Daro Umaigba, executive producer and director of Freemen, on telling African stories

4 April 2024

Daro Umaigba, executive producer and director of Freemen, on telling African stories

“It was important for me to tell the story of the Igbo Apprenticeship System for a number of reasons, but I’ll just give you one,” says Daro Umaigba, who executive produced and directed the Nigerian Showmax Original documentary series Freemen.

“I’ve always been a strong believer that the media, and film in this particular case, have a very big role to play in shaping the narrative of a particular people. What you see and hear about the people, consistently, shapes your idea. Africa, unfortunately, and Nigeria also, has suffered a lot of negative media representation. Not only because negative things don’t happen here. But the thing is, there’s no deliberate commitment to telling the beautiful stories or talking about the beautiful things that happen in Africa, and Nigeria. The Igbo Apprenticeship System is such a brilliant system. In fact, I call it African Innovation in Business Education; something that has changed an enormous number of people’s lives. It was a story worth telling. So I had to use this opportunity to tell that beautiful narrative of Nigeria and Africa.” 

Watch the trailer for Freemen

We spoke to him to find out more about his commitment to telling African stories like this one. 

I think, to a large extent, it boiled down to availability and access. We were privileged to have access to the right people. There are so many more stories we would have loved to tell, there are so many people we would have loved to include, there are many more places that we would have loved to go, but at the end of the day, it boiled down to who gave us access to share their own story, and the people whose stories we found very compelling. 

What surprised you the most in making Freemen? 

Were there any real surprises? I think more than surprise, it was just an affirmation. I have always believed in the brilliance of who we are as Nigerians and Africans. I was open to the possibility that it may not be as magical as I expected. I mean that’s the mark of a true documentary filmmaker. It is a quest for truth. But I think more than anything, making Freemen was an affirmation of things that I had already suspected: that we are great as a people if we just bother to look inward.  

Whose story would you say really stood out for you while making this series?  

I think each story we had the opportunity to tell stood out in some unique way. It’s interesting because the stories were similar, but the characters of the individuals who went through these similar scenarios made their stories unique. But I would like to just honorably mention Dr Cosmas Maduka. His life is nothing short of a movie. Every year of his life, there was just something that is the stuff of a full feature-length movie. Another person that I will not fail to mention is Mr Anene Okeke, because he is the one person that really gave us access into his life as it was happening in real time. He gave us access to all his boys currently going through the Apprenticeship System, he gave us access to his home to learn more about his personal life. I think we had so many brilliant people coming through for the documentary, time would fail me to begin to talk about them individually. 

What were some of the challenges you faced while shooting Freemen and how did you overcome them? 

For me, for some interesting reason, I think even the challenges did not look like challenges because we had such a great team. My partner and fellow executive producer, IllBliss, was just a rock. He was always there to fill in the times where I nearly lost my mind. Being both executive producer and director at times is a lot to take on. The rest of my team also, associate producer, production manager, cinematographers, editors, everybody was so hands-on that every challenge looked surmountable. We just dealt with them as they came. There were the obvious challenges of finance and time, because it hasn’t been a fantastic time economically in Nigeria, and a project of this magnitude, involved a lot of travel. God saved us on this project because prices, especially logistics, airfare and transportation, were changing and we had quite a few places to go to. God saw us through. 

Daro Umaigba of Freemen on Showmax

What was the biggest lesson you learned from making Freemen?  

One of the biggest lessons is  that Africa’s wealth doesn’t lie in the ground anymore – I don’t think the strength and excellence of who we are is in our natural resources. I think it’s in the people. The wealth of Africa now lies in the brilliance and the heart of Nigerians, of Africans. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’m learning from here, because just imagine what people were able to do from just sheer innovation. We saw people rising from nothing to become multi-billionaires. It’s truly amazing what the human spirit can accomplish, you know, once we set our minds to it, and you know, Nigerians, Africans, we have a lot of wonder in us. 

How would you say Freemen contributes to a broader understanding of Igbo culture and traditions?  

We get to experience the Igbo culture and the rich heritage that lies with them from the stories that we hear of how people got together and came out of something as drastic as the Civil War. It was so damaging in the Eastern part of Nigeria. The Igbos especially were almost brought to nothing financially. But you can see that spirit of resilience that is entrenched in the culture through the Igbo Apprenticeship System. I think Freemen, in many ways, gives us a window to see how rich the Igbo culture truly is. It is something to be celebrated. I’m not Igbo by birth, but I feel like an Igbo person now, just having gone through making this documentary. I salute their spirit of innovation. 

What’s the most important thing you want people to take away from watching Freemen? 

That the key to our enormously brilliant future might just lie in us looking at our past, our rich heritage. It might just take us looking back a bit to some of the things that we were as a people. I think it’s important for us to look into our history as Africans; who we were before someone else came to tell us who we were. Let’s look into finding out who we really are. 

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