With a remarkable career spanning decades, Femi Odugbemi has captivated audiences with his thought-provoking narratives that delve deep into the human experience. From award-winning documentaries to compelling TV series, his work resonates with authenticity and pushes boundaries, leaving an indelible mark on the industry. Vanessa Obioha writes about his extraordinary mind and unwavering commitment to his craft as he turns 60.
To be remotely acquainted with the cerebral filmmaker Femi Odugbemi is a desire pursued by many. Not necessarily because of his enviable success in the creative field but rather because of the indomitable spirit and profound impact, he leaves in his wake. With a career that spans decades across media, photography, advertising, filmmaking, and education, Odugbemi has established himself as a true visionary and a guiding light in the industry.
Given his high status, one might assume that the man behind some of the intriguing TV drama series, such as ‘Battleground,’ had a silver spoon glued to his mouth. This is not the case. Odugbemi came from a humble background, and his early exposure to life’s intricacies tells a different story. Growing up in a modest home and helping his disciplinarian mother — whom he loves dearly — with her trade, sometimes hawking on the streets of Lagos, and encountering people from different walks of life, prepared him for the future. If one is privileged to be regaled with his childhood stories, one would understand why he is called the master storyteller. Was it when his mother seized the football during a game with peers? Or the elderly akara seller whose hot akara served with a stew made his hawking days eventful? Or was it the days spent in his mum’s kiosk where he had to multitask between watching over his mother’s goods and doing his homework?
As these stories spilled from his mouth, one could easily tell of the admiration he has for his mother and how her guidance and discipline moulded him into the man he is today.
While the Odugbemis may not have had the luxury of a wealthy life, education was highly prioritised. So when the time came for university, Odugbemi had to travel across the ocean. He attended Montana State University in the United States, where he studied film and TV production.
Sitting in his office on a recent afternoon and reminiscing about those days, Odugbemi talked about his decision to return to Nigeria.
“It would have taken me nine months to get a green card and become a United States citizen, but I always knew I didn’t want to stay in America. My mother tried and tried, but I didn’t budge. The Nigeria I grew up in has clarity; there were things I think I learned in school that made me have clarity that I think are missing now. The only God in Nigeria right now is money. The only thing anybody thinks of is money. The only person to honour is money. The only person to listen to is money. If we can’t see you with money, we can’t see you at all.”
“Now, that kind of society is going down the drain at a fast speed. It has nothing to do with anybody. The only way to change that is for the moral and ethical gatekeepers, which are the churches, mosques, and the judiciary, to do their work properly.”
Odugbemi’s career picked up in advertising after a stint at the Nigerian Television Authority. With his dreads and earrings, he cut the perfect picture of an Americana, a colloquial term used to describe a returnee from the States. On his first encounter with Christopher Doghudje, who helmed the affairs at Lowe-Lintas at the time, he was given six months of probation because, according to him, the elderly Doghudje had problems with his looks.
“He said to me that it was people who looked like me that hid our talents.”
By the third month, he was called to Doghudje’s office and praised for his impressive work.
“In all honesty, I didn’t know my work was impressive. All I knew was that I was using my mum’s car to do my advert work.”
Odugbemi would serve as an agency producer for different advertising companies before becoming his own boss at DVWorx Studios, a platform that enabled him to serve as President of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria between 2002 and 2006. Alongside his friends Jahman Anikulapo and Makin Soyinka, he founded the iREP Documentary Film Festival, which has become a rarefied environment for art enthusiasts and intellectuals to have conversations about Africa and the role documentary films play in the development of the continent.
A renowned storyteller, Odugbemi runs Zuri24 Media, a content and media creation company responsible for his latest works.
“His work ethic is phenomenal,” said the actress Shaffy Bello, who featured in his 2017 production ‘Battleground.’ “He is a master at his craft. He doesn’t second guess.”
A stickler for professionalism, during a visit to his ‘Battleground’ set in 2017 with a former editor of THISDAY newspaper, his work ethic was clearly evident. First, he acquired a property in Lekki to ensure that work flowed seamlessly. To maintain punctuality, every weekday, a bus filled with the crew and cast departed from the Maryland bus stop in Lagos mainland promptly at 5 am, destined for the Lekki Phase 1 location. Odugbemi strictly enforced a zero-tolerance policy for tardiness, regardless of the circumstances. At 7 am, breakfast was served, followed by shooting, which began at 8 am and continued until late afternoon with a scheduled lunch break. The entire operation ran like a well-oiled machine, with meticulous attention to detail.
As a documentary filmmaker, he is known for works such as the 2016 documentary ‘Makoko: Futures Afloat,’ which captured the young dreams trapped in the riverine slum in Lagos. That same year, he did a feature film, ‘Gidi Blues: A Lagos Love Story,’ which is set in Makoko and tells the love story of a young couple. The film was, in a way, a clarion call to appreciate the uniqueness of where we were born. Other documentary works from him include the award-winning ‘Bariga Boy,’ as well as ‘Unmasked’, a 2021 documentary that explored Nigeria’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On TV, he is known for being the pioneer producer of the longest-running TV series ‘Tinsel’, as well as other titles such as ‘Movement-Japa,’ ‘Brethren,’ and his most current political drama series ‘Covenant.’
Beyond filmmaking, Odugbemi is a seasoned and cerebral writer, delivering thought-provoking papers on the art and business of storytelling. His expertise has been sought after at various conferences and events, where he shares insights on topics such as “Promoting a Learning Culture in Nollywood” during the inaugural graduation ceremony of KAP Film/TV Academy last year; and “Authenticity in African Storytelling” at the Creative ProducerIndaba (CPI) 2020, held in South Africa.
Due to his brilliance and flair for grooming the young generation of filmmakers, he was the best choice to usher in the first set of students to go through the MultiChoice Talent Factory in Nigeria. To date, his time as the academy director is still sung in high praise. He also serves as the Provost of the Orange Academy and is a visiting academic at various schools in Nigeria and abroad.
His influence extends to international film and TV award organisations, as he is a voting member of both the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
He has served as a juror and head of the jury at various film festivals. This year, he returned for the fifth time as the head of the jury for the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA).
One cannot discuss Odugbemi without encountering a multitude of individuals whose lives he has touched and transformed, myself included. Whether through his captivating films, his inspiring mentorship, or his unwavering commitment to artistic excellence, Odugbemi has left an indelible mark on those fortunate enough to cross his path.
When friends, colleagues, and mentees talk about him, their voices reverberate with admiration and respect. Mr Jahman Anikulapo, a long-time friend and renowned cultural critic, beautifully encapsulates Odugbemi’s essence, saying, “Femi Odugbemi is an Octopus of influences. An Instigator. A Motivator. An Inspirer. A Catalyst for progressive visioning and actions—these are the essences of the man, and you see them manifest in all his interventions.”
But it is not only Mr Anikulapo who sings Odugbemi’s praises. Across the creative landscape, individuals like Bello, who said he was “one of the people God used to change my life”, have been captivated by his extraordinary talent.
“Femi directed the very first TV commercial I wrote while I was at Rosabel,” said Fabian Adeoye Lojede, an actor, writer, filmmaker and creative entrepreneur. “We bonded for life shortly afterwards when he directed a car commercial I wrote for Toyota. This project took us around Nigeria as we searched for landscapes and rural settings. His love for this industry is as immense as his expertise.”
What people admire most about Odugbemi is his humanity and kindness. This has remarkably set him apart from his contemporaries. Regardless of social class or talent, he extends a helping hand and offers support to those in need.
Despite his serious look, Odugbemi has a good sense of humour and can be mischievous.
As he marks his 60th birthday on Wednesday, May 24, many glasses filled with red wine will be raised in his honour. Cheers to a glorious mind!