“Why I Stopped Making Films”—Amaka Igwe

Foremost Nigerian filmmaker, writer, television producer, and entrepreneur, Amaka Igwe, died suddenly on Monday, April 28, 2014. She was reportedly working on location in Enugu, eastern Nigeria, when she took ill. One of the leading figures in the Nigerian film industry at the decisive moment in the early 1990s when the new cinematic form broke out, Igwe already had a track record in television as the writer and producer of the award-winning serial, Checkmate. Bold, big, clear-minded, cannily analytical and with a gift for the well-thought-out declarative, Igwe’s presence was a commanding one. Her work on film, best represented in Violated and Rattlesnake, was also unique in stylistic terms, marked by an acute sense of characterization and psychological depth. She wrote with a confident awareness of the culture she was helping to engender, and it is hard to imagine the screen personalities of Ego Boyo, Kunle Bantefa and Richard Mofe-Damijo (all characters in Violated) without thinking of Igwe having written them into public consciousness.

With directors like Lola Fani-Kayode, Tunde Kelani, Zeb Ejiro, and Tade Ogidan, she was a major pioneer of the post-1980s Nigerian film, and an influential mentor and organizer. She was also a great dreamer, saying once that the ideal Nigerian movie would be one written by her, directed by Ogidan, and filmed by Kelani! Though she had fewer completed films than these peers to her credit, she was also active as a television producer, and her TV comedy series, Fuji House of Commotion, was widely successful and generated great interest as a model of trans-generational programming. Founder of BoBTV Expo, Igwe was an institutional worker, a civically responsible and aware artist-activist who had taken a full measure of the film industry at the turn of the 2000 and come to the conclusion that enormous infrastructural work needed to be done to channel the disparate energies in the industry. This is the main focus of this conversation, excerpted from a long interview that Igwe granted Akin Adesokan on July 26, 2002 at Ikeja, Lagos.

Q:            Let’s start with your current silence as a filmmaker, the fact that you are not making films at the moment. Why is that?

A: There is no distribution in Nigeria. That is why. That is just a simple answer to that question. There is no distribution and we have to get that in place. For the type of film I make, I take my time; I spend money. And then to finish that and having to distribute it by just three main outlets, mainly Idumota, Aba and Onitsha; that brings so much difficulty. There is too much hustle from individuals because you don’t have distributors; you have wholesalers called marketers who have ventured into the production line. So, they are not actually supporting your primary aim, which is to make quality films. Then we have video, the technology we use to make these films. We have producers who can’t even find their own work, films that were released only two to three years ago. They have to depend on marketers and there is nobody in between. And we have the owners of the facilities, the venues where films could be screened. We have people who own cinema houses. We have people who own video clubs. There is nobody that’s organizing these groups and taking films from the producer like it is done anywhere in the world and taking them to the facility owners and giving returns as Pay Before Service. So, there is still much effort to make and then looking for our own market, creating that market from scratch. And this should be easier when we have viable products. So, people are actually buying some of the films in cash. Now they take your products and they are tying it down in capital form. The production they tie down their capital for are actually manufactured copies and then you have to leave it with them. So, we have heard the story of people copying the films. They use it as screening copy and give it back to you.

And again, because they are also producing, there is no contract in selling products. What they are doing is also their own which cannot be that good, but all they are doing it to sell more. So basically for me, the distribution is wrong. We have to be organized. Then I just have to be engaged in the distribution and do the marketing myself. I will not only distribute, but sell for myself. And again, the distribution channel through TV programming, though not perfect, is one way to explore. It is uncontrollable (by marketers) in the sense that the power rests with either a TV station or a multinational company or an advertising agency. Once you get somebody to buy a good film, the filmmaker and producer will collect their money. You don’t need much work to do; all you need to do is to find someone who is interested in your product and if there is somebody there to present your product, you don’t have any problem. By the time you finish them, there are people waiting for you. And when they pay your money, you will go back and start making more. It is more reliable and more straightforward and more suited for my part of work.

You seem to be saying that this lull in your productivity is not a temporary thing because I wonder how long it will take you in organizing this distribution you are talking about.

I don’t believe the way the work starts because one, I’m trying to organise distribution. And so far, there is a gain in that. I told you that I had another option. That was what I was pursuing. We are trying to get to people because it is not that they have the answer and they don’t want others to know, it’s simply that they don’t actually know how it is supposed to be. Like I said to some people, the so-called film industry in Nigeria was born wrongly. There was no plan for it. It just happened and the people driving it were not educated. What do most of them know about filmmaking? They were not educated in the art of filmmaking or film distribution just like the British people that started Hollywood. Also, they were not educated; they were selling gloves and all that. But at least they have created a system of marketing for the distribution of films which our people did not know about. They created a system, but that system unfortunately is not working. The people who created the system here were actually people who were selling articles. They were selling either videotapes or American films. So, for them they don’t understand that there is a cinema release, there is a video club release, there is a VCD release. And of course we are planning to sell to 150 million Nigerians and we are selling in one shop. The issue of demand and supply means that people will want a film because if they don’t have access to the work, they will get it somewhere.

And then there’s the added problem of ‘Do As Others Do.’ Where the typical Nigerian thinks that everybody jumps into this job when you don’t have the technical ability or knowledge, and that impacts on the quality. The people who buy films now are the people who are interested about Nigerian films because of the language barrier, or because this is closer to them, they prefer the Nigerian films. The rich people, the middle class people have long given up on Nigerian home video when the quality started dropping and the number became so high and when the sales are relegated to those few people. It’s difficult for you to tell somebody that I’ve made a film; go and buy it in Idumota. How many people will go there? These are streets that are so dirty. They need glamorous shops like the upscale supermarkets and that will drive this certain set of people to go buy. So, video clubs became the alternative and the video clubs that service the “rich people” don’t carry our home videos.

     Those are American films.

Yes, so you find these video clubs everywhere in hair dressing salon, barbing salon. Wherever there is somebody coming to do business. And people are getting them. And they are renting them because they are too costly otherwise. They can’t afford to buy in standard shops. The films are produced at a high cost, and they depend on the sale of video tapes to make returns while the actual demand is from rentals. And the people through whom you are marketing do not know that the video club is a useful outlet. By the time everybody found out that video clubs exist, they started insisting on paying rights, So, there is a whole jumble of activities which is not helped by the government. Really, they are supposed to have a list, a census, and know where the video clubs are located, how many there are, how films get to these places. According to the law which is the copyright law at the same time, not one of them has the political will to do what they are supposed to do. I mean, at the start of the industry, I know I was really on the neck of Ademola James (former director of the Censors’ Board) to try and enumerate, register and know how many video clubs that should exist, and not just stop them from what they are doing. The argument then was that he didn’t want to harm the film industry. I said that’s true, but you are not harming it by doing that; you are actually making it to grow. It will be difficult and very impossible to correct. But in Nigeria, people run away from complex situations. The situation is very complex, but it has to be done and it can be done. So, that is where we are working trying to rebuild, create a modality which will bring government and the people together. This is actually to correct the situation, to find a way to properly undertake distribution. And I think we’ve been able to agree. When I was making the top noise about 1996, 1997 that the industry was not doing what we wanted it to be doing, I was labeled all kinds of things because people were still making money. But right now, everything has come to a stop, there is no money coming in, people are tired of the films. [The interview was conducted during the so-called three-month “recess” of June-August 2002, when a majority of filmmakers ceased production entirely in order to arrest the glut in the market. Ed.] Except they resort to some trick, the use of juju or magic. Now, they are really determined to do something about it.

       What form does your organization take?

It is just like a corporation, a business enterprise. But only for certain stakeholders who are business-oriented. What we are trying to do is to create that distribution by creating distributors as suppose to marketers. Distributors whose business it is to organize existing facility owners such as video clubs, video shops, and exhibitors. And even have TV stations on one side and the copyright owners on the other side. We are trying to create absolutely a good distribution network so that when you make a film all you need to do is to find a distributor who already has organized, existing network, using standard facilities, working with the owners to create a means, an outlet to exhibit the work, the collect the money and take his own percentage. So once that is organized, I necessarily may not be the distributor, but I will try to get people who will be interested to become distributors and who will give up wholesale marketing and producing and form business models backed by strong and proper structure as it is done everywhere in the world. And then, the producer will just be talking about producing. The wholesaler, retailer and marketer will talk about marketing the work. So, the person will collect and distribute, it is no longer straight to Idumota now. If there is any video club on his street, he knows when he can make the direct proper sale to the person and he buys copies for the collective money. The distributor will now determine state of the needs to exhibitors before the video club, before the market, the way it is done everywhere in the world. So, we have the VCD, DVD and the foreign rights and all that. That’s what we are trying to get people interested in.

So far, I think it is working out. Once it’s done, that particular film will attract funding from banks, that is the only initiative that can do justice to my argument. The lack of distributors is a major problem. It is the same thing with the music industry.

            They had the same problem of copyright.

Imagine that. These are people that have worked for forty years and they can’t make ends meet. It is rubbish, because you are sure that Nigerian music will sell, it is selling. But where can I go to buy an album or CD today?

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            You can stop by a roadside store…

I mean, the roadside people will sell original products, but they don’t sell original products because they don’t get them. What they get is what they sell. And most of the times, they are pirated copies. And the person who has pirated copies, because he has only one copy he will manufacture from it. Nigeria doesn’t understand the concept of copyright because even in our university days, people photocopied books and sold them. I mean it is just something that Nigeria has come out with. Look at NAFDAC. Before this woman (Dora Akunyili) came in, we had 68% of the drug in our markets pirated. In a country that is this large, individuals can walk in and manufacture a drug that belongs to a British or American firm and the thing is 15% of proper ingredient of the drug? And they bring it in here, sell it and make money out of it. Most of the times, they are caught. So, the concept of copyright is still far, but I believe that if we had shops controlled by the right owners, you’ll find out that what is happening is that at least I have a place to buy the genuine thing. The hospital will write a prescription for me and tell me that I should not collect from this hospital but find a reputable pharmacy and buy from there.

There are reputable pharmacies all around and I can walk into one, certain that they have original drugs because they are reputable. Their drugs may be expensive, but they will be reputable. They will be safe and apart from being safe, that shop is registered and certified. That is the same thing I’m saying. Where is the reputable shop that sells Nigerian video and music? Or any music for that matter? We are talking about not opening only one shop here. We are talking about opening in Lagos at least twenty outlets because Lagos is large. We are talking about 15 million people and if you open twenty shops servicing this population, that’s just okay. Every street I know in England, for instance, has at least three music or video shops. For you to buy pirated copies from this kind of setup, something must be seriously wrong. And most people will rather go to the original base than go to the fake centers. That is the point. So, you can’t be talking about piracy in Nigeria when there are no distribution outlets. The system of distribution we have is organized around distributing pirated copies. Kenny’s Music has been releasing music, tell me which shop is distributing it.

The gain comes when you can find in the main building the wholesaler and retailer who has a small shop, and who, after he sells it to whomever he sells it, the person goes out and drops it and so on. I mean, you can’t control him in that state. That is the way it was, and until right owners in this country understand that concept then they don’t have distribution. Then, they should stop crying about the filmmakers. A friend of mine who is a corporate lawyer told me that he had a client in Festac. He arrested some of the business pirates and put them out of business. They were using petrol stations. They created some other pirates because when there is so much demand, the supply will be dropping. I said to my friend that he should have told them to build more filling stations so as to increase production before you shut down the place. I said you should not wage war against the pirates before the setting up of the outlets.

      Yes, because the pirates won’t stop.

That is the point. We have to set up the outlets. We don’t even have outlets. People set up outlets and then shut down the piracy. Then, there will be an alternative, or alternatives. For now, there is no alternative. The only shops that are open now belong to the pirates who don’t see anything wrong in what they are doing because I mean if you tell me this is the original copy, I will buy it, but you don’t know the original copy; you don’t have it. And how many shops will I run around as an individual producer in Lagos? I think that is where our major problem is and I’m really, really ready to meet up and make films. It is not that I don’t want to meet up. But I have about fifteen scripts. I have another ten ideas and all that, but there is none of them that will cost me less than 2 or 2½ million to make. And I can’t guarantee that money in the open market. We are going to do our best to be productive. I’m for spending two and half million but in the present situation, that doesn’t make sense. I won’t do that. I can make two hundred thousand on my two or half a million, which most people are doing. They will spend a million to make a hundred thousand? You will go and make another one with hundred thousand at the end of the year you will make 1.2 million. That is why they have to make much on two million.

I’ve watched some episodes of Fuji House of Commotion; I find it very interesting, very entertaining, but I haven’t seen any commercials announcing the new episodes. 

Probably on Monday I will see something better. The main production comes up on Sunday. On the contrary people are complaining that there are so many adverts.

Oh, really? Well, maybe it’s because I’ve not been around for long.

We carry about twelve adverts which are for a fully subscribed one. Actually, it is the most successful aspect of the production. Before we started dealing with the TV station, I didn’t know much about it.

But thus far, what’s your own assessment?

I hope to have it soon, all the episodes, so I can explore the details. The new series will probably be on in October. Like I said, that’s what I’m working on film right now. The idea is what I call a programming supermarket. So, if you come in to my office here and you say you want music, well I don’t play or make music. But this is a studio. I have the equipment; I have all of that so the jobs that I’m producing in my studio is manufactured, and it’s not always what Amaka Igwe is all about . The second thing is that this was a part of strategic training. Developing the comic aspect is the whole objective. It was pulled out from another project and recreated as its own form, just comedy. I think also that comedy is a problem in this country. People are used to slapsticks and all that. I just decided to do it the way I think it should be done. It was an experiment, but at the same time not really an experiment. It was something I have been doing for a very long time. I mean, I have written episodes of New Masquerades before and so on.

    I want to ask you a question relating to criticism. People think of you as a filmmaker, based on your work in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. You had an intention then about what you wanted to do. From what I’ve gathered now from this interview, it seems you’re involved more in the issue of distribution. And if I put two of your products side by side, for instance, Checkmate and Violated, it will be difficult to get a sense of a consistent style and say, Here’s how to look at Amaka Igwe’s work. This is a complicated process, making artistic judgment. I didn’t see all episodes of Checkmate but I remember much of the story, and Violated struck me and being more powerful as a work of art.

In Checkmate, I didn’t direct. I think you know. Neither did I produce it. I was the Executive Producer. I originated the work, but I had a director, I was an executive producer. We were actually working in partnership. The director was Bolaji Dawodu…. So, it was collaborative work. With Violated, it was different. I wrote, produced and directed that. I see myself really as the writer–director and it doesn’t matter as to the medium, whether it is television or film. I have a lot to learn about American style of filming, which for me is not an issue in Nigeria because Nigerians act differently when it comes to their story habit in shooting up and all that. You know Nigerians in terms of our storytelling. I think I did one short film like that in which many people, in fact, many fans wrote me to comment on. They didn’t quite like it. First of all it was different. Most of my films would take two tapes and their complaint was that this one was only in one part, and it was actually an hour and forty-five minutes or so. Some film critics even in my class when we went to film, my director and my classmates and all couldn’t believe anybody did that. When they call you a filmmaker they will say this thing reaches two billions. By the time I finished, they had been looking for me everywhere to give me a standing ovation. In fact, I remembered that group; they were mostly directors and very critical people who had come from all over Africa. That night, I won their respect. The criticism was little. I mean it wasn’t much.

My audience in Nigeria and the communication to Nigerian audience is something else. Would I say it’s a gift? I don’t know how it happened, but it is difficult for me to make a work of art here in Nigeria, but I wouldn’t comment because I understand the audience. So, I’m still trying to work on that short one which will suit the American system and still appeal to them. As a student of art, I’m not going to… Americans do not make films to please Nigeria and I will not make a film to please Americans. That is my style. Coming back to the question you asked. I’ve learnt to please my fans. So, most of the scripts I have are well-paced and they are action-packed. I’ve not shot them yet. Probably when I shoot that, you will understand what I’m talking about, but I’ve not done it to the detriment of the story-telling style of Nigerians. So, it still going to be fiction, that is, for my films. But for my TV programme, I will still follow the same pattern. I’m actually trying to fix two systems. I think that is what we are here for. I’m not just a filmmaker or a TV producer or whatever is it you want to call me. I’m a student of art and I’m learning, like I keep telling people. I’m an evolving film director and writer. I have to work hard because I know that I’m setting the pace for people who believe in me and not only people who believe in me but also people I respect. People like Steve Kadiri, Lola Macaulay, among others. When I do a film, I do it for them. I do wonder what they will say. I’m also doing it, wondering what the scholars and my whole group of people, who are not educated in form but are Nigerian audience, what would they say? So, it causes me to work harder to bring things together and experiment. It costs me money. I need to have the distribution organized so that my experiment will still meet that demanding part.

Professor Akin Adesokan, teaches African and Afro-American literature at the University of Indiana, in the United States.

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