A new film village, handsome budget and comfortable manpower give Wetin Dey, the new television series from the BBC World Service Trust, an edge over the rest
Mak Kusare knows the difference between a stringent budget and the near ideal for a motion picture production. He shot his award-winning 90 Degrees (which won the best film at the 2006 edition of the ZUMA Film festival in Abuja) with a quarter of a million naira. Today in Abuja, he shoots a 30-minute episode of Wetin Dey with close to N5m.
Thanks to the finance, supervision and world-class standard by the BBC World Service Trust in producing 48 episodes of the weekly series, four young Nigerian directors, technicians and a number of actors are now proud beneficiaries of what can easily be seen as Nigeria's most-expensive and high quality TV drama.
"The vision behind Wetin Dey is to show different aspects of the Nigeria lives through different families and characters whose paths cross. We are also bringing up the reality of the HIV/AIDS issue into the series. We realize that this issue is crucial, but we are a conservative people that are not given to open discussions about sex. But we realize that this has to be told in a creative way," said the series producer, Sebari Diete-Spiff.
She had joined the production team of the series since inception as a trainee director, but was asked to assume the role of the producer after the Ghanaian-born director, John Akomfrah and his technical team who shot the pilot episode and who the Nigerian directors understudied on the set, had returned to their base in London.
Now, Diete-Spiff, who studied and had practised as script writer/director for many years in the UK, now supervises the team of nine writers, two story editors, directors and a cast that include the veteran Jab Adu, who plays the role of the taxi driver in the series and who also works on scrip development on set. There are also a few known names such as Toyin Osinaike, Foluke Aofiyebi, Ali Nuhu and Kehinde Adeyemo-Fasuyi on the set, in addition to a number of up and coming actors.
With about eight episodes already aired on TV, Diete-Spiff expresses enthusiasm that a new appreciation has developed among viewers. "TV is our biggest screen media, and one can say almost with certainty that Nollywood films have been successful with the local audience because they are not so much about film or cinema but television."
A participant in the last Gulder Ultimate Search, who plays Hakeem in Wetin Dey, shared his producer's sentiments. "This is not your everyday production. The beauty is that it tells everyday story in a different, superb way. I think its strength is in using more unknown faces to achieve a remarkable result," he said.
By the time the first phase of shooting ends in December, about N250m would have been expended on the production. Although about N78m is still said to be needed from corporate sponsors, the initial budget translates to about N5m on each episode that will last viewers till March 2008. About N2m out of the estimated budget per episode go to the cast alone, which according to actors on set covers their expenses in flying regularly from Lagos to Abuja, lodging at the BBC World Service Trust guest house in Abuja. And in tandem with the regulations in the UK, they are not allowed to work for more than eight hours a day on the set of this series in multiple story arcs.
However, the biggest plus for Wetin Dey is the acquisition of several acres of land for a film village tagged 'Television Lot' along Old Karu Road, Mararaba, Nassarawa State. It is only a 20-minute drive from Abuja, and it is from there that the bulk of the recordings are done almost on a daily basis since last September when the site became operational. "It is being constantly rebuilt and we've got two permanent nurses on site. We are serious about health and safety," said Diete-Spiff. A police station, hospital, mechanic's workshop, residential home, cybercafe, hair-dressing salon used by Peju, (Zara Udofia), and a night club used by different characters on set are some of the props at the TV Lot that make Wetin Dey an almost self-sufficient enterprise.
Nearly all attest to the team spirit on the production set. And like the producer and actors, each of the directors comes with unique promises. After his triumph at ZUMA Film festival where his debut film, 90 Degrees, won three awards in 2006, Kusare was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2006 and at the Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), Burkina Faso, in March. He was also in France recently where he spent a few weeks on a sponsored script workshop trip for his next film.
His colleague, Seke Somolu, who studied film in the United States, had shot two remarkable films since he returned from the 2005 edition of Talent Campus at the Berlin Film festival - Mama Put and the Steve Rhodes' documentary - is also a good hand on the set. So are the other two directors, Remi Vaughan and Kenneth Gyang, who have brought distinct directorial style into this uniquely Nigerian drama production.
Coming from an independent background, Kusare acknowledges the difference between directing a feature film and a 30-minute series. "You tend to have more time and control when you are shooting a feature. But time is the pressure you confront when doing television. For example, you can't experiment with the script and shots as you would be inclined to do on the set of a feature film because it affects the entire flow of the story. On TV, there is a long line of bosses that have to approve," said Kusare.
Yet, he is enormously grateful of the opportunity that Wetin Dey has provided. He says given the kind of direction that produces recognizable Nigerian characters like Aisha (Azizat Sadiq), a rebellious daughter from an Islamic background; or Bayo and Yetunde who both confront different kinds of domestic challenges give a kind of creative fulfillment that is rare on an average Nigerian TV series.
Yet, the unadverstised but recurrent theme of HIV and how each character confronts either the scourge or the stigma associated with it is one of the strengths of Wetin Dey.
And ever since its first two episodes were screened at FESPACO in March, and its Nigerian preview in April a the Planet One club in Lagos, Wetin Dey appears decisive in establishing itself as a deeply touching, technically engaging prime time programme.