Although, his works of many years have impacted positively on the Nigerian film industry, it is unlikely to find Ben Tomoloju, respected journalist, film critic, playwright and theatre director watching a Nollywood film. Rather, he would want to explore the interior parts of his roots at Ilaje in Ese Odo area of Ondo State by car or better still ride on boats over the rivers surrounding the neighbouring villages.
“ I don’t just go out of my way to watch them (Nigerian movies) except if it happens on me”, he frankly said.
Tomoloju who was recently honoured with a Lifetime Achievers Award at the Lagos International Film Festival believes that although, talents and expertise abound in the Nigerian movie sector otherwise called Nollywood, the tendency to lay on commercialization is ruining the industry.
The multi-talented artist, culture activist and writer, found time off the set of Ola Rotimi’s play, Kurunmi which he is currently rehearsing with the National Troupe of Nigeria and shared his views on Nollywood. He also spoke on his music career and involvement in politics among other issues.
I am currently directing Ola Rotimi’s classic, Kurunmi for the National Troupe of Nigeria as a guest Director. It will take me through Christmas and New Year season because the play opens from December 22 through January 2. Rehearsals have been on for over a month and we have just a few days to go before the show commences.
It is quite worth the while for the National Troupe to give attention to a play like Ola Rotimi’s classic work Kurunmi. It is a play that helps us get in touch with our history because it is a historical tragedy that relieves aspects of the past that will definitely provide ample lessons for the present in our aspirations to forge ahead for the future. This is just a summation.
There are so many ideas embedded in the life and times of Kurunmi, a former Yoruba warlord and Commander-In-Chief of Oyo army who had to confront the Alafin and the entire regiment of the Oyo army and was eventually subdued by the Ibadans.
Because I am directing the play it has to be different. I don’t want to do it the way Ola Rotimi did it. Matter of fact, my set will be different and there would also be something different about the casting. I may want to fill in what I think he should have applied or probably obeyed his instructions. I have to bring innovations into Kurunmi and reflect the freedom of the creative enterprise.
Why I write about women
The things I write come to me naturally. I feel very strongly about some things and I write about them. I do not set out to be an advocate of feminism but as a humanist the chord resonates inside me when there is something affecting a fellow human being and deserves to be given due critical attention within the purview of playwriting.
Some of my plays have had strong leanings or sympathies towards the cause of women. In Jankariwo, the aggression a man inflicts on women is highlighted between the councilor and Remilekun, his wife. You want to feel she is being given wild doses of what she didn’t deserve. In Mujemuje, there is a short conference of women which looks more like a play within a play where the women discuss and debate issues that affect them.
My feminist inclination is perhaps most pronounced in Iphigenia finds Ayelala, an adaptation of Iphigenia in Tauris in which the entire play is devoted to expressing women as mothers, healers of wound, advocates of peaceful co-existence as well as engineers of social equilibrium. Ayelala is perhaps the youngest goddess in the Nigerian pantheon. I have written a play on Queen Amina of Zauzau which professes a women emancipation tendencies.
Naturally, I would react naturally the same way in real life as I do in my plays. For instance, I would not want any hurt against women. They should have freedom to express their talents and skills.
Children taking after me
My first born, Tolulope has a Diploma in Law and is currently studying English and Literary Studies while the second is studying Mass Communication. The third is aspiring to gain admission into the university. I just want them to make progress as God gives them direction and become successful in life generally.
Involvement in Nollywood
I am not involved but I have delivered a number of lectures on Nollywood. Talking about involvement, I think the whole idea of Nollywood originated around my media activities when NEC videos used to visit my office at different times as Arts Editor, Associate Editor and Deputy Editor of The Guardian Newspapers. They used to come and seek publicity as well as get some counselling for their activities in the video/ movie industry. So I was quiet involved in the propagation of whatever they have become now right from the initial stage.
But as a producer, director and writer, I haven’t been involved seriously beyond issues pertaining to scholarship such as delivering lectures and papers. I have also been a member of several award committees on the sector. I have also participated in festivals such as BOBTV and Zuma Festival and I was recently given award at the Lagos International Film Festival.
As regards playing active roles such as going to locations and writing scripts, I don’t think I have to. If I will do it, I would because it is so special to me not just because I need any patronage. Although, I have produced one or two of my scripts but this are not deployed into Nollywood. Again, I still don’t want to be seen in the light of Nollywood. Let those who are doing it do it very well so that we all can share the joy of a collective heritage.
Views on Nollywood
I know that in Nigeria we have been conditioned to make the best of every bad situation. The situation that has made it difficult for Nigerians to produce movies in the standard celluloid format was so critical because there were no foreign exchange and all the production materials were imported. They even had to do post-production work abroad.
So when the naira fell people had to start innovating locally on the video format and later evolving into the digital format. Gradually we are trying to make something reasonably movie-like but it is not yet in the standard Hollywood or Bollywood format. Some of us are inclined to accept the effort of Nigerian moviemakers with the digital video format as something worthwhile because there is a very thin line between the movie language on celluloid and digital video format. The difference is that one is more enduring in terms of value and staying power.
Of course there is the cultural fact, one of my professors is still wondering why we should call it Nollywood and why we have to go after America. It wasn’t called Hollywood because of the movies, the place had been called Hollywood before the existence of the movie tradition. The idea of Nollywood is not rooted and scholars have argued that something more rooted in our culture and tradition would have been more appropriate. However, in terms of effort, one must not fail to appreciate the few good works coming from this community of moviemakers.
My most remarkable Nollywood movie
As soon as I happen on them, I watch some of these movies. However, films like Jeta Amata’s Amazing Grace has made much impact on me. Infact, I have gone out of my way to get such ambitious movies to watch with my family. We are very proud of the effort by the young filmmaker although there are some slips here and there. Some of the fascinating things about it are the cultural historical slant, the aesthetic perception, as well as the ambition of going beyond the ordinary and sheer commercialization and trying to live up to the challenges of great art.
Outstanding stage productions
I take every play as it comes and I don’t stop until I get the best possible out of it within my capacity. So, it is difficult for me to point out the most fulfilling or most engaging one. The parameters of scoring an ace in a production are the same. If I want to count, I will count many. For instance, Jankariwo is all over the place. Also, Mujemuje was well appraised in Italy like Jankariwo before it. Amona got standing ovations in some states in Germany.
Askari pulled perhaps the largest audiences in Nigerian theatre history because there were times we were having 3000 people indoors in the theatre and another 3000 people who are outside unable to enter. We have scored aces all over. Even while touring the North, Askari pulled the largest theatre audience ever recorded in that region and went on to tour about 20 states of the federation with a convoy of not less 12 vehicles sponsored by the International Community for the Red Cross and The Nigerian
Red Cross Society. Then the COJA presentation of Queen Aminar had the hall of the Art Council, Abuja filled to capacity such that we turned back some prospective audience. I am working really hard to see that Kurunmi clinches another ace in its own right and I put that in the hands of God and the talent he has given me and the little skill I have acquired.
My musical career
(Laughs) Well that was wayback in 1992. It’s not one album super star. It is not my making that we have not done a follow up to my first effort by Kakaaki-my original group. I had authorized Ras Kimono to use my Aja Kubo. I feel fulfilled there even if I didn’t release it myself but that can be done later anyway. I also went into collabo with my friend, Norman the Scottish Piper. I have been busy doing so many things especially now that I have to face my theatre enterprise because that actually is where my primary interest lies. I survive as a theatre, practitioner and as a consultant to many cultural organizations. Professionally, I am a dramatist and a directing playwright. Occupationally, I am a journalist. So, if you are looking forward to music, we will still do something. I can assure you on that as long as God gives us life.
On young Nigerian musicians
I seldom listen to contemporary music but even if I don’t, my children do. Some of them have their ringing tones filled with different songs. I have been trying to get one of Asa’s song as my ringing tone but my phone has been unreceptive. But I think a great job is going on in the popular music terrain in terms of enterprise, energy, packaging and promotions. We must recognize that although there may be a tendency towards over commercialization and nonsensicality. Examples are your Don Jazzy, D Banj, Wande Coal. For instance, I am not surprised at the sudden rise of 9ice. Go and listen to Were music and check Sikiru Ayinde Barrister and Wasiu Ayinde’s style of music and upgrade it to contemporary music. You will find 9ice in between.
Why I went into Politics
I have been nursing that ambition for a long time. My going into politics was informed by my determination to make contribution into the cultural life of Nigeria through political intervention. We could not contest after spending such huge amount of money. I didn’t pull out but people like Atiku and Tinubu just sit down somewhere and decide the people who represent the party.
I felt disappointed and I have since decided not to say anything about it but whenever I am asked I will say my mind unabashedly without caring whose ox is gored. I have absolutely no regrets. If I cannot achieve this, my advice is for other culture activists to go into politics. There are a lot of things to be done. Budgetary allocation to culture has to be increased. If half of what has been spent on sports is spent on culture, then we won’t be were we are today. There is no big deal about politics. Man is a political animal, I may still recontest in the future.
Fulfillment in arts
I feel grateful to God whenever people point to me as a great influence on their life.
It is not my making. I try as much as possible to use such acclamations and commendations as springboards to forge ahead.