Film
Image via AT&T Untold Stories.

‘Nigerian Prince’ Is the 419 Scammer Story That You Haven’t Heard Before

We speak with Faraday Okoro, the director of "Nigerian Prince," premiering this month at Tribeca, about bringing this not-so-familiar Nigerian scammer story to life.

We've all heard the story before: some unknowing (white) person gets an email from a Prince from the outskirts of Lagos, claiming he'll transfer a substantial amount of money to their account if they help them do such and such. The person naively falls for the outrageous scheme and becomes yet another hapless victim of the cunning Nigerian scammer.

It's a familiar narrative, one that's cleverly explored in the upcoming film Nigerian Prince—the debut feature film by Nigerian-American director Faraday Okoro—but not quite in the tired way we've heard it in the past.

The film, loosely based on Okoro's life, tells the story of Eze, a first-generation Nigerian-American teenager sent to Nigeria against his will to attend school and learn more about his heritage—every Nigerian child living abroad has been in that predicament before. Once there, he discovers that his cousin Pius is a 419 email scammer. After learning of his cousin's illicit activity, the protagonist realizes that he can buy a ticket back to the States by successfully pulling off a couple scams of his own.


Nigerian Prince was the very first film to win the AT&T Untold Stories prize, earning Okoro a cool one million dollars to produce the film. Fast-forward a year and the film will debut during this year's festival.

We caught up with the filmmaker ahead of its premiere later this month about how getting sent to Nigeria as an adolescent drew him to filmmaking, the importance of storytelling from a first-generation perspective and the process of bringing this not-so-familiar Nigerian scammer story to life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you mention "Nigerian email scammer," that might get some people's eyes rolling. How will this narrative offset people's concerns about playing into certain narratives, and is there a unique spin on the typical scammer story?

Of course, it's more than just trying to portray a certain type of person or a country in a particular light. It's a more nuanced story. It involves a lot of stuff that first-generation, and Nigerians living in Nigeria are accustomed to. Things that we speak about among ourselves. It's a story that's more holistic than just trying to show dirty laundry. Do you know what I mean?

The story is loosely based on your own story. Your Nigerian parents came through on their threats of sending you to Nigeria for school. How do you think that experience shaped your path, or your knack for storytelling? What impact did that have on you?

Yeah for two years. I would say it's the reason why I'm pursuing film as a career. Obviously it's the reason why I want to tell this story. It's there that I formed my appreciation for filmmaking. The story goes, when I was sent there the first year, as you probably know, there's no 24-hour electricity, especially where I was staying. There was just a handful of channels. When they turned on the electricity, there was this film, Road to Perdition playing on screen. I was just glued to it for 30 minutes. Then the power cut off. It was at that moment—I was like "oh man, I need to finish this movie, and I need to watch more movies like this." The love for filmmaking started there.

Are there any other films in particular that inspired you in a similar way?

Not as much. There's obviously a bunch of films that I love personally, like Remains of the Day or Schindler's List or Michael Clayton or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it's that film, I would say had the most impact. I didn't watch any films that were mature films before then. They were all, I would say, childish movies. That was the first serious movie I watched. I realized okay, wow, filmmaking is more than just childish antics or slapstick or whatever the case might be. It's actually a way to inspire others. It's a way to show other people's experiences. It's a way to share narratives.

Image via AT&T Untold Stories.

How did your parents react when they heard that you wanted pursue film? I doubt they sent you to Nigeria thinking that that's what you would pick up.

[Laughs] Yeah, initially I wouldn't say they were fond of it at all. It was a real battle in my house like "How about you do that later? How about you pursue something a little bit more acceptable." But I stuck to my guns. I knew that I didn't want to do anything else but this. There was no point spending all those years in school and all that time looking for a job, and spending time in an office. I'd rather try to pursue filmmaking.

Did their perception change at all once you won the million dollar prize at Tribeca last year? How was that experience?

It was fantastic, as you would expect. A dream come true. We wanted to make the movie by any means. Getting the funding just made it easier, if you know what I mean. I didn't have to compromise. If I wanted 100 extras or 50 extras for this particular scene, I knew it was possible, as opposed to if I had less money, I'd have to figure out a way to shoot around it.

What was it like shooting in Lagos?

It was interesting, to say the least. It's a very fast city, as you know, it's very populated. I said to myself if I can make this film in Nigeria, I can make any film anywhere because it's different over there. Also, when people see cameras out and about, or foreigners out and about, it brings a lot of attention. It makes shooting in New York City look like a piece of cake.

We had fun. There's thousands of productions taking place there. It's like if thousands of other people can do it, we can do it too. We shot, I'd say, 95 percent Nigeria, and 5 percent in the States.

Why is it so important for you that your first feature-film be centered on this uniquely Nigerian narrative?

As a first feature, especially one that's close to me—since I wrote it and was partly inspired by my upbringing—I thought this story's not readily out there, especially for a Western audience. I thought I could do it. I could make the type of film that I knew I would wanna see set there. Especially from a younger perspective. Because I'm young, my take on filmmaking is probably different from an older person's who might film it. I think I'm bringing a young perspective to this type of story and to these characters.

From an outsider's perspective, do you think this movie has the potential to change perceptions about not just Nigerian scammers?

Oh, definitely. I don't think people have seen, again, this world in terms of a Western audience. People haven't seen this world. I think there is, obviously, a hunger for it, considering what the amount of attention Black Panther has gotten. There's a hunger for diverse stories.

Image via AT&T Untold Stories.

Just curious. Is Yoruba, Igbo or any other indigenous language spoken in the film?

There are parts spoken in Yoruba, some Pidgen too. It's like, I would imagine, if you were there, this is what you would hear. I'm not trying to shy away from anything. If you were there, this is what you would encounter. The realism is there.

Approaching it from a person like myself whose grown up in America, and who's been exposed to Western, Hollywood films, I knew it was possible to tell this story and not compromise it in any way. Not to make it where everybody speaks English and there's no pidgen or whatnot. I knew how to tell the story to appeal to a wide variety of people. Not only Nigerians, but people all around the world.

That comes from you growing up in both environments. Do you think that first-generation background have a real impact on the way you tell stories?

Yeah, especially this story. I used both firsthand experiences to write the young character's story. My co-writer and I, we used our knowledge of film to try to situate a foreign audience into this world, without having to spoon-feed them information, instead, having information being revealed through us very creatively.

Lastly, I want to know how it feels to have support from so many influential people. I heard Spike Lee and Sam Poler are executive producers on this project?

Yes they are. It's beyond gratifying. I've truly been blessed to be able to make this film. It's something that I've spent years trying to get it off the ground. To have their backing is just amazing.

*

Nigerian Prince opens at Tribeca on April 24. Check out the complete viewing schedule here.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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