Nollywood's prolific director OBI EMELONYE talks about the making of HEART & SOUL, a medical - spiritual series.
HA: What was the inspiration for Heart and Soul medical – spiritual series?
OE: Heart and Soul was actually written, along with THE MIRROR BOY in 2005. I have been a fan of a BBC programme called CASUALTY. I told myself that a story set in a local hospital in Nigeria will be full of drama, laughter, fun, hope, despair, life and death. So, Heart and Soul started life as an African version of international TV series like Casualty, Holby City, Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy. But it is not some lazy carbon copy of these western ideas. I had to indigenize it and give it an African identity. Besides the location and the peculiar medical issues discussed, what better way to do so than to introduce an element of the spiritual- the recognistion of the heart and the soul elements of life; some non-denominational and non-religious acceptance that there is a higher being and another place after life on earth. That, I think, becomes the unique selling point of Heart and Soul.
HA: Would you categorize Heart and Soul as a faith based or does it focus on a specific religion?
OE: It is non-religious and non-denominational exploration of the medical aspects of life, which the doctors are trained to preserve; and the spiritual aspects about which no one has got a real clue, even the doctors. Every person who has a breath in them, particularly every African, in spite of their religious persuasion will understand and appreciate these stories, leaving them at the end of every episode to interrogate their own lives and their own choices.
HA: The one thing any film lover knows about Obi Emelonye is innovation, you always bring something unexpected to your films, What new innovation should we look forward to in Heart and Soul?
OE: Thank you for that compliment. However, I must say that I don’t sit awake at night; thinking of innovations to bring to a story. I simply allow myself to be taken on a journey by whatever story I am working on. Depending on the demands of that story and subject to the requirements to bring it to life and invite my audience on the same cathartic journey, I then spare no effort, no cost to make it happen. That, I think, is what you refer to as innovation. Having said that, sometimes the innovation is simplicity. To weave a simple story in such a simple way that it hits home; no unnecessary embellishments, no gloss, no hype, no facades. Just raw emotions, graphic scenes that are not really for people with wheezy disposition and relatable, simple stories that celebrate the gift of life and ultimately remind us of our mortality. That, I would say, is what Heart and Soul has achieved.
HA: What were the major challenges you faced making Heart and Soul?
OE: Just like every project, we encountered financial problems in the making. This is so particular in the present creative ecosystem in Africa where the value of contents and the opportunities to monetize them are falling. But when you have been doing this for as long as we have, there would be people who believe in you and are willing to take a chance with you. We thank God for that grace.
Besides finance, the next big challenge was finding a working hospital that would have room for a noisy, rowdy production crew. I always knew that the hospital we shoot in will be one of the most important factors of the production. I always knew that it would lend authenticity to the story we are telling. So, when the Lagos state Ministry of Health saw the opportunity with Heart and Soul to showcase the excellent state of healthcare infrastructure in Lagos I was in luck. When they decided to give us the freedom of Lagos state university Teaching Hospital Ikeja, to shoot in the best arears and wherever we liked, I felt like a child in a sweet shop. So, what you see in Heart and Soul is a hi-tec hospital, comparable to any in the world. I am grateful to Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, the commissioner of Health, Lagos and Permanent Secretary to the Ministry. Not forgetting the Chief Medical Director at LASUTH and the Director of CCU.
Casting a project is always challenging. But with Heart and Soul, that process was different. One of the aims of the production was to give access to young people to enter the Nollywood film industry, under the 50-50 Legacy of the Obi Emelonye Foundation. The selection of 50 new actors to participate in this project from over 700 applicants was tough. Then training them to really advanced levels in the acting craft to ensure overall quality of the project was arduous. But I have a sense of fulfilment when I see these young and hungry actors proudly share videos and photos from the set. Some of them have been attending auditions for years but never been entrusted with a substantive role. The Obi Emelonye Foundation is geared towards empowering young actors and film professionals with opportunities at the highest level of Nollywood. Heart and Soul is the second project towards this noble goal, after CRAZY, LOVELY, COOL tv series, made in 2017 with the collaboration of Trace TV.
HA: What do you want your audience to take out of the series?
OE: Heart and Soul will make the audience laugh and cry at the same time. It deals with a serious matter but in a lighthearted and sometimes comedic way. It will make the audience think about life and question their choices. It is poignant, deep and soul-searching. It can shock sometimes but the abiding feeling after every episode is that of cathartic elation and exhilaration. It is like we have just eavesdropped on a life and death situation involving another human being. By underlining our common humanity, it reminds us of our own lives, our loved ones and invites us to review our life choices. I can bet you that the audience, even doctors, will learn something new form each episode of Heart and Soul; from health conditions, treatments, procedures, psychology, modules on kindness; to lessons in humanity. They will also see someone they know in each episode. This relatability makes Heart and Soul a powerful trigger and vehicle for deep introspection.
HA: Should we expect a second season soon?
OE: With uptake so far from stations and platforms, together with the audience’s enthusiasm for the teaser released, there will be more than the present 13 episodes for Heart and Soul. I also feel the serial nature of the episodes gives it good scope to continue empowering an army of your actors with access to the industry. In the coming episodes, I look forward to searching beyond the glamorous cream of the healthcare sector in Nigeria and shine the light on the mucky, spartan underbelly of hospitals; where the equipment is not so flashy, the practitioners are not so committed and life is worth a lot less. There are lots of inspirational and aspirational stories to emerge from local hospitals. Filming and watching those stories would be edifying.
HA: As an African filmmaker, what is the legacy you want to leave behind? And what are you doing now to make it happen?
OE: As I turned 50 last year, I started thinking about legacy. I started the Obi Emelonye Foundation to ensure that I helped young film enthusiasts realize their dreams in Nollywood. Heart and Soul, as well as Crazy, Lovely, Cool TV series have helped in achieving that honourable goal. But the more I think about legacy, the more its futility stares me in the face. My dad (bless his soul) had always said that ‘all of life ends in failure’. With that in mind, our ultimate legacy would be ‘did we live good lives?’. If we did, the world will remember us. If we didn’t, no matter what we achieve professionally, it is all vanity. I want to be remembered as a good man, a good father, a good husband, a good brother and a good friend. Anything else is ‘jara’ as we say in Nigeria.
HA: Please tell us your Top 5 all-time African movies and why they are your favorite?
OE: I would have to decline that question, for diplomatic reasons. I can tell you the top 5 African footballers because it is not my industry and I am seeing things as a punter. But to talk in those terms about the film industry of which I am a part will be hard. It will be a bit unfair and my comments may be open to all sorts of interpretations. Let me just say that I love African films and I celebrate every African filmmaker who, against the odds, continues to tell our stories and present them to the world. We are Africa’s best adverts and although we don’t all know it, we wield considerable influence as the social, political and ideological engineers of our time. Kudos to us all.
Heart & Soul premieres on African Magic Showcase on 5th june @ 4:30pm.