Bimbo Manuel is already a Nigerian movie industry icon. Perhaps not for the very few movies that he has featured in but for the fact that he holds a radical view concerning the goings-on in the movie industry. That has not deterred him from speaking his mind. Manuel is more than a Nigerian actor of movies. This producer, director is particularly crazy about stage and television. He has starred in several major stage productions. He has also acted in a handful of movies including “Kingmaker” and “Executive Decision”. Terh Agbedeh had an interview with him recently.
Terh Agbedeh; Bimbo Manuel, you are fresh out of a stage production, can we talk about that?
Bimbo Manuel: It was an Ariel Duffman Script. The story is that he is one of the people that escaped the Pinochet era in Chile. While in England he wrote that piece. It is a script that has a message for any society that has just lived through a dictatorship and is now entering into a Democracy. That makes it very appropriate for the Nigerian society. It was directed by Chuck Mike, Bimbo Akintola was in it, Keppy Ekpeyong Bassey was in it. Geraldo Escoba is the lead role, which I played.
TA: How old is this play?
BM: It was written in the 90s.
TA: How did you get to be part of the cast?
BM: Well, it was a bit of a story actually; I honestly was not looking at stage. Before the script came in I had a very full table. I was playing in a couple of films. I also was involved in a health project, with my wife for the mentally challenged children. And I just got this call out of the blues. It was Chuck Mike. The moment I heard his name I knew something was coming… he got me to read the script. He liked what I did apparently.
I got home, put it down and went to something else but I found myself reading it again in the night. It was a very difficult decision for me to make. It is a job that I am glad that I did.
TA: It has something to do with helping to better the human race, just like what you are doing with the NGO project, could that be the reason why you played the role?
BM: I would say yes because… well it was a few factors, all playing together at the same time. In the first place it was something that we were able to do to put a little back in the society. More than 90% of the jobs that I have done have been driven by a vision of purposefulness, so to speak. I have hardly done any job that has not been driven by issues. And this was an issue that caught my attention.
TA: You know I could actually call you a crusader for the good of humanity.
BM: Crusader. I will be cautious to use a word like that, because it is not something that I set out to do deliberately. It is not a conscious effort. It is just that I am more convinced about a project when it is issue driven.
TA: Would you say that the three of you did very well in this production? It came out like what Chuck intended it to be?
BM: I guess so. There is no way that the players could have judged how well we did. But people did stand up. They gave us an ovation. If that is a measure of how well we did then I would say we did extremely well.
TA: When I called you earlier you told me you were working on some productions. I like to know what movies you were working on?
BM: The last film that I did, which was smack in the middle of rehearsals for the stage performance. That was …what was that again? “Executive Decision”, that is the title. It was produced and directed by Ernest Chucks. One of the upcoming boys on the block. He has done some jobs in South Africa. He directed the Guinness project in South Africa. He's done something in New York twice.
TA: “Mama Grace Tori o!” that is something different. Let's talk about that.
BM: “Mama Grace…Tori o!” is a… it started out as an experiment. A long time ago, a very long time ago. When we set out to see if we could carry intellectual messages across in pidgin. If we could carry cerebral themes to the lower levels. Without losing the essence of the message, without being seen to be patronizing to people. So it was an experiment and it started with “Gbegele”. This was a social critique in pidgin. It started in the year 2000. I also did a presentation in Indianapolis, San Francisco, talking about using pidgin as a mass communication tool.
TA: Judging by your measurement would you say that the experiment was a successful one? Did you succeed with Mama Grace?
BM: We did, we did an awful lot. “Gbegele” transformed a one man show into a two man presentation really. Then the sponsor of the project, Ajinomoto, became convinced that they could get a lot of mileage from the play so they decided to experiment. And it was the first time they were going on television. “Mama Grace” was drama.
TA: “Gbegele” transformed into “Mama Grace”?
BM: Yeah. We like to call it pseudo comedy because it is not the usual ha ha ha! kind of comedy. It is more in the reality that the players experience. We played against “Passions” [a popular soap]. it's from South Africa and people told us, several people, told us that they'd rather watch that than watch “Passions”. It was quite popular.
TA: Right now there is talk about Box Office, also about regulation of the industry and there are guilds for every sector of the industry. I like to know, are practitioners in the industry better off now than it was say ten years ago?
BM: I guess that depends on where you are coming from. In terms of money yes, but in terms of fulfillment…I would say that it is worse now. The actor is worse off now. But if it is in relative financial returns, I will say that yes, there has been a lot of progress. A lot of the actors are doing better now. But you ask yourself how is the training now? Most actors in Nigeria have been made from Television, I came from Television. A lot of other people came from Television. Keppy (too). The true actors were not made in the movies.
TA: What you are saying is that we are probably not going to see the real actors coming out of the movie industry, that the industry is not producing the real actors at the moment?
BM: The movie industry is not doing what Television did for the actor. In those days, Nigerian Television sought and developed raw talent. People given opportunity based on capability, based on merit most of the time. But it is different (in the movie industry) we may have big names in the industry, you may have fantastic visibility and all that but the question is, is all that being matched by the professional expression, is it being backed by true creative identity. There are so many of those actors whom I believe did have, great talent, that have been swept away because maybe to their own detriment they have insisted too much on a standard for themselves.
TA: Is this why you have not featured in productions in the Nigerian movies in recent time?
BM: I will not say that it is in recent times. My friends say that I am a fringe person in the movie industry. If that is defined correctly, I am tempted to agree with them. I am a practitioner; there is no doubt about that. If I would need to do extra professional things to get recognition then I would rather go after my daily bread. I find expression for my art in other areas. That is where “Gbegele” has come from. That is where “Mama Grace” has come from. I write copy, I write documentaries, I am a voice-over artiste. I am a professional director. So if people say that I am a fringe person, to an extent they may be right. In front of a camera that definition may truly fit. But it is also because I have chosen my work very closely. Those things have a historic quality to them.
I am not very popular among my colleagues because I tell them that each time they do the things that they are doing, they are putting mediocrity on a pedestal. Which is what has been happening. The measure of what we are doing has been what is coming out.
Are our films truly developing anything fresh? Are we satisfying ourselves? Since we started ten years ago have we done enough to justify ten years of practice? We have more people now. We make more films now. We are now shooting on DV. We now edit non-linear. But those are, if you ask me, there is nothing radical about all those developments. I do not feel that we are better than we were ten years ago.
TA: What does the industry need to do to move away from mediocrity, this minus-ten years, that we have had?
BM: Yes, it is indeed minus-ten years. It's so simple really but nobody wants to do them.
One is honesty… Let's all be honest with ourselves. Putting the industry before our own personal interest. I have told people that whatever we do now as people who have opportunity to take charge of the industry and bend it in a particular way, history is going to remember us for what we have done. If we can begin to say it does not matter to us whether we are Igbo or Yoruba, Delta, Isoko or Hausa. What is important is that my name lives and the success of my children who might be interested in this business may be achieved. There are no reasons why we should express any bitterness, any resentment, so to speak, towards anything that comes outside Nigeria. In terms of creative television or radio, if we have the kind of opportunities we have and have refused to develop beyond that point where we are and other jobs come from outside and knock us out… It should be bad business for anyone in South Africa to think of bringing a creative work for exhibition in Nigeria. We should make it bad business for them not by shutting the door on them but by making sure that they cannot compete. We have a hundred and fifty million people and some films sell less than ten thousand tapes. And the man is content to just make a little extra money and move on to another mediocrity.
TA: That takes us back to Box Office. They tell us it will take care of such a thing. What is your opinion about that?
BM: I am being very honest with you. I am still trying to understand them. What is Box Office? The Box Office that I know starts from finished production. After your select viewing, Cinema owners begin to pick from across, everywhere, then what you recoup in giving periods begins to give definition on how well you have produced and marketed. I may not have described it properly but those are the things that I feel are the true content of box office. It's about how good the job is. Apart from being an avenue for distribution Box Office also helps to underline the quality of the job that the producer/director has done. This is part of the problem. We are focusing on the money, it begins to depart from the realm of show business to the business of show. It takes the art out of it. People will continue to produce the same mediocrity because of that extra income.