Desmond Ovbiagele, Writer, Nigerian Nollywood Producer & Director, worked for over a decade in investment banking before exiting to pursue a passion for movie production.
He wrote, produced and directed his debut feature film, RENDER TO CAESAR, which was selected to screen in official competition at FESPACO, Africa’s largest film festival, in 2015, as well as at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
It also received awards for Best Screenplay at the Nollywood Movies Awards and Best of Nollywood (BON) Awards respectively, in addition to the award for Best International Feature Film at the Nile Diaspora International Film Festival in Kampala, Uganda.
THE MILKMAID, which he also wrote, produced and directed, is his second feature film.
Desmond Ovbiagele Biography
Desmond Ovbiagele, son of one of Nigeria’s celebrated columnists, Helen Ovbiagele is a chip off the old block. His innate artistic quality which lies dormant in the inside forced him to dump his lucrative banking job few years ago.
I grew up in the country. I had my primary, secondary and university education in Nigeria. I attended Kings College, Lagos, as well as University of Lagos. I have been here all my life.
I feel I am privileged in terms of the early exposure I had in life and some of the good schools I was privileged to attend. I am not from a very rich family, but a middle class one. Certainly, I was not like someone who was traveling every year.
To some extent, I suffered like every other Nigerian in terms of lack of basic social amenities; irregular power supply, and so many other things. I think it has also helped me in terms of my writing because, I am not writing from the perspective of someone who has just returned from abroad.
I write like someone who has lived in Nigeria and went through all the fuel crises, NLC, PENGASSAN and all those agitations for a better living. These informed some of my experiences in Nigeria.
I was out of the country between 1998 and 2000. I came back and joined the banking industry. I worked in Citizen bank.
I like to align myself to where I feel I have the strongest passion. I started working in the banking sector in 1995. If I were still a banker, I would have put in 18 years in the industry this year. I felt there were some aspects of what I thought I could do that was not developing in the banking sector.
So, I felt I wanted to explore that. But I was still not ruling out doing things that are related to rendering financial service.
Indeed, I still have my financial firm which I still operate till date. But entertainment is a key focus area for me right now. I want to explore the potentials of showbiz.
Desmond Ovbiagele Movie Career:
I am the sort of person who needs motivation to make a film because it consumes such a long period of a person’s life. After my first film in 2014, I needed to find something that interested me. It took a while but the reports of suicide bombings up north kept pricking my conscience.
Of course, being in Lagos, I was far removed from what was going on over there, but I felt obliged to at least add my voice. Having decided on this, I knew that it was not going to be the most commercial project one could embark upon particularly in the wake of The Wedding Party.
But there was a worldwide spotlight on Nigeria at the time and I felt like we should be in the driving seat of telling our stories if we consider ourselves filmmakers of any caliber.
To be fair The Milkmaid is my first full directing effort. I didn’t really direct Render to Caesar as it was meant to be a co-directing effort with Lucky Ejim. It was my first time working in the industry and I was producing as well so it wasn’t until post-production that I took over the project. So I did not direct the actors actually.
I did learn some lessons from my experiences on Render to Caesar and one of these was that actors tend to be more natural when expressing themselves in their native language particularly for actors who have to speak local languages frequently.
I feel that Nigerians have certainly been challenged by Hollywood films. You only have to watch a Christopher Nolan film to get your mind tied up in knots for two hours and Nigerians love his stuff. I thought that I could bank on my audience being used to a more complex structure and was willing to take a chance on this.
Desmond Ovbiagele ‘The Milkmaid’ Film
Desmond Ovbiagele abandoned his career in investment banking to pursue his dream of making films. Now the Nigerian director’s movie about the jihadist insurgency in his country has been put forward as an Oscars contender.
The insurgency by militant group Boko Haram has killed more than 30,000 people and forced about 2 million to flee their homes since 2009. The group attained global notoriety in 2014 with the abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok.
“I felt it was important that we put some backstories and some personalities behind all these casualty statistics,” said Ovbiagele.
For ‘The Milkmaid’ actors, it was not a deliberate decision as I would have liked some marquee names. But once we went down the indigenous language route, that automatically knocked off most Nollywood actors. The other option was to gravitate towards Kannywood- the Hausa speaking segment of the industry- and we got Maryam Booth who is a popular figure over there.
The challenge was that we were hoping to shoot for quite some time in Taraba state and we did not want disruptions to our schedule in terms of having big stars leave the set for competing projects as they often juggle multiple projects.
As a filmmaker, one of my joys is to be able to discover new talents and I think we have shown with the film that there is a wealth of acting talent away from mainstream Nollywood just waiting to be discovered.
Some people felt uncomfortable at such an unflinching depiction of religious extremism and they received the film not as an expression of the truth but as a portrayal of a certain religion in an unflattering light.
Our defense to the board was that there is nothing in The Milkmaid that breaks any new ground in terms of depicting the key players in these situations. The film is fictionalized but it is basically derived from publicly available material.
We did not go for a sensationalist approach. We were just looking to tell an authentic story that resonated with what people had already heard and read. It was a bit surprising that the board read the film as castigating a certain religion.
Matter of fact, we thought it was the opposite case particularly with how the story played out. We showed clearly that there were people distorting the tenets of the religion and that people could discover the truth for themselves by studying the holy book.
Anytime a filmmaker is going head to head with the censors’ board- from Alfred Hitchcock with Rebecca to Biyi Bandele with Half of a Yellow Sun- there’s always going to be compromises that might alter the original vision.
There is no doubt that the edits recommended or instructed by the board are not in full keeping with my vision for the film but to some extent, the artistic vision is still there. One simply has to roll with the punches.
I needed the principal characters to have a certain degree of agency even though they were held captive. From the survivors’ accounts, even in the camps where they were more or less slaves, they were able to use their own initiative to survive.
The survival instinct always kicked in and some of them even managed to escape. You have to understand that the insurgents themselves, many of them are not trained soldiers but boys who are picked up on the streets and given weapons. They don’t have the organization and precision of soldiers.
Sometimes they fall asleep on guard duty. Those sort of lapses created opportunities for their captives to make a break for freedom and many of them did on several occasions. So it wasn’t always a perfect, efficient Mossad type situation.
More like teenage boys who had never been in such situations and were themselves struggling with the lifestyles that they were being indoctrinated into. It was a fluid situation for both captives and captors.
Desmond Ovbiagele Biography and Profile