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Photo Credit: Netflix

The Stars of 'Blood Sisters' Talk About Becoming Netflix's Biggest Hit

We sat down with Ini Dima-Okojie and Nancy Isime, the actors who brought life to Sarah and Kemi, to talk about shooting Blood Sisters, acting in Nollywood, what's next, and more.

Earlier this month, Netflix's "first original series" from Nigeria was released. The limited series, Blood Sisters directed by Biyi Bandele and Kenneth Gyang, follows two friends, Sarah (Ini Dima-Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime), as they go on the run after the death of Sarah's fiance, Kola (Deyemi Okanlawon).

The show explores familial dysfunction, murder, the meaning of sisterhood, and how valuable friendships can be, with its central premise around domestic violence, a theme known to many.

Since its release, the four-part crime thriller has received praises, with Variety calling its first episode "explosive" and "hard-pressed to walk away." After its first week of release, the limited series sat at number nine on the list of most-watched TV shows globally, with over 11,070,000 hours of viewing, making it a first for Nigeria. This comes after Netflix’s first Nollywood film of the year —Chief Daddy — faced harsh criticisms from viewers and critics alike.

The success of Blood Sisters shows that cinematography isn’t the only selling point of Nollywood. And for Nollywood content to thrive on Netflix, there should be an investment in all areas, from the storytelling down to the marketing.

For Ini Dima-Okojie starring alongside some of Nollywood's big names — like Kate Henshaw, Ramsey Nouah, and Uche Jombo — was surreal because these are the people she watched growing up. "But when it came to filming, it didn't matter if you've been in the industry for just four years or 30 years," Dima-Okojie said. "All that mattered was everyone was ready to work."

Like Dima-Okojie, Nancy Isime also loved acting alongside them, even though it wasn't her first time working with some of them. "I was there for work and understood that it was bigger than just being Nancy Isime. It was me at work."

We sat down with Ini Dima-Okojie and Nancy Isime, the actors who brought life to Sarah and Kemi, to talk about what it was like behind the scenes, acting in Nollywood, what's next for them, and more.

Blood Sisters | Trailer | Netflix

What's one thing you learned while shooting this series?

Ini Dima-Okojie: One thing I learned for sure is that Nigeria is ready to tell its authentic stories to a global audience. We're not just prepared; we're capable of standing behind any industry. I could feel that from being on set, with the professionalism I encountered. I also learned that it is good to be kind, deliberate, and mindful of what people are going through because what we do has an impact.

Nancy Isime: For me, I learned it's possible to have good production in Nigeria. I've been blessed to be in a couple, and this was one of them. And it's a highlight so far. I also learned about the characters.

Nancy Isime,

Photo Credit: Nancy Isime,

What was it like playing your roles, and how did you get it?

Dima-Okojie: When I got the audition file for Sarah, I went on my knees and told God, "I want this." You can tell from the size alone, and I think that has happened to me only three times in my career because it doesn't often happen as an actor. A week or two after I sent in my audition tape, I got an email telling me to send another tape, but this time, it was for a different character, Timeyin. Altogether, I auditioned for Kemi, Sarah, and Timeyin.

I was so excited playing Sarah. I felt so lucky because, at the end of the day, an actor is only as good as the opportunities they are given. So playing Sarah had me go deep into the character, asking questions and putting myself into her shoes.

Isime: It was wonderful playing my role. I had gotten an email asking to read for Sarah, not for Kemi. So I made my tape and sent it in. Then, I was called in for a private audition and read through with everybody. However, I was called back and was told that Netflix wanted me to play Kemi, and I was like, "What is a Kemi?" Because I never read for her. So I was reluctant to accept because I didn't know who the character was and if she'd have the opportunity to show her acting range. But I took it, and when I read the script, I was like, "Yes, Kemi. Yes, baby, let's do this."

What was your favorite scene to film?

Dima-Okojie: My favorite scene? That's hard. I had so many unforgettable moments. However, I think one monumental period I'd like to pick on is probably when Sarah stood up to her abuser Kola and told him, "No!" because that was very big. She barely speaks up and is so used to being bullied, whether for good or bad, even in her beautiful friendship with Kemi, where she's always being told what to do. But in that scene, she had found the strength and was finally able to speak up, even though she knew what his reaction was going to be.

She spoke up for herself at that moment, and I think it was a huge moment for Sarah. It was a huge moment for people who may have experienced [domestic violence] because if there's one thing I realized from research, it didn't matter where people who are susceptible to abuse are from. Whether they were black or white, old or young, it was a triumph for Sarah and everyone going through any form of abuse.

Isime: I loved every single scene of playing Kemi because, as you noticed, there's no scene she's in that is a usual scene. In fact, no scene in Blood Sisters could have been done away with if you noticed because every scene is putting you on edge the entire time. Coming to set every day, I was like, "we're h-a-p-p-y," because yes, I was happy.

Ini Dima-Okojie wearing white sneakers

Photo Credit: Ini Dima-Okojie

What was the most challenging scene?

Dima-Okojie: For the challenging scene, I'll like to break it into physical and emotional parts. It was very physically challenging for Sarah. From when they decided to go on the run, physically, we were in Makoko, running all over the community, jumping from canoe to canoe. We also went to Epe, where we were barefooted. It was grueling as an actor and a character because this wasn't a fit character. Emotionally, I had to understand everything that Sarah was going through. I had to chip away from who I am as Ini to connect with what she was going through, which can be draining. But thank God I was surrounded by amazing people and directors who eased the process and were there to pick me up anytime I was down.

The series is a global hit on Netflix; how does that make you feel?

Dima-Okojie: Honestly, it's surreal. It makes me emotional half the time because, as a performer, all you want is for people to watch your work and for it to resonate. Being an actor, people see the glitz and the glam, but it's a lot of work. You chip away part of yourself to give a character life, but it's worth it.

Isime: Floating. Floating in a bubble, floating in gratitude. It feels so good. Imagine having 11 million hours of watch time in five days? It's no easy feat. I don't think any African show has been able to do that. So for that to come from Nigeria, and for me to be lead? I don't think I'll ever come down from this high that I'm on.

You are both a part of a new generation of Nollywood actors doing amazing if I say so myself. What is that like?

Dima-Okojie: Generally, I think being an actor in the world today is incredible. Nollywood has gone through much because we were in a time where we didn't have financing and institutionally there's no backing. So being able to be in a world today where everything is global, and I can do something here in Lagos, while people from Japan, Belgium, and Qatar, are sending texts telling me they watched me and loved it, I don't think there's a better time to act than now. It's a fantastic time to be a Nigerian actor.

Isime: It feels good to be recognized for something I'm passionate about and love. I feel blessed because Nollywood is bigger than I am. It goes beyond ego and wanting to be the best because we're all part of something way bigger than us. And I'm so happy to be able to contribute to this industry, leave my prints in the sand of time, and say that yes, there was a time I was not just a Nollywood actor, but every single person can confirm. I mean, it's one thing to say you're an actor, and people start asking, "which film you act?" "this one too na actress?" but you can't say that when it comes to me. And it also feels good to be recognized by the AMVCA, which is a huge organization.

Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

Now, let's go behind the scenes: did anything funny, sad, or surprising happen while filming?

Dima-Okojie: There were so many exciting moments, not necessarily sad moments. We filmed for over two months at the height of COVID-19, so you can imagine all the craziness that must have happened.

I remember while filming the dinner scene after we had our COVID-19 test, they told us a cast member had the virus, causing us to reschedule. Another moment was when Ramsey Nouah brought a crocodile for us to eat while filming in Epe, and it was delicious. I honestly had lots of happy moments.

Isime: I feel like all these emotions happen naturally because I was happy every day I was on set. But something interesting that happened was the fact that Ini and I got so into the characters that we took it just beyond acting. We felt every emotion that the characters went through. We had one crying scene together, and I promise you that they cleared the room for us because we had to cry to get it out for a while. Because in reality, when something happens to you and you cry, you don't just cry for a bit. You have to let it out, and that was us. We were Kemi and Sarah and needed time to grieve. To let it out. It was an interesting event, and I had so many times I was tired, mentally and physically.

What's next for you? Any upcoming projects?

Dima-Okojie: There are so many exciting things in the works. First of all, I am getting married. Immediately after that, in June, I am going right back to set for the second season of Smart Money Woman. There are a couple more projects in the work that I'm not allowed to speak about yet, but there are exciting times ahead.

Isime: I love that question, and I also don't love that question because I don't know what's next. I'm just living my purpose, taking one day at a time, and grateful for every part of my journey. If you had told me five years ago that I'd be here, I would say it's a lie because I was probably sure that I knew where I was going. So what's next for me is a beautiful life, more projects, and more fantastic performances.

My show, The Nancy Isime Show, is also doing very well and happens to be one of the most-watched talk shows in the country, so I'm hoping that expands better. I'm also hoping to bring about a few more creations to life.

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Photo Credit: Screengrab from Chief Daddy 2: Going for Broke

How This Netflix Film Sparked A Fierc​e Conversation About Nollywood

Since its release on Netflix, Chief Daddy 2: Going for Broke has received a scathing reaction from critics and users on social media. The movie sparked all kinds of conversation about the future of Nollywood films.

On the first day of January, Netflix released Chief Daddy 2: Going for Broke, the sequel to the 2018 dramedy about the gilded household of Chief Beecroft (whose death leaves members of his family scrambling over his wealth.) Even with its many flaws, the original was a major hit, making N385.7 million at the Nigerian box office. So it wasn't surprising Netflix acquired the second installment.

However, reviews have been overwhelmingly negative. The tone was even more unforgivingly scathing on social media, where criticism was rampant. On Twitter, fans savaged the editing, acting, and thin plot. One of the viewers who shared their disappointment with the film was Joyce Alao, who expressed her sentiments on Twitter from a burner account.

“It was a pointless film and I couldn’t believe what I was watching,” Alao told OkayAfrica. “ I was speechless from scene to scene, looking for something or anything redeemable but couldn’t find it. My main issue is why this film is on Netflix?"

Alao said the online outrage was nothing like she had seen before. Nigerians were uniting to not just criticize a film but to demand better from the Nollywood industry. And the pushback became so fierce it dominated coverage around the film. “It was an interesting moment and I hope this trend continues," Alao said. "We can’t continue to accept everything from these filmmakers.”

The criticisms of Chief Daddy 2 was a Nollywood viral moment. Oba Kosi Nwoba, a producer-director known for projects like Umoja and Iko Ndu: The Palmwine Story, hosted a room on Twitter Spaces titled Nollywood: Enough is Enough! #WeWantNewNollywood.

“A lot of people on social media who I believe represent a significant percentage of Netflix users have come out to complain they didn’t like the story. That is something to take home,” Nwoba said. “People make films for different purposes, there’s always that arm aimed at commercial viability. Is it commercial success? We can’t tell yet. If it was released in the cinema, the numbers would say. I share a little sentiment with the audience with regards to the cohesiveness of the story. Let us call it a failed experiment.”

Nwoba has a vantage position as a filmmaker, but he holds himself to the unspoken cardinal rule of not critiquing another filmmaker’s work. At the same time, he feels these conversations are vital to have. The problems with Chief Daddy 2 aren’t new, even for a production from EbonyLife Films, a huge studio. The problems aren’t isolated, either. So why did it take this film to see that the industry was in crisis?

“First, I don’t think it took Chief Daddy for people to come to the realization,” Precious Nwogu, a film journalist for Pulse, said. “Its timing, however, played a crucial role in the collective backlash it received. Prior to the call out, there have been pockets of negative reviews of titles released on the streamer but this time, the holidays plus maybe high expectations from EbonyLife following the countless announcements of international deals fueled the collective criticism.”

One glaring issue with mainstream Nollywood movies is how they look the same, a formulaic recipe involving many popular actors, affluent suburbs, and drone footage of landmarks. It’s a production of empty calories. And since officially entering the Nigerian market, Netflix hasn’t left any tangible impact on filmmaking appetites. The desire to be “marketable” is strong as ever, and the streamer has only strengthened the impulse.

“Yes and no,” Nwogu said, on whether Netflix can be held accountable. “These guys are just business owners that ultimately seek to make profit. Their initial hosts sold them the narrative that box office figures reflected what the Nigerian audience wanted.”

“Where I can fault Netflix is not in licensing but in commissioning. It makes no sense recycling filmmakers and commissioning multi-year deals... Why not commission one or two, see how that goes then do the work of seeking out other talent heads in the industry?"

In a video, Mo Abudu, the CEO of EbonyLife Group, publicly acknowledged the backlash the film received. Furthermore, she promised corrections will be made in the future. (The film’s director, Niyi Akinmolayan hasn’t made any public statement.) While there’s some sincerity in Abudu’s apology, she diplomatically positioned the idea that Chief Daddy 2 had mixed reviews. She didn’t state the actual flaws of the film, which honestly would have been a self-flagellating exercise on her part. But the implication of stating the flaws would have been profound, an indictment of how other Nollywood pictures have been made.

In addition, actionable steps weren’t indicated, which suggests things will be done on her studio’s terms and shouldn’t warrant public pressure or micromanagement. In this state of affairs, what’s stopping the next random Nollywood film on Netflix from being like Chief Daddy 2?

“Nollywood needs a lot of money,” Nwoba said. “I don’t mean the survival money — the type you don’t count, you only weigh. Nollywood, since inception, has been a self-sustaining industry. Between 2011-2017, the federal government brought a meager sum... to support the industry. We can tell that it barely did anything, if not we most likely won’t be talking about the industry being this poor.”

Nwoba sees the industry as moving parts that need to function properly, from production to distribution and management. All these require financial support. Film funding is intentional business. Funding through film journalism, film schools, festivals, community cinemas, actual brick and mortar structures, and strengthening guilds could have serious impact on Nollywood. This doesn’t mean bad movies would disappear.

“It simply means that we won’t keep making a specific genre of movie because of its commercial viability,” Nwoba said. “Filmmakers will be more willing to take risks and explore the taste of the audience.”

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