I hid myself in the locker, recalls Jonathan Gbemuotor
His name, Jonathan Gbemuotor, precedes his physical presence just as his works speak volumes for him. Jonathan Gbemuotor happens to be one of the few directors of Pho tography in the Nigerian movie Industry as we know it today. With a very long stint with the Nigeria Television Authority where he started as a vacation jobber in the late 70s and actually cut his teeth, there are very few who are as experienced as he is in the use of the cameras as far as the Nigerian Nollywood is concerned. Yet, his humility and modesty readily disarm those who have come across him. We caught him off the set as he was just concluding work on the new block buster comedic satire, Banned In Nigeria.
“I had always wanted to be behind the camera in the sense that when I left school in 1979, the first job I ever had to do was that of a production assistant at the Nigeria Television Authority. It was a vacation job. Since then, I have been in and around production. I was a production assistant alright but I usually sat in the studio and must have started learning from there. My love for photography which started when I was a kid, increased. I recall that in those good old days when I was a kid, the present you would give me that really made sense to me was the gift of a camera. Sometimes I asked for the one that had flash.
So the fact that I am behind the camera, behind the scene in the business is not by coincidence but by choice. To be frank, my immediate elder sister, Florence, used to work in the NTA so while I left school and waiting for further admission, my mum said “why don't you find something to do”? So my sister spoke with the then Controller, Production Services, Alhaji Adegboyega Arulogun. So I was employed. Everything to me then was just fun because I would go to the studio and sit down and watch people work. Those days, they worked with these big camera, the Bosch camera, the Cannon camera. I was fascinated with the difference in the still camera I was given as toy and what I started seeing.
Life in NTA
I was in the NTA for about twelve years, when we did TV drama, play of the week, Village Headmaster, It was routine to do these. Every week, a roster came for you to know where your crew would go with the Outside Broadcasting Unit for production. The kick then was that when a new programme was going to start, they picked top of the crop in the crew to do that, like Second Chance, I was part of the initial crew for the initial 26 episodes to prepare it for marketing. After several years, I felt I had had enough of the routine thing in studio and needed to do something else so I left.
First time on camera
The first programme job was for the Current Affairs department. Then, the studio was used to service the News department, the Programmes department and the national programme. The first programme was current affairs so I was part of it. It was a three-camera shoot and I was on one of the cameras. In such setting, you had your head-phone on and listening to your director on what next step to take so the man would call the shots and I am like wondering whom he was talking to. Then the other camera man would wonder what the rookie is doing. I used to have a friend, Tunji Olokesusi, I think he is still with AIT. There was Sylva Oforgu, soundman, Nath Egba who is in the House of Assembly now. Tunji would say it is you he is talking to and before all these, the programme is messed up and the man would scream.
His name is Alhaji Momorabi Abdulahi, I don't know whether he is still in the NTA. He was a news programme director. When the programme was over, everyone went out of the studio, I hid myself somewhere praying that no one saw me and called me out. Then Tunji called out at me to tell me everyone had gone and I should not worry that it would be okay. The next time, it was a kiddies programme, Animal Game. You had kids playing. I felt better on camera that day. It was not a fixed programme but I felt better. With the help of my crew members, I relaxed. But if I didn't really love the camera, I would really have opted out there and then, because directors could say things capable of discouraging the passion.
The movie industry
The first video I got involved in was Hostages by Tade Ogidan. Before then, I had done a lot with him like the Reign of Abiku which was during the NTA days and it went to the NTA festivals. After then, came Hostages and I must confess, it took quite a time to shoot. It was then I said okay, TV film production was it.
What makes a good film
My joy is now seeing those who worked with me in those good old days and I see the jobs and say it is a good one. I won't mention any because I know a lot of them from Camera Assistant who have now grown bigger. I just want to say I am glad they have progressed.
Mistakes are so easy to make in the technical area of the work due to work pressure. You assume that the shots you have could be enough to complete the work in the studio but later you find out that there is nothing to cover this mistake. What I keep saying is that you guys are trying but don't overlook anything. Those little details are what make the shots super. There are some projects you watch and ask yourself how did they do this? In all, what I am saying is don't leave anything to providence. What you put in is what you get.
I didn't partake in the BBC or VOA trainings. But in the NTA in those days, workshops and training programmes were organised by the station on a very regular basis. I benefitted immensely from all these. Aside from these, I learnt quite a lot on my own. I watch documentaries on how movies are made. I also read a lot. These days, I go on the net now and read about projects and other producers and directors. There is more to all these than just watching movies. If you are a technical person, you must try to learn how movies are made. Sometimes the theories do not work. I read how Spielberg was doing Jaws and did several things which many considered impossible. Any technically inclined person as far as cameras are concerned, must be ready to experiment and improvise.
I filmed Hostages, Richard Mofe Damijo's Out of Bounds, Diamond Ring, Igodo by OJ Production. I also was involved with, Madam Dearest, Dangerous Twins, Raging Storm, My Love, True Love, Beyond the Vow for Gabosky and Chez Kay as cinematographer.
Now we are doing Banned in Nigeria. In fact, we have completed the work and want to just put finishing touches here and there before the editing begins There are a couple of people who break into new products and they say 'Let me call Jonathan to film this.' I don't turn down any job. If I believe in any job, I do it, but that doesn't mean I am inexpensive. Anybody that wants to do a new and good project calls me. I did Ego Boyo's, Keeping Faith and her last movie, Thirty Days directed by Mildred Ukoh from the U.S. Whenever I am working, I usually don't want to cut corners. But when I find out it is what you want to do, I won't want to do it. Let me say it here, it is not in every project that I want to use a dolly or a crane, tracks or a sound mixer.
But there are people who are out there who do not really want to do a good job. They want to shabily do everything they do and make some money for themselves. If the job is good, people will see it time and time again and commend you forever. The job speaks for you. I trust that Banned in Nigeria will teach Nigerians how movies are done because the producers did not mince the investments. Nigerian will also learn from the movie. They didn't just try to cut corners. They are out to make a good film and that is what they will get. It was a great experience doing that movie with all the actors and actresses that gathered. I have a lot of respect for Gabosky and Chez Kay because they really know what they want. Like I told you, this is not the first time I am working with them.
There are people that are moving forward and there are people who are static just like there are people who have taken several steps backward. So it shows in the products.
There are people who have moved far ahead. There are those whom economic crunch have really affected. They wonder why they may have invested so much and not having bought themselves airplane so they look at it as wasting so much money when it is only going into Idumota market. But I tell people, you are as good as your last job. A good projects is a good project anywhere, anyday. People are capable of rating you with your first and last job to see whether you have moved on or dropped.
What to do
What I think can move the industry ahead is allowing those who do film to do it. If you look around, you'd see that funding has dropped drastically. You look at the names of people doing films, you'd see that the number has increased in great proportion. Everyone has joined the industry as cameraman, producer, director etc. How many films are now in the market? Then, about ten movies were released in one month but now you just can't count. How many can the people buy? I don't know if they can do anything to regulate the number of movies that are released. The quality of movies would continue to drop because the buyer is confused when he goes to the market and sees several movies with the several promos on TV, radio and posters promoting them. When he goes home and sees that all the movies are not so good, he becomes skeptical. He won't buy more. Rather, he would rent and the industry has lost a customer. If the films are not so good., why would you worry to buy? It is not just calling on corporate bodies but it is to give quality a chance so those who invest get back their money.
Your own film?
It would be nice to make your own film but I am not going to jump into making films because everyone is doing so. Raising money to make a movie is not just easy. I think I want to bid my time for now until the time is ripe with the proper budget and the proper investor.