The University Record, March 11, 1998

Film-maker Onwurah in residence at Humanities Institute

Onwurah (left) on the set of Welcome II the Terrordome. Photo courtesy Humanities Institute

By Elizabeth Woodford
Institute for the Humanities

Picked on mercilessly in her British school because of her brown skin, Ngozi Onwurah underwent a remarkable transformation: from a child ashamed of her half-African background, she became a school bully, then a fashion model and now a prize-winning film-maker.

The 31-year-old writer-director became the first Black woman feature film-maker in Britain with the 1994 release of Welcome II the Terrordome, a grim and angry examination of interracial love and violence set in a bleak urban dystopia of the near future.

Onwurah will be in residence at the Institute for the Humanities as the Paula and Edwin Sidman Visiting Fellow in the Arts through April 11. She will speak on April 9, following a free, 5:30 p.m. screening of Welcome II the Terrordome at the Michigan Theater.

Free, public video-format showings of other films written and directed by Onwurah will be held at noon on Tuesdays in Room 1524, Rackham Building.

The Institute's theme this year is "narrative," and "this brilliant storyteller has much to tell us about the world we live in but hardly know, and about the power of narrative to illuminate what is painful and important to understand," says Institute Director Tom Trautmann.

Onwurah's first film, Coffee Coloured Children (1988) won first prize in the British Broadcasting Corporation's short feature category. It depicts the painful trials that 10-year-old Onwurah and her brother, Simon, endured after their Scottish mother returned to England from Nigeria, homeland of Onwurah's father.

The single-parent family was placed in a rundown public housing complex in Newcastle, "where they had never seen Black people before," Onwurah says.

In a fantasy world derived from children's stories, the children imagined themselves as being white like their mother. At the same time, they idolized their father, who was forced to remain in Nigeria because of the civil war there, and their happy early childhood in Nigeria. "I think the Africans are a great story-telling people," Onwurah says. "That's how they've kept their history. If I go back to Nigeria now, an uncle will come and sit and give me a story that takes me all the way back 400 years to whoever I came from. I would say I am a story-teller and a story-based director."

When Onwurah and her brother entered their teens, the abuse in Newcastle grew progressively more vicious. Their tormentors graduated from name-calling and smearing feces on the family's door to pushing their heads down in toilets and urinating on them.

That's when the worm turned. "I kind of realized I was twice the size of everybody else," Onwurah says. "I turned from the person being bullied to the person who was the bully, and I was a very good bully."

By the age of 15, Onwurah decided to run away from home with her mother's blessing, "because my mother said she would rather know where I was going." Onwurah went to Manchester and hung out. One day, on a train to London, a modeling agent told her she was beautiful enough to model. She modeled in London for three years, took film courses and switched careers because she was tired of trying to stay thin through starvation and popping diet pills.

After a 10-year career during which she has made seven short films and one feature film, she is hailed as one of the handful of young British film-makers who are looked to save their country's film industry.

"I think people who are creative have a lot of energy," Onwurah reflects, "and when I was at school, all of my energy was destructive. I was putting all my energy into how I bullied and manipulated people at school. I could be in prison now, or I could be a film-maker; there isn't anything in between. I was so angry that bullying was the only way I could satisfy the anger that I had, whereas now it all goes into my film-making, and so it¹s all very creative. The difference between its being a creative thing or being destructive is as thin as a line on a sidewalk."

Onwurah's visit is also supported by the King/Chávez/Parks Program, administered by the Office of Academic and Multicultural Affairs and the International Institute.