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Nigeria’s EbonyLife Is Back in Toronto With Romantic Comedy ‘Royal Hibiscus Hotel’

Romance brings some sizzle and spice to the kitchen of “The Royal Hibiscus Hotel,” Nigerian director Ishaya Bako’s tender romantic comedy, which world premieres at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

The latest venture for EbonyLife, the lifestyle TV network and production company founded by media mogul Mo Abudu, “Royal Hibiscus” is a polished, crowd-pleasing comedy full of easy laughs from an all-star cast drawing on both rising talents and veterans of Nigeria’s Nollywood and Yoruba-language film industries.

Described by Abudu as “an African fairy tale,” pic tells the story of Ope, an aspiring chef in London who returns to Nigeria to rescue her parents’ struggling hotel, where she’s wooed by the wealthy investor looking to buy her father out.

Finding her calling in the hotel’s kitchen, Ope pursues her dream of creating a distinctive fusion cuisine that melds her country’s home-cooking with foreign flavors – a desire that dovetails with Abudu’s own cinematic mission to find a “balance between what Nigerians want, and what can also have international appeal.”

In some ways, director Bako’s sophomore effort mirrors his own journey as a filmmaker. Like Ope, who finds opportunity knocking in Nigeria, the alum of the London Film School returned to Lagos at a time of great optimism, when the economy was booming and many young Nigerians were coming home.

As he witnessed the changes that were ushering in a renaissance in Nigerian music and literature in the 2000s, and as a similar transformation was taking hold in the country’s film industry, Bako reached a decisive moment that would shape his career as a filmmaker, asking himself, “Would you want to be outside looking in? Or would you want to be one of the people that are changing the nature and dynamic of film?”

In Nigeria, young filmmakers have “an opportunity to make your mark in world cinema,” he says, noting that despite the country’s prolific industry, “We are still a very niche market in that space.”

“Royal Hibiscus” marks the second Toronto premiere in as many years for Abudu and EbonyLife, which opened last year’s City to City focus on Lagos with the “The Wedding Party.”

After launching as an upscale lifestyle TV network in 2012, EbonyLife produced its first feature film, “Fifty,” in 2015. This year, “Wedding Party” shattered local B.O. records, grossing around $1.2 million to make it the most successful Nigerian film of all time. Both films have been acquired by Netflix.

Abudu says the streamer has been a “great partner” for EbonyLife, allowing it to take its slate of uplifting African stories into households around the world.

She’s currently looking for potential co-production partners for EbonyLife’s first foray into the international market, “Ava & Duante,” a World War II-era drama about the persecution of black Germans under the Nazi regime — a largely untold tale known as the “Black Holocaust.”

“It’s a much bigger journey for us, because it’s a much bigger story,” says Abudu, who hopes to begin lensing later this year.

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