Inside the Nigerian Filmmaking Collective Endorsed by J.J. Abrams and Franklin Leonard

Left: The Critics Company in Nigeria. Right: J.J. Abrams (top), Franklin Leonard
Courtesy of Subject; George Pimentel/Getty Images; Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Left: The Critics Company in Nigeria. Right: J.J. Abrams (top), Franklin Leonard

A group of Nigerian teens and self-proclaimed movie buffs used to spend “hours and hours” doing a typical cinephile activity: gushing about the great movies they loved and criticizing the ones they loathed.

They paid particular attention to Nollywood, Nigeria’s version of Hollywood, but eventually got fed up over the “lack of adventure and the incessant repetition of storyline,” explains Raymond Yusuf of the decision to take matters into their own hands, literally, and form a filmmaking collective aptly titled The Critics Company.

Based in Kaduna, Nigeria, and launched more than five years ago, the group has expanded and now includes 10 members ages 6 to 20 (most of whom are siblings or cousins). There are seven young men: Raymond Yusuf, Lawson Titus, Godwin Gaza Josiah, Victor Josiah, Ronald Yusuf, Richard Yusuf and Ridwan Abdullateef; and three young women: Rejoice Josiah, Raechel Ken and Raechel Yusuf.

Together, they taught themselves to make films using YouTube tutorials on how to experiment with greenscreens and special effects, skills they put to use crafting sci-fi-heavy short films. After posting the clips on YouTube, The Critics Company garnered media attention that eventually caught the eye of The Black List founder and Hollywood insider Franklin Leonard, who, when he likes what he sees, is often a most influential and enthusiastic cheerleader.

Leonard tipped off J.J. Abrams, and the filmmaker was so in awe of what he saw that he rallied Bad Robot’s resourceful Kate Webster to help send the team a crate chock-full of filmmaking essentials and gear to keep making their art. Reached by THR, Abrams expressed his gratitude to Leonard for shining a spotlight on the “brilliant, inventive” creators. “They already have the important stuff: talent, determination and huge hearts,” Abrams said. “Getting them some additional gear was just adding fuel to their awesome fire.”

As for receiving the gear and connecting with Abrams, Leonard and Webster on a recent virtual meet-up, Raymond Yusuf says he and his fellow Critics are trying to process it. “It still feels like a dream. Never did we ever think we would get this much recognition and attention from some of the greatest filmmakers in the world. This might have been the best thing to have ever happened to us. The entire team is excited and at the same time knows it’s time to get to work.” Speaking of the work, they even turned the surprise gear delivery into a sci-fi short film. It sees the young men attempting to raise the box using rope and when that fails, the youngest girl does what the men cannot, and she levitates it using her mind.

“Having kept an eye on them, I knew they were never going to do a standard, ‘We got this stuff’-type video. They told that story through their lens, and their lens includes a special-effects shot of a young girl being more powerful than the young men — and that is a theme that repeats in their work,” Leonard explains. “For me, as a movie lover and a person who got into this business because I want to see the world through various screens, they are some of the most exciting filmmakers in the world.”

Raymond Yusuf confirms that their next project will be a feature film, most likely shot on a mobile phone. He also makes it clear that they have no plans to sell out. “We want to continue to tell African stories in our own unique way, through our own lenses. We want to inspire creativity in the next generation of filmmakers and storytellers,” he continues, adding a piece of advice for even younger filmmakers who are already looking to them as inspiration. “I end with a favorite quote of mine: ‘If you cannot do with what you have, you cannot do even when you have more.’”

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.