Intro by Innocent Chia
Far from the stars and glitz of Hollywood, Victor Viyuoh took another step in his journey some four years ago of making fascinating motion pictures by capturing extraordinary drama in the lives of mundane and uncharacteristic characters. The crisp and dynamite pictures reveal the movie maker's familiarity with a rural/pastoral setting that comes instantly to live in celebration of the simple, the beautiful and the majestic. Yet, in this world, in that world where all seems to be simple, all is simply not well. A storm is about to unleash in the village, pulling down on its way the rooftop of Ninah's house...
The problem is Ninah's Dowry needs to raise funds for the project to be completed. In a recent email, my friend, classmate and film producer, Victor Viyuoh wrote: "The idea is that many people contributing a little bit of money each can result in a huge sum. The bulk of that many people is family and friends....if there is anyway to get the word out to people you know who could pledge that would be excellent. People can pledge as little as $10. The more people, the better. Please, help me get the word out. It's a worthy project.
PRODUCTION SPOTLIGHT: NINAH’S DOWRY
Victor Viyuoh is a director, and was named one of Filmmaker Magazines 25 New Faces of Indie Film and is a Film Independent Fellow (Directing Lab, 2003). He is also in the post production stages of his narrative feature Ninah’s Dowry based on the life of his cousin Evelyn, who endured physical abuse from her husband and then was forced to return his dowry money when she could no longer take the abuse. With 26 days to go and just under $5,000 of his goal on Kickstarter to raise, we talked to Victor about his film.
When did you first know you wanted to make films? What was your first inspiration?
It all goes back to my first movie memory. I was sitting on my father’s laps in Potokri Cinema, in then Victoria, and watching a close up of a cowboy riding a horse. It’s still my best memory because my father passed away soon after that and we moved to the village. In order to continue watching movies, I raised chickens, which I sold to pay my way to town and catch the greatest $1 movies of our time – Hong Kong and Bollywood flicks. I get goose bumps thinking about Disco Dancer, Maitre de Blackstone, Kurata and the great Rekha! I never knew one could study filmmaking until I ran into the Screenwriting section while buying Electrical Engineering textbooks at the University bookstore. I was shocked. People could actually get credit for writing! After enrolling in my first writing class, I knew it was just a matter of time before I switched majors. I had been writing on my own since I was 13. Samples of my short stories got me admitted with a James Michener scholarship to the graduate Creative Writing program at the University of Miami. While there I took film courses that helped secure my admission to the USC graduate film school.
It was at USC that you made your Academy nominated short film, Mboutoukou. How did making that film and it’s success prepare you for Ninah’s Dowry?
Mboutoukou’s success allowed me to travel wide and learn from filmmakers across the globe. I took notes as much as I could and organized them to fit the world in which I would make movies. The single most frustrating advice I ever got was from Stephen Frears. I was part of the very first Berlinale Talent Campus where Anthony Minghella, Tom Tykwer, and Spike Lee among others wrought and spat eloquent pieces of filmmaking wisdom. Word of a master class by Stephen got many of us excited and I grabbed a front row seat. After he uttered a few words, we started asking him what it took to be a filmmaker. He groaned and moaned and said “I don’t know, you just have to find a way to do it.” Someone then asked, “How did you get to make your first film?” and Stephen groaned “I don’t know, I just found a way to do it.” Are you catching on? This went on for an hour and there wasn’t a single person who didn’t leave frustrated and disappointed. Years later when I embarked on making Ninah’s Dowry the obstacles were so big and so many that the only thing I could find to hold onto was Stephen Frear’s “you just have to find a way to do it.” It turned out to be the best filmmaking advice I ever heard!
I feel like that’s probably the best filmmaking advice anyone could ever give. How did you decide to tell the story of your cousin in Ninah’s Dowry?
Evelyn brought her story to me and so she was quite willing to share it with the world in the hopes that she could raise awareness. I shot a doc on her in which I managed to get her ex-husband to talk on camera. He definitely needed some convincing. I will, hopefully, include the doc as part of the feature’s DVD. One would find, believe it or not, that the narrative is tame compared to Evelyn’s actual ordeal.
The film addresses several human rights issues, but you say it is not a “propaganda film”. How did you walk this very delicate line?
I focused on the story and not the message in presenting the narrative. I tried to present a compelling situation without taking sides. It’s up to the audience to judge. It was very important that characters come across as real people with strengths and flaws. The big reason I don’t think it’s a propaganda film is that I didn’t try to be deliberately misleading. Now, if we define propaganda film as one that attempts, through theme and plot, to spread awareness about societal ills and get people to rethink their roles in our global village, then I am more than guilty. But I look at propaganda films as those that target like-minded people and deliberately misleads others as they propagate their dangerous political or social agendas. In such films, the audience is not allowed a choice. They are told to take action. With Ninah’s Dowry, I am hoping that people, even those who are not like-minded, are compelled to take action.
Because your film does focus on social issues, will you take a traditional approach with distribution or with a more DIY method?
It will probably be a combination of both. I started thinking about distribution even before I started work on the script. I hold that the only thing more difficult than funding African movies is marketing them. We will try to build buzz through a festival run. If we don’t secure distribution, we will then consider an aggressive DIY approach where we will seek out niche markets. There goes that delicate line again. Our big fall back plan is the Global Film Initiative which would pick up North American distribution rights if I can’t secure distribution within a year of the film’s completion.
Speaking of the film’s completion, you’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to help finish the film. Why did you use Kickstarter as opposed to other crowd funding tools?
Daniel introduced me to crowd funding when he came on board as producer. We initially wanted to go with a different site but Kickstarter’s reputation won us over. I particularly like the idea of donors getting their money back if we don’t meet our funding goal.
That certainly works to incentivise. What has been the most challenging part of raising funds for the film through crowd funding?
Crowd funding depends on many people participating with relatively small amounts. My trouble has been an inability to reach many people. I am at the point where if word doesn’t get out soon, I will need a few big donors in order to reach our goal. That’s tough because a project like this one could benefit down the road from many people hearing about it now even if they don’t pledge a dime.
Have you had any donors that have surprised you?
Absolutely. Our very first donor is someone I don’t even know. And I have never met our biggest donor. People with whom I have lost touch for over ten years constitute our biggest donor group! One of them, my classmate from high school, found a way to donate from Cameroon. It’s humbling. People have amazed me throughout Ninah’s Dowry’s journey.
You were a participant in Film Independent Directors Lab; can you talk about how your experience in the lab helped you develop as a filmmaker?
The lab was part of my formative years and my defining moments. At the start of the first lab, I still believed Hollywood could and would fund African movies by African filmmakers. You read that right. But by the end of the labs, I learned that mine was a smaller type of film, catering to a subgroup of a niche audience. Studio reps couldn’t stop laughing when I pitched my script “Fifty-Fifty” and said the budget was $3M. There I was shaking in my knees just saying out loud a huge amount like $3M and reps would burst out laughing that a studio would never fund a movie with such a small budget! But I learned from our directing mentor that a good movie is a good movie, regardless of budget or obstacles. I also met a couple of people at the labs with whom I am still in touch.
You can be a part of Ninah’s Dowry by helping fund the film at Kickstarter.