Emmanuel France is one of the most featured faces in the Nigerian movie industry. At 71, when many of his colleagues are writhing with pains, the bearded actor is still bubbling with ideas and zeal that catapult the entertainment industry, which he claims can fetch Nigeria the same fame and fortune that oil is providing the nation. In this interview with IBANGA ISINE, he shares his experience, dreams, best moments and regrets since he started acting.
CAN YOU SPEAK ABOUT YOU BIRTH AND EARLY LIFE?
My name is Emmanuel France, the grandson of the first Sarkin Sabongari of Kano. Even though not a Nigerian, my grandfather migrated from then Gold Coast, now Ghana and lived in Kano where he became the first black District Officer, later the first black magistrate and then the Sarkin Sabongari of Kano. In fact, the street named after him is still in Kano.
I was born at No. 32 France Road in Kano and I attended St. Thomas Catholic School with eminent Nigerians like late Air Commodore Ikazabo of the Nigerian Air Force. He was the leader of our sack race team in the school. He was an undisputed champion in sack race. Late Gen. Sani Abacha was four years my junior as St. Thomas. From St. Thomas School, Kano I went to Hussey College, Warri in the present Delta State. I later moved to African Church Grammar School, Abeokuta where I did my Higher School Certificate. That time, we took Cambridge exam and I left African Church Grammar School in 1965. I was in Hussey College from 1958 to 1962. After the Kano riots in 1953, we had to relocate to Jos. It was in September 1966 that we fled Kano. The Kano riot was the outcome of the coup that took place in February of that year.
When the crisis became so severe, we had to leave Jos for Ghana. In Ghana, I did a course in School of Journalism in Accra. I stayed in Ghana for thirteen years. In fact it was in Ghana that I started writing scripts. I wrote my first script in 1967 for the Catholic Church and that was my first professional drama that was staged and it was entitled the “Mission of John the Baptist.” It made a good outing and even though it was a stage performance, Ghana GBCTV saw it as a very good material and that was the beginning of it. I later joined the Ghana Film Corporation in 1969 and shot my first film, “The Market Day” that year.
That took me to a number of films that I shot. Like “No Time to Die,” that was a documentary on road safety in Ghana. I also shot a film sponsored by the Ghana Fishing Industry that took me to Angola in 1974. When I came back, the GBTV gave me a job and I started writing the script for one of the best soup opera in Ghana then called Osopurazi but the recession in Ghana brought me back to Nigeria where I was born because even though I was writing and became very famous, I wasn’t paid commensurate remuneration. And so when I came back to Nigeria, I joined the Nigeria Television Authority as a contract staff. I became one of their script writers. In 1983, the NTA organized a workshop which resulted to the creation of the Tales by Moonlight and in 1985, the same workshop with some experts from the British Broadcasting Corporation, produced a lot of script writers and producers who later became the pioneers of Nollywood.
Among those, who attended that workshop was Andy Amenechi, Bon Emeruwa, Zeb Ejiro, Ralf Nwadike and many others. After that workshop and the emergence of “Living in Bondage” by Nnebue, the Nigerian home video industry started like wild fire. But unfortunately, those who were schooled like the professors in the arts and humanities didn’t see the viability of the nation’s film industry. But spare part dealers and traders in Alaba Market saw the prospect in the industry and took over and before one realized it, there was Nollywood.
ARE YOU SAYING THAT TRADERS WERE THE MIDWIVES OF THE NIGERIAN MOVIE INDUSTRY?
I tell you that spare parts traders in Lagos started what has come to be known today as Nollywood. The whole thing started in Lagos. Before we could say Jack they were already producing themselves, they were shooting by themselves in a very crude way but something was coming out that thrilled the public. Not long after the emergence of the industry, Nollywood became the third in the whole world and today it is number two. Not by quality anyway but by the number of films churned out. But we have made useful strides that have led to the recognition of the industry all over the world.
Unfortunately for some of the founders of the industry, like us, we have not benefited much apart from the fame we have enjoyed. We have advocated that at least part of the money made from films be set aside as a Trust so that those who have experience like me could get some money based on agreement and then go produce film and then pay back with some interest. But as you know, in every profession, there are cliques and if you don’t belong, you cease to matter. All the same, Nollywood has done well and we are still looking that things will get better. We live by faith and the bible says the just shall live by faith.
HAVING BEEN AROUND WHEN THE NIGERIAN MOVIE INDUSTRY STARTED, CAN YOU TELL US THE NUMBER OF MOVIES YOU HAVE FEATURED?
I stopped recording the number of movies I featured when it got to 373 including television drama, soup opera etc.
YOU HAVE SPOKEN QUITE A NUMBER OF LANGUAGES IN THE MOVIES YOU FEATURE. CAN YOU SAY HOW MANY LANGUAGE YOU SPEAK?
I speak seven languages including three from Nigeria. I speak Yoruba, I speak Hausa, and I pick up Igbo because I have acted some films with Igbo cultural themes. Most of my friends and school mates were Igbos. I also speak three languages in Ghana having sojourned there for 13 years. But I would tell that the languages I speak in films have something to do with professionalism. I remember I went to Tanzania and there we shot in Swahili. I don’t speak Swahili but professionally, you could adapt when money is involved.
DO YOU HAVE REGRETS IN THE COURSE OF YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN THE NIGERIAN MOVIE INDUSTRY?
Call us veterans or anything; we are just veterans by name. Apart the films we have featured and given Nigeria a good name. Nigeria has made a good name from Nollywood. Those who were the founding fathers of the industry have not been recognized. It is only when somebody dies, the people will shout, oh he was a good actor. I know many elderly actors who have died unsung. For instance Garba of the ‘Village Headmaster’ and so many others died without people helping them. Sam Loco died and people started eulogizing him. When he was alive, people never sought to know what was happening to him.
Sam was my very good friend. He was the chairman of one of my daughters’ wedding. But what can we do? We have a guild that only takes care of its own pocket. You become the president of the Guild and you have nothing to show the members. We have a work force that is more than two million in the country. We have governors, senators, members of the federal house and top business men who like what we are doing but they haven’t been able to harness the goodwill of Nigerians for the benefit of members of the guild. Nothing is happening but of course we know that some people are benefitting but the elderly ones have been left behind. They don’t know whether we exist or not. It is a very unfortunate situation.
HOW OLD ARE YOU?
I am 71 years old and I have many children. I was 71 in April.
DID YOU CELEBRATE YOUR LAST BIRTHDAY?
What do I have to celebrate? Should I celebrate that I have worked in the film industry for 42 years and I don’t have a car because marketers look at me and pay me peanuts? And for the 42 years I have labored nobody has called me for an award. I think I have not been recognized because I am not yet an actor. May be when I become an actor, I will be recognized. People I groomed have been given national awards. Isn’t it funny? I remember when I met Aki and Paw paw in Aba about seven years ago. They said Uncle France, we have been coming here for two years now but nobody has listened to us. We come for auditions but nobody gives us the opportunity. I advised that they should get people to start writing scripts to depict them. I assured them that they would become stars and millionaires in no time. Today, they have received awards. I mean national awards.
WHAT IS THE HIGHEST AND THE LOWEST AMOUNT YOU HAVE COLLECTED ON A SCRIPT?
The highest money I collected was in Ghana. At that time, people there didn’t know I was a Ghanaian. They came to Nigeria and invited me to come and play a role and they gave me N2.5 million. They paid me in Euros and on conversion, I got N2.5 million. If you talk of the least, it is something you will laugh at. The least I have collected is N3, 000. And that was in 1980 and I played the role of a professor.
WHY DO PRODUCERS AND MARKETERS GIVE STIPENDS TO THOSE WHO BRING PROFESSIONALISM AND INTEGRITY TO THEIR SCRIPTS?
It is a matter of ignorance. Secondly, those involved in the industry are there for business and so they price us as commodities. I don’t know whether you understand what I mean here? When it comes to that, forget about your professionalism. The only thing is that you were invited to perform a role and they bargain with you and they tell you my friend this is what I am going to give you. Let me give you an example here. We shot the film, “Amina” in 1999 in Jos and Genevieve was being paid N7, 000 only and I was paid N70, 000 then. Later, they found a girl who could speak Hausa and English which was an advantage and they dropped Genevieve. Of course, she felt bad and I went to the producer and pleaded with him and he accepted to give her another role in which her fee was reduced by N2, 000. To cut the long story, I told Genevieve not to worry. I encouraged her that she has got prowess as an actress.
About four years later, I was on a set where I was being paid N50, 000 and Genevieve was paid N2.5 million. What would you call that? There is injustice, there is non-recognition of excellence. The language of the business is just profit. The film industry here does not have a structure and I thought that the government would intervene to create something that would drive the industry to greater heights. There are cliques and once you do not belong to the clique, then you are not recognised. Some of us can’t afford to be in cliques and that is why we are passing through hard times. I don’t know whether to call it good luck or whatever but I know there is an element of luck in every business. Of course there is also the issue of God’s guidance. At the end of the day, most of us who have the experience, who have the story, are suffering.
LET’S GO BACK AND LOOK AT YOUR FAMILY LIFE. HOW IS IT LIKE?
You mean my family? It is beautiful. At this age, would you say I am not married? By traditional standards, we don’t tell people the number of children we have. But I can tell you that I have children and grandchildren and I have a very successful family. I am married to one wife.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS A NIGERIAN OR A GHANAIAN?
I consider myself as a product of a united nation. I am not even a Ghanaian but a “Gold Coastian,” because my grandparents came from Gold Coast. They didn’t come from Ghana. I have a Nigerian Passport because I was born in Nigeria. I don’t have a Ghanaian Passport because I don’t reside in there. I didn’t school in Ghana. Ghanaians don’t know me as theirs. Nigerians know me as a Ghanaian. Of course that is what it is. I say it out because my parents come from there.
DO YOU INTEND GOING BACK FINALLY TO GHANA?
I stayed in Ghana for 13 years. I did my best for the film industry there but there was no recognition so I had to come back to where my umbilical cord was buried. My umbilical cord wasn’t buried in Ghana, it was buried in Kano. So my sojourn in Ghana was good and I learnt film making there but if I have been made, I would claim that my fame international came from Nigeria. I have a house in Ghana, I have a family there. One of my daughters is in Legon. You know I didn’t read Theatre Arts. I studied Journalism but I started acting in 1949 in Kano. It is what has been in me since I was born till now. I have done no other job.
The Irish missionaries of the Roman Catholic Mission first arrived in Kano and the Reverend Fathers and Sisters then organized poetry concerts to welcome new missionaries that came into the country. That was how we started acting. Each time there was a drama to be staged; the missionaries would point at me as the best actor then. They were so excited about the things I did. Therefore, my subconscious started absorbing and building up on what I learnt from them and when I went to secondary school which was one of the best schools in the country then. Hussey College was named after the first British Commissioner of Education in Nigeria. Hussey was the man who started formal education in Nigeria. Every year, we staged plays written by great writers like Shakespeare. The plays were arranged so that students of literature would understand the stories very well and would clear their papers during examination.
YOU HAVE OFTEN BEEN ASSIGNED THE ROLE OF A CHIEF PRIEST IN MANY MOVIES. WHAT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS?
It is because I do it very well. Haven’t you seen the films I have acted the role of a professor? There are many films I have acted. I have acted the role of a doctor; I have acted so many roles. I have acted the role of a thief, a rapist and I play all the roles very well.
PEOPLE WONDER WHAT GOES ON IN THE MIND OF AN ACTOR OR ACTRESS WHEN HE OR SHE IS MADE TO ACT ROLES THAT INVOLVE KISSING, CARESSING AND LOVEMAKING. HOW DO THEY COPE ON SET?
I’m surprised you are asking me this question as a senior journalist. What is film? It is make-believe. It may be real and it may not be real. But you are a professional. So you do it as best as you can professionally. You want to make it real, you make it real but the audience must believe in what they are seeing. They must know that what they are seeing is true. People weep on set. They evoke the right emotion and lead the audience to feel what they feel. That is the professional touch we are talking about. As a senior journalist, you know the right questions to ask, you take photographs, you investigate stories and write them well. If you bring a doctor to do what you are doing here, he will falter. What you are doing here is not diagnosis. It is an art. Again, if the machines you are using now get faulty, you cannot repair them because that’s not your area of specialization. God has made it in such a way that there are journalists, doctors, actors and actresses and so on. God has shared everything so that the world will be a better place for us all.
WHERE DO YOU EXPECT THE NIGERIAN FILM INDUSTRY TO BE IN THE NEXT TEN YEARS?
The industry wasn’t like this in the last ten years and so I expect it to be better. We have grown over the years and we are still growing. Someday, sometime, they would know and I think they know that apart from oil, the film industry is one of the greatest foreign exchange earners for the country. Unknown to them again, if Nigeria has a good image today in the world, Nollywood has contributed immensely to that development. Everywhere you go, you hear about Nollywood. I was in South Africa and of course, a prophet is not without honour except in his own country. We were assigned armed plain-clothed security men to guide Nkiru Sylvanus and others. We also got similar treatment in Tanzania, Cameroun and Ghana. People almost mobbed us. They wanted to touch us. Everywhere I go outside Nigeria, people always want to touch me. If the political industry in Nigeria will do as much as what the film industry is doing, then Nigeria will be a better country.
ARE YOU STILL ACTING NOW, SIR?
Yes, am still acting. In fact, I have four scripts in my bag as I speak with you now. I am preparing to go on set with them but I’m paid very little. I am just doing this to survive. In actual fact, I made tremendous investments in the country’s film industry but I have very little to show for what I have been doing over the years.
I am waiting to see somebody who promised to support me to tell the story of how Nigeria developed and how it reinvented its economy. I was born in the 40s’ and I know so much about this country that the younger generation don’t know. I have a story that could inspire the people and get them to adopt actions that could change the face of this country. Nigeria can be rich again if the people adopt better attitude and understand the nuances of development. If the oil industry is closed down and Nigeria invests all its resources in agriculture, the country will re-invent its economy.