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'Last flight to Abuja': Nollywood thriller campaigns for safer skies

From Vladimir Duthiers, CNN
updated 6:42 AM EDT, Tue September 4, 2012
"Last flight to Abuja" is an airplane disaster thriller based on true and tragic events.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obi Emelonye is the director of Nollywood's latest hit, "Last flight to Abuja"
  • He uses the film to campaign for better civil aviation safety over African airspace
  • The high-octane thriller is currently playing across West Africa and in London
  • "We have a film that has pushed the boundaries with Nollywood," he says

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(CNN) -- For award-winning Nigerian film director Obi Emelonye, the London premiere of "Last flight to Abuja" in early June was supposed to be a celebratory event, a marquee moment introducing his suspense-filled airplane disaster thriller to the rest of the world with pomp and grandeur.

But then June 3rd happened.

On that fateful Sunday, the Dana Air Flight 992 from the Nigerian capital of Abuja crashed into a densely populated neighborhood in Lagos, killing all 153 people aboard as well as at least 10 people on the ground.

The tragic news left Emelonye, whose high-octane action movie is based on a series of fatal air crashes that stunned Nigeria in 2006, in a state of shock.

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Premiere night in Lagos

"The coincidences and the timing of it was scary," he says. "This was five days to the London premiere that we've been building up to -- my first reaction was to cancel the premiere."

Read related: Nigerians demand answers in wake of Dana Air crash

But after consulting his team, Nigerian officials and some of the families of the bereaved, Emelonye was convinced to go ahead with the original plan, using the movie to spotlight aviation safety in Nigeria.

"They said 'no, this might end up being one of the longest lasting legacies to the lives of these people that were lost so needlessly in those crashes,'" he remembers. "This film was supposed to flag some of those issues that have now taken their lives, so it's in their interest that this story goes out there -- if for nothing, to put the issue of aviation safety squarely in the public agenda so that we don't forget."

Five days later, in an emotional event attended by hundreds of people, Emelonye made sure the premiere was dedicated to the Dana Air crash victims -- attendees observed one minute of silence while the film's end credits were replaced by the names of those who lost their lives on that ill-fated flight.

Emelonye says that "Last Flight to Abuja," written in 2007 and shot in November last year, has now become a campaign film, raising attention for safer flying in Nigeria and the rest of the continent.

"The film has taken on added significance way beyond my planning," he explains. "It has become an advocacy ... for aviation safety, not just in Nigeria but for the whole of Africa, and it's a responsibility I take very seriously."

Read related: 'Netflix of Africa' brings Nollywood to world

We have a film that has pushed the boundaries with Nollywood and introduced a new genre in Nollywood filmmaking.
Obi Emelonye, film director

As a result, Emelonye says that some of the profits of the film will be donated to a fund dedicated to helping the families of the air crash victims.

"We're trying to give back financially because we feel whatever profits from this film should go to, in some way, to continue the campaign for safer skies," he says. "In the absence of social security, there are people in dire hardship from that accident and we'll contribute something and kind of compel our partners to contribute also."

At just 30 years old, Emelonye is one of the rising stars of Nigeria's booming movie-making industry, known as Nollywood. Passionate and self-taught, he left behind a career in law to follow his dream of becoming a filmmaker. He achieved critical and commercial acclaim last year with "The Mirror Boy," a fantasy/adventure film released all across the African continent and the UK.

Read related: Veteran director reveals secrets of Nollywood's success

And now he is aiming for further success with "Last Flight to Abuja," a big-budget production starring many of Nollywood's biggest names.

The 81-minute long film has already become a box office hit in Nigeria and is shown in screens across West Africa and in London.

Emelonye says he hopes the movie, along with promoting civil aviation safety in Nigeria, will open up his country's burgeoning film industry to a wider audience, dismissing the low-quality tag that's often attached to Nollywood productions.

"We have a film that has pushed the boundaries with Nollywood and introduced a new genre in Nollywood filmmaking," he says.

Emelonye says Nollywood films are growing in popularity because they offer audiences a narrative they can connect to.

"There's something I call the quintessential African voice, which has kind of given Nollywood, in spite of its qualitative problems, international attention -- it's watched across Africa, it's watched across the world, even though they're shot on very low quality cameras, very simplistic stories, they have a common connection with people that is great."

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