To Be or Not to Be Surreal? Abba T. Makama’s Biggest Question Yet

We chose the term “surreal” not because we were surrealist filmmakers,’ Abba T. Makama says of his collective, Surreal16. ‘We felt surrealism was another word for dreaming. When you’re dreaming, the ego is asleep and you’re running on the unconscious. You’re free. It’s about freedom of creativity.’ 

Editor’s note: This interview is available in our print issue, Godfathers: An Introduction. Buy the issue here.

Abba T. Makama is a Nigerian writer, director, visual artist and filmmaker. He is a Surreal16 Collective co-founder, alongside fellow filmmakers, C.J. Obasi and Michael Omonua. All three had been inspired by Danish filmmaking movement, Dogme 95, and moved not only to develop a new kind of cinema, but to also diversify production practices in Nigeria’s thriving film scene. Makama and I initially planned to meet at Orchid Bistro, Ikoyi, but that Lagos morning proved to be a logistical nightmare and we both decided it would be easier to speak over a Zoom call.  

While waiting for the Zoom meeting to begin, I glossed over the notes I’d made about his and Surreal16’s achievements. In 2021, their Juju Stories, a three-part anthology exploring magical stories rooted in Nigerian folklore and urban legend, made its international premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and won the Boccalino d’Oro for best film. The project also won the best director award at the 2021 African International Film Festival.   

Makama eventually joined the call and we made small talk about our inability to meet in person. These were mostly apologies but offhandedly he said he’d preferred a virtual interview over one that would have required sitting in traffic. It was December 2022 and he planned to escape Lagos State and return to the relatively easier pace of Jos, Plateau State.  

In December 2022, Surreal 16 held the second edition of the S16 Film Festival, celebrating cinema and showcasing filmmakers from around Africa. The festival’s line-up offered classic African films and presentations of upcoming projects to the growing film community. The event also had an exhibition dedicated to veteran filmmaker, Tunde Kelani.  

‘We decided to do a film festival, which is an extension of the Collective, a group of three filmmakers who have mutual admiration for each other and considered ourselves artists before anything,’ Makama told me. ‘We started out really small, but we partnered with some of our friends, and we were able to bring this to the underground film community. What we thought was going to be a festival with maybe 50 people in a room ended up having over 200 people in attendance. Last year, we did a tribute to Tunde Kelani, so I’d say the ministry is ministry-ing.’ 

Makama described the 2022 S16 Film Festival as a ‘great success’, telling me about how the festival series was birthed in the high of the group’s filmmaking success. It was 2021 and they—Makama, Obasi and Omonua had just returned to Lagos from the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where their anthology Juju Stories had won a critic’s prize. After asking themselves what they should do next, they decided to start their own festival.  

While the first festival saw twelve films—including the collective’s Juju Stories, the 2022 S16 Film Festival saw 14 films—ten short films and four feature-length films by directors from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Rwanda. I asked if the collective would consider expanding and accepting other filmmakers following the festival’s success.  

 ‘As of now, we are still building our foundation,’ Makama said. ‘Though we have affiliates; anyone who works with us is an S16 affiliate. The movies we are making right now are collaborations between us three. The film festival is independent of the Surreal 16 collective, but as we build and find filmmakers who really understand the ethos of what we’re doing. Of course, we’re going to expand.’ 

Surreal 16 was founded in 2016 to encourage a new type of cinema. On A Fiery Film—a website detailing the collective’s feats—it is said that the goal was to ‘to push a new kind of Nigerian film. Encourage genre films such as Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, Crime as well as push and promote more artistically minded films.’ In 2017, the collective announced a 16-rule manifesto listing the guidelines that shape its filmmaking process. These guidelines included notes like no cliché looking witch doctors, no fake British or American accents, no ‘To God be the Glory’ at the end of films and no establishing shots of the Lekki-Ikoyi link bridge. The collective also urged filmmakers to avoid making wedding films, romantic comedies, slapstick and melodrama, among others. Makama alluded to the group being anti-mainstream industry, ‘but not in an adversarial way.’  

I asked if their stance on filmmaking had changed since 2017, or if there had been any additions to the rules (for instance, did they still oppose shots of the Lekki-Ikoyi link bridge?).   

He paused before saying, ‘so far, it is still the same thing, but it might change’. He then commented that new Nollywood releases were catching up to some of those ideals. He mentioned seeing tweets that said Netflix’s Far From Home lacked a longshot of the popular Lagos landmark.  

In a February 2022 review of Juju Stories, Makama’s Yam—a movie about a character who turned into a tuber of yam and was then eaten by a friend—was described as being ‘incongruous with reason.’  I asked if he thought filmmakers have (or need) to guide their audiences to understand their films. 

‘It depends on the sort of film,’ he said. ‘If it is esoteric, it’s left to interpretation. If you’re making a bubble-gum, cinema blockbuster film, it’s by number. You have to carry the audience. In my case, Yam is personal. Some people got it and others didn’t. I made the film I intended to make and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.’ 

Makama is famed for Green White Green, The Lost Okoroshi, and Al-Jazeera’s Nollywood: Something from Nothing. His themes span magic, humour, drama, mockumentary pieces, and satire. I asked him if there were any genres he’d like to explore. 

Comedy,’ he told me. ‘At some point, I’d like to work on something loosely inspired by true events. I might do something along the lines of the military coups—either 1966 or 1967, the Adisa coup against Abacha or even the Oputa panel. I look it from a comedic point of view. I’m a comedian and humour is my way of accessing the world. Even in my work, there is comedy in everything and it is very specific, it’s not slapstick or a man dressed as a woman. It is nuanced with a lot of inside jokes and sarcasm and irony.’ 

To Makama, the Nigerian experience admittedly makes for great satire. This punctuates his films like The Three Thieves and his early work, largely inspired by dreams, a subject he is admittedly fascinated with. I wondered what this said about his filmmaking process. 

I don’t have a fixed answer,’ he said. ‘Some films came about based off a title and then I would build the world around it, like Green White Green and The Lost Okoroshi. Other times, it’s the idea. Something might happen and I decide to build the story off it. I create a skeleton then the plot points. It’s usually plot first and then I create a story around it.’ 

I also wondered if Makama’s filmmaking process and his interest in dreams and masquerades factored into the ‘surreal’ tag Surreal 16 chose. He said, ‘We chose the term surreal not because we were surrealist filmmakers; we just felt surrealism was another word for dreaming. When you’re dreaming, the ego is asleep and you’re running on the unconscious. You’re free. It’s about freedom of creativity. It’s not about surrealist filmmaking or the art movement, it’s an umbrella term that encapsulates being free to create.’   

In being anti-mainstream, Surreal16 set out to move away from the current Nollywood trends, aesthetics and production practices. Nollywood filmmakers have counted a lack of movie marketing firms, the inadequate provision of amenities like electricity and production infrastructure (cinema houses) as some of the usual challenges they face in carrying out their projects and I asked Makama if he or Surreal16 faced such challenges in the last year and how they worked around them. He paused, contemplating his answer, then began with a story.  

‘I remember when I first moved back to Nigeria, the first film I made was Directoh, a story about a Nollywood filmmaker trying to make a film in one day. I shot it as a mockumentary and told the crew that whatever happened while filming was going to be part of the film. If there were mistakes, like late actors or equipment getting into the shot, it was going to be a part of the film. This experience taught me about the challenges in the industry,’ he explained.  

Funding, he added, was a challenge he faced. Despite being the second largest film industry in the world after Bollywood, many Nigerian filmmakers rely on grants and other financing models to secure funds for their projects. In 2021, the minister of information, Lai Mohammed, announced a N500 million loan set up by the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Banker’s Committee to support the entertainment industry. Similarly, Labari Africa Productions launched a $3 million film fund in 2022 to support local filmmakers in the development and production of new films.  

Makama told me, however, that he embraces the challenge, as the adversity we face is to aid us in some odd way. It’s like Judo; you take it and you turn it around.’ 

I asked what he does when he’s not behind the camera, if he catches up on TV shows like the rest of us and if anything had piqued his interest. ‘On television, it is HBO’s How to with John Wilson. It’s a documentary comedy. John Wilson goes around New York with a camera filming random stuff and while he’s filming, he stumbles across an object and he goes into a journey of how it came about or how it’s made. I really enjoyed it. It’s like checking YouTube at 1 in the morning. The crazy thing is that while he’s on this journey, someone might deter him, and he’d go off track but then he’d bring it back. The show is kind of genius,’ he said, gesturing a chef’s kiss.  

Makama told me he was also fascinated by African leaders at the US-Africa summit that held in December last year. According to him, ‘the president of Ghana had a really nice speech, but towards the end it seemed like a nod to China and how China gets it when they come to negotiate with African countries. I thought it was a diss to the US; at the time, I said, “I don’t think this is what the Biden administration wants to hear.”’  

I then asked about his interests outside work and if 2022 panned out as he had planned. He tells me; ‘2022 was all work besides going to Jos, where I have an apartment. I’m trying to get into farming. I’m thinking coffee. I and my siblings have some land by a lake and it’s conducive for coffee. We’re still figuring it out.’ 

In a previous interview, he had disclosed that his mother was a horticulturist and so I asked if that is where his interest in farming stems from.   

‘I got into agriculture in 2020, but solely from a trade point,’ he said. ‘I’d buy corn and store it, then when the prices go up, I’d flip it and make a profit. It’s something I’m still doing actually. I later discovered that it was something my grandfather did. Apparently, when my grandfather bought bags of corn, they’d mark his bags with the initials “A.M.”. I had no idea until my father told me; when I buy bags of corn, they mark my bags with the same initials. So, it’s a family tradition, preserved.’   

As the conversation wound down, I asked if he believed in predetermination, if the life and choices of his forebears placed him on the path he was currently on, a path that seemed to stretch from filmmaking to farming. He wasn’t sure. Instead, he felt he was freestyling—for now, at least. However, he explained that he believes in ‘connecting the dots’ and views finding connections within seemingly unconnected areas in life as a guiding philosophy. 

‘Life is just about connecting the dots,’ he said. ‘I believe there are multiple paths but what you choose becomes your destiny. We like to think we’re complex, but it’s all been written. Sometimes you could pick the wrong path, but it was an option that was already written for you.’

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