I Deserve A National Award —Justus Esiri
Veteran actor and consultant, Justus Esiri, spoke about the state of the nation and issues bordering on the film industry[/i
Q: Do you have a new year resolution, sir?
A: Yes. One of my new year resolutions is to preach peace amongst Nigerians so that things can work out right for us in this year of election. And to be good to people.
Q: Ordinarily, one would expect you to have a private resolution but you seem not to be happy with the situation in the country?
A: You see, when in the year of election you have a proliferation of so many parties, and everyday you continue to read in the papers about alliance and non-alliance, some squabbles and big battles among Nigerians, you should pray that things work out right. For all these alliances and proliferation of parties and quarrels and squabbles, one should pray that it does not affect those who are just part and parcel of the society. What I mean is that there is no Nigerian who is not political because at the end, he/she will vote for one political party or the other. So, you have the conscience and the mind to vote politically, whether you are properly educated or not. One is supposed to pray fervently this year, when we have a lot of illiterates and politicians giving out largesse for them to be voted into power. So we need to pray for peace to reign.
Q: But, going by the way things are happening in the country, politically, would you exercise your voting right?
A: Ah...Why not? I must. I must and I will exercise my voting right otherwise I am defeated. Why should I stay aloof and allow any person to rule me any how because I didn't vote? My vote can make a difference. It has happened in other countries before and Nigeria is not an exception. You must exercise your voting right as a citizen of Nigeria.
Q: Some of your colleagues like Onyeka Onwenu and Clem Ohameze who probably feel the same way as you do are now vying for elective posts in the upcoming elections. Do you also want to vie for an elective post?
A: (Laughs). Thank you very much. I think I am entitled and eligible to vie for the post of the president of this country. Actually, we have had a similar thing in America, that an actor became the president of the country. And he retired at the age of 79. But for Clem, I am very happy for him and Onyeka Onwenu. These are people who can make a change in the society. And there are many more actors and actresses who will come into politics. We appreciate them and we will pray for them, as well as assist them in whatever way we can afford because these are people who are very articulate. There's one thing in being involved in politics as an actor and another one is being active. I am a politician and I belong to the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), and I am happy over what the president has done for this country, even though it may not have favoured everybody in the country. And of course, you don't do things that will favour everybody as humans because you have your policies which may annoy some people while others will be happy with you. So, I want to agree that there's no president or prime minister in the world that is loved by everybody in his country.
Q: So as a bonafide member of the PDP, are you satisfied with the seat of the vice president that was purportedly declared vacant by the party executives?
A: Ah! I don't want to talk about that. I don't know if it is really vacant because the leadership of the party has not ascertained that. I think it is a constitutional issue since, we read different stories about the controversy in the papers everyday. So the issue is one that our lawyers will iron out. I think we need to tackle our constitution and I think our democracy is still very young.
Q: But do you think the VP's seat should be declared vacant because he's contesting on another platform?
A: I am made to understand that the president and his vice president must be from the same party, but how many months are we talking about? These are people who have been putting heads together to govern this country for over seven years and all of a sudden, they began a quarrel. I think they should just allow the sleeping dog to lie.
Q: So can we say you will vie for an elective post in the country soon, so as to further correct some of the ills of the society?
A: No. I won't. I prefer to support people who are interested in the welfare of others. If I wanted to be very involved in politics, I would have done that earlier when there was enough energy to do so. I always give my support to younger people who have the fear of God and can make the country proud. Though I could be nominated to work in a committee for the welfare of the people, definitely not to vie for an elective post because I don't have the resources to do that.
Q: So, what's your view on the rotation of power in the country?
A: Well, you see, I remember there was a time one of the constitutions drafted (I don't know when and how it was changed because nobody now talks about it) stated that there would be a president and six vice presidents from the six geo-political zones of this country. Suddenly, that was dropped; suddenly, what we heard is president and the vice president. Then our party said the states should rotate so that the minorities can also be vice presidents. Personally, I think that was sad because they wanted everybody to be part and parcel of the party. Be that as it may, I grew up and I was made to understand that politics is a game of numbers. Besides, if I want to run for governor even as a minority, I would make sure that I get majority votes. Now, if on the other hand, the party says: 'We don't want minority.Let us rotate it from the majority,' the possibility is that, this party may lose governance if the majority decides to go to another party. Politics, I believe, is a game of haggling. You haggle if you feel that the majority is always there, then you will say, “I will like to be number two.” But if the minority becomes the governor, the system where the impeachment factor becomes the order of the day, could throw out the minority from power. That minority person would always want to use state money to make sure that he's not impeached. We must fight against that.
Q: You are a bonafide member of the ruling party as well as a veteran actor, so why have you not been nominated for a national award like your colleagues?
A: I don't really know how they organise the national award. But I will always congratulate those who have been given the award because I believe for you to be given anything, it must have been approved by God. You cannot be called to be given an award if God has not ordained it. So, I believe when the time comes, mine will be given to me. But I must clarify something, it is not because you are a member of a party that qualifies you for a national award. Maybe they don't think that I have done quite enough but I think I have done enough and I deserve it. I see other people who have been given the award and they have not done half of the things I have done.
Q: Apart from the national award, the biggest award you seem to have won so far was the African Movie Academy Award (AMAA) 2006. Can one say the award was a dream come true or it took you by surprise?
A: What is a dream come true? I am an actor who acts passionately and I love what I am doing. But I feel as an actor, your audience must see certain qualities before they can call you an actor of note. That means you must interpret your roles very well and you must touch them at that point in time that they see you performing. This is what I have tried to do and I appreciate it when people say 'you are a very good actor.' As regards awards, I have received quite a lot of them. I even received one recently and it was called the “Vice Chancellor of Delta State University (DELSU) Award for Creative Excellence”. And I cherish everything that comes to me as an award. The AMAA award is a little bit on a high note because it is Africa. It has to do with Africa and I envisage that the AMAA award will be bigger than what it is today because it comes bigger every year. I want to seize the opportunity to say kudos to the people who started it and the Bayelsa State government for their support. AMAA's been exciting because it is well organised and the judges are dedicated to what they are doing. But I pray that more awards should come.
Q:With your recommendation of AMAA, do you think all other awards are properly organised?
A: I have had Reel Awards and others but I can say AMAA is more international and it is far better than other awards in this country.
Q: Let us digress a bit now; most senior actors often complain about the way they are being neglected. Most of them say the producers and marketers don't offer them scripts anymore because they want the faces of some younger ones that can sell their films. How true is this?
A: You see, there's a saying that, “the older the wine, the better it tastes.” And for the wine to taste good, you have to preserve it properly. Creativity is in the mind and the older you get, the more creative you are. If you are good, people will never forget you, they will want to hire you because at the end, you are bringing money into their coffers. The actors should make more money, but piracy would not allow the producers or executive producers to get into it in his nitty-gritty. The federal government has set up various parastatals to enunciate policies for the film industry. For example, we have the film corporation and other bodies which are supposed to carry out and implement the policies of the various arms of the film industry. The people who run and get involved with these films are business people, who would want to make money. It is quite unfortunate that they don't make the kind of money they are supposed to make because of piracy. Now, the question is this: How do we stop piracy? If as a good actor, I am asked to act very well so that we can make money, and if we are in a good position for me to have a royalties contract, the executive producer will be making a lot of money because piracy is not there and his films are selling well, then, he will pay me my royalties because these films go across borders; international borders. You must be a good actor to make money for the executive producer so that he will call you more often to come and shoot more films. Piracy can only be stopped by the regulations of the copyright commission. If only those regulations can be properly articulated and well executed. Make them workable and get Customs to know what is happening so that at least you can make money. We must sit down and see a way of making everyone satisfied. My very good colleague, Joe Layode died recently, may his soul rest in peace. But he died and nobody got to know about it. I read something in my colleague, Larry Williams' column recently and I felt it was very appropriate. Joe Layode was suppose to reap the fruit of his labour but I am sure he did not do that because of piracy. But if one can curb it, I think the executive producer should be able to work hand in hand with the actors to get royalties contract so that actors can be dedicated to what they are doing.
Q: Talking about royalties, were you paid your royalties for acting The Village Headmaster?
A: No. No, because at that time The Village Headmaster was a TV programme and nobody talked about it. They just gave us a pink form and you fill and they will say “if The Village Headmaster is repeated, they will pay you a certain amount. So, it was royalties in a weak form. But our children are growing up and some of them will want to be actors and I hope they will be given an opportunity to reap what they sow.
Q: Are you now saying you've given-up all the royalties you are supposed to be paid earlier?
A: No, I have not given up. Maybe we will take a lawyer to file a suit against them. (Laughs).
Q: You trained as an actor in Germany and you came back to practise it in Nigeria. How would you rate Nollywood?
A: We have tried in the industry. I remember we shot Things Fall Apart in celluloid, which is the kind of thing anyone would want to do all over the world. But we need to train our actors and actresses very well because it is not just the pretty faces we want to see. I am very impressed with what is going on in the industry.
Q: Now, on a lighter mood, what's your normal day like?
A: I come to my office, when I am not on location. After office work, I go and play golf and retire home. I am a very disciplined person.