Interview with Olive Nwosu

28th October 2020


Interview with Olive Nwosu, director of Troublemaker, conducted by Ilia Ryzhenko, member of the Short Film Competition Viewing Committee.

IR: Before we start, I would like to say just how much I admired your short film. It is extremely well shot and acted; however, it was the script, as well as the central theme of the film, that really elevated it for me. Your film is meditative and philosophical in the best way a film can be, and I would love the opportunity to congratulate you on making it.

My first question is somewhat open. How did you develop the idea for the film, and what inspired you to make it in the first place? Was there a particular thought that you wanted to express through this film that has been on your mind for a while?

ON: Thanks so much for your kind words. It really means a lot to hear that you were affected by the film, and saw into its messaging. I'm interested in filmmaking for the exact reasons that you articulated, to try to make meaning of the world around me, so truly, it's the highest praise from you.

I've never done an email back-and-forth interview, and am excited to try it. Here's my response to your first question, which is a little long (and hopefully not rambly.) It seems I have a lot of thoughts on my mind:

Yes, definitely. The way I understand things is by creating a narrative. I try very much to make it as complex as I am able to, but ultimately, I need to tell myself a story to understand and give meaning to a thing - anything. It's the only way I know how to exist in the world. And I have been trying to make sense of my home country, Nigeria, probably for my entire life. For me, this film is rooted in this, in trying to comprehend my home - in the story I am creating for myself about Nigeria. Especially because, unfortunately, we Nigerians have not done a good job yet of creating these stories for ourselves. And in many ways, the Biafran War feels like the clearest emblem of this.

The Nigerian Civil War began in the late 1960s. It is beginning to feel far away, like 'History' in some ways. Especially because there is hardly any mention of it in Nigerian discourse. It was never once taught to me in school - which really I think is a disgrace.

But in our home, in my nuclear and extended family, the aftermath of the war felt very clear. My father never spoke of it much when I was a child, but I felt it. His deep tribalism, the suspicion he had of other ethnic groups, his desperate desire to build a home in the village where he was born, back in Eastern Nigeria, even though we lived in a rented home in the city of Lagos. There were so many clues. It intrigued me very much as a child. I was always a curious child, always so interested in adults' business. I couldn't wait to understand, to join the conversation.

I think this is the root of Troublemaker. In the subconscious knowing of trauma that I think is very real; we humans have a deep instinct for danger, we've had to develop this, given our pre-civilised past. I feel certain that we perceive trauma even when it is unspoken. And given my background in psychology, I know also that unspoken trauma is always the most dangerous thing. This is what is always on my mind. The erasure of history in Nigeria (and Africa) by those in control, and the painful, dangerous repercussions that this can have. Nigerians are still deeply tribal people. Even though we have been one nation for over 100 years now, there is deep fragmentation. And if we don't address it, I am fearful of the violence that might erupt.

So, of course, there is also a hinting at the perpetuating cycle of violence. Which is something I AM concerned about, but at the same time am not fully convinced of. I'm an optimist, it's my curse, and I'm always hopeful that we humans can break the chain. This is why I end the film where I do, right after Obi has caused pain to his grandfather. What will he do next? For me, this is the most important question of all. Now that he has gained awareness and has himself felt the dual pleasure and shame of inflicting pain, what will he do? I leave this up to the audience to decide.

IR: Thanks for your detailed (and not at all rambling!) response. I think that in having the time to think over questions lies the greatest aspect of email interviews.

You’ve pointed out that you, growing up in Nigeria yourself, were a very curious child – much like the young protagonist Obi; and you raise a very interesting point here, talking about cultural memory and trauma as something that is tangible precisely because it is unspoken, undiscussed, bracketed out of daily conversations. I’m Russian, so this sense of the past falling through the cracks is quite familiar, with my older relatives suffering from a sort of collective amnesia regarding the Stalinist and post-Stalinist repressions and persecutions of the Soviet Russia era. To me this also explains their overwhelming obsession with the present moment and the attempts to grasp everything that is happening right now, almost as if in an attempt to turn the blind eye toward other tenses, both the past and the future.

Obi is a fascinating character, and I have a sense that his experiences and actions, though not necessarily literally, are comparable to those of children born in confused, traumatised, and oppressed societies all around the globe. To me, the most though-provoking moment of the film is, of course, the climax, where (spoiler alert for future readers who hadn’t seen the film yet) Obi throws firecrackers around his non-communicating grandfather, triggering his PTSD. For me, this was an inevitable, even necessary ending, because it provoked an endless chain of questions regarding the causes and effects of Obi’s actions. In your response you’ve mentioned your consideration of the endless cycle of violence; however, as a viewer, I am reluctant to assign any blame to either Obi or anyone immediately around him for what’s happening. The sense of boredom and solitude that provokes his outburst is recognisable for all, and his attempt to awaken his grandfather – albeit malicious in a way a child’s prank is – does manage to pull his older relative out a potentially more dangerous condition of futile internal struggle.

So I’d like to ask you more about the ending: was it something that came to you straight away; something that you, too, saw as a necessary finale? And, more importantly, why do you think Obi did what he did? Is his birth and growing-up in this particular community pre-determining his entire contribution to the future of that society through his actions?

ON: Yes, this is a very good question. I must say, I felt a kind of sadness in reading your question just now.

That final scene was always going to happen. The entire film was birthed from that moment, it was the only thing I could see clearly from the very beginning. And I think you are right to say it was pre-determined. It's funny, I'm writing another script now, and the same question has been raised over and over: this tension/dichotomy between Duty and Freedom. I think Nigerian youth, and as you say, the young everywhere who have inherited the problems of the past, are locked into a certain fate, a duty to reconcile (at the very least) with said past, if they are ever to move forward with any freedom to imagine new futures. I'm feeling this particularly, because, as you might know, as we speak now, Nigerians are protesting on the streets back home. It's crazy how little of this is being covered in international news, by the way. But right now, the largest protests in decades in the country are ongoing. The government in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, of over 20 million people, just today announced a curfew to try to repress exactly what you speak of: an attempt by my generation to finally awaken our elders from their stupor, to engage finally in wrestling us into a different space.

Growing up, every Nigerian child is told, 'You are the leaders of tomorrow'. It's a slogan that's heard everywhere and it frustrates me. It feels like a passing of the buck - the next generation will be the ones to solve the problems, as our parents and grandparents do very little. They are in too much pain. So yes, I agree, Obi holds no blame in doing what he does. It's inevitable - even worthy. He's only doing what has been whispered in our ears for so long, and yet hindered in many of our lives. It's a hopeful act, I think. Again, depending on what happens next.

IR: I think you’ve pointed out an important tension here, that between duty and freedom. The issue is that duty is defined by the powers that be that failed to achieve freedom themselves, while freedom is unknown, because the tiny sliver of the past that encountered is gone and forgotten. It’s true, Nigerian protests are completely underrepresented, despite the fact that understanding their causes is necessary for anyone trying to comprehend the changes undergoing in the way that oppressed persons demand they are treated by institutions trading in force.

I would like to shift the attention a bit to the gendered aspect of the film. How important is it that Obi is a boy – that is, what do you think is the unique way in which the traumatised collective unconscious of Nigerian society prompts men to act? Would the story occur in any comparable way if it were told from the perspective of a girl?

ON: To my mind, Obi had to be a boy. Nigeria is still a very, very gendered place. There is a lot of importance and pressure put on the construct of 'the Man'. It's as it is in many other places: a man is strong, he provides, he's responsible for the ascendance of the family name through generations.

It's an impossible task, near impossible to succeed anywhere, and particularly in Nigeria today. Our society is stifled. There is little upward mobility. And those in power hold on tight.

Failure is almost certain; at the very least, there will be much frustration along the way. That in itself is another injury to bear. And I think sometimes, it results in injury to others, as a way to cope.

To my mind, women are better at bearing this pain, especially in this context. Part of why is because what is requested of a woman to succeed is more focused on the home. In gender-normative Nigerian roles, the woman loves her children, she cooks for them, she cares for the family. Throughout the film, you will notice that the women are always working, in every frame, they are busy, toiling for the community.

In the meantime, the men are often in a daze. Their sense of honour has been destroyed, and, for many of them, it is hard to turn that dynamic, masculine force somewhere else. So they turn it inwards, and it becomes destructive. Particularly because so much is staked on that in our culture. It is the boy child that 'carries on the name.'

I'm an only girl, and I have four younger brothers. In watching them grow up, I have recognised some sense of this difference in the way we move through the world and are seen.

IR: It is noticeable that women are the ones whose activity in the film is actually instrumental, unlike that of Obi and his grandfather (and it is not their fault, at least not directly). It is funny to think of, in a way, that Obi is so bored – there really is a lot to do around him, but he wasn’t socially programmed to do the things that are available to him.

I think that portraying trauma is a difficult task in the modern filmscape; the topic has been appropriated by the hegemonic pop-cinema industries and turned inside-out. Now, everything is justified and explained (away) using trauma, and this applies to everyone – from comic book villains to war veterans. What do you think is the most respectful and insightful way of discussing trauma in film? Which films on trauma that you’ve seen come to mind as particularly good/egregious examples? What were your cinematic inspirations, generally?

ON: To be honest, I hadn't given much thought to how trauma is generally portrayed on screen these days. I can see, though, how it can become an easy apparatus. There's an inherent dramatic quality to the nature of trauma. It's a fight against oneself, an inability to fully integrate something so hideous into a psyche. That's a riveting quality to this process.

For me, my interest stems from my background in psychology. Before pursuing my MFA, I did an MSc in psychology, and my work was based in trauma research. Along with this, my introduction to filmmaking was to its documentary tradition. I studied documentary filmmaking in undergrad and wanted to do only that at first.

All this is to say, I have a natural suspicion of fiction. My concerns are in relation to questions of power and ethics in a Foucauldian way. With Troublemaker, it was very important that the film become a collaboration. We went to a village in eastern Nigeria, where my father grew up - in the tribe I come from. We did a week-long workshop with the members of the community, and they are the ones who populate the film. These are non-actors who, in their own way, have lived through the tensions of the story. The boy who plays Obi had been dubbed 'the most troublesome boy in Ugbenu'. The old man who plays his grandfather was involved in the war.

Through our process of collaboration, we ended up reworking many of the scenes. All of the dialogue became improv - and it makes the film so much better, I believe.

Two moments in particular stuck out for me, in production. In the scene at the river, that anger, the shift in energy, it's very real. People never mention the war back home, and when they do, it's in private spaces. So when the boys do, when they sing that song, it really is genuinely shocking. And it sparked something real that we were able to capture on film. This is the sort of exciting cinema that I love so deeply. It's where my inspiration is drawn from: from filmmakers like Joseph Oppenheimer and Roberto Minervini and Werner Herzog, who, in their practice, blur the line between documentary and fiction.

The second moment in our process that was powerful, and really shook me, was that last scene, where the grandfather finally speaks - we shot it on the last day. I had been concerned about this scene the entire time. How the old man would do it, would he be able to? We never rehearsed the scene. But when it came time, once I called action, he let out this piercing scream, and immediately I knew. This was a reliving for him, truly. A choice he had made. I think there is real power in this. In giving agency, in reclaiming experiences. Ultimately, I believe the human spirit is resilient. It can be transformed. This is how I think we must talk about trauma, with a humanistic lens. Trauma is real, and it's painful. But humans are resilient beings too. And cinema can be a therapeutic tool that helps individuals move from 'victim' to 'survivor' to 'thriver'. If our cinema and discourse can do this, it would be a transcendental thing.

IR: Your approach to the making of the film sounds absolutely fascinating, and it does explain to me some of the movie-magic that comes through in certain arresting moments of the film. With regards to Foucault and the documentary-fiction distinction: I think there’s much to be said in defence of narrative fiction cinema ideologically – at least it bears the traces of its artificiality and creation and, with that, a certain responsibility, much like the sovereign personally sending execution orders in contrast to the modern prison industrial complex, per Foucault’s own example.

Do you think that this kind of non-creator-centric, pluralistic approach to making fiction films about real events is the right way of doing things? Your film is certainly autoethnographic, and I wanted to hear your thoughts about the way in which such moving and important stories and personal narratives can be taken away and appropriated from real persons such as those depicted in your film. In other words, who has the right to represent and capture such trauma?

ON: It's a good question, and one I don't think I fully know the answer to. It's really the crux of the matter, who has the right to represent and capture; it's very relevant to so many things today.

My thought is that - it depends; the answer, to my mind, is constantly evolving. Foremost to me is the question: who has the ability and platform, at the time, to represent and capture trauma in the first place? The answer to this question has been different at different times. Of course, the individual who has experienced, whose story it is, is always at the centre of things. But I'm realistic about how the world works. Too often, that person is invisible, or otherwise, too busy doing the difficult work of healing, for themselves and for their community. I don't think, then, that it is their job also to represent and communicate their truth. It's a lot to ask of a person.

This is where the role of the facilitator and the meaning maker comes in. I think of the writer/director as that facilitator, and in many ways, as a servant in the creation of meaning. Like you say, the film is autoethnographic, I have woven in my truths with those of my community. It is also, ultimately, a fictitious story, albeit one in collaboration with real 'actors'. I am Nigerian, but it is not lost on me that the reason I am able to make this film, and the reason people in the UK, and other countries, will see it too, is because I am also a British citizen, and I have had the opportunity to go to university in the US. These strokes of luck, these parts of my identity, have allowed me be able to tell the story, and they have made it possible for others to know it and, I hope, to be affected by it. And then, too, in some way, will cause action in their lives. So like I said, who has the ability and platform in the first place, is the real crux of the matter.

I do think though that the answer is also about process. With the right process, the wrong person can do the right thing. I am a believer in incentives to make us be our better selves. So yes, collaboration will always yield a more complex, more holistic, narrative. If we create an ethical process, then it is easier and better for all - including the audience. And I think that we must continue to make it more and more possible for those closer to the reality to have the support they need to tell their own stories.

IR: Thank you for this answer. It’s not a question that I asked in any way rhetorically – I’m always looking for the answer myself. I agree with you, though, that the answer lies in the ‘process’; ‘process’ meaning something in the middle of things, something that’s unravelling as time goes on, something open to change and becoming and interpretation. Right now, however, while the answer is still in the air, I as a film viewer couldn’t be happier that creators like you and many others whose films are featured in the festival do have the voice and the platform to produce autoethnographic art (which is all art).

For the last question of the interview, I’d like to ask if there’s anything you’d want to tell about your current or upcoming projects and plans.

ON: Just that I'm currently in pre-production for another short film that tackles the adults that children become after meaningful childhood experiences like the one Obi had, and how identity shifts and stays constant throughout our lives. I hope to screen it at AiM one day!

I'm also working on the screenplay for my first feature, which has become that weird scenario of life imitating art. The third act of the script imagines the sort of large-scale protests that we've now just seen in urban centres of Nigeria - I must say it's one thing to write such a situation and something entirely different to watch it unfold in real time.

I also want to thank you and AiM for all the work you do in making a festival like this possible. It's very meaningful to me that your audience will be able to see Troublemaker, and other African films, and that this interview exists to contextualise it. I just want to say I'm very grateful for this. Thank you.

Troublemaker (2019) is screening as part of Africa in Motion's Short Film Competition (31 October - 29 November).