by Eromo Egbejule
Eromo Egbejule reports on how filmmakers have camped south of the Niger and their painstaking efforts to benefit from their craft.
The serene tranquility of Asaba is sublimely deceptive, somewhat akin to the pretentious obliviousness of a woman to the antics of her cheating husband. But the city, which isn’t even the close to being the bubbliest in this region, is not only the capital of oil-rich Delta state but also the new capital of the forever blossoming Nollywood. Between 1000 – 15000 new titles are astonishingly released into the market every year – each shot on a budget less than $15000 – and more than half of that is shot in Asaba.
More and more filmmakers and actors are relocating to the small city for business – the business of moviemaking. Undergraduates from the tertiary institutions within the South East flock in every now and then to hustle for anything from cameo roles to crew positions.
I A Geneva of some sorts
In these parts the city has a minimal rate of crimes and lurking dangers, especially that of kidnapping which is prevalent in the neighbouring Anambra state. Its edge over Enugu and Owerri, its direct rivals, is the lower cost of living – and by extension, production. A variety of establishment shots for either urban or village settings are also possible in this city, quite unlike Lagos. Thanks to the efforts of the Richard Mofe-Damijo led Ministry of Culture & Tourism, lodging rates have been slashed to almost half the listed prices, for film stakeholders. A regular room at the Zenith International Hotel – where there is forever a multitude of hangers-on seeking to catch the attention of some producer – hovers cheaply between N2000 and N2500. More plush lodgings can be found at Juniuc Hotel – which is directly opposite the Federal College of Education (Technical) on the outskirts of town – for example, which charges film crew members N3500 for a N5000 room and so on. Upper Iweka Road, Onitsha joined hands together with Pound Road, Aba to forge an alliance that has over the years aided small-time producers who are ready to use small funds and few cast to produce inexpensive flicks in two or three weeks and edit in a couple more. The proximity of Asaba to Onitsha is an important factor in the transfer of cash and supervision of filming projects by sponsors and intending marketers. The new Asaba International Airport has added to ease of production with an increasing number of flights being added intermittently.
II The exterior of Zenith International Hotel
At first glance, it looks abandoned but is lively on the inside, just like a typical Mexican druglord’s warehouse, with its white paint already fading. The hallways are dimly lit but painted a cheery lilac. Here, for as low as N2000, one can get a room measuring xyx X abc – however they are dingy, unkempt. To the left are posters of several home videos with titles like One God, Two Troubles and … flanking the path like an incomplete guard of honour. There are hangers-on, mostly young men drinking beer outside and in the, scattered around like the seeds on an immature corn cob. Two directors – one of them is the popular John Collins – reside permanently here and they are partly responsible for the crowd that… The receptionist, a young lady in her early twenties with a shrill voice so apt for reciting lines in a stage play, announced proudly to me that several movies had been shot in the hotel, especially at night. I was welcome to come watch, she said.
And watch I did, but on another set where Director Sylvester Madu, with a head as clean shaven as a farm ready for cultivation, barked instructions on the set of a Jonas Izuegbu production at Airport View Estate, Okpanam. A few minutes after this reporter arrived the location, the lead acts, Walter Anga and spongebob-haired Chika Ike – whose bossom is heaving up and down in joyous adulation, thankful for the short break – come out for some air, red-eyed, while the production crew rearranges the set, ready to shoot another scene. They’ve been here since 10am, a production assistant tells me. Before there is a chance for some introductions, they go back in to resume shooting; with empty cans of Bullet in the wake. No ego issues, no tantrums, nothing. It is pleasantly surprising, unlike the case of an actress who recently stormed off the set of a US-based production, for being told to change her approach in one of the scenes. The plot of the movie isn’t entirely previously unheard of. A paranoid wife eventually discovers her spouse who is a member of a clandestine corterie has murdered their baby for ritual purposes. Her returnee aunt, played by Nwankwo, comes straight from London to find out her niece has been dumped at a mental institution. In the end, he goes mad and all is never well again but…to God be the glory.
Blessing Nwankwo, a mid-level status actor and graduate of Computer Science from the Lagos State University, LASU, keeps me company on set while she waits for the production manager’s signal to come shoot her bits. She refuses to comment on the script but readily replies me on the fellowship of Nollywood with morality.
According to her, “scripts are substandard because we have to conform to a moral code. When a child sees what the husband did in this movie and that he went mad, he unconsciously learns that evil is bad and there will be repercussions.” Most of such works churned out of Asaba are not of cinematic quality and are rarely ever submitted to the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAAs). Still, the actors are far more popular than their urban counterparts and this is an exodus of young actors across the divide, to the city by the Niger. “Yeah, I moved down from Lagos to Asaba, just for the sake of acting and I’ve done over 60 moves since.” Blessing shrugs. “I’m not married yet. But if marriage comes, I’ll combine both. I can’t give up one for the other.” Cases and rumours of cases of exploitation of youngsters finally and/or sexually are commonplace in Nollywood and Blessing nods in affirmation. “Desperation is the cause. I advise upcoming acts to register with AGN, then attend as many auditions as possible. But when they want to be introduced to someone, they run the risk of being exploited.” Sitting opposite us is Oluchi Nze, a 23-year old who plays one of the three nurses in the yet-untitled flick. She says little and nods affirmatively at almost every question I throw at her, her eyes fixated on the shoot – the third movie of her short career. The dazed look on her face betrays her evident pleasure of starring in a movie.
A farm settlement thirty minutes away from Juinuc Hotel, is the setting used for epic movies, with thatched huts and all other paraphernalia of pre-21st century life. Here, another group of actors were shooting an epic set in the 50s, with a commendable professional attitude. There’s Francis Duru, Paris returnee, complete in the right costume and a designer belt – the ancestors were so fashionable, eh – and his love interest, Uche Ogbodo, the snobbish Nkem Ike – who got her big break from the hit flick, Aso-Ebi Girls and a whole lot of unknowns. Ms. Ogbodo, often cast in the media as a difficult and egoistic female, repeated a particular scence over twenty times, until the director was satisfied, with a few inaudible sighs, the only signs of her displeasure. Duru meanwhile, was so engrossed in the shoot that his short breaks were dedicated to teaching syntax and semantics of French language to the rest of the production crew, rather than smoking or drinking as others are wont to do. No one was allowed to talk to me – save the production manager, nicknamed ‘Abuja’ – till the arrival of the executive producer, Chioma Okoye; further proof of the impressive professionalism and dedication to duty exhibited on set, even in her absence.
VI – Two sides of the same coin
There is a divide in Nollywood and the two parallels – Asaba Nollywood and Lagos Nollywood – coexist. The Lagos folks blame their Asaba colleagues for the below-par scripts, ludicrous titling, tell-it-all soundtracks and other issues that have given the industry in general, a bad image. Their rivals point out the discrepancy in funds available to both sets and some say with the amount of cash being paid to filmmakers by cinema operators, it is laughable that the scripts from the urban community are as good as their proprietors and voltrons make ‘em seem. The Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN), umbrella body of all thespians is seen as but a figurehead, yet remains the uniting platform for both sides, who – though they may not acknowledge it yet – are locked in a silent war to get the gains from Nollywood’s continued blossoming.
VII – Challenges…
“Lagos people are overshadowing us”, a young producer with the moniker, Great Prince Lee tells me as we stand on a dusty footpaths in Illah, watching the set of a movie in which he gives a cameo performance. Not more than 24 and without a tertiary education, he is among a number of producer hopefuls who shoot a movie on a shoestring budget funded by a passive partner, with a few big-name actors to moot – to boost chances of getting a substantial return after a marketer has bought the rights and distributed. The profit is shared 20% – 40% by both executive producer and producer, with the remainder being ploughed back into shooting another movie. In a few weeks, Gentle Jack, Junior Pope, Amaechi Muonagor and others will be working on the set of the ‘action movie’ he is shooting in Warri.Cosmetic giants, Petals Industries are doling out N3.4m; Lee is fervently hoping – and praying maybe – that the Onitsha marketers can offer as much as N5m. “But when Lagos people shoot, with big companies backing them, Silverbird will now pay like N40m or so. Big profit. Here, we just wait for Nollywood Plus and Africa Magic to pay monthly entitlements and we go our way.” Ms. Nwankwo agrees. “That’s why what we shoot in two or three weeks, Lagos people will take almost two months to shoot.
If we do like twenty scenes in a day, they do just five or so.” This is another root cause of the low pay for actors. While established actors and big names charge in the region of N400, 000 to N1.5m – Lee paid Tonto Dike N900, 000 for his last film – depending on the number of scenes they are to be in and the producer involved, budding actors are content with measly sums of N5, 000 to N50, 000, even if they are to be in twenty scenes. However, a way has been found even around this. Actors, old and new, hustle for jobs they can do concurrently – some even sending regular goodwill messages and wishes to producers and directors – so they can earn multiple pay in the same period. It is therefore not uncommon to hear crew members discussing at locations, how one actor or the other will not be coming around on a particular day because he is working on so-and-so’s set.
Confiding in me, a popular thespian confessed to being part of the practice, saying: “Everyone involved has to agree so different schedules are reviewed and agreed upon. It is done everywhere.” With so little a budget and so short a period to make one movie which isn’t guaranteed to even be a commercial success, there is a lot of pressure on producers and directors. So much that media and publicity is mostly not budgeted for. Indeed, the myriad of challenges confronting these filmmakers is such that in the end, maybe Nollywood – Asaba’s faction – deserves to be cut some slack.