He hails from Isiala Mbano Local Government of Imo State. In deed, he is a pride of a town called, Oka-Eziama. An actor and pioneer member of Nollywood, Francis Duru has been able to raise his head above the water in spite of the criticism bedeviling the industry. This is so simply because he is of good character, easy going, scandal free, and above all, God fearing. In this insightful interview with The Entertainer, the movie star discusses his career, problems in the Actors Guild of Nigeria, and rituals in movies among others.
Between 1989 and 2011, that’s almost two decades or thereabout, I’ve been in the industry. My first movie was actually The Missing Mask that was produced by Catwalk Pictures and directed by Ebere Iheanacho and Ndubuisi Oko. These people are still in Aba. There was a time Oko had a stroke but he survived it and we thank God for his life. He’s still there and we discuss once in a while. Those are the people I actually grew in their hands in the industry. Now, I can’t remember how many movies I have done. You know, in those days you were just doing the movies. Opportunities came and we got into the movies. I have lost count of the movies I have done but they should be well over 100.
Between foreign and local talent
Nigeria is loaded with talent. Overseas you have just a little talent and the rest is hype; they create structures that will harness this talent and as they grow they become celebrities, they create big brands from little talents. But here, you actually see people who are talented but they don’t have the structures to grow. And at the end, some of them just die off without having the opportunity to express or bring this talent into fulfillment. Over there, they have the conducive atmosphere that grows talents. But here it’s so harsh that you need to virtually use your hands to scratch the wall to make an impact
During the time of Gringory, there was some passion; there was a level of discipline in the industry. You could actually feel it; you could actually treat it as a profession with its ethics and all that stuff. It was all raw and pure talent and we weren’t all out to make money but to entertain just like the footballers of that time
Now, you have digital video and all that where one man can actually own something. That time it was television. At a particular time you watch the New Masquerade. Right now in every home there’s a VCD. So it’s a process. You cannot undermine the fact that the industry actually grew from that aspect to where we are today. Even when Nollywood started, some say it was incident, some say accident I don’t know how we could define that but it started from nothing. It started from the labour, the sweat of the marketers who actually wanted to create market for empty videotapes. The likes of Kenneth Nebue and Okey Ogunjiofor, who came in and saw an opportunity to provide what we have today, which had already been in existence in the Yoruba movies - because the Yoruba movies were thriving as home videos.
And it was then that Kenneth Nebue, who had been part and parcel of them, stepped out to say ‘let me create something too within my own language which is Igbo’ coupled with the fact that the people who were actually providing the empty tapes for these Yoruba movies were Ibos. So it was a matter of giving content to those containers that gave birth to a new product.
That was how Nollywood started. And from then on, it was something new that people wanted. Everybody now know that I can go to the market, buy my own VHS tape and play it in my house any time I want. Just as I can buy American films, I can buy Nigerian home video and I can play it any time; I don’t have to wait for when the television station is going to play it which I might miss if I’m coming home late or if I’m not around. But any time I come back home I can slot it and watch with my family. So, whether you like it or not, it built some sort of social cohesion within the family unit. It became possible that the family could actually sit and watch a movie together.
Money rituals in movies
There was a time money rituals was rampart in Igbo movies. Well, the culture was not only in the Igbo race. It was happening everywhere in Africa. We have it in the African blood. You cannot take rituals and all that stuff away from our culture. In fact, we’re not glorifying rituals in our movies. We’re only showing a way of life of the African people. Rituals are a recurring decimal in every African culture. I’m a graduate of Theatre Arts and in the course of reading about the Dark Ages and comparing it to today’s African theatre, you can never diversify the role of negative aspects of rituals. But it is wrong for you to kill because at the end of day the repercussions of you doing those things that our culture abhors will slap you in the face. You either become mad or a victim of some supernatural disasters. So, it means at the end of the day evil does not go unpunished.
Now, the second thing you have to understand is that controversy sells movies. To the man who’s putting his money down, it is not all about how much change he wants to see in the society. That is the stark reality behind the movie marketer especially within the clime of Onitsha, Idumota and all those places. The movie marketers are not doing these movies because they want to bring some changes in the society. They’re interested in how much money they’re going to make.
Government and Nollywood
Government has done well. But there’s an aspect government is not looking at which I’ll take directly to the Censors Board. These movies do not see the light of the day without passing through the Censors Board, which means the Censors Board okays them for public consumption. And if the Censors Board does not raise objection about the negativity and how it affects nation building, whose fault is it? There’s not much I can do because I don’t have the financial wherewithal to create a distribution network that will streamline the kind of movies that must happen.
No! I don’t live a make-believe life. When on set, I’m on set. I’m an actor, professionally trained at the University of Port Harcourt. I was privileged to have the best of teachers and I understand one thing: action. My life is simple. I respect nature; I respect justice; I respect everything that will make the world a better place. I respect humanity. Injustice pisses me off. I can’t stand insincerity in different forms and ability of people to manipulate a situation just for their selfish interests. I can’t stand all these. So, I cannot say because I’m a celebrity I begin to walk away from my normal life.
My normal life style is being motivated by my spirituality. My relationship with God comes first and it keeps me in check. How do I relate with you? I go to market when there’s the need for me to go to market. I eat ‘mamaput’ when the occasion arises. Not because I am a celebrity I should be very cosmetic in my attitude to life. No! Francis Duru remains Francis Duru. My philosophy is: keep it simple, keep it modest, keep it humble; keep it meek.
There are limits to the roles I act in movies based on the kind of script I have. I do romance. I’ve done that a whole lot of time. How does my wife feel about it? To her, it’s nothing, nothing extraordinary. She’s in theatre arts, so she understands. It is when I stretch it beyond the family limit that it becomes a problem.
Extra-marital affairs in Nollywood
There’s no way extra-marital affairs would be seen as a good thing. But the point I’m making here is that it is not common only with actors and actresses. It is a general problem that humanity faces. Whatever your status; irrespective of your size and even religion – these are natural human weaknesses which are not stuck to a particular trade. But that is where I feel we’re more or less an endangered species as actors and actresses probably because we are seen as change agents. There’s a seeming perspective that society expects you to be above board. No, that’s wrong. We’re human beings like you.
Challenges of fame
You go somewhere and you can’t be yourself. I’m a father of three. I go to pick my kids from school. I go to their classes to pick them and at times I pick my kids and chance on people who comment: ‘Ha, a big star like you is coming to pick his children from school, why not send someone else?’ It’s laughable. That I’m a star does not mean that I will not carry out my family responsibilities. And for me, my family comes first. I may be away from the industry; the movie business may die, other businesses may die but this is one assignment that I’m stuck with for life. So, at every point in time I should give it my best.
My children and I
My children see me as their father and not as an actor. Yes, they watch a lot of my movies; my daughter is my best critic. Beyond that, what I’ve been able to do with my children is that we are close. I’ve made them my friends. It would be wrong for them to see me as an actor. It would only be proper for them to see me as their father and friend. Both come first. So, if they don’t see me as an actor, it is better for me.
People often ask: ‘is he not a Christian, How come he’s kissing in a movie? When I hear something like that, I laugh. It’s part of job hazards. The point is that at that particular time I am sending a message. No, I don’t smoke in real life but I smoke in movies. I found out that this has become one of my greatest character enhancers. There are some movies where I have to play all kinds of roles. I find out that the cigarette I smoke in movies is a great enhancer to my characterization; it really helps. But it stops there. Yes, I’m a minister with the youth fellowship of my church. Since 2001, I’ve been in that ministry at Family Worship Centre in Abuja. I teach the youths and in teaching the youths, you see aspects of yourself that you need to correct.
In-fighting in AGN
Actors Guild of Nigeria is a place that demands people with core values in terms of leadership; people who understand what the guild stands for. Not people who are running the guild for their own pocket. But I thank God today that the Directors Guild of Nigeria is now a reference point. But I would always admire the Ejike Asiegbu’s tenure in AGN. I understood what he wanted to do. His idea was to revolutionize the industry and set it on a professional platform.
But when you have some people who have lost focus in what AGN stands for, it becomes a problem. So, the guild’s problem is simply borne out of the fact that the right persons are not there yet. But like I said, you cannot compare the structures in DGN and AMP to the rot that has been happening in Actors Guild of Nigeria. Until we are able to sit together, keep our ego, throw them away and say ‘let us settle’ the problem in AGN will continue.
Solutions to AGN crises
You see, it’s something that connects; the structure determines everything; if you don’t get it right at that particular point in time it will be difficult. There’s hope because there are some persons who I pray don’t disappoint us. If Association of Movie Producers and Directors Guild of Nigeria get it right, every other person in the industry would toe the line. Because if I’m a producer, I know the kind of scripts I want to do. I know the kind of director I want to use. I know the kind of actors I want to use; I know how my end product is going to be. If AMP and DGN get it right in dictating content and set an advocacy for content, professionalism, ethics, and distribution, we will get it right!