To track down Sonny Mcdon for an interview was not particularly easy The reason is that Mcdon is almost everywhere working for Nollywood and projecting culture and entertainment. He was, in fact, among those who midwifed Nollywood in the early 1990’s. After 20 years on screen, he veered into film production and directing. He is at present the executive secretary, Actors Guild of Nigeria; the programme director, African Movie Academy; programme director, Abuja International Film Festival and Chief Executive of Port Harcourt International Film and Cultural Festival. On Saturday, October 4, 2008, The Source ran into him at the Protean Hotel, Maryland, at an event where the Screen Writers Guild of Nigeria held a week -long activity on writing for Good Pictures sponsored by the United States of America (USA’s) Department of State. The following discussion is the result of that chance meeting. Enjoy it.
Nollywood has come a long way from what used to be described poorly written and poorly interpreted scripts by interlopers, to well thought-out storylines. As one who was there at the teething stage, how will you assess the progress so far?
Like in every other industry or profession, there is always a beginning– from the expectant stage before hatching, then the move towards the dreamed height. Nollywood’s beginning was humble. If you look back from where we are coming, back in the early 90’s and where we are now, you will agree with me that there has been a great stride. From a dream then to what has now attracted the attention of the whole world. There has been, indeed, a big progress given the fact that it has been a private- sector driven venture supported by itself. And, of course, nobody gave it any chance of survival in the beginning. But it has conquered, it has survived and attracted admirers from far and wide . Europe, the Americas and Asia now pay attention when Nollywood is mentioned.
There has been challenges, though, and they are expected. We began empty-handedly but have moved on without any support from either the government, multinationals or any other sector. We are lone- rangers and we have conquered our environment, Africa, and now we are facing the world. So, I can tell you that Nollywood has made a gigantic progress, not just because of its wide reach from what was just a regional platform, but because of the obstacles it surmounted to make statements that now echoes far.
What motivated the pacesetters of Nollywood?
I didn’t feature in the first Nollywood film, I joined in the subsequent ones. It was a dream, an adventure. The type of dream that inventors and discoverers dream about when they are not comfortable with the way things are and want a change. Of course, television was frustrating to actors and producers. The television stations were very few, and they were only NTA stations in several states. And the NTA stations in the states were basically for vernacular audience. So the artists were there craving for attention that never came or came poorly. Then, some of us who where thinking creatively about the frustrations moved to break away from the poisoned hole that was NTA. The result was Living in Bondage and Nollywood was born.
From what you said, you obviously didn’t anticipate the kind of recognition that Nollywood has received since you started?.
No. We didn’t. The beginning was just to express ourselves. It was to have fresh air from the NTA then. And you know we started without most of the requirements in the industry. It was a raw beginning and we didn’t expect it would lead us to this height.
And your medium then was Igbo?
Yes, our first films were in Igbo.
Why are you no longer doing films in Igbo?
The Igbo films are still there, though they are few. What happened is that we transited from regional language to a more widely used language. We started with Igbo films and only a section of the country was addressed. The others were left out. So we thought of how we would involve others to share in what we were doing. So, we began to do the stories, which are of course our traditional stories, in English. And the reach spread, taking the industry higher. But there are still Igbo films, as other languages have theirs.
You are no longer seen on screen as when the industry was still young. Why? Are you now into another departments of the industry other than acting?
I must tell you, over the past 20 years I have done nothing, I have gained nothing, except what I got from the entertainment industry, home video in particular, Actually, I started as an actor in the early days of the home video industry, when it evolved from television, like I said. Before then, we were in NTA doing tele-movies, soap operas. And when the home video thing came, we started doing video. But I was actively involved. But at a time, I decided to go for training in other segments of the industry. I was trained in directing and producing. After that I started producing, and since 2000. I have been producing and directing. I was into active acting from 1980 to 2000. That was not a short time for one to make a statement in a field and move on.
Besides, there was the need to give the younger artists space to express their talents. The roles I played as a young man, I can no longer play now. So, younger artists must take over. And the part of a father, which is the only area I can fit in now, is not always there. Film is like fashion. You go with the trend or you are out of fashion. Right now, most of our movies are based on love stories. And love stories are mostly stories of young men and young girls and very few fathers. Among 30 characters, you may have only one father and, maybe, two uncles. The rest are young men and young girls. You find out that roles for people like us are becoming rare. So, we have to transit to other departments of the industry, like directing and producing. And there is also events management. I am, by the grace of God, the programme director for African Movie Academy. I am also programme director for Abuja International Film Festival, and chief executive of Port Harcourt Film and Cultural Festival. I am also envolved in Guilds activities. So I am actually very much active in the industry, from acting I have moved to organising one thing or the other in the industry. In fact, I tell you, African Movie Academy Award (AMAA), which I am also involved in, is so time consuming that by the time you go from one country to the other, meeting with other film makers to collect entries for the award every year, half of the year is gone. By next month, I have the whole of West Africa to cover for AMAA, to sensitise other film makers about AMAA and collect entries from them for the year 2009. When I come back, I will face the Port Harcourt International Film Festival, which is scheduled for sometime in 2009, then the Nollywood National Merit Award, which I am the director, comes up in December, 2009. And I have a soap opera that is supposed to take off in the first quarter of next year, which I am working on now. So, you can see that I am really very busy in the field of entertainment. Though you see me less on screen, my credits are always there in movies. If I am not producing, I am directing or involved in consulting for the production companies.
Looking back at the beginning when some academics dismissed what you were doing as very inferior and now that you and your colleagues are receiving international acclaim, how do you feel?
Yes, as I told you, sometime last year we were in London for one award; it’s called Zafa Award. This award was actually put in place to recognise Nollywood practitioners. Like I keep telling people, only the extremely lucky prophets are recognised in their homeland. Outside this country, people have made so much money with our works. People’s homes have been blessed, I must tell you, by our works which is based on our cultural heritage, especially those brothers and sisters in the diaspora. Through our films, they have been able to teach their household the missing link, their roots. The morals, the values are there in the films for them to learn. They know, for instance, that a child does not say “hi, dad,” with his hands in his trousers pockets in Nigeria. Or say to his parents, “stay cool popsy and mumsy, I’m going to see my girl friend.” They know from what we do that it’s not part of our culture.
They know it is not the way it is said where they come from. They know our foods, drinks and dances and jokes. They understand all these and more from the Nollywood films they view. And they value and appreciate Nollywood because, as Bob Marley said, ‘if you do not know where you are coming from, you can not know where you are going.’ So, those Africans in the diaspora who had missed their links are happy and grateful to us for linking them to their source. So, I must tell you that Nollywood has been recognised beyond our borders. Most of the awards that some of us have received come from outside the country, even before we started receiving awards from the home front here in Nigeria.
You are married?
Yeah. I am happily married with beautiful children.
How do you manage your job vis-a-vis the home front?
My wife is an economist. She happens to be the most wonderful wife in the whole wide world. She understands, and manages me and the children. She is simply a blessing to me.