James Omokwe and Africa Magic share a passion for telling African stories; This is evident in the films that Omokwe makes and the content that Africa Magic exhibits. Omokwe, who has a penchant for killing viewers’ favorite characters, talks about Riona, her inspiration, the challenges of making 200-episode shows, and why she loves to kill beloved characters.
What is the inspiration behind cultural stories like Riona and Ajoche?
I was not in full control when making Ajoche or Riona. However, I always wanted to tell cultural stories and when I started my company, the goal was to create authentic African content. We started with a popular tale called Ojuri; It was a test to see if we could do some epic shows, and we did. That same year, they called me to attend a story workshop, where they asked us to create some stories. My current main writer narrated this popular tale and we recorded it in Ajoche. I didn’t know I was going to be the executive producer. I thought it was cool and wanted to work on it as a consultant. I told them, “we’ve done something like this before. I wanted it better than any epic story on other channels, this should look good, add some cinematic stuff,” and they said, “yeah, whatever.” A couple of months later, I got the call to the executive producer. So, it was an opportunity to do what I always wanted to do. It is not about inspiration; I am lucky to be doing these shows.
You seem to love exploring stories of minor ethnic groups that are underrepresented on television. Is this important to you?
Yes. When making Ajoche, we didn’t want to focus on the main tribes. I’m Igbo, but these tribes (Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba) are what you see on every epic show, and we wanted to get away from that. We decided on other tribes, but the question was which of the lesser tribes did we focus on? I remember that the first thing that came to mind was my friend’s mother-in-law, who is Idoma. I wanted us to do something about the Idoma tribe because I thought we would have conversations with her and she was going to give us a lot of information about her culture. In the end we didn’t talk to her; we just did a thorough investigation.
Fortunately, Ajoche was a great success. Lots of people from Idoma bought it like crazy, including Senator David Mark, who invited us to his home. His real name is Alechenu, and his wife’s name is Elakeche, two of the show’s main characters, so it resonated a lot with the story.
For Riona, we wanted to do something different. We looked at two tribes and went with the Itsekiri. And if they give us another epic, we will choose another minor tribe. It is some form of education or a glimpse into our history because we know the Hausas, Igbos and Yorubas, but there are many other tribes with beautiful cultures that we do not know.
Riona seems like a lot of work has been done, from the set to the costumes. How was the process?
We wanted an accurate description of the culture, not so accurate because, well, there are no visual references for the year it takes place (it’s the 3rd century). All you have are oral references. I brought the art department together and we asked ourselves, “How do we build this world?” Who are these people? What do they do for a living? What would the whole town be like? ”The town is divided into two parts; the Omajaja (the nobles) and the Irale (the humble). We had to design differently the kind of house an Omajaja would stay in and an Irale would stay in. Then we had the costume team build costumes for these people; then the prop guys made weapons. Once we agreed that these were the pictorial references of the world we were building, we moved on to build it.
What did it take to develop the story?
Usually they give you a synopsis and say this is the idea behind the story, and we start to develop the story. We do this with the writing team because they give ideas about the different characters. It’s a full two-week process, building the story and the world, and it’s always a collaborative effort.
How long did filming take and what were some of the joys and challenges you faced?
We are still filming. Shows like this take nine to ten months to shoot, but we always have a three-month lead. With Riona, I think we shot for two months. We’re probably shooting episode 100 when what’s on TV is episode 21.
Rain. We are in the forest; when it rains, the place floods. We had major flood problems when we started building the set. So we had to fill in some areas with sand and build bridges here and there. But now we have more control because of how we have built and secured the set. Yes, the rain can come and stop us from filming, but it does not affect the location. Also, there are wild animals, snakes, but it is not a problem. We are used to it. And noise because we are near a construction site, trucks are moving all the time. But again, we have managed to deal with this.
What are some of the delicacies? It cannot be all the challenges.
The most fun thing is watching the pages of your scripts come to life. That’s the pleasure I get because it’s amazing to see certain scenes that you talk about in preparation come to life. Also, seeing the actors do justice to these characters. It’s like magic! And the fact that people love the show. I was a bit skeptical because the biggest fear you have is, how do you get over your last show knowing full well that Ajoche was a success? Fortunately for us, it’s better
We love Riona’s performances, and it seems like the cast is mostly made up of stage actors. Was this deliberate?
More or less. I wanted the acting to be top-notch because you can do great production design and splendid props, but it won’t tell a story if the acting is horrible. All of that, accessories and production design, is for people like us who appreciate those things. It’s not that people don’t like production design, but no one’s going to say “hey, the packaging is fine.” If the acting is not excellent, then sadly he has failed to deliver the script he was given. So we made sure that the people we got were great actors. Fortunately for us, some of them had a background in theater and they did quite well in their auditions. I used to worry because theater is different from television; With the theater, you are too expressive, but these guys have managed to bridge that division. They are doing well and I’m happy, but it wasn’t necessarily intentional.
It is a pleasure to see King Ofotokun. Was the plan to make such a ruthless character charming?
I don’t know about charm, maybe at first.
Yes, at the beginning.
He is quite charming to his wife, Mofe, but he is human, and there is good and bad in every human being. I tell people that ultimately humans are selfish, and it is King Ofotokun’s selfishness that caused him to do many horrible things. His greed is extreme; He will do anything to rule forever, and he will be ruthless about it. But it is not inherently evil. As far as he’s concerned, he has a wife who is about to give birth to her son. He loves her so much, but he can’t die.
But like I said, he’s human, he’s gentle when he needs to be, and he’s ruthless when he needs to be. It is part of your character building. He would do anything to protect his wife and son and destroy anything that stood in his way. To answer the question, yes, it is intentional.
Looking at Ajoche and Riona, it seems like you love killing beloved characters.
The truth is that people will die anyway. People must die to advance history. So for us, we wanted to start the story by showing how ruthless this guy is. He’s a cruel king who doesn’t mind shedding blood, and more deaths are coming on the show. Many people are going to die!
Will there be some of the characters we love on the show?
Well I can’t tell you that, but of course there are people you love. That’s the most painful part, so when they leave, you can email me to tell me how evil I am. But it is the story. The thing about making TV shows like this is how you manipulate the people who are watching this show. We want him to laugh, cry, feel bad. We want you to hate these characters. We want you to be very upset.