Interview With Jeta Amata, Film Director
Jeta Amata was weaned on cinema. A third generation flag-bearer in a family of celebrated Nigerian film and theatre practitioners that includes John Ifoghale Amata (grandfather), Zack Amata (father), and Fred Amata (uncle), Jeta directed his first film, Glamour Boys at the age of twenty-one. Presently, at forty, he has written, directed and produced close to twenty films, including The Amazing Grace (2006), Inale (2010) and Black November (2012). Jeta’s career has taken him beyond Nollywood. He has worked with several Hollywood A-listers, has shown his films at various international film festivals, and has won numerous awards within and outside Africa. Yet, it is his passionate commitment to the Nigerian story that sets him apart as a luminary. Jeta is part of a new crop of young filmmakers, including Kunle Afolayan and Obi Emelonye, who are harnessing modern cinematic technologies in their reinvention of Nollywood. He now lives in Los Angeles, but frequently visits Nigeria where he continues to shoot and enlist talents. Recently, Ake Review caught up with him in Lagos to talk about his early years as a filmmaker, his foray into the global film market, and some of the challenges facing Nigerian cinema.
At such a young age you already have a prolific filmography. We know you have this great theatre and film pedigree, but how did you get into filmmaking?
I studied Theatre Arts at Benue State University, Makurdi, and obviously my family—my grandfather, father, uncles—they were all in the business, but I wanted to carve something for myself. Before I got into University, I’d started doing a TV show called Teenyboppers on Clapperboard TV. I created a fifteen-minute segment called Teeny Theatre, where we created some drama that addressed a couple issues, so I got firsthand experience in producing and directing that tiny piece, and that spurred my interest. By the time I was leaving school I was already writing my first script. I got back to Lagos and convinced all the actors, whom were family friends, and a couple of family members to be in the film on the promise that I’d pay them latter. Kingsley Ogoro offered me equipment. I met this really nice guy called Remi Ronuga. His brother Adeoye Ronuga was the GM of Clapperboard at that time, and he helped me to finance the film. That first film is called Glamour Boys (I don’t have a copy of it). I made Glamour Boys in 1995, that’s 19 years ago…everything else is history.
One of your recent films, Black November received a lot of critical acclaim. What’s the journey been like from the days of Glamour Boys—struggling to find a cast, financing and all that—to what you’re doing now?
I’d say things started changing for me a little bit when I did something with the BBC called Nick Goes to Nollywood. The BBC sent Nick Moran (the star of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) to Nigeria to make a film. He was going to direct it and he needed a producer, so I ended up producing the film and acting in it. So, Nick and I became friends. When I went off to London—this was 2004/2005—to do the post-production, Nick and I bonded, and we would eventually make several trips to Los Angeles together. During this time, I was able to gain access to some international actors who eventually featured in for my film, The Amazing Grace which I shot on a 35. That experience opened the doors for me, and it wasn’t so difficult to gain support for the next film I made. By the time I wanted to shoot Black November, I had already made a lot of connections from different film festivals, so it wasn’t difficult trying to make people see the quality of my work, nor was it hard to make them work for less than what they’d have collected in normal productions. Everyone saw that I was trying to create something different for us in Nollywood—I always use Nollywood because I am Nollywood—and I think they wanted to support that in one way or the other.
For example, with Ann Heche, Phillip Noyce was doing a dinner party for a friend of mine called George Acogny—he did some music for Blood Diamond, Amistad and some other great films, and he’s African so that was a good connection—and so I was there, and I met Ann Heche there, and Ann and I talked about what I was doing in Los Angeles, and before she left she was like, “hey call me anytime you need help with this film, I’m interested in the story,” and that’s it! Same thing with Mickey Rourke, you know, we become friends, and then one lunch meeting we get talking and the next thing he says, “I wanna work with you.” Kim Basinger, Vivica A. Fox, Akon, Wyclef, that’s how it’s always been—one person meets the other, a friendship starts, and it becomes a done deal.
You said you are Nollywood. What is Nollywood?
Well, there’s a school of thought that believes that Nollywood is the quality of films made out of Nigeria. No. Nollywood as we created it is films made by us, for us, without the influence of the other film markets in the world. The most exciting thing about Nollywood is the fact that we made this ourselves. We had to learn to make films under the most stringent circumstances. We had to learn to make films the “machete and hoe” way—without perks, without the wider knowledge of how things are done. We learnt how to use all kinds of cameras without being taught how to use them. We learnt how do post-production without being taught how to do it. All we could do was read up on technique and practice until we were able to do something.
Most importantly, Nollywood is the kind of stories we tell. There’s one criticism the West always makes about Nollywood films, they say Nollywood is very verbose, and I tell them that’s our culture. When I was much younger, my grandfather would tell stories to us and we’d sit down for good two hours to listen to one man speak. That doesn’t happen in the West. You can’t hold kids in the United States or in Europe for two straight hours with just one man telling them a story, it’s just not going to work. At some point, you have to hold up some cardboard, or do some crazy thing to get their attention. But as children growing up we had to listen to someone talk for so long, and at the end of the story there was a lesson to be learnt. And while you’re listening to that story, you’ll be able to identify with the characters in that story, and that is what Nollywood is—we capture what is around us. We produce what is topical around us, be it cutting people’s heads to make money, the native doctor syndrome, the mother-in-law syndrome, the hallelujah syndrome—it’s us, that is what Nollywood is, not the quality of films, but the fact that we capture the immediate sense of our environment. That is Nollywood, and that is who I am. With the little funds we have, we can make something, and that’s why we’re one of the biggest in the world right now. And that’s why the Nigerian economy has toppled South Africa, majorly because of two things: communications and Nollywood. That’s crazy! And why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that group?
The general consensus seems to be that our films are poorly done. Is this something that defines Nollywood as well, and how do we move away from that?
Since 2003 I haven’t made a film that was lacking in production quality. From when I made The Amazing Grace with a 35, then, Mary Slessor, Inale, Black November, and The Road to Redemption—which I’ve just shot, I’ve used state-of-the-art equipment. And there are a few other people who are making amazing films with good equipment: Kunle Afolayan, Obi Emelonye. Now, are these people going to be called something else apart from Nollywood? If we associate Nollywood with just poor quality, where do we stand? We’re not going to be put in a box by a few people. That’s why I keep coming to the fact that it’s not about the quality, it’s the kind of stories we tell and how we tell the stories.
You say Nollywood has developed without the influence of the other global film industries. How is this so? Are you saying that Nollywood has emerged out of a vacuum? There has to have been some foreign influence…
I’d say no foreign influence. In Nigeria we made maybe one film every few months. When I got out of school, the equipment we used to make films were the equipment that NTA used to do their TV programmes. We used that equipment to try to make films. Yes, we used the technology—the cameras were not manufactured in Nigeria, obviously, they were manufactured in the West. But unlike film industries in the West, where they rely on film grants and co-production, that hasn’t happened with us. We made a film for the streets, and then from the streets it went to the area, and then it went to the local government, and then to the state, and then it moved to other states in Nigeria. We made it for ourselves. We never made Nollywood films thinking “this is going to sell in the United States”. No. We’re close to 200 million in Nigeria. Satisfy this market. We will make as much money as other people in the world. We have defined ours because we have identified our target audience, and that would be our brothers and sisters, and we have made films for our brothers and sisters. Now obviously, guys like Kunle, Obi and myself are trying to see how we can tap into the global market. So Nollywood created us and made us who we are, and now we’re saying: now that we’ve affected our streets, our communities, our country, let’s go beyond Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, and see what happens if we attract the French, the Germans, the Americans. What we’re doing is spreading our tentacles and it’s working, but we’re still Nollywood.
You’re making films locally, but in order to be a global industry, there has to be a global audience. Without losing the local essence that you’ve talked about so passionately, what can you do to be globally accessible, to meet the international standards of quality while retaining the African storyline?
Financing and Distribution. There’s project @Nollywood right now that’s giving grants to filmmakers in Nigeria. Most amazing. As for up-to-date equipment and technology, we have that in Nigeria. I remember I brought the first RED into Nigeria about 2009. There are over a hundred of them right now in Nigeria. That’s a very expensive camera, and everyone is now using them, working directly with raw files. We didn’t expect that it would happen that quick. So, as far as technology goes we’re all set. But our directors, our crew don’t have to be complacent. We have to work harder so that we can get the best output out of the equipment we’re bringing into the country now. Then, there’s distribution. No matter how good your film is, if you want to be in the global world of filmmaking, you have to have to have eyeballs from the West. We have to work on our storytelling. And we have to address that criticism about our films being verbose. How do we tweak our scripts so that both Nigerians and Americans get the story? Even with good equipment and good distribution, everything comes down to financing. We need more people financing our films. In Los Angeles, I discovered that several Nigerians have been financing Hollywood films for years. There are not less than twenty multimillionaires in Nigeria that finance films made in Hollywood. If you go to the Cannes Film Festival, out of the twenty or thirty yachts you find out there, at least three belong to Nigerians who’ve come to party and hang out with their celebrity friends whose films they have financed in the past. So, these guys have been there, but they’ve not had confidence in Nollywood. But I tell you this: they’re beginning to have confidence in Nollywood now. They’re beginning to think of how they can put their dollars into Nollywood.
You’re doing a lot to bring Nigerian, American and European actors together. How is this impacting Nollywood?
When you bring an Academy Award winner or nominee together with that simple guy from Nollywood, it elevates his status, not just amongst his peers here, but also in the West. Because if an actor can say, “I was in this film with this a-lister” and show the reel, it immediately takes his or her reputation two steps higher. So, there’s no doubt that it impacts in a positive way. And it also helps to open up Nollywood in the West. As big as Nollywood is, most of the people I’ve worked with: Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Ann Heche, were only just hearing about Nollywood when they met me. And after meeting me they went and learnt more about Nollywood and went “wow”! Productions that allow local Nollywood actors to collaborate with acclaimed foreign actors help introduce us to people who don’t know about us, and the more people get interested in seeing our work, the more money comes to the table for bigger films.
You tend to cover historical themes in your films, and you also tell stories that address political issues. What inspires this?
It’s just who I am. I like to tell stories that touch me and touch other people. Africa has such a rich and vast history, and to begin to tell African stories is like the most amazing thing. We have great stories to tell the world and I feel very comfortable telling those stories. Films that have a political twist, well, I wouldn’t put it that way. I’m interested in what makes the common man tick. It’s not so much political, but personal—personal stories that make us better people.
Talk about your most recent project.
Road to Redemption is a film I finished late last year. We’re in post production now. It addresses the issue of our young girls who are married at a too little age, and develop fistula problems, having to pass out urine without control for the rest of their lives. Now, that’s a very important issue that has to be tackled. We need to understand what the age of consent is in Nigeria. It’s easy for some sixty year old guy to pick up a fourteen year old kid and just marry her in Nigeria. Now, that is not good. We need to make those men understand the danger they’re putting those kids through, and to help those kids understand the dangers associated with not being mature enough, and not knowing whether to say yes or say no. So I made a film about that. Unfortunately I had to shoot most of it in Los Angeles. I had to build a Nigerian village out there, because it was around that time that Boko Haram had started killing children in Nigeria. They had gone into a school and killed all the boys there, and every talent that was supposed to come with me to Nigeria said “no way”, so I had to shoot in LA. The film was made by Akon and I; we financed it, and we we’re able to attract a few talents: Margaret Avery (The Color Purple) Brenda Strong (Desperate House Wives), Viva Bianca (Spartacus). It’s a low budget film, but it’s a good piece of work. From the picture so far, it’s looking very good. It’s gonna be another film that I’m gonna look back on and say “yes, I made this!”, with a lot of pride.
When you start to branch into these areas of social and political issues, of course, the problem that one starts to think about is censorship in Nigeria. As you know, Biyi Bandele’s film Half of a Yellow Sun* is currently being delayed—it seems like delayed is the politically correct term to use. What do you think about film censorship in Nigeria? How does this impede progress, and how do you intend to get around some of these road blocks?
First of all, a film is supposed to be censored for who is meant to see the film. Censorship is not about a few people coming to decide: “No, people should not see this film”. You can’t stop people from watching what they want to watch. You can’t decide what people should watch. You can’t decide what people should read. You can’t decide what people should see. But you can censor what children should see. You can decide what age someone should be before he can make a decision about what he’s watching. You can’t shut a film down. You shouldn’t be able to shut a film down. But you should be able to decide that children should not see this. If you’re not sixteen you can’t see this. That is what a censor’s board should do. There should be freedom of speech. Freedom to create, in Nigeria. So, I’m appalled that Half of a Yellow Sun, a widely acclaimed book adapted into a film that people want to see can be shut down. It is embarrassing that a film adaptation of such an award winning book should not to have its time in Nigeria. But yet, it’s ok to show it in other parts of the world! So, you ask yourself, what makes us different? What makes our rights different as filmmakers, as writers in Nigeria? This will not deter me from telling the stories that I need to tell. This is no longer the military era where everything you said or did was censored. This is a democracy. A few people should not be allowed to determine if something is good enough for people to watch.
What new directions in Nigerian film are you exploring?
I’m working on better connecting Nigeria to the Diaspora. If you go to the Caribbean, Haiti or Trinidad, we’re big there! And those guys are just like us. So I’m working really hard, especially with the Haitian government, on connecting Africa and these countries in terms of filmmaking and storytelling. One of the films I’m scheduled to make is a film on Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolution. It’s in development as we speak. It tells the story of the slaves over there and their connection to us out here; how they were able establish themselves in the New World as a people, and why they’re the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
* Since conducting this interview, it has been announced that Half of a Yellow Sun has been cleared for release in Nigeria. The following post appeared on the film’s facebook page, 9/7/14: “Shareman Media and FilmOne Distribution, are happy to announce that the highly anticipated movie, #HOAYSMovie has been rated 18 and certified for theatrical release in Nigeria. The movie will be available in cinemas across Nigeria from the 1st of August 2014.”
Source: Ake Review