Florence Onuma is one of Nigeria’s screen divas you would love to meet. She remains one of the longest serving Nollywood acts today. Florence has been in the movie industry for 15 years and still enjoys it because acting to her, is a God-given talent. “I started acting professionally in 1994, meaning that I have been acting for 15 years. I read Theatre Arts at the University of Jos which made it mandatory for me to act on campus. I was acting on stage as a student,” she states without preamble.
On the genesis of her acting career and how she felt the first time on stage, she says: “Well, like I said, acting wasn’t strange to me. Although I was out of the scene for a while after my graduation in 1991. I came back to the scene when the home video became the vogue. I was scared in my first acting role because I was crammed together with so many stars. To be frank with you, I had butterflies in my stomach. I was shivering and all that. We had the likes of Ngozi Nwosu and Jennifer Okere. I came when Franca Brown, my senior in the university, was about to shoot a movie, and I was asked to play the role of the mother of three girls-Franca Brown, Ngozi Nwosu and Jennifer Okere. It wasn’t easy really but I took up the role and I did it well. I brought in my stage experience. Although I was a lot younger, I could not imagine myself playing the role of a mother to these women. Yet, I did it because that was acting. So, I carried myself like an old woman. I had my make-up done, and with my frame made to look far older than my age,” she says.
When she was taking her lines the first time, she fidgeted. “It wasn’t easy the first time I took my lines. I wasn’t flowing because I was scared. I asked myself times without number how I was going to compete with those stars but later, I got my lines perfectly. And since that time till date, I have not fumbled.”
A decade and half ago now since she joined Nollywood, she excitedly looked up to the experienced acts like mini gods. But today, such excitement is in up-and-coming acts. “Well, these days, things are not the same because Nollywood has grown to such an extent that people blend faster. When I was starting out, there was a great gap between the stars and the up-and-coming ones. You looked at the stars then as mini gods and they carried themselves as such. But these days, you blend, even when you are meeting for the first time. We just make you feel at home. So, they (up–and-coming acts) don’t really have much problems. But I think I prefer what we had then, where people that had proved themselves were respected. Although the arrogance was there, I still preferred it that way because these days, there is no more respect from the up-and-coming ones. They expect to be treated the same way as the older actors. If you have paid your dues, for goodness sake, you should be respected. Respect should be given to whom respect is due. But all the same, it is good for us to work together as colleagues and help the up-and-coming ones to grow.”
Onuma says lapses in Nollywood are glaring. “There are a lot of lapses in Nollywood. One of them is the way things are done unprofessionally. I mean the haphazardness in Nollywood should be corrected. This has been my major prayer point. Movie-making is a serious business; it is an intellectual thing. Yes, it is all about entertainment but the intellectual aspect of it should be treated well.”
How? “Scripts should be written well; actors should take their jobs seriously; they should interpret their roles well, but the way we go about it is something else. For instance, it is not right to bring actors on set only to tell them that the camera has a problem; or that the other actor is not on set, or that you couldn’t get him and then you keep others waiting for a particular person. Or that location is not available, food is not available and so on and so fort. When you are set to shoot a movie, let everything be in place. We know that there are things you cannot avoid, but let it be minimized.”
This screen diva mentioned money as another major problem. “Then, in the area of finance, film-making is a capital intensive project. The era of waking up one morning and saying, ‘I have five hundred thousand, I want to shoot a movie,’ should stop. Reason is that there is no way any good movie can be shot with five hundred thousand naira. It’s not possible. There are good films that are being produced in this country and they cost money. I know acting is all about talent, interest and the love for it, but money comes into play because money is a motivator. Few people put in money to produce films and they come out well. And when you watch them, you are entertained, educated and informed.”
One other thing she fumes about is the fact that roles are not given on merit in Nigerian movie industry. “Roles should be given on merit. Why I’m saying this is because, when you watch the ‘E’ station on DSTV, you find out that they are super stars. You may not call the stars to come for audition with up-and-coming acts. The stars should compete among themselves . That gives room for improvement. You don’t make somebody believe that it is just you and you alone that can act a particular role. People should be given the opportunity to improve. If I know a seasoned actor is competing with me for a particular role, I will do my homework properly. And when I know I didn’t get the role on a platter of gold, that I proved myself, I will be happier. So, the issue of cliques in Nollywood has to stop. It doesn’t give room for improvement.”
There are some roles she won’t accept, not even for a million dollar prize. “An actor should be able take any role. I know where your question is headed to. Romance, nudity and what have you, right? There are ways such roles can be handled. You don’t have to be vulgar about it. You want to send a message across. It is not decent to see people openly make love on the screen or even kiss or smooch. There are ways you do such roles. We are Africans. You see, in America, in Hollywood, in their society, people make love on the streets, it doesn’t matter to them. They kiss on the street and nobody gives a hoot. In Nigeria, we don’t do such things. Sex here is a discreet affair. Some people have started complaining that they don’t buy Nigerian movies because they don’t want their children to learn rubbish. There are ways you shoot a love scene decently and you send the message. That’s the major thing, sending the message.
“So, if they bring such roles and say I have to do it in a vulgar manner, I will tell them that I cannot.”
What are your reasons?
Number one, I’m African. Two I know that these things can be done in a more decent way, and you still send the message across. Three, I know that I’m a married woman. I have a husband and children. I have played some love scenes, and I normally tell my director that there is a limit to how far I can go and if he doesn’t want it, I wouldn’t take it because I wouldn’t want any ‘Wahala’ in my marriage. I was watching a movie with a friend the other day, and two actors (a girl and a boy) were kissing. I mean deep-tongue kiss. And my friend asked me, ‘are you sure the man is not aroused?’ I said, no now, that it is all about acting. But she disagreed with me and I had to tell her that there were some other people in the room watching them. I knew what she was saying. They have assaulted her sense of decency by that movie. And of course, no parent would like his or her child to watch it. There are ways such roles can be decently done. But here, the director would tell you, you have to do it and make it real. If it comes to that, I will back out.
Can you tell us what is new about you and what you ‘re into now apart from acting?
Right now, Chidi Okoroafor a colleague and I are working on a project known as ‘Ejirimara’. This will go on air on Ogene Station of DARSAT. DARSAT is a new satellite television that is on board right now. It’s owned by DAAR Communications Group and Ogene Station is a 24-hour-Igbo channel on that satellite. It’s going to focus strictly on Igbo programmes-Igbo documentaries, Igbo soaps, Igbo movies just name it. Anything that is going to be done on that station is going to be in Igbo language. So, Chidi and I just felt that we should be part of it, from the start. We also have other things on board but we are starting with ‘Ejirimara.’ And in ‘Ejirimara’ we are going to showcase Igbo artistes. It’s like personality profile of sort, with a touch of class. It’s not going to be interview alone, but it is interviews that are dramatized knowing the kind of things we do. So, if you call yourself a star in Nollywood and you are Igbo speaking, you should feature in ‘Ejirimara’. You should be identified with it because Igbo language, I believe, is dying, yes gradually dying. So, we are trying in our own little way to make sure that we revive it and we are starting from ourselves. We started Igbo films initially, now Igbo film is dead and Yoruba people are still shooting Yoruba movies and everybody is saying that they are waxing stronger in their language. But what is happening to Igbo language? That is why we said, okay, this is what we do, we can use the same tool to say okay please revive Igbo language. That is basically what ‘Ejirimara’ is all about. So, if you are a star in Nollywood and you have not seen ‘Ejirimara’, get ready and come on board.