‘VVVF is not only a Nigerian issue’
Stephanie Okereke-Linus is a multiple-award-winning actress who has excelled not just as an actor, but also as a producer and movie director. She has several awards under her belt, both local and international and recently carted home the Overall Best Movie award of the 2016 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, in Lagos. A mother and a wife, Stephanie talks about the industry and the societal challenges that inspired the movie-DRY.
How does it feel winning the Overall Best Movie category?
It feels great to have won this award at the AMVCAs. I feel very happy about it but, most importantly, I am happy that people are getting to know more about the cause of the film, which is the childbirth issue and the Vesico-Vaginal Fistula (VVF) as well as other maternal-related problems we have in Nigeria. I am happy that with this platform people are getting to be aware of the film and hopefully we pray that more things will be done concerning the situation that we find ourselves in this country.
There are so many issues out there, why particularly did you choose this cause to propagate?
There are so many other issues and we all need to talk about them, it just happens that this is something that is like a calling for me. The first time I heard about it was in my second year at the university when a friend of mine came back from the University of Jos and told me stories I thought were strange. We are all living in the same country and I am having a different experience and somebody else is having a different experience and I thought it was weird. I thought to myself that I was lucky to have access to education and was able to decide what happens to my body, I went ahead and married someone that I loved. I believe other people should be able to have access to those kinds of rights, education, health and everything. I have also been a victim of an accident. I had an accident and I knew the experiences I had and they were horrible. It is something that just propels you about things that need to be done properly. You might think that you are high up there but if something, especially healthwise, happens to you in Nigeria, you are just going to be at the mercy of the system.
We have amazing doctors but a lot of talents have gone out of the country just because the environment is not conducive enough for them. If we as citizens do not demand certain changes in society, we are not going to have them. We have to push our leaders to be more compassionate towards us. I felt that my role as a film maker will enable me use the tool and platform that I have to mirror the things happening in our society and figure out a way to drive people to see things we are facing.
Your movie, DRY, has won several awards including the Programmers award at the Pan African Film Festival and recently, Overall best movie at the AMVCA. What is next for you?
Quite a lot because we have not finished with the film. Someone saw it recently and cried saying everyone should see the film. I know that in the next three to five years, it is still going to be relevant because we will still be grappling with this issue and I need more people to see it. I am not in a rush to go into any project for now because there is still a whole lot to be done with this film. The fact that it won this award does not mean we will go to sleep, I still need other people to see it and I still want that change that won this film because the film is more like a catalyst.
Are there plans to take the movie to other film festivals like the Cannes Film Festival in Paris?
Yes! there are. Most of these festivals I got invited to is because they heard about the film and invited me. My goal is for the world to see it and wherever people want to see it, I push the film for them to see it
So what has been the feedback especially from people in the Northern part of the country?
They loved it. The film was screened in Kano and they did not ask me to edit anything from the movie. Like I was saying yesterday it is not a Northern issue, yes we have a majority of people coming from there but we have young girls, teenage girls who are going through abuse. You have people who are being married out and VVF is here with us in Lagos. I have treated women in Ebonyi State, Akwa-Ibom, Ibadan and I have people coming from Lagos so it is something that can happen to anybody regardless of their age. When you are younger, you are more prone to it. It is a Nigerian problem, not a Northern one. It is like a question that we need to ask ourselves and in the film everybody sees the role they need to play. You the parent of the girl, we in the community, the government, people in the healthcare sector. Everybody has their own role to play and, if we play our roles very well, we will all have an enabling environment to ourselves.
Have you been invited by any government agency to partner with you and create awareness, since it is a national issue?
When I was away, I got an email from the Ministry of Health and they wanted to see how they could use this movie to create more awareness. I have had partnerships with Ford Foundation, with the MDGs because one of the millennium goals is to eradicate this, now they have changed it to FDGs when we could not achieve that (laughs). We are still pushing to see how we can get this whole thing done and I have had several other people who have come on board to partner with me. When I showed the film to SPENCO Nigeria, I showed them the trailer; they wanted to know what can we do together. I said let’s raise fund and help the actual women who are going through this condition, SPENCO and Diamond Bank. Now we have been able to treat over 100 women who have VVF. Although we donated medical equipment to some of the hospitals around and we are also doing our little part, there is still a whole lot to be done.
You recently you signed a distribution deal with a company in the United States of America, what are your plans to do same here so every family can have the opportunity to watch it?
Yeah I am going to release my DVD and I am going to put it on different channels, hopefully so that many people can get to see it. Like I said, it is not only a Nigerian issue, it’s an African and world issue. I am also going to embark on some African tours. African countries are calling me because they also want to see the film, so I am going to move the film around and release it for people to see. It is just like a guy who walked up to me and said he does not understand it. Someone said he thought VVF was a sexually transmitted disease, so the movie opened their eyes and they became aware and they now understood it because they were seeing it through the eyes of the victim.
How did you discover the young girl that played the major role in the movie considering that it was her first time acting?
I told my assistants that I wanted the girl for that role to be from the north because I needed her accent to be authentic. She recommended a lot of people to me and they all came for audition, including seasoned actors but they were slightly bigger than what I had in mind. When she came in, she was the right size and she was shy. Within me as actress and director, I knew I was going to work with her. As a director, you should be able to bring out the true talent of the young child; I was able to work her through.
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