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Friday, Oct. 24, 2008

Film seeks to right Africans' image here


Staff writer

In Japan's "homogenous" society, foreigners who stand out tend to be vilified, easily associated with crime or other undesirable behavior, according to Nigerian film director Udyfrank.

News photo
Upbeat: Nigerian music producer and film director Udyfrank sits in his Tokyo office Monday. Udyfrank directed, produced and starred in his debut film "Entangled in Tokyo." ALEX MARTIN PHOTO

"I wanted to set the record straight for my people," he said.

Udyfrank, who goes by just the one name, was describing what led him to produce, direct and perform the lead role in "Entangled in Tokyo — Part 1: The Reward of Sin," his debut feature-length film in which he depicts the plight of some Africans living in Japan.

Although poverty sometimes drives Africans here to take the wrong path, "We are decent people, hardworking people, but the way the Japanese media and society portray us is tarnishing our image," said Udyfrank, who is also a music producer.

Released by his own production company, Vine Vibes Pictures, "Entangled in Tokyo" tells the story of Johnson, a Nigerian who fled the poverty of his motherland for Tokyo only to find himself working as the right-hand man of Takahashi, a young and ruthless yakuza boss who controls an international smuggling ring.

Udyfrank, a trained musician who carves out a living producing independent records and singing and performing in clubs, hotels and weddings around Tokyo, said in an interview Monday that an incident a few years back triggered the process that led him to make the gangster flick.

"I read about a Nigerian smuggler who died in Tokyo after the package of drugs he swallowed to hide in his stomach leaked," he said. "A horrible way to go."

The accident is reflected in the opening scene of the film, where Johnson watches his drug-smuggler friend, Abdul, suffer a similar horrible death. The incident convinces Johnson it's time for him to bail out of the underworld.

"I'm telling whoever might be tempted to get involved in drugs and crime to stop and think it over, because you don't have to do that. You can do better," Udyfrank said.

Self-produced, financed out of his own wallet and four years in the making, the film had its premier in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district Sunday. Most of the actors were volunteers, Udyfrank said.

"It took a while to convince people to help me out with my project. But once they read my script and understood what I was doing, the message I was trying to convey, the process became a lot smoother.

"I knew I had to contribute to my community in my own small way," Udyfrank said in his Ikebukuro office, reflecting how he has in the past been mistaken for a drug dealer, a byproduct of the image earned by his many fellow Africans highly visible working the streets in Tokyo's seedier districts.

With close to 140 million people, Nigeria boasts the largest population in Africa. Nigerians make up the highest number of registered residents in Japan out of all African nationalities, according to Justice Ministry statistics.

With the country only recently regaining democracy after decades of military rule, its film industry, commonly known as Nollywood, was born in the early 1990s as a reaction to harsh government repression on freedom of speech, Udyfrank said.

"In 1992, Okpuru Anyanwu, a famous comedian and satirist, decided to film his own skits on VHS videos to sell to traders after state-owned television companies banned airing his episodes," Udyfrank explained.

These tapes proved extremely popular and by the end of the year, "Living in Bondage," a film inspired by Anyanwu's work and produced by Kenneth Nnebue, became a smash hit, spurring thousands of others to begin making independent films and home videos.

The Nollywood scene was born.

Today Nollywood is reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars, providing jobs for thousands of Nigerians and ranking third in the global film industry, after Hollywood and Bollywood.

Nollywood has its challenges though, according to Udyfrank, who said most films are low-quality videos made on shoe-string budgets.

"The industry is expanding, but there is much to improve, especially in quality. That's one reason why I feel I can contribute to the scene, living in Japan with better access to proper equipment," Udyfrank said.

Born in Abia state, southeastern Nigeria, Udyfrank first visited Japan in 1993 after running into a fellow Nigerian who was keen on having him come over and perform in a club he owned in Tokyo. After going back and forth between the two countries for several years, Udyfrank said, he finally settled here in early 2000.

"I've got a lot to work on. It's my first-ever film, and as you can see, it's not perfect," Udyfrank said. "But I've learned a lot about filmmaking through this whole process, and I know I will keep improving."

Currently looking for distributors and sponsors, Udyfrank plans to shoot and release his next film, a sequel in his planned three-part "Entangled in Tokyo" series, by next October.

"It's going to be like the 'Godfather' series, but no more acting for me," Udyfrank said with a grin. "I only took the starring role because of budget and staffing constraints. I'd like to concentrate on directing and producing in the future."

For more information on Udyfrank's film, access www.entangledintokyo.com



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