Akwa Ibom's Female Boxers Shine in Emily Nkanga's "Reaching for Gold"
A social media post led filmmaker Emily Nkanga to a nest of champions brewing in south-south Nigeria, where they would become the subjects of her debut short film.
When you ask about the most popular or lucrative sport in Nigeria, it is not boxing… However, two well-seasoned coaches, including a state champion and a former Olympian, in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, are dedicated to shaping successful boxing careers and creating a team of champions that will take Nigeria to the global stage in Boxing.
Reaching for Gold is a short film by Emily Nkanga that captures the determination of the local boxing club these two have put together to achieve this goal, despite the many hurdles in their way.
Through interviews and scenes from training sessions, Nkanga is able to paint a situation that mirrors the everyday life of the average Nigerian; constantly moving against the tide of systemic deficiencies to get what we want.
In the backdrop of the story being told here, Nkanga approaches the subject matter by highlighting the stories of the clubs’ only two female boxers who have been able to compete and represent Akwa Ibom state at the National level so far.
Dorcas Emmanuel Onoja, originally from Kogi state but moved to Akwa Ibom with her parents, won the state a Gold medal in the 81 kg weight class during the 2018 National Sports Festival in Abuja. Her career started at fifteen years old.
The 2018 National Sports Festival was Dorcas's first outing after her four-year break from the sport to complete her HND program, she mentions her major challenge is to catch up, get back on track, and keep winning.
Dorcas credits England’s “The Lioness,” Nicola Adams, as her inspiration to keep working hard.
Idara Monday Udoette is the second female boxer that Reaching For Gold spotlights, an indigene of Akwa Ibom herself, she was discovered and brought into the state team by the assistant coach, coach Effiong Asuquo Okon, a former Olympian, who is on a quest to share his experience and expertise with the new generation of boxers.
Idara says she has loved the sport from childhood and credits the renowned Samuel Peter as what sparked her love for the sport, being the first professional boxer from Akwa Ibom to represent Nigeria in the Olympics, she’s determined to follow in his footsteps.
On her first outing for the state in the 2017 National Youth Games hosted in Illorin, she won the state a bronze medal in the 51 kg weight class. On her first outing with the senior team in the 2021 National Sport Festival, she won gold in the 54 kg weight class, and recently in the 2022 NSF games, won a Bronze. Both coaches speak fondly of her determination.
Behind the scenes of these wins lies challenges, both coaches narrate the hurdles they have to overcome to train the athletes. Poor and ill-managed facilities, lack of funding for basic needs, government support is lax, etc, they both agree that waiting around for funding is not something they intend to do before building their dream team, they boast about what they have been able to achieve so far despite their lack.
Emily Nkanga described this determination to go against the tide as one of her core reasons for deciding to document their journey, “I was initially supposed to just take pictures, but when I spent the first day with them and understood their story, talking to them made me understand what the situation was, and that was what made me think I needed to make a documentary. They don't have basic stuff like gloves and whatnot, but they still go in day in and day out to make it work. So yeah, it was just the passion I saw while meeting them. It's possible that I would've gone there to take the pictures and I wouldn't have done the documentary if I didn't feel the way I felt.”
They are also raising funds to go directly to the athletes.
Document Women spoke more in detail with director Emily Nkanga on her journey documenting for the film. Read the interview below.
The first thing I really wanted to know was what the motivation for this was. Why boxing?
It was more about the story than about the sport. It could have been swimmers, it could have been footballers, it could have been any sport. When I discovered them on social media, it was quite interesting, but going down there and seeing how much they sacrifice, how much they are doing what they do just to get by, and then to see that the women were training with the men, All of that was what made me feel like, okay, this needs to be documented and people need to know their story.
From your findings, being around them and everything, would you say there's any solid support from the government of Akwa Ibom State towards their endeavor?
I think the government does what they think they can but I feel they can definitely do more. For instance, where they were training is a very small space, they didn’t even have a boxing ring. When Idara won the gold medal for the state in the senior team, she was moved to another stadium, Nest of Champions, which is the newer stadium in the State, but after a while, she was told that they needed to renovate the hostels and some other things, so then she had to relocate.
So efforts like that, they need to put in more effort to treat the athletes better because they cannot get to a global stage if they are not nurtured properly from the start. Not everybody can have the opportunity but the more they cast their net wide, and take care of the athletes, the more Igalos we will have, the more Osimens we will have, the more Samuel Peters we will have.
Some of them voiced their intentions to leave for a state that is willing to pay them more, in as much as they love the sports, they have bills to pay.
So what is their funding structure like? For travel, accommodation, and all that when they have to leave the state for competitions?
I think when it comes to the National Sports Festival the state funds it because they would want representatives there... But also I was told of situations where their per diems were being delayed. Even for those who won, I’m not sure how much of their winnings is given directly to them. So yeah the state sponsors the travel and all for the national games but when it comes to the local games, a lot of them sponsor it individually and those are the competitions they need to train to be able to qualify for the National level. I think it would be nice if the state could also fund smaller competitions so that they can get more training in and experience too.
For their training, is it an all-year-round type of thing or do they only train close to the big games considering the limitations?
It’s an all-year-round thing. Every other time when I speak with Idara she’s either coming from the gym, the last time I spoke to her recently she was coming from a fight. But most times a lot of them train on their own. That’s another challenge they face, they aren’t funded enough to train together every day so most of the time they try to train on their own.
What were some challenges you faced in putting things together? Did it ever start to feel more than you had bargained for while documenting? What was your journey like generally in bringing the whole thing to life, gathering a team, working out a timeframe, and everything in between?
So the filming itself was fine because they were willing, they were interested in the project, the filming itself was okay. And, I had a good team there in Akwa Ibom that understood all of this. So the production itself was okay.
I think what the challenge was for me was after the initial production, going into post-production I first struggled with attaching an editor to it. And then even after I got a rough cut, I felt like something was missing. This was quite interesting because a couple of months later on Twitter, again, I saw a picture of Idara and that was how I knew she had won Gold at the next festival she went to with the senior team. So I had to reach out, I didn't go back this time, but because I already had the team that shot the initial film, I had to just do that remotely, but I got them to go down to do a follow-up interview with her and that was basically how I got the missing piece.
Yeah. But this took, like over a year and the entire thing took about two years to finish, because with documentary, because it's real life, real stories you're dealing with, you kind of need to wait for life to happen.
So if, for instance, I felt like the way I felt at the beginning, that there was a missing link, I couldn't just fill in the gap, if it didn't happen, it didn't happen. I'm not gonna start cooking up stories. By the time she went and won gold, I was like, okay, this follow-up adds an extra layer to the story.
So yeah, post-production was the most challenging part. The first editor I contacted here in the U.K., I got a good editor but we just kept going back and forth and I think it was because there was a bit of a cultural barrier. She is a documentary editor and she’s amazing but there are just certain nuances of being a Nigerian that we couldn’t communicate.
There was that and just generally attaching more talent to the production as well, like for a colourist, I had to go through three colourists. You know the thing when films are shot in Africa and they put the whole sepia filter over it, I had a couple of them do that and we had to go back and forth, after a while I had to take them off the project because it felt like they weren’t getting it, in fact, one of them ghosted when we had gotten to the end, he got the colour right and then just ghosted. Eventually, I got the person who finally did it properly.
Other talents like the sound designer, she was my mate during my masters, she is a fantastic sound designer and was just happy to be on the project, but the challenge was at the time when I contacted her, she was in Qatar for the world cup so I had to wait.
But the thing is, when you're an indie filmmaker and you have limited budgets, you kind of have to cut your coat according to your size. Know when you need to wait, when you need to move on, when you need to beg people when you just need to find the money to pay people. So yeah, it was just finding a good balance between all that for me.
Have you found an audience for the film and do you have plans for any major production companies?
The film is out on Minute Shorts, Minute shorts is like a Netflix for short films, it's a UK-based company.
So it premiered on Minute Shorts at the end of last month. We had a private screening for it at the beginning of last month as well, and we got really positive reviews from it.
The private screening was here in London and we had people from like, charities, creative agencies, and the like come down because I feel like that's the audience for it. People who understand impact-led stories. So, Charities, creative agencies, and all, they were happy with it.
It's a non-exclusive deal, so I might still shop around, but for now, I just wanted it out in the world and I'm happy with it being on Minute Shorts for now, to be honest. Minute Shorts did a premiere for the film in Ghana, Rwanda, and London before they released it on their platform the following day.
At the London screening, we had a Q & A session after, because I was at the London screening and they enjoyed it, we got messages from the people in Ghana and Rwanda and they enjoyed it as well.
So for me, I honestly don’t think it’s something with an immediate impact, because it’s also my debut and I do think it’s one of those things that people will eventually catch up on.
It is the sort of thing that can go into archives for these sorts of stories.
Yes, yes. I wouldn’t want a situation where one day people will try to Google or research female boxers in Nigeria and there isn’t enough content when they are actually out there.
The point was for me to inspire people and also try to see how to support the boxers, so we are currently doing a fundraiser for a thousand pounds, it’s not a lot, it won’t change their lives forever but it could get them some basic essentials. We are trying to see how we can split it four ways, it’ll go to the two coaches and both Idara and Dorcas and then we can try to find proper sports sponsorships to get the equipment, we are already in talks with some people but if we can’t get the sponsorships then we can split it five ways, it goes to the four of them and the remaining goes to getting them major equipment. We will definitely ensure the money goes straight to them.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your own journey in filmmaking?
I started with photography in 2012 and I did that for a while. Then in 2013, 'cause I was studying, Communications and Multimedia Media Design for my first degree, we had like an internship course we had to do. Because I started photography the year prior to having to do my internship, I decided I wanted to go do my internship at a photography studio as opposed to a TV station or do journalism or something.
So I went to Lagos and interned with August Udoh, at the time, August Udoh was shooting artists, doing advertisements, and all of that, which was where I learned and honed a lot of my studio techniques. I met a lot of artists during that time and from there I just got roped into the music industry, and did a bunch of that for years.
And then I felt like I needed to understand lighting some more and I wanted to try filmmaking. So I thought of doing a master's in filmmaking. But it's quite interesting because before I actually did my first degree, I wanted to do psychology, but the school didn't offer it at the time, so I took Mass Comm. as my second option.
So I came to the U.K., and did my masters in filmmaking, concentrating in cinematography. It was a one-year course at Goldsmiths. After I was done with that course, I realized that yeah, I understand lighting and all of that, but I realized I actually wanted to be in charge of telling the story. In as much as I enjoyed lighting, I enjoyed operating the camera and all of that, I felt like I would be telling other people's stories which I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with, depending on what the story is. That was how I started out but I was still in the music industry at the time so I was doing more of videography and tour content for artists. That is how I dabbled into filmmaking, and I’ve just been honing my skills in the background and this is now my debut.
I am also into unit stills, I do like unit stills because it’s also an interesting way to learn about filmmaking, it’s like you’re the onset photographer for a film. Last year I did unit stills for Amazon Prime. So it’s like you’re shooting for marketing but you also get to see how things are done, you can shadow the director, it was a really good opportunity to see how things get done, without the pressure of being the one to deliver.
It was actually a big set, to be honest, it was a set for the series adaptation of one of Neil Gaiman’s books. That, I can say because the project is already done but it is not out yet. That really gave me an opportunity to learn a lot and I feel like, the people I met on the set was where I met the editor who finally worked on Reaching For Gold, so it was a really great opportunity.
When I showed a bunch of them the rough cut, they were able to point me in the right direction and give me more confidence to actually finish the project.
What does the most foreseeable future look like for you in regard to your work?
I want to keep doing more impact-led stories. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Reaching For Gold is a part of a bigger project. There’s a book that should be out next year containing images that depict the culture of my people, the Akwa Ibom people, it touches on different aspects, music, food, and celebrations, and it will also include the pictures I had initially taken for the film.
About four of those images have been hanging in the House of St. Barnabas in London for over a year now. 'cause it was, it's been there since June of last year. They exhibited four of my Images from the book and out of the four, two are from the Reaching For Gold project, one of them is a group image of the boxing club and the second image is a portrait of Idara and Dorcas that is now the poster for Reaching For Gold.
The House of St. Barnabas is a private members club. It's like a Soho house but they're also a charity. that focuses on breaking the cycle of homelessness.
Now homelessness for them is not just about people who stay on the streets, it's also about the condition of how people live, it’s about people not being able to find a proper home, on different levels. So they have the art side, they sell art that they show in the house. Because they have the membership of high-level clients who are members of the club, a lot of whom are collectors. They have the art hanging in the house but they are also for sale and a portion of it goes back to the academy that is in charge of advocating for breaking the cycle of homelessness basically. So it's like a way of funding the charity aspects of the program.
So I felt like when they asked me to send them some images for an exhibition they were trying to curate, I felt like the images of the boxers were a good fit for the work they do and what the charity stands for because it's impact-led as well.