He was the kind of man you don’t give a second look to – haggard, sweaty and very informally dressed in mismatched shirt, sweater and cargo pants. He was in a hurry too, flying towards the departure gates of our flight at the Murtala Muhammed airport.
It was what he was saying that got my attention. “I’m never coming back to this country. Nothing works here. The people are not nice. I’m telling all my friends too,” he kept saying over and over again like a Nigerian pastor extorting the congregation to empty their accounts into his.
I could tell he was from Los Angeles. He looked like a movie type. His dressing hinted that. In the film scene in Los Angeles, the more informal you dress, the more work you get. The executives think if you dress in a suit and tie, you are too comfortable and may not be able to dish out the stuff that would wow people. But, a shirt, torn jeans and a hat and you’re deemed hungry, artistic and an auteur.
Later, in the plane, we were assigned seats on opposite sides of the same row. He kept looking at me as if he knows me. I’m thinking its because I was wearing one the prison T-shirts that I collect because this man looks like he’s done time. Once the plane was in the air, he came over and in less than a minute we realized we had mutual friends. That instantly turned him to a radio and I the listener.
His problems started as soon as he set foot in the country. He was held waiting in the long line of customs. I kind of felt for him but the line at customs is the best part of Nigeria for me. It’s where you actually feel happy to be a Nigerian because it’s the one place Nigerian officials give better attention to Nigerians than the foreigners whose butt they kiss and wipe all day in the outside world. The Nigerian line moves faster as it should, as it is everywhere in the world. This man felt the foreign line should move faster.
When it got to time for his luggage and he waits almost two hours to get it. I always wondered why it always takes that long to get your luggage at the Murtala Mohammed airport. If you’re coming from Ghana for instance, it takes you longer to get your bags than it would take you to fly.
Then our friend got into Nigeria and it got worse. The Third mainland bridge was closed then so his driver decided on a faster route. Somehow, they got stuck in the Mafoluku ghetto. He got to his hotel about five hours later.
In most countries, filmmakers are treated like some sort of egg you handle with care. This man was treated like egg you throw against a wall. The reason is simple. Film attracts tourists to their location like bees flock honey. But, in Nigeria, the simplest things like film permits became an excursion to pain for my new friend. No one had answers for him except he opened his wallets. And, at the tourism department they wondered why he would come film here.
I remember one of the producers of the “Last King of Scotland” telling me without the president of Uganda encouragement and support, they could not have shot the film in that country. In Nigeria, my personal experience is that most of the government officials exists to frustrate you, even at the topmost level.
Then, it was time to go and the hell started again. The journey took forever. The check in counter was a nightmare, even though he was a business class elite traveler. He was in the fast track line at customs but it seemed whoever designed that line had a tortoise in mind. And, a Customs agent harassed him so long he had to bribe him so he won’t miss his flight.
“I’m done with this country. Never coming back and I’m telling all my friends,” he said.
“It’s not that bad,” I say.
“You mean you’re coming back,” he asked incredulously.
“I have no choice,” I say. I’m also from here.”
He looked at me with a sad eye as if he’d just seen a corpse and drifted back to his seat.
He’s not alone sadly. I once had a chat with the executive producer of Amazing Race. We met at a film market and I mentioned I was going to Nigeria to start preliminary work on a project. He spent the better part of an hour trying to convince me not to go. He told me of a time he went to scout Nigeria for a season of his show. He had clearances and assurances all the way up to the ministerial level.
But, as soon as he landed, all his plans went to hell. It seemed everyone expected him to pay for the opportunity to film in Nigeria. And, this was a show that is a tourism magnet because of its millions of viewers. Frustrated and left on his knees, the man moved his show down the road to a neighboring country. After the show ran, tourist flocked the neighboring country.
“You should go to Ghana or Sierra Leone. They are miles ahead in these things,” he counseled.
“I can’t,” I say. “I’m from here”.
He looked at me mournfully and spat out, “sorry”.