“Amina, Queen of Zazzau” Why Izu Ojukwu’s Movie Could Lead the Way for Other Films on Our Heroines

 

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Queen Amina reigned for 34 years, she was in command of an intensely dedicated military band, and she led the Calvary of Zazzau, she was to be feared and remains one of the most dreaded figures of the 16th Century. At the time she reigned, issues relating to gender were not contended. Women thrived in powerful positions, controlled trades and ruled empires. Women earned positions on merit. Today, women are getting militarily aggressive because the tables have turned and gender determines position in our society.

What would happen if we had the ability to pick the historical female heroine Amina and plant her in our present world? The gender equality conversation will take a new dimension. Most of the historical heroines that existed decades before us fought with the aim of living in a society that was enjoyable for their sake and for their people. It was to build a reputation that they strived for; they didn’t have to deal with gender discrimination before dealing with the real issues.

Queen Amina expanded the territory of the Hausa people of North Africa to the largest borders in Africa. Amina’s persona inspired a television series about a fictional warrior princess called “Xena” but until now nothing has been depicted of her on screen. There are history books that have detailed her legacy, books that have chronicled her life and yet only deep researchers have concrete details on the life of Amina. Hers is a complex story, one that has potential to appeal to a wide audience and Izu Ojukwu takes the task of visually detailing the life of Queen Amina from her birth to when she ascends the throne in the film “Amina, Queen of Zazzau,” which was extensively worked on in 2015, “the film is not a biopic but a tribute to women that dare to try.” The essence of making “Amina, Queen of Zazzau” is to establish a collaboration between the 16th century and the 21st Century woman. A collaboration that is worth being enjoyed and should appeal to a vast audience especially in this age and time, “the film is for women, for young girls, imagine what Queen Amina would do in this age and time, if she were alive?” The director quizzes. He compares the process of making Queen Amina to “Aladdin,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Arabian Night” these films were made with essential cultural orientation and yet were globally accepted with mega successful box office records to back them up.

For the widely acclaimed “Slumdog Millionaire” it set a record, by winning 8 Oscar awards in 2009 and while Izu will love to see “Amina, Queen of Zazzau” enjoy commercial success and wide appeal, he rejects the idea of making films to compete for awards. If “Amina, Queen of Zazzau” was shot in Hausa, it would “probably” earn us a chance at contending for a Foreign Language Category at the Oscars (Nigeria has never gotten a nomination) but for the director, “if we get awards, we are happy, if we don’t we are still happy. Our primary aim is to change lives and any other thing that comes after that is a pat on the back.”

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Something else to consider; the industry is yet to prove that it can commercially thrive with local dialect films. Films made with indigenous languages have their audience, they hardly appeal to people that are from a different ethnic group. Musicians thrive when they use their local dialect but that is music. Making a film is more complex; it is an art form that requires more, for movies it is not about the appealing beats or the rhythm (as it is in Nigeria). For a film to receive critical acclaim and commercial success there is the narrative that should communicate with the audience, astounding dialogue, compelling performances and the exuberant visuals that as viewers we insist on. We want perfect and very few people have the patience to read subtitles and Izu took that into consideration while making “Amina, Queen of Zazzau.”

The concern of the filmmaker is getting to a modern audience and if “Amina, Queen of Zazzau” were to look like a complete Hausa film “then we box the film to a corner,” says the director. Amina has an inspirational story and inspiration is universal. Furthermore on the argument of language he says “English appeals to all”.

“Amina, Queen of Zazzau” features some of the most aggressive fight scenes to ever make it to a Nigerian feature film, Izu describes the carefully orchestrated fight scenes as realistic and not a technological illusion of some sort, “If we are talking about 10,000 warriors, then we have 10,000 on screen,” that is the extent of the care that was taken to create “Amina, Queen of Zazzau”. The director insists that the film is not about the persona of Amina but her “journey” from birth to when she ascends the throne, “It will broaden our conversation on gender equality” and in our present world the Gender equality topic gets attention from those ready to die for it and those willing to die against it. The word “Journey” signifies a lot of things, for Amina it was a selfless journey to honour her people, defending them even when her life was continuously threatened by rival territories.

Amina was bold and this is what the film promises to deliver on, boldness, the kind that has never been exhibited by any of the female characters we’ve watched on film before. Like Izu’s previous effort “76”, the actors in “Amina, Queen of Zazzau” went through series of training to physically match the role of warriors. Another exciting thing about “Amina, Queen of Zazzau” is the extensive research that was conducted to get the costumes and the set design to match the 16th century.

Very little has been written or said about the female historical figures that fought for what they believed in and we have a good number of those, from Emotan to Idia of Benin Kingdom, Inikpi of the Igala land, Moremi and the very famous Fumilayo Kuti they have all thrived in the most difficult situations. Their stories are important and they should be immortalised with important films that mark a turning point in our cinemas.

The rising and raw female talent tasked with the intensity of the role of Amina is someone the director insists on keeping anonymous until we get the first film trailer; she scaled through a rigorous audition process to get the role and then went through an intense training process to transform to Amina. The filmmakers were specific about who should be Amina, she had to be a “New face”, and a new face it was. She did not only dedicate her time to the movie for the sake of the recognition that is to come but the intensity of the story which she hungrily wants the audience to connect to, the intention is to make sure that people leave the theatre feeling a rough yet timely connection to the heroine Amina.

The Bank of Industry has played a pivotal role in the growth of Nollywood. And “Amina, Queen of Zazzau” is one of the films that BOI financed in 2015. “76” the directors last acclaimed work took five years before screening in theatres last year. But “Amina, Queen of Zazzau” is a more delicate story, which is why it matters how much care is taken to make the film. The film is presently in post-production in Canada to be transferred to Germany soon. It is slated for a mid-2017 release and while some sites have pitched the budget as N50 million, the director argues this. The budget is far ahead of this figure. He is not disclosing how much it cost, we can only speculate, but as he has proven with films like “Sitanda” (2007) and most recently “76” (2016) his directing style is promoted by his dedication to magnificent art directions and that does not come cheap.

From people that have been mere spectators in areas where the film was shot in Jos, they promise that “Amina, Queen of Zazzau” will launch a new movement for the Nigerian cinema; more films relating to historical figures. Such films will help us to understand our past and definitely where we are headed. Many more spectators are attracted to the detailed costuming and the elaborate set design that was used even during the audition process. For a Queen Amina hopeful, despite not scoring the role, she feels privileged she auditioned, “such hard work, and such dedication from just being at the audition, it is proving of what is yet to come.”

The film features some of Kannywood’s greatest, including; Ali Nuhu, Sani Danja and Yakubu Mohammed among a host of talented performers.

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