I was lucky with the fact that I had access to education; I was able to decide what happened to my body, I was able to go ahead and marry someone that I love and certain things like that. So, other people should be able to have access to those kinds of rights- education, health and others.
Stephanie Okereke-Linus is a fascinating actress and film director with numerous laurels in her kitty. Her film, ‘Dry’, unarguably remains one of the best feature-movies since its release in cinemas last year. With the movie, she won Overall Best Movie of the Year in Best of Nollywood Awards and later added Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards 2016 to the achievement. She speaks about her family, career and sundry issues in this interview with LANRE ODUKOYA.
What was the feeling like when you were announced the over-all winner of the just concluded Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA)?
Well, it felt great. I feel very happy about it, but most importantly I’m happy that people are getting to know more about the thrust of the film which is the child birth issue and the Vesico Vaginal Fistula and maternal problems we have in Nigeria.
So, I’m happy that with this platform people are getting to be aware of the film and we pray that more things will be done concerning the situation that we find ourselves in this country.
There are so many issues to be dealt with, why were you keen on childbirth and maternal health?
There is no particular reason. There are so many other issues and we all need to talk about them. It just happened that this is something that was like a calling for me. The first time I heard about it was in my second year at the university when a friend of mine came back from UNIJOS and she was telling me stories and I thought it was strange that we are all living in the same country and I am having a different experience and somebody else is having a different experience too.
I thought it was weird. I was lucky with the fact that I had access to education; I was able to decide what happened to my body, I was able to go ahead and marry someone that I love and certain things like that. So, other people should be able to have access to those kinds of rights- education, health and others.
And there was also the fact that I was a victim of an accident. I had an accident and knew my experiences and they were horrible and that is something that just propels you about things that need to be done properly.
With ‘Dry’ winning several awards both within and outside the country, what is next for you as a filmmaker?
We have not finished with the film; someone just saw it recently and she was crying and said everyone needs to see it. I hope that in the next three years, it’s still going to be relevant even in five years. Because we still have this issue the film is still relevant and I need more people to see it; so I’m not in a hurry to go into any project for now because there is still a whole lot to be done with this film.
The fact that it won this award is not a reason to relax, I still need other people to see it and I still want that change, because the film is more like a catalyst. So, I hope for many good things ahead.
Are there plans to take the movie to other film festivals?
Yes, it should be, because most of these festivals I got invited to, they are the ones who heard about the film and invited me. I am an open person and aside that, I want people to see the film too.
So what has been the feedback especially from people in the north?
They love it! The film was screened in Kano and they did not ask me to delete anything from the movie. Like I said, it is not a northern issue, yes, we have a majority of people suffering from the condition coming from there, but we have young girls, teenage girls, who are going through abuse. You have people who are being married out and VVF is here with us in Lagos. I have treated women in Ebonyi and Akwa Ibom States, in Ibadan and I have people coming from Lagos.
So, it something that can happen to anybody regardless of the age; actually it is just that when you are younger you are more prone to it. So, it is a Nigerian problem, it is not a northern problem and I balanced the film.
It is a question that we need to ask ourselves and in the film everybody sees the role they need to play- you, parents of the girls, we in the community, the government, people in the health care sector. Everybody has her own role to play and if we play our roles very well, we will all have a healthy environment to inhabit.
Partnership is another way to go, have you been invited by any government agency to partner with you to create awareness since you agree it’s a national issue?
I know when I was away I got an email from the Min-istry of Health, and they also want to see how they can use this movie to create more awareness. I have partnership with Ford Foundation, partnership with the MDGs because one of the millennium goals is to eradicate this condition. So, we are still pushing to see how we can get this whole thing done and I have had other people who have come on board to partner with me.
When I showed the thriller (summary of the movie) to SPENCO, they were like, ‘oh my God! What can we do? And I said let’s raise funds and help the actual women who are suffering from this condition and Diamond Bank too.
Now we have been able to treat over 100 women who have VVF; we donated medical equipment to some of the hospitals around, we are doing our little part, but there is still a whole lot to be done.
After you have exhausted the funds, what are the plans to get this down to families you know?
We recall that you recently signed a distribution deal with a company abroad, are you replicating that here?
Yes, I am going to release it on DVD and I am also going to put it on different channels hopefully, so that many people can get to see it.
Like I said, it is not only a Nigerian issue; it’s African and world issue, so I am also going to do some African tours. African countries are calling me that they also want to see the film so I am going to move the film around and release it for people to see.
It’s just like a guy who walked up to me and said he did not understand it, some thought VVF was a sexually transmitted disease, so the movie opened their eyes and they became aware and they now understand it because they were seeing it through the eyes of the victim.
How were you able to get the girl who played the lead role to deliver with that level of proficiency?
I hired some people to help to get a girl because I told them that I needed someone from the north because I needed her accent to be authentic. She recommended a lot of people to me and they all came for audition and I saw people who were seasoned actors, but they were slightly bigger and when she stepped in, I said to myself, ‘this one is just the right size’ but she was shy.
As an actress and director, I knew I was going to be able to work on her, I knew the things to say to her and how to handle her. It is more like you being able to handle a child; so that is your ability as a director to be able to bring out what they don’t even know they have inside.
At last, I was able to work her through it.
Let’s discuss the industry, piracy is a big problem, how has it affected you?
It is ridiculous, you know that is one of things in my speech that I actually forgot to say at the AMVCA gala and on my way home I realised it. I wondered ‘how did I forget this?’ It still boils down to the fact that we live in a country where I don’t know what is wrong with our leaders, you know sometimes you see an industry or a sector that is employing millions of people, a sector that is striving very well, a sector that is the only export that you have; forget this oil that they are talking about, it is the only authentic export that you have and an export that has been able to grow on its own and has a massive followership.
And it has this huge potential for you to tell your story, for you not to allow other people tell your stories for you. It can be used as a propaganda tool, so many things you can do with this platform and you are not doing anything to protect the rights of these people so that there will be sustainability.
So it is really sad; we need to strengthen the laws because it is not even about distribution, if you don’t fix piracy, distribution can’t stand. Make it a financial crime, criminalise it even if we have to go back and revisit the law. If the law says if someone pirates your firm, you are going to pay ‘XYZ’ amount of money, let’s fit it in and tighten it and let people understand that you can’t be doing things with other peoples’ creativity.
You have to figure out a way to encourage these people. It saddens me when we have leaders who don’t understand what they have in their place. I can go into a country confidently that is why I said most of us will probably move out and if I move into a country, I can start an industry because of the amount of experience and what I can do.
Different African countries are calling us to come in and help their people. And then you look at the rate at which we were able to move into Ghana and you saw what happened- the industry sprung up. So, you have this huge potential of millions of young people who want to be in this industry and you are not doing anything about it.
It is like carrying a cup of water and pouring it into the ocean, if we don’t lock up the tap where there is leakage it will continue to flow. It really saddens me and I think that the government doesn’t even need us to form a pressure group and people saying we are divided. That is not the problem.
Piracy is you and me, even if you are my enemy, piracy is our enemy, it is a common enemy. They are supposed to ask what we want which is like the normal standard or practices elsewhere in the world and see what you can put in place to protect the work of your people.
If it is a government that is proactive they don’t even need anybody to tell them and on our part if they don’t give it to us, we should demand it, that is the problem we are having in Nigeria. We don’t demand for things, we just allow things to happen to us; that is why we like comedy so much. So those are the kinds of challenges we have and it’s really sad. Hence, the National Assembly needs to sit down and come up with whatever bills they need to pass so as to help this industry; they owe it to us to do that.
What plans do you have to train aspiring actors and directors?
You know we have been doing that. My husband is the CEO of DelYork International and over the years, he has been doing great. He partnered with the New York film academy and brought in a lot of lecturers and we have trained over a thousand students and we see all our students doing well, even with the one month training they had.
They have been able to shoot their own movies, get jobs and so many other things, so we are really happy about that and hopefully it is something we want to continue to do because we need a lot of people to enhance their talents and rediscover themselves. But at least, we have been able to do different things in Nigeria.
We heard your biography is underway. If it’s to be published, what will the title be and why?
The thing is not finished, we have just started please. Okay what will the title be? Maybe when I get there I can title it. I can title it “I have seen”, but right now I can’t think of anything.
Do you see Nigerian movies especially yours winning the Oscars anytime soon?
We should, it’s just because I heard there is a planning committee on Oscars and we should if people are not biased. I heard there is a planning committee on Oscars, I don’t know. Even with this film, it should and it can. It’s time we showed to the world that we make good films in this country.
How is motherhood?
Motherhood is the best thing that can ever happen to anybody. I am very much excited and enjoying every moment of it. My baby is doing very fine and my husband has always been there for me from day one.
How will you rate the organisation of this year’s AMVCA awards?
For me, a lot of work was put into it and that is the more reason it came out the way it did. But like we say: there is still room for improvement and I’m equally sure that next year will be bigger and better.