Ukairo Ukairo’s quest for African cinematic excellence

Born and raised in Aba, Nigeria, Ukairo Ukairo ’13 grew up in a household that fostered his keen interest in a legal career. His father is a lawyer and human rights activist and his mother a lawyer too having previously worked as a civil servant in the judiciary. However, it was Ukairo’s observation of the transformative power of movies in his community that sparked his fascination with storytelling and eventually changed his course to that of being a filmmaker.

While studying at ALA, Ukairo relished the opportunity to work on multiple short productions with fellow students which eventually changed his career course and solidified his intent to become a filmmaker. Having to complete assignments for his Creativity Symposium  class as well as take part in cultural activities on campus, this gave him the opportunity to explore his talents in music and acting too. It was through the help of ALA College Admissions Staff Member , Ms Suzanne Hunter that Ukairo obtained a scholarship to study film at the University of Texas in Austin, USA. These days, in addition to filmmaking, Ukairo can be seen playing a lead role in Lovebites, a film featured on IssaRaePresents as part of its Short Film Sundays series, and pursuing an MFA in Film & TV Production at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

We caught up with Ukairo to hear more about making authentic African films, African cinematic excellence and his future plans.

How would you describe the type of films you make and what do you hope they portray to an audience?

I want to make heartfelt films that explore mundane experiences. I want to make films that highlight these moments and use them as an opportunity to engage with what it means to be human. On the other hand, I want to make period films – and I think these may be the most important films we make as a continent because we tend to be portrayed as a people without civilization and pre-colonial knowledge of self and I think we owe it to ourselves to challenge these. I also want to make commercials, as well as  documentaries about historic events. All of storytelling is really interesting to me. I want to explore it all – maybe not at the same time, but I intend to try.

What challenges you have faced as an African filmmaker making films outside of Africa and how have you overcome them?

There are logistical challenges such as financial resources – which everyone has. But there are always workarounds for that. My main challenge would be that sometimes, in writing ideas for films, I imagine scenes that occur in rickshaws in Aba, danfo buses in Surulere, or in Onitsha market. I cannot shoot these scenes right now – definitely not in Texas or Los Angeles. But one day, I will. In the meantime, I have shifted my lens to the African immigrant experience, and I am exploring stories that reside within these communities that are just as dynamic as the ones back home.

In your recent Redefine Expectations interview, you spoke passionately of the need for structured institutions that would bring together different stakeholders for the purpose of achieving African cinematic excellence. What does African cinematic excellence look like to you and how do you see yourself contributing to achieving it?

I want to state, unequivocally, that I am not a purist when it comes to art. I have my opinions about what makes for good films, excellent films, passable films, memorable films etc. I do think, however, that forming or resurrecting different guilds/institutions for the different departments of filmmaking, in today’s day and age, would help our different industries across the continent to develop standards and professional expectations. This way we can have protection for actors and actresses, licensing benefits for musicians whose songs are used in films, copyright benefits for writers, representation for directors, etc. As for my contribution to that, I spoke about excellence – at least on the technical level. So, for any films I make that may show at a cinema, I will do everything in my power to make sure that I make good directing and producing choices, from actor’s performances to overall sound levels and mixes, to subtitles, and most importantly, writing and editing. I cannot vehemently state that I know what “African filmmaking” is, but I know I will be studying veteran and modern filmmakers, and hopefully coming up with new ways to photograph Africa and Africans.

What is next for Ukairo Ukairo?

Right now, I am focused on a number of things. I am currently working on projects in the three main mediums with which I express myself – music, photography and film. In terms of music, I am working on my third EP right now as well as a number of singles. As for film, on the one hand, I will continue to make the little shorts that I share on Instagram – most of which have taken a more poetic/spoken-word direction. This is something I really recommend for creatives; find small ways to express yourself – even when taking creative hiatuses – unless of course you really need an absolute break from creation. On the other hand, as a film student, I have a lot of time to think about film ideas for shorts, features, TV shows and documentaries. I will be allocating time to work on these ideas and make connections with people who may be interested in getting them made. If somewhere in all of these I run into any acting opportunities, I will be sure to take them. Hopefully, something that will have people as heated as they were about my character, Chidi, in Lovebites!Watch Ukairo speak about “Reclaiming the African Narrative” in a recent Redefine Expectations webinar here, alongside fellow alumna and filmmaker, Tapiwa Gambura ’18. Follow Ukairo’s journey on @ukairoukairo on Instagram.