Lucky Ejim cut a striking figure in his role as the near-suicidal Obinna in ‘The Tenant’. In real life, he is no less impressive in presence as he is in his speech, with words rolling off his tongue in a near-solemn march to the ears of the attentive listener. His profession as an actor needs no telling. Also a director and screenwriter, though the writing is currently taking the backseat, Ejim calls himself a storyteller. His role in ‘The Tenant’ tells a story of disillusionment, disgrace and desperation. Acting in and directing the work, he told Obinna’s story on camera and coordinated the story of the other characters from his space behind the camera. “Working and directing The Tenant was like wearing two hats at a time. But I had a strong team and they gave me their trust and belief.”

As an actor and director, Ejim shifted between being selfish and being selfless in order to strike a balance between both roles and a balance between the actor/director and the rest of the cast and crew. A series of meetings and rehearsals where each department was “dissected” helped strike the balance. “I worked that out with the actors, so when we came back on set, it’s easy for us to jump into the role and everyone will be on the same footing as myself.” This, Ejim said, was essential to the success of ‘The Tenant,’ self-financed by himself and Jude Idada, his business partner at Broken Manacles Entertainment.

The Message

‘The Tenant’ is the story of a young Nigerian in Canada trying his best to avoid deportation. To a large number of Nigerians already abroad or preparing to hightail it, the film tells a grim tale. “We want them to understand that the piece we are doing is not just another film. It is a story that digs deep into displacement that places a distressing mirror on immigration and looks at the future of the youths of today slipping away because the powers that be are negligent to the woes and cries of the generations to come.” The question to government, he says, should be “Are you really leading us?”

His passion for this cause is jolting. Is his reality the same as Obinna’s? “I spent an extensive amount of time digging into the story, when I threw myself into the role, it was effortless. I did not need to act to be Obinna.”

Being Lucky

Ejim’s journey into film started in Nigeria at the University of Benin where he studied Theatre Arts. He majored in Acting and in 2000, emigrated to Canada, where he trained in Directing and Writing at the Toronto Film School. “Because I’m a storyteller, it’s hard for me to be susceptible to mediocrity. I’m very critical of any work I do. So it felt natural for me to want to improve myself as a storyteller. That’s why I went to train as a storyteller. Lucky is an artist that is serious about making a political statement.” Part of his mission he says is “to sell the ideals and the ideas of the black man to everyone.” On the set of ‘The Summit’, a Canadian movie, he had the role of a Kenyan president changed to a Nigerian just to make a point. “That was nice. I fought hard for that role and it was imperative to me at that point in time that the president whose ideals must foster greater good in Africa was initially created as a Kenyan man. Someday, they will see that in the reflection of our being as the leading black nation in the world.”

Ejim might himself be on the way to being one of the leading black men in Hollywood. He stars in ‘The Lockdown’ currently in pre-production and recently finished work on the set of the upcoming Hollywood epic ‘Moby Dick’. The film is based on the 1851 novel written by Herman Melville about a white whale. The film stars William Hurt, Ethan Hawke, Raoul Trujillo, and Charlie Cox amongst others. Ejim plays Daggoo, a whale hunter.

Like he did in ‘The Tenant,’ he brings to this role a graceful bearing that echoes Sydney Poitier in his younger days as an actor. “It’s quite inspiring hearing more than one people say that I carry with me the markings of what makes up Sydney Poitier. That is big and when I think about it it’s scary because that’s an icon to carry over. He is a source of inspiration.” His knowledge of trivia about the legendary African American actor underscores Ejim’s awe and respect for Poitier.

His affection for his art means he is all for his profession. “It’s this or nothing. If I wasn’t acting or directing, I’d be writing.”

Stuck in time

The mood changes slightly when Nollywood is mentioned. “I think it’s stagnant,” Ejim says, “I think it started off good, but we now see a number of Nigerian films that strive on mediocrity. We need to move forward. The quick-buck mentality has created a rift between the ‘money’ people and the artistic people. I believe it can grow. It’s always when you have a precarious situation that people are forced to think.”

He is shocked to hear that certain films here are made under a week. “I think that’s an exaggeration. I don’t know how people do that. That is sad, because the image of my country around the world is at stake as far as storytelling is concerned.”

His attitude to such films may not be unwarranted. Filmmakers who are based abroad like himself suffer the consequences of the quality of Nollywood films. “Jude (Idada) and I have walked into production houses where we say we want to make a film and then you say you are Nigerian; the energy changes. It’s like ‘Oh! OK. We’ve seen your movies’ and we are like ‘Oh no, no, no! Not those ones.’”

He complains of the limitations this has placed on the path of young and upcoming Nigerian filmmakers, “When somebody else will pitch easily, you have to reintroduce yourself and work so hard before you are even allowed to pitch, because our level of intelligence is being reduced to shabbiness by people that don’t understand the global phenomenon that should play out in telling their stories. The outside world matters. If your child grows up with these ideas that lack depth, they’ll not be able to compete internationally. If you do not really know how to make a film, it’s only a matter of time before you are sent packing. The idea of filmmaking as almost a run in the Olympics is re-energising those that really love the art. Tell a good story and you will emerge as a person that people outside will look out for.”

Undoubtedly, filmmaking in Nigeria is already developing into an exciting race between the best and the worst. Who leads the pack? As ‘The Tenant’s lead actor says, “There’s more to come, and at this juncture for Lucky, it’s just a crawling stage, when he starts walking, you’ll think he’s running, when he starts running, you’ll think he’s flying and when he flies, you won’t see him.”

The world might as well look out for a comet named Lucky Ejim.

By Aderinsola Ajao