Photo courtesy of Charles Okpaleke.

Charles Okpaleke is Expanding Nollywood Through Video Games

The Nigerian entrepreneur and producer is behind the first-ever Nollywood video game, and he has a lot more up his sleeve.

In 2019, Charles Okpaleke, a dynamic lifestyle entrepreneur, made an unforgettable entry into Nollywood with his debut, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, a sequel to the 1992 classic of the same name. The film garnered critical acclaim and received immense love from audiences, securing seven prestigious awards at the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCA) the following year. It quickly soared to become one of the top twenty highest-grossing Nollywood films of all time, solidifying Okpaleke's reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the industry.

Since then, he has embarked on a journey of remarkable milestones with his production company, Play Network Studios. With the production of blockbuster remakes like Rattlesnake: The Ahanna Story, Glamour Girls, and Nneka The Pretty Serpent, Okpaleke has single-handedly ignited a wave of nostalgia for the classics that served as the building blocks of the Nollywood industry. His influence in the space is so significant that other filmmakers have started remaking old classics or have them in the pipeline — all in pursuit of hits like Charles of Play.

In 2021, Okpaleke acquired the rights to the beloved 2002 hit film Aki na Ukwa and successfully remade it with acclaimed director Biodun Stephen. The movie opened with ₦30 million before landing a licensing deal with Netflix, where it is currently streaming.

Play Network Studios recently launched a revolutionary game, "Aki and Pawpaw Epic Run," the first-ever Nollywood game. The game features the superstar characters based on Chinedu Ikedieze (Aki) and Osita Iheme (Pawpaw) as they try to run through various hurdles, like masquerades and touts, to get points and coins.

In this exclusive interview, Okpaleke spoke to OkayAfrica about immortalizing a hit film, expanding Nollywood into new realms, and what else is in store for 2023.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

What led to creating the video game of Aki and Pawpaw Epic Run?

I've always thought of the Aki and Pawpaw brand as exportable. I grew up watching them, and when you have legends like this who are still alive, one way to immortalize them is to create something that will work even after they are gone. This game allows us to continue the story of these legends and could be exported outside the country.

Did you work with any of the actors in creating this game?

They are a part of the game. Seeing as they're in it, it would only make sense. They also own rights to the game, so it was a team effort.

This is the first time something like this has been done in Nollywood. Do you want to play with other mediums like this with your other projects?

Why not? If any opportunities arise where we can explore other mediums, we will. You cannot just adopt certain things because they might not fit into our culture. I’ve always believed that culture is critical to us while creating, so we’ll keep following the trends and being at the forefront. Last year, we tried an NFT with the Aki and Pawpaw memes, but it didn’t work, probably because of the state of the crypto market. But whenever opportunities come, and they’re culture-friendly, we’ll throw our hats in and see how that goes.

We know that Play Network Studios also acquired the rights to Aki na Ukwa and produced a remake of the film, which is currently on Netflix. Do we expect you to do any more things with ancillary rights for this film?

I've been toying with the idea of an animated series. It's like how you have Tom and Jerry. We’re still discussing it, but there’s some desire for it, and we’ll keep examining and looking for opportunities. We just launched the game, and we’re trying to work around it to ensure maximum distribution for now.

What do you think the gamification of this film signals for the industry?

In this case, we see more games. That's how it works. In Nollywood, we're trying all angles to ensure we’re stretching ourselves beyond measure. When I came to Nollywood, I started with remakes and sequels of Living in Bondage and Rattlesnake, and now other filmmakers are doing them, so I expect to see more gamification. When we look at the downloads for our game, some of the highest numbers come from the US, Canada, and parts of Europe. And so I expect people to continuously tap into film culture through games and all the other ways possible.

We’re getting teasers for some Play Network projects midway into the year. What is cooking next?

For this year, we have three movies in the works. We have Blood Vessels, which tells the story of people who wanted to leave the country on a vessel going to Brazil. Things go wrong somewhere, and that’s the premise of that. And then we have Hijack 93, the story of Nigerian hijackers who hijacked a plane going from Lagos to Abuja, and then directed it to the Niger Republic. They went to prison for over a decade, and I had the opportunity to speak to three of the hijackers, who gave me their stories. And last but not least, there’s Billionaires Club which you should also look out for.

A still from the forthcoming Play Network film, 'Hijak 63,' of a woman cabin attendant pushing a trolley through an airplane.A still from the forthcoming Play Network film, 'Hijak 63,' of a woman cabin attendant pushing a trolley through an airplane.

Many projects you’ve unveiled recently, like Hijack 93, Igbo Landing, and Ekwumekwu, are related to historical events. Why so?

Because I just feel it's original. We have a lot of original stories in Nigeria that are worth telling, so I’m going to spend my time and effort telling stories that will go a long way for my children. When I mentioned the groundwork that went into the Hijack story, some friends didn’t know that a plane was ever hijacked. And so for me, in my way, I'm telling African stories because we have original stories that resonate with us.

I want to be able to immortalize stories like this through film. It will impact history, and I also get to educate the audience. That’s why I work on stories like Igbo Landing, and I’m working on a Jaja of Opobo story too.

Are there any more remakes in the works for you?

When I got into Nollywood, I wanted to do a Play Cinematic Universe where I pick six films, link them to one movie and do a seventh. They will combine to create The Six, which you could liken to the Avengers. So far, we’ve done Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, Rattlesnake, and Nneka the Pretty Serpent, and if you notice, you must have seen Ramsey Nouah in all three of them. Three more are in the works: Diamond Ring, Karashika, and Billionaire’s Club.

Where do you see Play Network Studios in the next couple of years?

I want to ensure we have a brand representing Africa and Nigeria. I want everything to immerse into Play, being the number one lifestyle entertainment brand. When people talk about making movies, and they're looking at Hollywood, I am looking at Africa because I feel Africa is like the new frontier. Africa is where everybody's coming to right now. So the focus for us is Africa. Africa. Ghana. Kenya. South Africa, Tanzania. There's a lot. We focus on getting into these countries and breaking new frontiers in film.

Photo courtesy Directors’ Fortnight.

Rosine Mbakam on the Power of Family and Returning Home in Filmmaking

The Cameroonian filmmaker uses her documentary skills to create her first fictional feature, Mambar Pierrette, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this week.

After a critically lauded career as a documentary filmmaker, writer/director Rosine Mbakam arrives at the Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight program with her first narrative feature: Mambar Pierrette. The film sees Mbakam returning to her homeland of Cameroon to tell the story of a dressmaker — Pierrette (Pierrette Aboheu Njeuthat) — as she deals with mounting financial calamities that threaten her children’s school year and the health of her business.

It’s a conceit that feels familiar to Vittorio De Sica’s film, but with a different, uniquely African touch. While Mbakam has switched mediums for this film, the story, and its translation is similar to the director’s previous films, such as Chez Jolie Coiffure, Delphin’s Prayer, and The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman in their focus on Black women who use their respective craft to cope with the hurdles they encounter. For Mambar Pierrette, Mbakam retools these familiar themes for Cameroon. The result indicates a change of direction for the filmmaker with regard to mood and tone, switching from ruminative to joyous, from staid to colorful and vibrant. Because all around Pierrette is life: It’s her children, it’s her village; it’s her vivid customers and the lively dresses she designs.

With Mambar Pierrette, Mbakam offers the unique cultural lens she’s spent nearly a decade crafting to give viewers a vision of radical empathy and a change in perspective. After having spent several years working in television, she attended film school in Belgium, where she is now based, before going on to create her first trio of feature-length documentaries that shared stories of Cameroonian women.

She talks to OkayAfrica about wanting to show a different Africa, making a film with her family, and subverting the traditions of Western filmmaking.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve spent your career doing documentaries, but this is your first fictional film. Why did you feel you needed to switch for this particular story?

Fictional features were my first desire. I discovered documentaries when I was in film school. But my desire when I wanted to do cinema was to do features because it was what I was seeing on television in Cameroon. It was not documentaries. When I was in film school I really didn't know what kind of fiction I wanted to do. And when I discovered the documentary [form], it gave me a lot of freedom to be myself, to really experience what I wanted to, because I didn't want an intermediary between me and the people that I wanted to film.

Because of all the legacy of colonialism — I was in Belgium — I didn't want to use a white person or a person that didn't know what I wanted to question. But the documentary really helped me to deconstruct my gaze, and to just find my way and really see what kind of fiction I could do. Because the fiction that I learned in film school was Western fiction, and it was difficult for me to apply it in my reality in Cameroon. I'm really happy to come to my first desire of cinema, of doing fiction and really the fiction that I want to do with all the knowledge that I had from documentaries.

An image of the filmmaker, Rosine Mabakam, holding a microphone.Rosine Mabakam speaks at the premiere of her film in the Directors’ Fortnight program at the Cannes Film Festival.Photo courtesy Directors’ Fortnight / Delphine Pincet.

Your previous films are set in Belgium, but for this one you returned to Cameroon. Why did it make sense to return now?

Because when I was in Belgium I was there in the context of the legacy of colonialism. And I was confronting it every day. I wanted to really find my position there because I chose to live there, even though my inspiration was Cameroon. I wanted to deconstruct that and find my way because I knew that when I was deconstructing it that it would help me to see my reality differently. Because when I was in Cameroon, I was colonized. I didn't know I was reproducing all the things that I was seeing from the films I was watching in Cameroon. I wanted to discover how the rest of the world saw people like me in Belgium. It was important for me to deconstruct that first and to go back to Cameroon afterwards because I didn't want to reproduce the power of Western cinema on people that I wanted to film in Cameroon.

I love that you see it as a deconstruction of the image white people have of people from Cameroon or really any African country. You always get to the inner lives of the people you capture by looking at their craft. With Chez Jolie Coiffure, for instance, you focus on hairdressers. What draws you to a person's relationship with their craft, and why did you choose a dressmaker for this film?

In Cameroon, in my culture, all of those small spaces are where people come and drop stories and drop pain and also reconstruct their mental health. And I want to underline those spaces that sometimes people neglect because for them, maybe, it's not important. For me, for Chez Jolie Coiffure, with the hairdressers, it's the same thing. It's the space where women, and some men, come to just drop something and or take something.

I want to make people understand that sometimes it's not big spaces or important spaces that make us feel confident or that make us feel fine. I grew up in those smaller spaces. My mother was a dressmaker and my grand sister was her hairdresser. I really know those spaces and I know how it's built my imagery for stories of strong women. I wanted to show that.

I love the designs of the dresses; they’re so vibrant and vivid. What do they represent to you and to the character of Peirrette?

It's the dresses and how people can rebuild themselves through them. It's the space where your life can change with the world, with solidarity and also with love that people have brought to you through those spaces. You are surrounded not only by one woman, but by all these people who are coming. And yes, I really like fashion and also the colors.

In Cameroon, we don't have enough confidence in what we have. Even in fashion, we’re always looking at the West and how the West dresses without taking into account what we have. I wanted to show that it's beautiful and our story is important by just talking to ordinary people to show that even if we are ordinary, we have something important to say.

A still from the film of a group of women outside a rural dress shop.Rosine Mbakam’s first narrative feature is set in Cameroon.Photo courtesy Directors’ Fortnight.

The actress who plays Pierrette is your first cousin, correct? And it’s her first time acting?

It's not only my cousin. All of the cast are members of my family except for two people. But the rest are my mother, my aunts, my cousins, my sisters, my grand sisters.

Did you find it challenging directing people who you're not only related to but are in a situation where they’ve probably never acted before?

It's more challenging. There is a power in cinema and we know how that power has been used to stereotype Africans. I know the consequences of that power. And even more so with my family. Because they didn't really don't know what is the cinema, and how that power can be destructive. It's easy to take that power and to make them do what I want. It's important for me to be more vigilant and to give them the space to express themselves. That was really challenging because I had to be more careful about that.

With all of the travesties that befall Pierrette, a woman on an economic edge, I was really reminded of Vittorio De Sica’s films like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. And yet, you don’t remain on a track toward heartbreak like those films do. It’s almost like a De Sica film would be impossible to pull off because the idea of community is so present here?

I didn't feel it was possible to end like that because, usually, it doesn’t end like that in my family. With every problem you have people going together to resolve something, to bring joy, even if there is something very painful. For me, it was a perspective that I wanted to give to that story. And I wanted to give the perspective of that power that I can see in Pierrette and all of the members of my family. I wanted to show that power is higher than the difficulty. That was the intention behind that ending with the mannequin, and of all the neocolonialism that exists. Our power can overtake those problems.

A still from the film, 'Mambar Pierrette,' of a woman walking next to a girl carrying a bucket on her head.In ‘Mambar Pierrette,’ Rosine Mbakam enlisted family members for the film.Photo courtesy Directors’ Fortnight.

Her shop is also very small, yet open. Whenever Pierrette is making dresses, in the background you can see the street and you can see the life of her neighborhood. Could you talk a bit about why you framed her in that way as opposed, to say, close-ups?

If you see my film Chez Jolie Coiffure, you’ll notice it's really close. But if I close the perspective, here, it's not how we live in Cameroon. There is always a door open somewhere or someone can open the door to give you something, to give you help, to give a testimony. But in Chez Jolie Coiffure, in the West, Black people are closed into their space. In Cameroon it's different. There is always a perspective, there is always a solution. And I wanted to show that, to open that place, even if it's small. In Chez Jolie Coiffure, in the salon there is no door open anywhere. It's really close. It's like a prison. It's really close. In this film, it’s different. You can see the life of the earth coming, you can see light coming.

What do you hope people take away from this film when they’re finished?

I hope people will see another Africa and another way of filming Africa, another way to imagine Africa, and how we can look at Africa differently. I don't think we usually see that perspective, to be in the position of someone in Africa. I want people to be with these people and to help them understand what they want to say. I hope that people will watch the film and will remember the images and the words of this Black woman.

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