Fred Amata has been a household name in Nigeria for decades. During his days as a youth corper at the Nigerian Television Authority, directing soap operas including Ripples, and appearing in a musical video, he shot into stardom with his role in Mortal Inheritance, a home video.
Since then, there has been no looking back for him. Amata has appeared in nearly 100 home movies and over 15 soap operas, and is one of Nollywood’s international ambassadors. Modupe Ogunbayo, assistant editor and Pita Ochai, reporter/researcher, spoke with him recently. Excerpts:
Newswatch: You have been in the acting industry since the 80s. You worked with the Ripples crew but Nigerians saw you for the first time when you appeared on Choices, a musical video by King Sunny Ade and Onyeka Onwenu. How has the industry been since then?
Amata: I love this bit of information that takes me way back. But I have a little adjustment to make. Choices was not the first time I appeared on television. Before Choices I had done quite a lot. I was involved in Telefest, that was a television film festival production in 1986 or 1987 where I won best actor with Dede Mabiaku. Before then, I was also involved in a soap opera called Legacy. Then Choices came a few years later…By the time I appeared on Choices, I was on my way to becoming a director of Ripples.
Newswatch: How has the industry fared?
Amata: It’s in two ways. A lot of progress in some areas and a lot of regression in other areas. In those days, we used to be more thorough in getting to do what we wanted to do. Also there was less technology available so, the simple process of capturing pictures was extremely difficult. You have to know how to light, you have to get the proper lighting of the crew. Today, you can simply point your camera and shoot and you get the proper picture. There is also the area of storytelling. The transition we made was from television to home video. But in the transition, we have taken clips of television soap operas and packaged them into films, so you have films like True Confession that was different stories of people put together and you could follow the storyline. But now it is more like a fiction where you can follow one protagonist from the beginning to the end following one problem or the other. So, it has changed.
Newswatch: Before we used to have a lot of indigenous soap operas on national television during prime time programme on TV like Cock Crows at Dawn, Samanja, Village Headmaster and so on. But now there seems to be a dearth of indigenous soap on our prime time television, why?
Amata: I find it hard to pinpoint why but I would imagine that it is as a result of social appreciation. It is a result of trying to deliver what the producer or the film maker and the TV presenter think the audience wants to see.
Newswatch: Veterans like Zack Amata, Olu Jacobs, Richard Mofe-Damijo finetuned their craft by appearing on quality soap operas. How would you react to the school of thought that says that there is less professionalism in the industry because we are not focusing on producing quality soap operas?
Amata: I would say, yes it has an influence. It has a major influence on the quality of talents and acting and the quality coming out. It is also a problem with the big stations. What you probably don’t know is that those soaps in those days were done by the TV stations particularly Nigerian Television Authority, NTA. Now, for an independent producer to put a programme on TV, he has to pay both production cost and airtime cost which are quite enormous. It is unheard of anywhere else in the world. Somewhere else in the world, if I have content, you pay for it, but here I generate contents and pay for the contents to be filmed as well as source for advertising. So, the workload on the producer becomes so heavy that they start to look for ways to cut corners because they must survive.
Newswatch: What do you think are the challenges facing the Nigerian motion picture industry?
Amata: One thing that is definitely not a challenge is ideas. Contrary to what people think, the challenge lies in translating those ideas to tangible, concrete products that you can appreciate. Now in the process of translating these ideas you are going to come in contact with bottlenecks such as funding and how would the Nigerian environment support it? How do I gather good sounds when there is noise everywhere, when there are generators everywhere; How do I cope with the problem of PHCN which is also a Nigerian problem? Equipment and how to use them; some laws in this country do not support filming. So a lot of times when we are spoken to, we say look, Nollywood’s constraints are actually a reflection of Nigeria’s problems. The same problems that bedevil the country’s economy and social life affect Nollywood. But today, thankfully the government is beginning to respond. The greatest issue of all, especially for the Nollywood practitioner, is piracy and piracy is in different levels. People go to shops to rent tapes, some buy them and fly them across the border.
That is piracy. Not to talk about the guys who look at your tape and mass-produce it; they go to Singapore or somewhere in Asia simultaneously as at when you are releasing your movie. You release 10, 000 copies of your film and they release 700, 000 copies and you expect to make a profit and make another good film?
Newswatch: What about funding?
Amata: We are crying for funding. It is actually impossible to take Nollywood to the next level without concerted efforts to actually fund Nollywood projects.
Newswatch: But the federal government said it set up a Nigerian Film Fund?
Amata: We don’t know much about that. We don’t know where the money is going. Definitely, I cannot point to a film that came out of the funding and I don’t think anyone can. Maybe it is going towards the development of post production facilities, I don’t know.
Newswatch: Government feels that the lack of unity within Nollywood is what is preventing it from coming in to fund the industry.
Amata: I think that is a the excuse but not a good enough excuse because if you look at Nigeria, would you say because we are not united, Nigeria would not continue to grow? Having said that, there is concerted effort to set up a film council and by setting up that, there would be some kind of structures that would be in place where government can no longer have this handy excuse.
Newswatch: There seems to be a lull in Nollywood and the Ghanaian film industry seems to be filling that vacuum. Why is this happening?
Amata: It is partly based on what I have mentioned earlier. The primary factor causing that is piracy. Because by the time these pirates are through with a movie producer, hardly can that person recoup his investment no matter how small it is. It is a major militating factor and there are different ways that piracy occurs. Some of these ways include television stations infringing on rights by beaming these movies. Sometimes we can prove it and we challenge them, some other times we can’t. Idumota was booming at one time and the film-makers from there were getting money from films and setting up huge structures.
Newswatch: Are the Idumota marketers still funding Nollywood?
Amata: Idumota cannot stop funding Nollywood. When Nollywood makes the transition to a higher level, Idumota will still be funding it because that is a huge source of revenue. So Idumota is not going away.
Newswatch: Does funding also account for the near absence of Nigerian movies released on celluloid?
Amata: Not only in Nigeria, it is worldwide. Films on celluloid cost too much. You find out that it is only the big studios in the west that actually have films on celluloid. Now there is a debate, even in the west, over whether videos and digital videos should replace celluloid. Big directors like Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas are now talking of shooting on video, not celluloid any more because of cost.
Newswatch: Now Nigeria has not been able to win major awards on the international stage and yet we are the third largest film producing nation in the world. What’s causing that?
Amata: First of all, in understanding international film festivals, we need to understand that there are film festivals that cater for just films and film festivals that accommodate videos. We do videos, I do not know if apart from Amazing Grace, we have done any other celluloid film in the past 20 years. Maybe documentary film festivals that accept video like FESTPACO, where Tunde Kelani (a prominent Nigerian cinematographer) has consistently shown his films. Arugba, his latest work, was there last February. Lately, another young man, Joe Brown, displayed his film at another film festival in Italy… there are lots of awards being won but not necessarily in the big name film festivals. At the AMMA awards which appear to be the biggest awards out of Africa, Nollywood had a poor outing;but if you know the reason underlying that, you will understand that AMMA and Nollywood have had a little bit of misunderstanding over the years and a lot of film-makers who are capable of delivering what you are talking about boycotted the awards. One of my films didn’t enter for AMMA but even AMMA has written to me to ask how about this film, can we show this film in another festival? But it was not in the festival, maybe because of the misunderstanding.
Newswatch: What is the misunderstanding about?
Amata: It is just about the processes and we are not satisfied with the processes which were cleared sufficiently by the college of judges in the last festival.
Newswatch: How was it cleared?
Amata: I think it was with the criteria. We were not satisfied with the criteria which were being used. Why certain members’ films were not screened was because of certain language used. Some claim they cannot understand the Nigerian accent and all that. We have thrashed all that out though.
Newswatch: What informed your new beaded cornrow hairdo?
Amata: This to me even is shocking. It all began after I got invited to participate in a reality TV show called Celebrity Takes Two where celebrities dance with professionals, instructors and what have you. And suddenly I discovered that just the prospect of dancing became so challenging. It is threatening to change even my lifestyle. Maybe because I am not so young anymore. I use to dance and I studied Theatre Arts, so naturally, I studied some form of dancing in the University of Jos. But I was an undergraduate from 1982 to 1986 when I learnt those kind of professional dances. So it’s been a long time I did that apart from regular dances at nightclubs or parties. I have been a kind of guy that when I get to a club and start to dance, I bring the party to life because everybody wants to dance with me but that was years ago. So suddenly I said, yes, I can dance, I studied dancing. The first day my instructor came and I eagerly displayed all my old school steps but there was just this flat look of disappointment on his face, then suddenly, exotic dance steps I have never heard of before, words that I have never heard of before, started popping from everywhere. I also discovered that this thing is also a popularity contest, it is an election. The winner is going to be determined by vote, in other words, “Fred, you are on election,” I said I can’t dance, but my instructor encouraged me and said all I needed to do was to slim down, diet and suddenly in the last three weeks, I have lost ten kilogramme, I actually went on fruit diet for one week. So it has affected my lifestyle so much. When we were practising and I was not getting the steps right, I asked what is this? I studied the entire dancers and discovered that all of them have a relationship with their body and I said ok, I have learnt something new. I have imbibed the entire dance routines so much that I do everything they do to get it right. The hair-do was actually for a particular dance for contemporary African dance. I saw the costume and I decided there is something I must do to bring the costume to life; so off I went to a salon at Ikota, after Lekki, to get the hair done.
Newswatch: You recently got a contract from the UN to shoot a film on gender mutilation. What is the project about?
Amata: That is a film called Freedom in Chains and it was shot about three years ago. We have a running understanding with the United Nations Population Fund, on gender-based issues bordering on violence against women. In that film, we took a tour like an interactive section where judges and viewers commented. We have been in Benue State, Ebonyi State. It was a project that was to last for quite a while but somehow it has slowed down. The second film was shot on gender mutilation. The idea was to use our talents and the concept to pass the message of the problems involved in these issues. The Benue State first lady directed that it should be viewed in all states of Nigeria but we could only manage to show it in very few states.
Newswatch: Nigerians loved it when they saw you and Zack Amata, your elder brother, in “Son of the Devil” years back and they have been clamouring for more of such films.
Amata: I can say this categorically that there is a major dream within the Amata family of film-makers to make a major Amata movie. Why I called it an Amata movie is because it is a story of an Amata who spunned Amatas who are making films. Now, my late father, John Amata, who is the beginning of all these, was an actor and the first student union president of University College, Ibadan, in the time of Wole Soyinka. In fact he actually contested against Gamaliel Onosode and became the first student union president in Nigeria. Six months into his graduation, he met with a new ideology which is moral rearmament, and he abandoned school. In the next 20 years, he travelled round the world and in the process made first African film called Freedom in 1956. After all that he came back and decided that he wanted to serve his country. Then he became principal of a college in Warri, then in the Mid-West. Then, Governor Ogbemudia did something called “operation show-your-certificate” and he did not have a certificate to show and then he thought, “is it not just six months”? So he went back to the University of Ibadan and said, “Can I just complete my six months so that I can go back and become principal?” and they told him that, “Oga, that school that you went to is called University College, Ibadan, this one is called University of Ibadan. If you want to go to school, you must start all over again. And again. He said, “is it not four years, I will do it.” Then he entered the University and guess what? He was in the same class with Zack Amata, his son, and Ifu Amata, though Ifu was in another department. This is the movie’s plot and it is a role I would like to play in the movies because I look most like him though I am looking older because he was in his 30s then.
Newswatch: So much has been said about your separation from Agatha and your siring a child by Ibinabo Fiberesima. What is your correct version of what happened?
Amata: Like I told you I developed a huge fear for journalists and one of the major fears is this question and my answer to that is a simple answer; I believe even as a public figure I still have a right to privacy. I would like to say no comment.
Newswatch: What is the exact relationship between you and your wife?
Amata: I would not discuss that here
Newswatch: So much has been said and this is the most appropriate avenue to correct those impressions
Amata: No comment!
Newswatch: What is your vision for the home movie industry?
Amata: Ten years ago, I said in ten years, Nigeria should win an Oscar award and I would like to be involved in that production and you should understand what that means a transition has to come in and because of the understanding we have about Nigeria, not just Nollywood, we know that when we achieve one thing, one Amazing grace, for instance, the Nigeria factor would ensure that style is replicated. The films will begin to explode and Hollywood will come to Nigeria, not Nollywood going to Hollywood. Right now we have a hungry market for films. What we have to convince this people is that we can produce quality films. We have to change the balance shift from 80 percent quacks to 80 percent quality