As global streamers like Netflix and Amazon Prime finally make inroads in Africa, Nigerian-Canadian filmmaker Lonzo Nzekwe is enjoying his moment in the sun at the Toronto Film Festival.
CAA Media Finance boarded Nzekwe’s Nigeria-set Canadian revenge thriller Orah with worldwide representation, excluding Canada, just before the feature that stars Star Trek: Discovery actor Oyin Oladejo in the titular role had a prestigious TIFF market screening on Monday night as part of the festival’s expanded Industry Selects program.
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The film, with a script 12 years in the making and shot in Canada and Nigeria, marks a triumph for Nzekwe, who like fellow black Canadian filmmakers long had his work neglected, ignored or dismissed before a Canadian industry reckoning after the murder of George Floyd finally diverted meaningful local financing to underrepresented creators.
“These stories that we thought weren’t interesting, or there was no audience, now people are gravitating towards them because we are making these stories. This movie (Orah) is about immigration, this is transnational cinema,” Nzekwe told The Hollywood Reporter at Bell Lightbox, where he basked in the presence of smartly-dressed international buyers smiling and shaking his hand as they filed into Cinema 7 to view his third movie after Anchor Baby and Meet the Parents.
Better late than never, he added: “We are finally making our own stories, where before we waited for the gatekeepers to make these stories and they never allowed us to tell them.”
Orah follows Orah Maduka, an illegal immigrant and female taxi driver in Toronto played by Oladejo, who seeks revenge for the death of her son who is brutally murdered by a high-profile Nigerian criminal in a drug trafficking and money laundering operation turned violent.
When all her legal options fail, Orah resorts to violence to settle the score.
Nzekwe explained a movie script that at first was to center around family bonds torn apart by a money-laundering operation eventually became a revenge drama when in real life his brother was murdered in 2016 by a stray bullet fired by a corrupt police officer with the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria.
“That’s when the revenge angle became more intense. I had to travel to Nigeria to get to the root of how my brother was killed. That’s when the rage I had inside, and the pain I saw on my mother’s face, led to revenge thoughts, to getting my pound of flesh, and I realized the only way to deal with that was to channel it through a film, and I poured everything into my script,” he recounted.
As Nzekwe plays a long game familiar to creatives in Hollywood, Orah is a product of what the Canadian film industry chooses to support or not, and which creators it backs at any one time. After years in the wilderness, his Africa-inspired revenge drama is also part of a new wave of indie films about immigrant life in Canada, and with universal themes for global audiences and streaming platforms, like Antony Shim’s Riceboy Sleeps, Clement Virgo’s Brother and Amar Wala’s debut scripted feature Shook.
The Canadian features from new and diverse creators focus on immigrant family stories and their experiences often uneasily finding their way in a new country and culture. “As an immigrant in Canada, it’s a constant battle that we deal with after leaving Nigeria, where you abandon your home and live here and feel a constant struggle to want to go back and forth,” Nzekwe explained.
Orah producers Floyd Kane and Amos Adetuyi are looking to CAA Media Finance’s Ozi Menakaya to use his contacts in Africa to possibly secure a deal from among major streamers for whom the continent has become a last frontier as they expand globally.
“If we can get a company like CAA to represent the film on a global level, where they have more reach than we could imagine, that’s the best and I feel comfortable the film is in the right hands,” Nzekwe told THR about Orah looking for largely untapped streaming audiences in Canada and Africa, especially Nigeria and South Africa.
Orah also stars Agape Mngomezulu, Lucky Onyekachi Ejim, Morgan Bedard, Somkele Iyamah-Idhalama, Oris Erhuero, O.C. Ukeje, Femi Lawson and Christopher Seivright, and was shot in Sudbury, Ontario, with a second unit filming in Nigeria.
The Toronto Film Festival continues through Sept. 17.
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