Personality Interview : - Amaka Igwe, star film actress, writer, producer.
NO doubt, Amaka Igwe is a household name in the entertainment world, especially in television and movies. She has stamped her authority, thanks to numerous roles she had played in the home video industry. Is it to mention her movies like Rattle Snake, Violated and many others, or the soap operas like Checkmate, Fuji House of Commotion or the new Solitaire, or Tempest which saw several artistes on location? Or is it to mention the TV market she organises every year named Best of the Best TV (Bob TV) for short or the regular fora she holds for film makers to share ideas, critically assess their productions and move ahead? But in this rare, exhaustive chat with Saturday Vanguard, Amaka talks more on her childhood and several issues she had not told anyone before.
My dad was Isaac Ene, from Obinagu-Udi in Enugu State. He was a civil engineer, someone who put the fear of God in everyone around him. He was very principled and taught us to strive for the best at all times. He challenged you so much. The fun times were when we would sneak into his study to enjoy his stories. One of the most interesting one was how cassava came into Igboland from Fernando Po. There were many other funny ones. He had names for his children. He used to call me GOC (General Officer Commanding). He saw that kind of character in me.
I played football earlier, not now. He would carefully be watching with his friends. I was a little rascally as well. He gave each one of us responsibilities. My younger sister was in charge of his shoes and stockings. I was only 16 when he died in 1979 at the age of 56. That's my regret. A lot of other people knew him better than we did. He was involved in nation-building and was one of those instrumental for the creation of Enugu State which they called Wawa State in their presentations. His peers were late Justice Augustine Nnamani, Byron Onyeama. The documents for the creation of Enugu State which they proposed are still in our house. It was when he died that we decided to add his first name to our names.
My people of Obinagu held him and still hold him in great esteem because he wrote their history at the age of 25 years. The book is there. He became the life president of the Development Union. He organised the chieftaincy such that there were no squabbles. He rotated the chieftaincy to every section of the town so that you didn't fight for it. When they said he should be the chief, he quietly declined. In summary I think my dad gave us tremendous principles and philosophy. These are the memories I have of him.
My ties with Lola Fani Kayode
I would have to say she is a very peculiar person. She was one person who rejoiced in the success of the art. To her, one person winning was nothing. She saw her success as everybody's own. When I was doing Checkmate, she asked to see me one day and I was overwhelmed. And when we met, we talked for three hours about the way to do things. It was so funny that the people who had issues with my director or when she hears anything, she could call me to discuss. She also called me when people were trying to sabotage Checkmate. Some people also asked her to produce a soap opera to antagonise and defeat Checkmate. She called me to let me know. I learnt several things from her. Like what she told me, I work with artistes and not stars because she says artistes are professionals while stars are in heaven whose images are longer than the work they have to do.
That is the principle that has guided me over the years. Acting is a serious work, it is not just a walk in the park. It is a lot of work which takes a lot for the artiste to internalise the roles and replay back. It is not egwusi (soup) and pounded yam. It takes a lot of concentration because the character you are playing today is not like the one you played yesterday or the one you will play tomorrow. So Lola Fani Kayode and I had a meeting point in that area. I have always tried to work with people whose character would be different from the character they are playing somewhere else especially in soap opera. There are so many things she said to me about the industry.
We lost touch but I got a message from her about two weeks ago and it was good for me. If you must know, we met while I was doing Checkmate. Incidentally, we lived close to each other. She sent one of her staff with a note to say she wanted to see me. I remember I started combing my hair to prepare to go to meet one of the people who inspired me. I had replied that I was on my way but she said no, that she was on her way. By the time we concluded what she came to discuss with me and I saw her off, we spent over three hours outside, just chatting. I asked several questions and she answered. Of course, you know she was one of the very first independent producers and she was young. We discussed about being the feminine sex in the world of men and all we needed as survival strategy. It was not easy. So many people would not want that to happen. So, we shared one or two secrets. I respect her a lot.
I conceived Checkmate by watching Mirror in the Sun really. I had written a script about an all conquering female hero like Queen Amina. I wrote it like a traditional stage play thing. When I saw Mirror in the Sun, I decided to make it a modern all conquering female hero story. I tired to play with all the male chauvinism, the societal issues as they concern a woman. That was how the concept of Ann Hatrup came up. She was a young girl trying to run her father's multi-million naira company. That was a challenge. To get a young girl to run that company because her father was ill and his elder brother was a drug addict. So, every issue of how this girl survives the entire environment is the entire challenge. Because I saw Mirror in the Sun, I had to learn the format of injecting other issues. Thus, the soap now becomes several stories in one story.
We moved in with the issue of Osu caste system, then the sexual harassment going on in the university community where I was coming from at that time. You have about five different stories running simultaneously. Of course, I wrote it and believed I could find sponsors for it. I tried my luck with the then Anambra State Broadcasting Service. It was in the process I met Peter Igho who used to come to Enugu then to do NTA projects because Enugu was a production centre. He was then doing New Masquerade. I even was part of those who wrote scripts for them. It was then also that he told us the story of how Paul Emema also got sponsorship from them.
I learnt from this to do a pilot of the programme. I didn't want to sell out the right just like that. I wanted to be involved in the project. And because I didn't want to just sell it like that, I moved to do a pilot of that show. I raised money from friends and family and did it. At that time Lever Brothers Plc were in search of a new soap to replace Village Headmaster which they just rested then. So, I just presented it to them. I was new in Lagos after spending most years in Enugu. That was one time I believed in my life that merit worked in Nigeria. I didn't know anyone even before I submitted my pilot and they already had eight other presentations before mine.
I think it was God that made it possible. Those who played in that pilot were Marius Ugada, Bob Manuel Udokwu, Kunle Bantemfa, IK Ekeoma who ended up being a Press Secretary and Commissioner in Imo State, Chinwe Owoh who is my auntie, (Seggy) Mildred Iweka, Tami Abusi played Anne Hatrup (later she played Eno). Lasa Amoro also was there with us in the pilot. I can't remember the long list, it was done during the era of Basi & Company in Enugu.
But only two people from the group remained during the eventual production. People like Bob Manuel Udokwu and Kunle Bantemfa. That was why I took Rattle Snake to Enugu because I understood the production community so well. I am actually the first person to take home video production to Enugu.
When I wrote Checkmate I was actually a master's degree student of University of Ibadan. When I completed, I got employment with the Anambra State University of Technology, (ASUTECH) now ESUT. I was working in the library as the head of research. I studied library, archival and information science at master's level. I went to lecturing full time and part time. I was teaching full time course and for sandwich students. There were very few people who had that qualification. I was more or less a pioneer in that area. I also had several things to do with the radio and television. I wrote scripts, produced and presented segments on TV. I was part of Space age with Prince Orji. I equally wrote for New Masquerade. I also did tele-movies for ABS TV with Uzor Amadi. We did Decrees of Faith and presented at NIFETEP. I wrote that script, a story of Olauda Eqiuano which we presented. I got a national award for that.
Art runs in the family
Arts, writing, drama are familiar things for all of us in the family. The first time I saw a production being done from start to finish was when I was in primary one. The script was written by my sister who was in secondary school then. The drama had my brother acting about three or four roles and my sister as well. I could say all of us were involved. That was my earliest contact with production. But I know we are creative people. In primary school, no play came without my being there as an actress, director or driving force. It passed on through secondary school and the university.
During my National Youth Corps days, I took drama all over the place. It was stage performances, not TV. It was when I graduated and came to Enugu that I started learning about TV. The studio at ESBS is still the best in the country. I think the then governor, Jim Nwobodo had a great foresight here. The studios we talk about here in Lagos will just fit into one studio in Enugu ESBS. All the sets of Basi and Company were done at ESBS studio. Even at that, there was still enough space to host their news, the live programmes and so on. There were altogether six sets in that one studio alone.
In studio two, they had the New masquerade sets - Chief Zebudaya's sitting room, his kitchen, his bedroom, Jegede's home, Natty's house once in a while. They were working regularly week in and week out and there was a continuity room. The studio is massive. I had gone to see what was going on and I fell in love. I had seen Lola Fani Kayode work, so my drive was accelerated. I started learning. No one knew I had a master's degree then. I went down to learn the ropes. I watched them work, read a lot, asked many questions and so on.
I was bread and buttered in, but jammed outside Enugu. I went to All Saints School, now Ekulu Primary School, Girls High School Awkunanaw, Enugu. It is not a school I am very proud of. Life was tough there. When I left that school to do A levels at Idia College in Benin City, I saw the difference clearly. I mean I couldn't believe we were all supposed to take the same exams. You were amazed that people came out of that school and still did very well. You got to a school where people ate beans and dodo (plantain) and two pieces of meat while in Awkunanaw Girls, oh my God, let's not talk about that.
You were lashed and given all kinds of punishment. Somebody would ask you to fetch eighty buckets of water and pour it on the ground to reduce the spread of dust. You can imagine! During the inter- house sports, they didn't want the spread of dust. I saw it as unimaginable. And we did. But some of us would dodge. Some would carry half buckets. That was horrible. I mean, how much would a tanker have cost to deliver water to wet the ground and reduce the dust? I won't forget. I think Igbo people make things hard for themselves. I also remember when we used to fetch water for our food in the kitchen, and you would see tadpoles and other worms. Sometimes, you found it in your food and you carefully removed them and ate your food.
I saw the difference at Idia College where we didn't have to fetch our water, we didn't have to wash our clothes. Junior students didn't have to work. It was the senior students who counted the plates. For me, it was culture shock. My arts inclination was also encouraged by Idia College. I did plenty in Awkunanaw Girls but when I got to Idia, they were not doing much so I had to become vibrant. I started to do Variety Shows Nite for my House which students paid for. I acted and directed the plays. I also taught them Atilogwu dance. It became the school dance which we took to Ogbe Stadium then.
At that time, I was very skinny. I was called Ogwu Azu (fish bone). I became fat when I had my first child. We also had Festac, a cultural festival for the Houses at the end of year in Idia College. It was competition among the students. I also featured prominently with lots of certificates to show for it.
From Idia College Benin, I went to University of Ife where I studied Education/ Religious Studies. It was a serious disappointment for me. I desperately wanted to study law but when JAMB came out, I was given education/religion. I didn't know how that happened and I didn't want to go. My sister was a teacher at Idia College and advised me to go and expect a change in my second year. I spent several months at home before going.
You see, all things work together for good. My sister knew the lecturer who was at Uniben (University of Benin) who could assist. I bought another form and the form was given to the lecturer whom when the form was required for submission, it was tucked in the man's files in the office, and wasn't submitted due to ASUU strike. That was how I ended up studying Education/ Religion. But I don't regret anything now. I think it's God's grace. What I studied in the university must have prepared me for what I now do. I got stuffed with a lot of psychology, sociology, theology, philosophy and the entire arts and humanities. It's a combination of two things really, education which gave me everything about teaching and communicating. I have a broad spectrum of knowledge about people and cultures. Writing for over 250 different ethnic groups, and getting people to understand you from everywhere takes some knowledge of their world view. That's an area in my life where's God's power is biggest. I mean when you make mistakes, it becomes good. It happened to me.
When we were doing Checkmate it had to be business strictly. We were dealing with an agency and a multinational company. So, you had to interface on that level. But let me tell you, I am strictly a bloody artiste. Before then, I had written about four soup operas which were aired free without anything into my pocket. I didn't care. I had done for Bartholomew Aneke, Harvest of Tears which was running simultaneously with Checkmate. It was aired on ABS TV between 7.30 to 8.00 p.m. while Checkmate came after it at 8–9 pm same day. It was good for me. I was happy. I also did a script for Dr. Meki Zewi for his EPI World Bank Immunisation project. I wasn't paid. I used to just write because I wantd to.
Luckily for me, just as we were getting involved to take off, my cousin, Emeka Ene set up an information technology company, Eida Information System, servicing the oil industry and made me the manager. He taught me everything. I had to account for even 50 kobo. I had to say what I did with the money. I also learnt banking because I was never allowed to keep money at home. I translated that to managing Checkmate. I used the same business approach which I learnt from my cousin to move on. I am still an executive director in that company.
In those days, I felt he was a miser because he was working with Schlumberger outside this country. But looking back, I cherish those years. So, I ran Checkmate as a company. I applied business methods. God helped me even further because when I married, I got married to a man with an MBA in business and finance. He was the one who finally put the things in real perspective. He owns his own company and puts us in check and consults. That is the real business angle to it. When we want to do any work, there is a lot of research in place. We worry about who is going to buy, where we are going to find the buyer. We do pre-sale for what we do. Most people do not know, Solitaire had quite a number of supporters. We were just doing the appreciation list a few days ago and you see a long list. The furniture was supplied by somebody, the welfare, the location, the drinks, everything was paid for by some people.
Charles Igwe, my husband, brought in all these into the system. In my imagination, he has cracked the business of this industry. Even in the sales, the things he does with the product is unbelievable. Sometimes, we make the money before we go to the market. It is our trade secrets. If you want to hear further about Mr. Igwe and where I met him, then you don jam rock. I am not going into that area. You see, we may be in public focus but we should also have our private lives respected. Thank you for your understanding.
Making films is stressful
I see making films and soaps as challenging projects which take time. I don't think I could do as many films with the same stress and commitment that I give to the films. For instance, it takes me an average of a week-plus to edit a 30-minute episode of Fuji House of Commotion. In the same vein, I work hard at the things I do. I have a contract with the public to entertain them. It is an unwritten contract but it is very close to my heart. If my job is to communicate with them, then I must do it right. From the research of the script and what the people want, it takes me a very long time. Ultimately, I have to do it right so that the audience would buy into it as soon as I put it to their sight.
Like Violated, Rattle Snake, we just do our normal premiere and when people see them, they get interested. Let me tell you, all my productions challenge me. But the one that readily comes to mind is Rattle Snake which I did as a rookie. I had shot a few episodes of Checkmate and ventured into a movie. I didn't know much about camera angle. But I had directed stage which is different. Again, Rattle Snake was edited into eleven hours. So, we had to cut it down to six hours. It was very long and voluminous. The film dealt with three generations of family and cast. Thus, we were all on the search for those who would fit into already existing characters. By Violated, I had learnt quite a lot. I had taken training. It became easier but still challenging because I was dealing with a different group of artistes. I wanted to do better than Rattlesnake.
I think there is a wrong notion that the Censors Board should be a watchdog out there to breathe down on the industry like an old headmaster. That's not the fashion anywhere in the world. It is a classification board. You say children should not watch this, you don't just have to put 18 years on it. You are expected to go to the theatres where these movies are exhibited to make sure that children don't enter the theatre to watch it. Like in Egypt, for instance, when the Prince of the Nile by Steven Speilberg was done, Egyptian law said it should not come into Egypt because it has the story of Moses' departure from Israel and portrayed Egypt in bad light. They didn't allow it to be shown or sold in Egypt . The country was being protected from what it perceived as influx of foreign interest. A country shouldn't be seen as destroying its own art. I don't mean to say that there are no excesses from some of our movie makers in the industry.
The Censors Board should stop seeing itself as the watchdog. Some of the movies which would cause some troubles in Nigeria should not be allowed to be shown in Nigeria. In US, the industry does its classification. In Nigeria, we are so used to this issue of regulation where we have to line up for anything. Film making is a language. The film maker is speaking and could say anything. If not, the newspaper could not be filled with different innuendoes on the President. There is press freedom, why not in the movies? We should ask ourselves what is the proper benchmark for censorship? If it is all about national interest, I don't think any Nigeria movie maker could make films against national interest. But if it is all about morality, then whether we like it or not, Nigeria has a lot of issues where that is concerned.
I am not saying we should do pornography. But there is an influx of it coming into Nigeria. We have not been able to ban them from being imported. It is even on the internet, free for the asking. They even pop up on your screen even when you don't want them.
Quality issues in the sector
By my reckoning, the industry is just thirteen years old. By my reckoning, it is just a teenager. In-between the issues, in terms of quality of production, we are almost there. I call it black magic. Forget about those who worry whether it is celluloid or not, the feeling is the same. One is more difficult, studious process while the other is easier. But it is the same film production. We have achieved a lot. A lot of people who studied film making abroad live and die without making one single film whether video or film. We have blown up that mystic.
The industry has employed several people and we have also entertained millions. The quality of life has changed. But because we have found this success, we haven't looked at the basics, I mean the pillars that hold the industry. We haven't looked at the issues of training because most of us did not study it. Most of us only came into it with our raw talent. We need to know the rules and understand them so that when you decide to break them, you know it's your choice. We need to put academic background to what we do.
Then the issue of distribution hasn't been touched. The people who are now doing the marketing are now at the limit of their abilities. They are now holding unto the old movies with so much energy. We will praise them for doing that but it is no longer adequate because the market is inadequate. The issue is that they must make new plans because some foreign people are already coming to do it. The issue of festivals is also there. The festivals we have are very few. They all resemble one another.
Working with Nigerian artistes
RMD (Richard Mofe Damijo) is an artiste I respect. He believes in my work. I enjoy working with him. We may have our differences. But we sort them out for the sake of the job. There are also other artistes that I respect. For the others, I always look at those who would be able to interpret scripts. It took a while for me to make the casting. I work with people who are decent. People who know that being an artiste must not make them take their personal lives unseriously. People who are orgnised and have good character. They internalise this character and bend down to work. I interviewed quite a number of people. There are several people whom I don't want to work with. Like in the last work I did, I called someone and he said ok and didn't show up.
Some would come and say 'ok, this role is very easy.' Once you say that, I won't take you. No role is easy. You have to internalise the role and character. I know when you are nervous and I know when you will be real. Some of the artistes have their reputation preceding them; I avoid those. Then, there are a group of actors who are just shylocks. They just collect the money and take off. They are not interested in the project. A soap opera is a project which belongs to everyone in the project. It is not for that person who is only concerned about how much he or she is going to be paid. No, soap operas don't even pay any money. You won't believe it, in Solitaire, no one asked me for the money. Now, the payments are soon to be made and we want to compute all the episodes they are and offset the bills.