On December 8, Madu Chikwendu will gather fellow movie makers of Igbo extraction to discuss the possibility of returning to the old ways of making films in Igbo language. The jaw-jaw, he told Deputy Editor, Charles Okogene, in this interview, will hold in Lagos under the auspices of Igbo Film Conference.
Whose idea is this Igbo Film Conference?
I am the initiator; though it is a presentation of Lagos International Film Festival (LIFF) which you know we have been organising since 1996 under various names. I am sure you also know that we are not having the festival this year but to sustain it and to ensure that this year we also make an input, we launched the first in a series of cultural interventions to focus purely on reclaiming our cultural values. So the conference on Igbo film is the first in this series.
Why are we not having LIFF this year?
First and foremost, there are issues of financing; since 1996 till date, my company – MCN Group – has been financing the festival. In the past we got a little support from one or two agencies of government like Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) and National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) but it has grown to a level where a donation of N200, 000 cannot sustain the festival. And from the point of view of the practitioners themselves, do they appreciate the sacrifice that is been made by our organisation in presenting this festival every year and ensuring that there is a forum for them to meet and discuss the latest trends, films and award prizes to deserving people? It is a lot of burden on us and so we think that we need to get enough financing to be able to present the festival properly. I have been a member of the Federal Government delegation to many international film festivals around the world and we know how festivals are organised and the knowledge to organise it. But when you don’t have funding, you may begin to look incompetent. To attract the best films from all over the world, you need to have a price that is attractive enough and you also need to be able to invite great filmmakers; for instance, if we want, we can get Will Smith. If the price is right you can get Angelina Joli, they go festivals all over the world. You need money for their insurance, bodyguards, you may even need to charter airplane for them, that is what it takes. So I think that we need to go to the point where corporate organization would put their money where their mouth is. It is not about empowering a few people and you say you are developing the industry. That is not my idea of developing the industry, if they want to develop the industry there are concrete ways of developing the industry in terms of creating infrastructures. For instance, a film festival is very a veritable way of developing the industry this is because it brings filmmakers together and you go to film festival to seek for financing for your films among other things. We are working round the clock on the film festival and that is why we are having this conference; it is the first in the series of intervention. The next intervention is that we are going to award prizes for indigenous films; we have not been doing that in the past. Again, this is a way of encouraging people to make films in indigenous language because the language we are using in making films in Nollywood – English – is a second language. And you can see that only a few of the actors are able to express themselves very well in English. We need to transcend all that barrier and you will agree with me that the success of Yoruba language film industry, it is because the practitioners have been able to capture their audience and interpret the films in their own language. Same for what is happening in the north with Kannywood.
However LIFF is an international organisation, we are not tribal, it is not about let Igbos have their own, no. It is about promoting African culture and the African language is a very important component of the culture, so we are also going to make an intervention for films in Yoruba and Hausa languages but it may not be from the point of view of making film in Hausa or Yoruba because they are already masking films. We are starting by saying ‘let us make films in Igbo language’ because films are no longer been made in Igbo language even though I am aware that there are about two, three films that been made right now. For instance, the Anya Igbo Filmmakers are making a film with Emeka Ike in the lead. But there are having a lot of challenges because this is an association making a film. It is not like where a production company makes a film and it is treated as a business. The production has been going on for some time now. So we want investors to get interested in the business and also get the film makers to understand that they must not make films all in English language, that they can make film in any language of their choice. There is nothing to be ashamed of; Tunde Kelani is one of the greatest Nigerian film makers and most of his films are in Yoruba language and does not reduce from who he is. When Mel Gilbson made The Passion of Christ it was made in Amharic which was the ancient language of the Jews. So you make film for a number of reasons and in this case, I am aware that scholars have said that Igbo is a dying language, we don’t want any language to die and I do not want to go as far as speaking English is a form of colonialism, no. that may be too extreme. We are just saying that our own language and culture should coexist with others so that the standard can be the same. Is not that when I speak English I am already at a disadvantage because English is a second language. If you look at here in Lagos social circle, a lot of families are suddenly realising that their children cannot speak their indigenous language. This needs to be addressed as a major cultural and not tribal issue. Is not about give us our own; it is about the totality of African culture. For instance, we are hoping to partner with the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC) and they are very keen. In fact, the whole project is generating so much interest more than what I had expected.
If the conference is not about getting Igbo movie makers to produce films in Igbo language, why was it not called conference on indigenous languages’ film?
Thank you very much; in fact, that is a very interesting idea. Normally, you move from the known to the unknown. In the case of Igbo film, there is a very clear problem. Films are no longer been made in Igbo language and of course, I cannot ignore the fact that I am an Igbo – that is one. Secondly, if you go to Edo State, there is a huge industry and they make films that sell 80 to 100,000 copies but what Edo language movie requires is a different kind of intervention. For me as a cultural activist, film maker, distributor and a festival organiser, we are going to organise a programme on Edo language film. At times, when you narrow an issue, you give it more focus because it is difficult for us to lump all of them together because they all have different problems; if you look at Hausa films again, the output is huge, though they don’t sell as much as the Edo film and they are not as united as they make us believe. They also have issue with censor’s board especially in Kano State; so when we make an intervention on Hausa film, it will be from that stand point. And because resources in our disposal are limited, and because we want to do it this year, it is not possible for us to handle the logistics of intervening in all. If we do not want to create an interface between the Hausa and English language film, then how do we make say a Lagos film sell in Kano? Each time we hear people say we are a country of more than a 100 million people in Nigeria and why can’t my film sell at least a 100 million copies. Have they asked themselves what is the purchasing power of Nigerians, did you make your film for a 150 million people? There is Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo languages industry, when you are casting for a film did you consider the Hausa market or did you just take Emeka Ike and presume that an average Hausa film buyer will like him and forget to cast Hajia Hawa Meina, Dan Maraya or their own local stars. Even in terms of thematic treatment, we know that the north is sensitive about certain issues so do you think that the kind of films we make here in the south where people drink, smoke, where women are been kissed and caress will appeal to them in the north.
Is this conference not as a result of the outcry that greeted the non availability of African Magic Igbo on DStv?
Not necessarily, however, there is the issue of content. Where is the content? If this conference will encourage the production of Igbo films, that will be good.
What if it does not?
Certainly, it will; we are talking with Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Aka Ikenga and all other major Igbo cultural groups because you must remember that this industry needs funding; remember also that our objective is not just cultural, it is also economic because we all know that things have been bad in Nollywood for some time and if we reactivate the production of Igbo films, we have opened a new economic vista.
Living In Bondage, an Igbo language film, popularised Nollywood; how come the Igbo lost it in filmmaking? What went wrong?
I cannot presume to have all the answer to that question because the film was a success. That is part of the purpose of this conference. However, I can just make a casual observation by saying that there were several factors. Remember that the same Nnebue who produced Living In Bondage, continued but by the time he made Glamour Girls, which was in English language, he created a new movement all together. At that time, Nek Video was the pacesetter; I remember that time that anytime he brings out a film, the price in the market change. And I think that by transiting to English with ***Glamour Girls****that the industry also moved with him and he did not return to Igbo film again.
If you say the industry moved with him, but the Yoruba filmmakers did not, why?
The Yoruba film industry had always been there so it could not have been affected in anyway by the actions or inactions of Nnebue or any other Igbo language movie maker. That was what happened because somewhere along the line, everybody forgot about it without realising the cultural implications. And again, Igbos seems to be the most unconcerned about their culture. The Igbo is the most likely person to speak English even in a gathering with his brothers and sisters. It does not make you less refined if you speak your language because what the Englishman is speaking is his language. I think it is unfortunate that there is Hausa, Yoruba channels and there is none for Igbo. That, however, does not mean that the conference is a call to arms to fight for Igbo channel on DStv.
What are we to expect at the conference?
Like I said, a lot of people and organisation have identified with the project; we are even planning to honour the cast and crew of Living in bondage. A lot of them you will agree with me are no longer active but not by choice but because Igbo language films where they have good command of Igbo language are no longer been made. I was on the original cast of Living In Bondage but I went out to do a concert at the Lekki Beach with Seun Kuti; nobody gave the movie a chance, it was like a joke but at the end of the day it turned out a huge success and created what is now known as Nollywood.
So you were actually in the cast of Living In Bondage?
Oh! Yes, I was.
How and why did you lost out?
At that time, while in the University of Port Harcourt, I was a show promoter. And when graduated and came to Lagos, I continued; we were doing Lekki Jeans Carnival and a lot of things. At that time was this concert for kids at the beach and I was involved in it and I thought that it will be more fruitful than the film. I left for the concert but the movie turned out a huge success. I was there at the rehearsals with the likes of KOK.
Is it because you do not want the conference to look as if it is a tribal thing that is why it is holding in Lagos instead of Enugu or any other Igbo town?
No. And I have no apology that I am an Igbo man. There are issues of logistics and since we are all based here in Lagos, it makes a lot of sense to host this first edition in Lagos.
Back in the days, we used to call you controversial Chikwendu, are still controversial?
I haven’t changed much; the only thing is that people have come to understand me a bit more. My parents were teachers and they brought me up to always tell the truth but as an adult, I have tried to deviate from the path of truth and found out that one is better off telling the truth. So this so called controversy tag is because some of us like telling the truth in a nation where majority prefer not to say the truth.