Shooting Ninah’s Dowry according to Cameroonian film maker Victor Viyouh was not exactly easy. They lost their original Camera, the engine of the production vehicle dropped out on the highway while their first film set burnt down. Despite these problems, Victor says he and his actors mostly from Cameroon pushed on. The film has been nominated in seven categories in the Movie Academy Awards that will take place in Bayelsa, Nigeria on April 25th 2013. It has also won a number of awards in other film festivals.
Shot entirely in Cameroon, the film tells the true story of Ninah, a village girl who runs away from her abusive husband. The film centres around attempts by her husband to get his original dowry back.
Victor is a passionate film maker who believes the story that the abuse of women in some Cameroonian villages is bad and it is time to make this public so that a debate can take place around the issue.
He has been talking to Francis Ngwa Niba about the film
Q What is the film all About?
Ninah’s dowry is a Cameroonian feature film that tells the story of a run-away wife whose husband finds out that she is pregnant. The man goes with his friends to her parents’ house to ask back the bribe price he paid, or to take home the woman he owns, by any means necessary. The woman is still relatively young but has been married for a couple of years. Her husband is a drunk and is very abusive towards her.She puts on with the abuse for a long time and when her father summons her back to the village from his death bed, she wants to go but the husband is against her going. She disobeys her husband and leaves because she wanted to tell her father what had been happening to her. She later decides not to go back to her husband and after a while, the husband learns she is pregnant. The husband gets a couple of friends and goes to her village and asks that she returns to her matrimonial home or the dowry he paid for her is returned. She can’t afford to return the money but does not want to return with her husband. A struggle breaks out, the husband and friends seize, beat and try to take her home.
Q The pregnancy she has, is that her husbands’?
That I can’t say because that is part of the plot of the movie. I can’t tell you whose pregnancy that is, people will know that when they watch the film
Q You are from Cameroon and your film is based on a true story. What part of Cameroon did this come from and what is your personal connection with the story?
Yes, the film is based on a true story; it is something that happened to my cousin. When she told me this years ago, I was shocked. I wasn’t in the country at the time but I was shocked when I learnt that could happen to her. What bothered me the most was that this happened in our village, I am from Babanki Tungo in North Western Cameroon. We ended up shooting the film in the village, we shot on location where the whole thing happened. I was also bothered because I leanrt she was beaten and dragged in the main square where I grew up. There are people I know and she also knows who saw the beatings and did nothing to stop it. I often ask myself if I was there and witnessed her being beaten, will I have intervended? That is what made me tell this story in a film.
Q How long was your cousin married to this man and how many children did they have?
There were married for close to nine years and had four children
Q What happened to the children after the marriage broke down?
By traditional laws and value, the children belong to the husband. The children are with the husband now mainly because my cousin as a woman, has no voice. Let me add here that the husband cannot even afford to support the children so his mother has to help him to do that. The children are suffering where they are now.
Q You are trying to expose what must be an evil practice in your village. A man can marry a woman, father chidlren, they stay for years and if for any reason the marriage breaks up, he can just go back and ask for his dowry and the woman has no access to her own children?
Exactly. Women unfortunately don’t have equal rights to men in the village. This is especially true in the rural areas. Imagine a woman staying with a man for twenty, thirty years and if something goes wrong, she is banned from seeing her own children. The man can also just go back to his in-laws and ask for the exact amount of bribe price he originally paid for the woman. By tradition, the woman and her family must give back the money disregarding all the time they have spent together. A few years before I shot this film, I was in our chiefs’ palace on a totally different mission, I listened to the chief presiding over another case between a woman who married a man for seventeen years, she was his second wife. After seventeen years, he said he no longer wanted the woman, took the case to the palace and was asking that his bride price be refunded. You will not believe this but the man was also asking for additional expenses he claimed he spent on the woman over the years. That included any money he had spent on her family during death celebrations and other festivities. Guess what, the chief actuallly sat in and all the money the man claims to have spent was calculated down to the smallest amount and one of the woman’s relatives had to pay back that money. I watched as the money was being returned to the man after seventeen years of marriage! Remember they also had children.
Q Sometimes the money for the bribe price the man wants back is not enough much like in the case of your cousin?
Exactly. In my cousins’ case, it was 50.000frs CFA or 100 dollars. But for someone in her situation who is uneducated, has no job, that can be a collosal amount to repay back. It might as well be 5 million dollars. Where was she going to get that kind of money? Also, the husband needed the money on short notice and that is not an amount of money you easily come across in the village. Remember the husband could also be asking the money is paid upfront as a ploy because if she cannot repay the money, she is forced to return to his home but the woman does not want to go back.
Q Why didn’t a relatively richer family member like you pay back the money and free your cousin?
Well, we are talking about events a person like me knew nothing about at the time. But remember even rich relatives still believe in traditional values that a wife belongs to her husband so very few relatives are going to step in and repay the money.They don’t want to be identified as the one breaking up a relatives’ marriage.They just want the woman to go back to her husband. One of our relatives was aware of the case, he could repay the bride price but he did not. He instead wanted the man invited over so they could see how to save the marriage from collapsing. So it is not as simple as someone just having 100 dollars and just giving it away. A lot depends on the belief system in the village.
Q How come in this day and age you still have archaic traditional customs like this?
That is a question I can’t even answer and that is the main reason I made the film. How can this be happening in 2013? My cousins’ case happened some ten years ago but the same thing is still happening today. I recently heard that a similar case happened, this time not in the rural area but in Douala, the economic capital. I heard an angry husband who did not llike the way his wife was behaving, severely beat her up publicly, took her back home and locked her up for three weeks basically starving her during that period. Her parents had to travel from the village to Douala to try to settle the problem. The parents took the woman away for the crisis to cool down and later sent her back to her abusive huisband.
Q You are supposed to have police officers in Cameroon who have to start things like this from happening?
Of course. I can’t explain why the police did not step in to stop that from happening or to punish the man. Again, I don’t even think Cameroonian policemen are trained to deal with situations like this. More bizarre things even happen. One of the friends of Ninah’s husband who accompanied him to beat her has a worst situation even. I hear he had a 14 year old pregnant wife whom he complained was not working hard enough on the farm. Can you imagine an eight month old 14 year old wife who could not work hard enough on the farm was beaten very badly?She ended up going to hospital and died a couple of days later. Nothing happened to the man, he was not even questioned. This are real stories. I have no idea why state authorities are not intervening in these cases. That is why I am hoping a movie like this starts a dialogue and in the end, effect change
Q Where is your cousin now and has she finished paying the dowry?
She is now in Douala. I haven’t spoken to her for sometime but I guess she must have finished repaying the Dowry by now.
Q And if she dosen’t? Can the ex husband do anything?
She is now in Douala so there is very little the husband can do now but if she was still in the village, he could still visit and force her to return to his house.
Q Let’s talk about the film now. I understand there was a lot of drama just taking the equipment from the USA to Cameroon and even before you started filming?
When we decided to make this movie, we contacted a couple of investors who provided some money and we bought equipment and shipped to Cameroon with the understanding that it will cost about 1000 dollars to clear the equippment. It ended up costing us more than 25.000 dollars to clear the container through customs in Douala. We could not film immediately because the season had changed, we were in debt and could not move on. I returned to the US and went back to Cameroon at the end of the year. I tried again, selling one of the vehicles we had was tough,I had to abandon the whole project and returned to the US. In 2010, I went back, our original camera was stolen days before I had possession of the production vehicle. While we were heading for the location, the engine of the production vehicle just dropped out. I was stranded there with all members of the crew and actors.We had to take time to repair the vehicle. After building the main set for the movie, we wanted to make it look old so it does not look too new; the production manager said we should use soothe to do that and guess what, the whole set burnt down. At one point we did not have a procution vehicle, we had no camera and we had no set but we had a crew and actors. I practically held them down for two months and in the end, we shot the film.
Q You must be a very determined man to go through all of that and still manage to shoot a film?
I had a passion and believe in the project. I had a lot of faith regardless of all the obstacles, I knew we had a good film. Tha cast and crew were also very inspiring. Some of them lost their jobs because of the film. They could have left but they decided to stay. I am very graetful to them for that.
Q Who are some of the actors who took part in the film?
The lead actress was Mbufung Seikeh. She is a young Cameroonian actress and I believe we will hear a lot more from her soon. She is abroad now but I learned she will be returning to Cameroon. There is also Anurin Nwunembom, who is also a young actor, director, production manager; he did everything for us from casting to production. He is very passionate and he did all that with no pay. There was also Mkwah Kingsley, Grampa, who is also quite well known, Tangyie Suh Nfor, Christa Eka, Big George and many others.
Q You already mentioned that you spent more than 30.000 dollars for the equipment and other incidental costs but you still needed to raise more money and turned to crowd funding to do that. What exactly is crowd funding?
We did not have money for post production so one of the producers decided we turn to crown funding. In crowd funding, what happens is you draw up a project, possibly do a video, you then turn to friends and family and you can ask for anything from a dollar to any amount people want to invest. You determine how much money you need. People are not investing to get their money back. They are just supporting your project. What they get in return are different gifts you promise them from posters, DVDs, premier tickets, whatever you can give them relating to your project. You then need to deliver your promises at the appropriate time.
Q How much did you raise and how long did it take to raise that?
We raised 7500 dollars and the organizers take 10 percent so we ended up with 7000 dollars. We ran the campaign for 50 days.
Q There are people with projects in Africa who will like to use crowd funding but have no idea how to do it. What will you advice them to do?
They can just google the word crowd funding or crowd sourcing. The most famous are kick starter, Indiegogo, and many others. Some of the sites require that you are established in the US or Europe because your friends or family need to use a credit or debit card to pay in the money.
Q So after all this problems, you have a film on your hands, what next? What has been happening round Ninah’s dowry, post production?
After production, we have premiered at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in the USA. We won the best film award in that festival and MBUFUNG SEIKEH our lead actress won the best actress in a foreign film award. We have also taken part in other festivals including The Rotterdam International Film festival, The Big Muddy Film festival, FESPACO in Burkina Faso, The Phoenix Film Festival, The Canned Film festival and the film will be playing in a number of festivals athat are coming up sometime this year.
Q The film also haa a documentary ?
Yes indeed. Before we did the movie, I did a documentary about the story. I talked to my cousin, her children, relatives and the big coup was, I also tallked to the ex husband of my cousin
Q I am curious, what was his reason for treating his wife so badly?
Without giving much away, his main reason was that she talks too much.
Q Strange reason for separating from your wife. It was a pleasure talking to you
The pleasure is mine