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'The Return' - The Film That Will Not Die

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By Kola Munis (A re-post of the 2004 article)

'The Return' recently won eleven awards at the recent Nigerian 'Reel Movie Awards'. It was also critically acclaimed at the February 2004 Berlin Film Festival.
But do you believe in jinxes? Well, read on, because here are some 10 amazing facts about 'the film that refused to die'…

1. 'The Return' was actually shot on celluloid in 1998 in Calabar, Nigeria.
It has only just been released (2003) in DV format because the Director (Kingsley Ogoro -'The Prostitute', 'Osuofia In London') and Screenwriters (Kola Munis - 'Osuofia In London' and Kabat Esosa Egbon - 'Society Ladies', 'Someone To Love') decided that the final product was a far cry from what we had originally planned. The storyline had inevitably changed and we believed it wasn't up to the standards we had set ourselves. However, after much persuasion from well-wishers, and much tinkering, 'pitching and patching', the film was eventually released.

2. The version that was finally released to the public was NOT made from the actual celluloid shots meant for the original movie. Rather, whatever you see on screen has been put together and edited from shots taken by an assistant cameraman who was simply filming back-up scenes from a different angle and with a semi-professional digital camera meant for the film's 'Special Features' section, 'THE MAKING OF 'THE RETURN'', to be included in the final release package. The original film reels are still languishing undeveloped in a secure cold attic in London. The 'reel' (celluloid) shots are of a much higher quality, as would be expected. You never know, maybe one day they will be worth a fortune! (Did I hear you say 'Yeah, right'…?)

3. When the script was being developed, long before filming ever started, the Director, Kingsley Ogoro, a somewhat superstitious man, voiced his strong concerns about exploring a possible 'taboo' topic such as the African concept of reincarnation. 'Make God no vex with us' were his precise words. This was readily dismissed and we forged ahead, regardless. But could he have been right?

4. The first problem arose when the lead actor, Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD), who was then at the height of his fame, and the most prominent Nigerian actor at the time, walked out on set, stating that we were "wasting too much time". Shooting on celluloid is vastly different from digital, and the whole filming process takes much longer. Remember, this was 1998, when most stars were used to shooting ('zapping') for a maximum of four or five days (some still do!). So you could understand the frustration of top stars being locked away in an all expenses paid hotel in Calabar for a whole month! It was too much, and had never been tried before amongst our own peers. To his credit, RMD did try and reschedule some of his scenes, but the logistics made it virtually impossible, and he was able only to do a few. He eventually had to be written out of the script prematurely.

5. This disruption in Calabar was a major blow, and filming came to a halt, only half completed. Subsequent attempts to kick-start the project at various times met with only limited success. It was obvious that to make sense of the now truncated script, it would have to be 'reinvented' to account for and even exclude all the scenes not yet or only partially shot.

6. As a result of this, some scenes were actually shot FOUR YEARS LATER (2002), again in Calabar, but also in Ijebu-Ife. This time-lapse obviously presented us with new logistical problems of various sorts. For example, the child actress in the movie Fope Akinmola ('Ewoma') had grown from a seven year old to a pre-pubertal eleven year old. For continuity reasons she was therefore no longer usable!!!

7. The real tragedies on set however actually started soon after shooting began in Calabar in 1998 with one of the extras snapping his right leg in half, whilst shooting a jumping scene. He was a local and we obviously had to pay for his prolonged private orthopaedic hospital treatment right there, as well as 'settle' his distressed family.

8. That was just the beginning, and the worst was yet to come. FIVE people closely involved in the project tragically lost their lives before the film's due release. They never got to see the film, never got to share in the glory.

First was a friend and colleague, Emeka Ogoh, who was involved in a ghastly motor accident on his way back from Enugu. Emeka was one of a number of Nigerians that believed passionately in what we were trying to do for Nigerian film, and gave us whatever support he could. At one point when the production appeared to be running into dire financial straits, Emeka was one of those that put his money where his mouth was, drove down to Calabar from Lagos and helped pay off some of the escalating production bills.

Then came the tragic and very public death of Mrs Felicia Mayford, gifted actress and costume designer. She died of a heart attack right there on set. The whole cast and crew were totally devastated, and again filming was paralysed for months. Her family threatened to sue and the press got hold of the story. There were even wild accusations of "murder"! The family finally requested that all her scenes be removed from the film. This request was granted out of respect for her departed soul and the family. One of the most memorable and crucial scenes in the film involving Felicia who had put in an electric performance was therefore lost to the public. Nonetheless, the family continued to give their support to the project, and this was very much appreciated by all involved. Mrs Felicia Mayford post-humously won the Reel 2004 Award for 'Best Costume Designer' for her work on 'The Return'.

The third death was that of Chris Erakpotubor a fine and well respected actor of long standing ('Domitilla', amongst many others), and who acted the part 'Eddy' in 'The Return'. I recall the role Chris played in an emergency meeting held in the location hotel in Calabar, when the production was overrunning and cast members were getting agitated. There were probably about sixty of us there that day. He stood up, and in his own inimitable style, appealed to everyone to make a sacrifice. In an emotional and charged voice, he reminded us that we were all doing this not for ourselves, but for the future of the Nigerian film industry. He believed in the vision and believed we all had to be part of it. He died unexpectedly less than two years later. A great loss to the Nigerian creative arts.

And still the tragedies continued. The fourth death was that of Mr Tayo Akinmola. A man of great spirit, and a lover of the arts and film in particular, he was my own brother-in-law, known to me personally and to members of my family as 'Uncle T'. He was also the father of 'The Return's child actress, Fope ('Ewoma'), referred to above. Long before I ever got involved in film production, we would sit for hours watching and analysing films and discussing the merits and demerits of Hollywood productions. He died suddenly in August 2002. Sadly, he never got to see his beloved daughter, Fope, in whom he was extremely proud, in her debut on-screen role. But his spirit lives on.

Just over six months ago, the final - and mercifully, the last - tragedy occurred in the death of another 'Uncle T', Mr Tunde Adeyemi. He was yet another selfless Nigerian who, believing in what we were trying to do, granted the cast and crew crucial logistical support by way of accommodation and catering when we were on location in Ijebu-Ife, all at his own expense. He was well loved by all.

May all their good souls rest in perfect peace.

9. Both the Director and myself, as well as various others that were involved in the movie almost went bankrupt as a result of 'The Return'. Immense financial strain was placed on family and friends, as the film was financed entirely from private resources. However we all recognised then, and even more so now, that it was a small price to pay compared to the fate that had befallen so many of our friends and colleagues involved in the project, and we were grateful to God for his mercies.

'The Return' was a project far ahead of it's time, and, to be honest, maybe a little too ambitious in the circumstances. For us, however, the lessons learnt were invaluable, and could only spur us on to greater things, this time however, with the benefit of experience and hindsight. 'Osuofia In London'' benefited in numerous ways.

10. Finally, and most amazing of all, six years later in February 2004, 'The Return', the film that almost ended up on the scrap heap, walked into Nigeria's foremost movie award ceremony 'The Reel Awards', with seventeen nominations….and walked away with eleven awards!

Now is that amazing, or what?

In conclusion, one can only remember that, as the saying goes, everything happens for a reason. God giveth, and God taketh away. The tragedies and heartache, painful as they might be for all and sundry, whether directly or indirectly affected, were not of our making, and we had no control over them. The film itself may never be a commercial success, but if there is one invaluable lesson to be learnt from all this, it is that it is not and should never be only about financial gain. There are far more important things in life than money.

So if and when you do happen to sit down one day and watch 'The Return', spare a thought for all those that have done their little bit, even paid the ultimate price, to take Nigerian film just that little bit further forward. One day soon we'll surely get there, because the future is truly bright.
God bless you.
God bless Nigeria

(c) Kola Munis (2004)
Screenwriter, 'The Return'.
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