripts, and the advertising scripts are pretty hard.
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NATIVE: So that prepared you for filmmaking.
Editi Effiong: Well, the funny thing I always say is that, the thing that prepared me the most for being a filmmaker and director is programming. Writing code because it’s the only thing that allowed me to think through. When I used to write code, you would have several folders with different codes, different support, constants, variables, and files that you can call as you needed them and the reality for me was you have to know where everything is, every line of code. It’s the same thing as directing, you have to carry the story whole in your hand. With every change you make on set, every adjustment to dialogue, it affects the rest of the story.
Were there skills that you took from advertising to filmmaking?
Organisational skills, raising money, being able to manage stakeholders across different channels. Being told that your work is shit and you go back to rework, like taking your ego out of the way. You’re gonna work for two weeks, go into a pitch and someone says it’s shit. And you go back and fix it, knowing that your client is right. Basically what I’m saying is that it helps you because artists—film artists—can be very emotional in the way they approach things and advertising helps you build a different approach.
Obviously, advertising is a form of storytelling but it’s different from film. What informed your decision to fully take that leap into filmmaking?
I think storytelling is very important. If we do not tell our stories, we lose ourselves. If we do not show who we are, tell who we are, then that part of us dies. Our children will not know, will not be able to see who we are, our children’s children will not know who we are. Stories are an important part of building our societies. Stories tell us what our societies should be like, the ideal. We build the ideal, a make-believe world then we can copy that ideal in the real world. Yeah, that’s why I went into film.
Talk me through your creative process.
So, most times, stories come to you whole. Like they come to you whole and you go through the process of taking that whole and detailing it. For instance, I wrote the initial draft for ‘Fishbone’ in thirty minutes. So, what you now do is, there’s the dialogue, strengthening it out, blah blah blah, but the initial idea just comes whole. With ‘The Black Book’, I had a lasting image I wanted to see. I had a clear idea of what the protagonist was supposed to do and then the beginning, the end. So I would put that down, write a synopsis, then build a story. I would take the character out of the story to find out, “who is this person?” and build the character. After you know your character, you go back and work out the actual actions in the story because I know how my character would react to this situation. That’s how you actually write the real story and then write a script. You finish the script, go into a script workshop with an editor who tells you that your story has potential but it’s nonsense. And then you’re like “okay, so what do you do?” So. yeah, that’s my process. I’ve only ever directed one feature so I only have reference to that one feature.
Not Giving Up is the most important human trait. For success in any venture, not giving up is the most important. Not giving up.
You’ve said ‘The Black Book’ is the highest-budget Nollywood movie. Did you set out for that to happen?
We didn’t set out trying to make the most expensive films or one of the highest budgets or a million-dollar film. That’s not what we set out to do. What we wanted to do was tell a story that was strong, technically and everything.
What’s the rough breakdown of the film’s expenditures?
Well, that cast list does not come free, you know. Richard Mofe-Damijo, for example, worked on this project for thirteen months. You gotta pay him, you gotta pay his gym instructor, he had to lose weight and we had to hire a chef to prepare special meals for him for thirteen months, to make sure he would be the right size for the film. We had a specialist weapons trainer, a US marine that came in to train weapons and fight tactics. We also had equipment coming from the UK. We hired the most experienced Nigerian DOP, who lives in the UK, and came in with crew from across six, seven different countries. We had that very big cast, and the crew, about a hundred and fifty people sometimes. We shot in Lagos, in Kaduna and back in Lagos. We shot in Tarkwa Bay, where we had to use a barge to transport trucks and equipment too. We shot in Kaduna, we had to build a road, we had to build a set with the thing that was basically an airstrip. It was so big that the Airforce flying over saw it and sent an investigator to come and see what we were doing there. We had to build thirty eight sets. We had about over seventy locations. It was crazy.
Shooting across many locations and all these other stuff, how were you able to not lose the essence of the movie?
It comes back to my experience as a programmer. That experience really did help in keeping sight and being in touch with the story. You don’t just keep shooting, you’re reviewing your script everyday as you’re shooting.
NATIVE: ‘The Black Book’ explores injustice, older Nigerian clandestine dealings and other sociopolitically stuff, which seems right up your alley considering your outspokenness on EndSARS and other stuff happening in Nigeria.
Editi Effiong: Okay, here’s my philosophy in life, and I lifted this directly, almost word for word from an uncle. I don’t take the bus. I never use the bus, but I will fight to make sure that buses are on the roads for people who need them just in case one day I need to use the bus. Does that make sense?
Even if I don’t need them, people will need them. I drive a pretty nice car. When police stop me on the road, it’s “good evening, sir” and they let me go. We don’t have long conversations. But I’m gonna fight for people who don’t have that privilege, in case it’s my turn one day. I believe that we should fix the country because if we don’t, I’ll have to support all my cousins. Does that make sense? Right now, there’s no how you’ll stay, you’ll have a nice job and someone from the village or an old friend won’t call you asking for money, because everyone is going through it.
That’s why you’ll fight for a better economy. So your cousins can take care of themselves, they don’t have to depend on you. And also you too, when you get into trouble, when you get into a hard place, you want to have cousins that you can reach out to, you know. And 2Face said it, if you’re the only Superman in the area you’re gonna suffer. You want to be the only Superman in the area, you’re going to suffer. There’s more suffering rather than freedom associated with being the only Superman in the area. With ENDSARS, the chances of me getting shot by police is not as high as the average guy on the street. I’ve driven at night and seen police blocking the road and parking young men to the side and they wave me by, but I have to stand with them because it’s wrong. In the film, you see how my beliefs play into the things that I explore. Do you see how the things I believe in play a role in my art?
In addition to social justice, what would you say is the most important theme in ‘The Black Book’?
Family. Family is the most important thing.
What sort of impact do you hope the film has on the audience?
I hope the audience enjoys the film and expects better in the future.
What are some of your expectations for Nollywood’s evolution in the near future?
People are doing amazing work in Nollywood and I can’t wait to see what other producers are doing. We’ve seen really great films, and TV shows come through in the last couple of months and The Black Book is another title coming out of Nollywood.
What’s next for you?
And for me, what next, we are already in pre-production, for the next picture.
Interview conducted and transcribed by Alex Omenye.