Professor Emeka Okoli, whose field cuts across the arts and the social sciences, is quite an engaging personality. A man of many parts, he has been instrumental to several initiatives in the communication and entertainment world as well as journalism, Cinematography and Television production.
Okoli, a senior Fullbright Fellow speaks with our Correspondent, Okey Maduforo, on a wide range of issues covering the media, Nollywood, ethnic conflicts in Nigeria, among others. Excerpts
Take a look at the movie industry in Nigeria. Do you think we are progressing or retrogressing?
Whether you like it or not, technology is like Tsunami. If you stand still, it sweeps you away; if you swim, it sweeps you away. There was a time Readers’ Digest was something everybody wanted to have. But do you know Readers’ Digest is out of print? There was a time when if you came into a home you would see Encyclopedia Britannica. Do you know that when Encyclopedia Britannica was going out of business, they thought people would still come their way? But they had to survive; they now have gone electronic. You remember the big round record, and all that. Even the cassette is going out of stock. MP3 is now the in thing. You see, technology is very dynamic and the sooner we lax unto it, the better for us. Yes we have elapsed in this job. When we were doing Photography, we had the negative but now we have the electronic camera. You don’t need chemicals and all these dark rooms any longer. So we have to be willing to change. When I did Photography, we had all these big two-by-two cameras but now a small camera with 12 mega pixels can shock you. That is what we are talking about. Coming to Nigerian movie industry; that was a word that was never even dreamt of by history of information, film division and all that, those days. If you look at the computers, when the mainframe computer came out, it was almost looking like a three-bedroom, but now look at your iPod.
So these things are always moving and we have to be willing to move with them.
We churn out about 50 films in one month but when we go for film festival you see only one or two Nigeria films coming up. Why is it so?
When you have an industry that is so dynamic and can generate funds, you have people, charlatans, people who don’t understand the terrain jumping in to do what they don’t how to do. In the US or UK, for instance, to get into the Actor’s Guild, you don’t just walk in from the street, you go through training. But what you find in the movie industry in Nigeria is that if anybody can look through a hole, he becomes a cameraperson. It doesn’t work that way. We have bastardised the profession to the point that we just make sure the films are coming out. Once you do that, you compromise quality. It takes months to produce feature films in the US. The budget for special effect in US films will produce three hundred movies in Nigeria. These are cheap, low level, low production, low cost movies, but again we don’t want to begin to compare apples and oranges. However, I praise our people for their creativity because most of these people use small cameras, toy cameras in the industry but they produce for our population. You go to offices, you find people leaving their jobs to watch Nigerian movie. And by the way, a company in South Africa has been smart enough to corner that market as a distributor.
If there’s no money in it, why would they be there?
That’s what you should ask yourself. Basically, I applaud our people. If you remember, it is the traders, people, who didn’t go to school that started this in Aba and Onitsha. So these people that started this saw the potential for making money and they went into it. Gradually it’s been professionalised, and I see Actors’ Guild, Directors’ Guild.
Apart from the picture quality, let us took at the contents of the films?
Well again, that is all part of it. If the script is not of top quality, then you have reduced your chance of effective production by 50 percent. Then you look at the quality of acting. There are actors that are natural.
There are actors that when they move, you want to watch. For example, when you see Patience Ozokwor, you think of the evils in the society because she is beginning to personify that. In any film, you expect her to do something sinister and wicked. I pity her, because I don’t want to be cast in that way because whether you like it or not it has a way of haunting you. I will recommend Patience to refuse those parts for a while. If you see her now, it’s difficult to cast her in an executive westernised role, if not for the wicked mother-in-law that goes to the witch doctor at night and comes out to do evil things. Also, Osuofia cannot be cast in a very serious role. He is a comedian but a good actor that can play both of them very easily. A good actor knows when to switch off and switch on and play the part very intelligently. Some of our actors are good. I don’t know all their names but when I see their movies, I love to watch them. The problem is that we are so stereotyped and used to particular faces. We sell faces and not the movies. For instance, in the last five years, we are yet to see good discoveries of young, raw talents for the industry. We keep seeing the same faces occurring in every poster.
You still see Sean Connery but now he acts as an old grandfather. Actors don’t die, they metamorphose. Pete Edochie is the grandfather that has a trick up his sleeves every time. He will always be there. Olu Jacob came from the stage. I think, he is natural; he knows the art of acting. But it goes back to our Performing Arts school. What are they teaching? If we are smart enough, we should begin to groom our people for the stage. It’s just like television interview, I teach Presentation. I watch some of our people who do interviews. You don’t use such chairs that are in the sitting room because they drag you in. Some government officials don’t know how to sit. When you do interview, they don’t even know how to communicate. You see some of our people they sit in an awkward way, and the kinds of chair you use during interviews are not good. Unless you want to do an interview where people just sit around and talk but if it is serious interview, you sit up. So these are some of the things that I think people should bring into play.
You have struck at something people should know about. Let us look at our television industry. How would you rate the sector?
There was a time when we had only a few NTA stations. Now the state stations are here, the private stations are here; NN24 is there. NTA is going 24 hours, so competition is good. When the private people come into an industry; the industry is more prone to rise up and stand and the consumer benefits. Look at telephone, there used to be time when if you wanted to call overseas, you would go to NITEL and queue but now you can pick up your phone and call anywhere. We have advanced, it’s just like years away but we need infrastructure to support this growth.
Where does government come in here?
Government provides the enabling environment, just like the Emeka Mba’s group is trying to do. That is the copyright thing. They are trying to protect the industry but the government’s job is to create the enabling environment for the citizen to be creative. If you go to India, for instance, every corner is thriving with ideas. That is why you can’t push India down. For us, we have Aria-Aria Market but it is being bastardised because of kidnapping. If you go to Nnewi, there are industrial clusters. Look at Alaba. These are places we should encourage to grow. Infuse technology, create rankings, so that all the small industries will begin to come in. If you go to Aria-Aria Market, you will be blown away with what those people produce. That is where government should come in, but unfortunately many people who are in government don’t understand. Politics is around, there are so many people running around, wanting to win. Winning is one thing serving is another. This is why in America if you win an election, they judge you in the first 100 days. If you haven’t made it in 100 days, that will be indicative of how you will perform in your four-year term.
But in Nigeria we say that 100 days are just too early?
That is because people run for office not from manifesto perspective. They have no idea what they are going to do. Take for instance the local government chairman who is going all over the place trying to win by hook or crook. He just wants to get to office but when he gets to office ask him, what agenda he has. He doesn’t know.
You are also a journalist. How do you see the print media?
The print is endangered specie. Any print media that doesn’t get into cyber space is going to die. It is because the brick and mortar world does not exist now without the help of cyber space. Even in the US, it is now paperless environment. Even in currency, they discourage people from paying cash but with credit card. So we are going very much into paperless environment. How many people write letters and go to buy stamps to post? Letter writing is going out. How many people walk from one office to the other? To talk they call on the phone, they send e-mail, they blog, they do all sort of things. We live in a cyber world and that is why any information passed out in cyber world goes across the globe like that. So newspapers, in fact many Nigerian newspapers, are in cyber world now, which is incredible because they now have a case of cyber property. You don’t have to be big to have it.
All you need is a good customer friendly website and that’s all. Just give them the information they are looking for. Today people don’t have time to sit down and listen to the summary of the news, forget it. If you want to be bored, sit down with CNN for one to two hours, they will be giving you the same thing. You know why, they don’t expect you to sit down for thirty minutes. They expect you to be on the run, so they give you this and by the time you go to work and come back they’ve had time to change.
On your return to Nigeria, were there film companies producing movies?
No way, but we had village headmaster and all that.
Where did Herbert Ogunde come into the picture?
He was an independent producer. He was more or less in Television. I watched all that happened. After Nigeria Youth Service Corps (NYSC), I was part of the media team that produced Christian half hour on some of the Television stations. Then I moved to Owerri because I have always wanted to own my own business and set up a photography business, which turned out to be first of its kind. I had a three-bedroom flat as a studio and I was leaving on an upstairs in another two bedroom flat so we set the standard for photography in the Southern Nigeria.
What’s the name of the company?
Top Rank Studio. I started it; we were photographers to celebrities like late Dr. Sam Mbakwe, Solomon Lar. I was a celebrity photographer, but then I still needed more. In 1987, my wife and I decided to move to the United States. I went to the United States did some work, went for Masters in Photography, Film and Television at CBN University. While there, with my project, we revived CBN news, i.e. Christian Broadcasting Network. It was my project that revived that. From that project, we created two positions; one was occupied by Victor Oladokun. I called Victor, and then the other one was to represent CBN in Nigeria, which I was interested in but somehow we didn’t get that in progress. Then I secured admission to go for PhD in organisational dynamic in Howard University on scholarship. So I felt that was a better thing to do. I went and finished my PhD in record time. By the time I finished, I had an opportunity at Nor Folk State University as an assistant professor. So I went from zero to professor in three years. I am very privileged and I stayed at the State University until I retired.
How do you see the controversial Freedom of Information Bill that has not been passed into law?
It should not be controversial if our leaders are honest and transparent. You see if I have something to hide then that bill becomes a threat. And there’s no way you can hide from it now. Look at Wikileaks. I remember I was in India when they were about bringing the CNN; they were fighting it in Saudi Arabia and some other countries. But you can’t do so again, not even in Iran. Cyber space is beyond what anybody can control. So, the sooner we pass that bill, the easier it is. Once you pass it, you remove people’s attention but as long as you keep it under wraps, they will keep speaking about it. Look at wikileaks for instance. Wikileaks has set the international dialogue on its head and the diplomatic world is in trouble now. So sitting on the bill shows that we still don’t understand. We still operate with brick and mortar mentality in cyber environment. It doesn’t make sense.
Conflict resolution is part of your bias. As senior Fullbright Fellow in Nigeria, what is your take on that?
Let me give you an incidence. When I first got back, I was taken to Jos after one of the crisis. I went in company of US Embassy. They had just killed people during one of the crises and they invited me to be a part of the discussion. In that kind of environment where people are held and they are in pain, they’ve lost loved ones, they’ve lost properties, and you are very sensitive. I’m a certified mediator. So, you’re very sensitive in what you say how you say it and what you don’t say.
So when I stood up, I looked over and I saw Muslim men, women and others. So that was a test of conflict management. I could be stoned there if I made any mistake. I stood up and I asked questions, how many of you here have seen a Muslim or Christian killed. I said okay, what colour was the blood of the Muslim or Christian? When I threw in the clincher, I said if underneath were the same is it possible that the things that divide us are on the surface and can be dealt with. You could suddenly see the atmosphere change. That you are called Boko Haram, Maitasine and all that are interest based situations. There are some few people, group that are benefiting from these things. It takes one or two to control a crowd and usually the one or two have an agenda that is well articulated and then they go into the society and pick up one or two town criers for them. They don’t get hurt. The people who get hurt, if you ask them what happened, they don’t know.
Today we have MASSOB, Arewa youths and Oodua Peoples Congress claiming to protect the interests of their ethnic zones. How will you describe them?
Usually, there is what we call balancing of power. I will give you an example. You are a boss in the office and you’re really mean to your messengers. They cannot look you in the face, and tell you to get off but how do they do it? Your files will start missing so also your appointments; they keep forgetting things and embarrassing you in places. You see they are fighting back. That is what we call the mosquito principle. The mosquito is small but it can make you not to sleep on your N10,000-bed. That is balancing of power. You slap yourself even on your bed because of that mosquito that does not have any energy, nothing to harass you. So when you talk about the militant, first of all, let me say this, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s guerilla. Now, in an inter-ethnic based environment, if I see that my interest is not being protected or that if I’m not strong enough to defend my interest, I go underground and start deflating your tyres. I am fighting back but I’m not fighting back in a way to let you crush me. Are you catching it? I was a consultant on the Niger-Delta desk in the office of the vice president for eight months. I grew up in Port Harcourt, so I know what is happening in Rivers State and the riverine areas. You see, when somebody of low power sees somebody of high power willing to sue his or her high power to destabilise and silence the people of low power, they go underground on you, because if they come face to face you will run them over. That is what is happening. Something like what the MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta) people are doing, I don’t support it because there are better ways of sorting things over. Dialogue is there. If you blow up the pipeline, when you want to build, you pay in the long run.