Lonzo Nzekwe, the first time director of the movie, Anchor Baby, has chosen to address an emotionally charged topic of the same name, which has created serious immigration-debate agitation in the US.
Nzekwe, perhaps doubling as a child advocate, said when writing the script, he wasn’t attempting to make a political statement. Rather, he was just thinking about the innocent babies without a say, who often live with the consequences of their parents’ logical or illogical decisions.
The movie is about an illegal Nigerian immigrant couple comprising of a pregnant Joyce (Omoni Oboli) and her adamant husband, Paul Unanga (Sam Sarpong) who are undocumented immigrants on the run from US immigration officials. They endure many hardships while desperately hoping Joyce gives birth in the US to a “prized” American citizen who will provide them with access to the US and the many accompanying benefits.
With an exceptional performance by Oboli, the thought-provoking and suspense filled movie depicting the drastic measures some undocumented immigrants resort to, to have a child who’s an American citizen, is emotionally charged and has audiences guessing from the beginning to the end.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Nzekwe, the hardworking, self-taught filmmaker, who is part of the new wave of African movie directors creating world class substantive movies diverse audiences can enjoy.
Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Susan Majek: Who is Lonzo Nzekwe?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I’m an independent filmmaker from Abia State, Nigeria. I left Nigeria in 1997 and triangulated between England, the U.S. and Canada. I enrolled in different diploma programs and earned a Master Course diploma certificate in Recording Engineering from Audio Institute of America and a Comptia A+ certification. From 1999 to 2005 I worked as a music producer with various local hip-hop and R&B music artists and in 2005, I moved to Canada where I honed my script writing and directing skills.
Susan Majek: What was your path to becoming a filmmaker?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I was not a devotee of cinema, nor was I a person who had always wanted to be a filmmaker. I started developing a great passion for cinema in early 2009. For the remainder of that year, I taught myself filmmaking, purchased a Red camera, bought a copy of Dov Simens’ 2-Day Film School DVD, read books and took a film editing course at Witz Training in Toronto, Canada.
Susan Majek: Being an immigrant based in Canada, what made you plunge into the non-traditional and “unstable” filmmaking business, which is still an emerging career path for Africans generally and even fewer Africans in the Diaspora?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I have great passion for cinema and I love the art of filmmaking.
Susan Majek: Why did you choose this subject as your first feature-length movie?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I have heard stories about undocumented immigrants taking all sorts of risks to have a baby in the U.S., so the child can become a citizen. I thought about the desperation that makes immigrants take such huge risks and the many things that could go wrong. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the theme could be a movie.
Susan Majek: How long did the movie project take?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I wrote the first script draft in two weeks and shooting lasted for 13 days. It was hectic because I‘d never been on a film set prior to that.
Susan Majek: Why did you set the movie in the US when the movie was shot in Canada?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I set it in America because anchor baby is a term that resonates more with the issue in the US rather than in Canada.
Susan Majek: Currently in the West, having fathers being present for their child’s birth is the custom. However, many foreign women, including African women who come to the West and have a baby as depicted by the character, Joyce, often struggle alone prior to and during the birth, which is potentially life-endangering. What are your thoughts on that?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I can’t speak for other men, but I was present when my two kids were born and I believe during childbirth is when women need the most support from their partners.
Susan Majek: People are raving about the movie even though it has only one Nollywood actress in it, which attests to the power of your script and production. What can you share about that?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I believe many viewers easily connected to the story because of the realistic nature in which the plot unfolded and Omoni Oboli’s amazing performance.
Susan Majek: Do you consider yourself part of Nollywood or not and what was your reception by Nollywood pioneers and practitioners?
Lonzo Nzekwe: You can call me that as long as you support my projects. I consider myself an international filmmaker who likes to showcase talents from my motherland. When my movie was released in Nigeria, I received tremendous support from most of the Nollywood pioneers. Many of them attended the premiere and I am friends or acquainted with most people in the industry.
Susan Majek: Nigerians are often labeled as the face of African crime and corruption in the West. Knowing that having anchor babies is not peculiar to Nigerians or Africans, doesn’t your movie with Nigerian characters portray your own people who do this negatively and fuels the existing negative stereotypes about Nigerians?
Lonzo Nzekwe: My job as a filmmaker is to tell the truth the way the characters in the movie see it. When I write, it’s not my job to tell the character what to do. I let the characters speak to me and I give them free reign to take the story wherever they want.
Susan Majek: Movies can be used as a weapon of propaganda or education, and Anchor Baby shows many sides of the debate. Aside from the obvious dialog the movie elicits, what other dialogues do you hope will emerge from your movie?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I hope when people watch the movie, they ask themselves why people who are citizens of other countries put themselves in precarious situations just to have children with American citizenship. It shows there’s something wrong. This is a question for their countries’ leaders to answer.
Susan Majek: You are the writer, director, producer, editor and executive producer of the movie, which probably made the execution faster and even possible. What is your advice to up-and-coming filmmakers on being able to wear such varied hats to ensure the execution and completion of their projects?
Lonzo Nzekwe: The reason I had to wear so many hats was because I didn’t believe anyone would believe I could make a movie since I had never been on a film set prior to that. My advice to anyone is to go for it. The worst thing that can happen is that you fail and even if you fail, learn from it and move on. It is make believe. It’s a movie after all.
Susan Majek: The movie-making business is considered unstable because of reasons such as piracy, sales fluctuations, etc. What plans have you put in place to ensure your professional and financial longevity in the industry and to combat piracy?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I’m not going to be the Lone Ranger fighting piracy when the big studios still haven’t figured it out. The way I approach it is to not be afraid of getting the movie out for viewers to watch. I’m the first Nigerian filmmaker with a film on iTunes. I put my movie on most of the major online VOD (Video On Demand) platforms while some filmmakers are scared of doing so because of piracy. If filmmakers don’t make their films available to viewers and at reasonable prices, bootleggers will do just that. I sell my copies and I don’t worry about what they are doing. However, if I run into any of them selling fake copies of my work….
Susan Majek: It is commendable that your movie is the first Nollywood movie available on iTunes. What are your thoughts on the distribution models currently available to African filmmakers?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I wholly embrace the Digital VOD distribution model. That’s the way forward and it’s a great thing for content providers. We don’t have to print massive numbers of DVDs, which costs a lot of money. DVD is dead in North America and I can’t wait for it to die in Africa too. The only issue affecting the transition in Africa is slow internet speed. The internet providers are practically ripping their customers off. When I visit Nigeria, I pay more for internet service than I pay in Canada, but the speed is comparatively very slow.
Susan Majek: We need more movies that tell African immigrants’ stories from our own unique perspectives and you are doing that, which has made you emerge as one of the leaders of “Nollywood-USA.” How will you keep the momentum up and what assistance do you need?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I constantly write when I have good ideas, but I don’t want be pigeonholed as a scriptwriter who writes a certain type of stories. I like to take risks and do some things totally left field. I just recently finished writing a crime thriller. The only issue is getting finance to produce movies. Filmmakers know that it doesn’t matter how good your last film was, every time you have a new project, you have to seek funds to produce it, but the process is a nightmare. That’s why I’m currently developing a crowd funding platform that will make it easier for creative individuals to solicit funds from the global community to execute their projects.
Susan Majek: The movie is well written and produced and has won many awards because of its high quality that other African movies should emulate. How will you continue with that standard in your future movies and how did you prepare for and execute the production.
Lonzo Nzekwe: Keeping up with the standard just comes naturally because I pay attention to details. I know what a good movie should look like and I don’t settle for less. What allowed me to execute Anchor Baby’s production was the fact that I surrounded myself with the right professionals.
Susan Majek: Many African immigrants live in desperation, and that’s why they resort to “anchor baby” measures. The desperation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s often because of their home country’s instability in addition to the fact that they were ignorant of or misinformed of their destination country’s immigration policies, which unfortunately is a combination that pushes them to take such huge risks. What can you say to a potential immigrant who wants to move to the West or an undocumented immigrant who is considering having an anchor baby?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I can’t discourage people who intend to come to the West to have their babies because most people genuinely want what’s best for their child. The problem is that some leaders make their societies unbearable for their citizens. They should correct that so people won’t have to resort to such drastic measures.
Susan Majek: What are your thoughts about the Nigerian Government’s $200 million intervention fund for filmmakers and do you plan to partake of it?
Lonzo Nzekwe: I don’t know much about it. However, I would like to make a great movie with the funds.
Susan Majek: The subject addressed in the movie resonates with many nationalities and the movie has a multiracial and multicultural cast, so it is targeted at very diverse audiences. What would you say to encourage audiences, who may not be familiar with Nollywood movies to watch it?
Lonzo Nzekwe: Nigerian films used to be associated with low quality productions, but not anymore. We have many Nigerian filmmakers directing great quality films that are also competing favorably at international film festivals, so feel free to watch my movie. You will enjoy it.
Susan Majek: How can audiences watch the movie?
Lonzo Nzekwe: It is currently available via video on demand at www.anchorbabymovie.com or https://itunes.apple.com/ca/movie/anchor-baby/id538210007
Susan E. Majek is a freelance journalist and writer. She is a contributor to several publications including The Women’s International Perspective (WIP), Jamati Online, The New Ghanaian, New African Analysis, World Press, Pambazuka News and Africa News. She is also the Editor-In-Chief of Sociable Susan Magazine. Susan is a songwriter and an aspiring filmmaker who has worked in various fields and is currently exploring her creative interests.