A GOOD SCRIPT IS THE FIRST STEP TO A GOOD FILM —NWABUEZE
Emeka Patrick Nwabueze, a renowned professor of theatre arts and performance aesthetics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is also a versatile critic, playwright, university orator and administrator. A seasoned teacher of drama and stage as well as a dramatic theorist, Nwabueze, who has variously headed the Department of Dramatic Arts of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, apart from his prodigious contributions to development of theatre arts in Nigeria has also transferred his wealth of professorial knowledge to the fast rising nation's film industry, the Nollywood. In this intellectually steeped interview, the infectious professor in his usual element, takes us round the world of literature, drama, film and stage and explained why he ventured into the nation's film world. It is all exciting and quite revealing. Excerpts:
PROFESSOR Emeka Nwabueze, you are one of Nigeria's most important drama and theatre scholars and playwrights. You have also recently made an incursion into the film genre. Can you tell us the background to this illustrious reputation?
I had a considerably significant romance with drama in my primary and secondary school days. In my secondary school days for instance, I recall with nostalgia, playing the role of Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. This background was what actually informed my decision to study theatre arts. And by the time I enrolled in the university, I had the option of going into the college of law or studying theatre arts. I obeyed my vision and opted for dramatic arts. Then dramatic arts was a sub-division of the Department of English at the University of Nigeria.
After that, I was posted to Kano for my NYSC and I had the luck of serving in a higher institution. While I was there at Kano State College of Advanced Studies, I started writing, trying my hands on the students dramatically; set up a dramatic society etc. After my youth service, I was retained, with all the goodies - a good salary, a car, a house in GRA, etc. But such things were only able to keep me there for a while, as I left for Michigan in the United States of America to do my Master's. From there, I went to Ohio for my Ph.D.
I would say that I was lucky in these two universities. In Michigan for instance, Professor McElya who taught me playwriting took a considerable interest in some of the things I was doing and we became very close. I had to show him pieces of my writing adventures. When I finished at Michigan, I went to Ohio. I went to Ohio basically because they had what was called the Third World Theatre. The Third World Theatre was a kind of outfit that enabled scholars of Third World descent to try their hands on what they have written or what they have published about the Third World. So, I took advantage of that and started presenting some of my works and the works of other third world writers like Zulu Sofola's Wedlock of the Gods. My writings were manuscript form then. Some were even class assignments for the fulfillment of certain course requirements, but in some of them, one could notice a balance between meaning and form, between characterization and spectacle.
At Ohio, I had no alternative than to do some work, but it was at Florida that I was appointed lecturer in theatre arts, where I also for the first time, tried my manuscript - Spokesman for the Oracle - on stage and television. The world was wide enough for me in the United States because that was a country that respected theatre. But then, the University of Nigeria, my alma mater, was in the process of separating the Department of Theatre Arts from the Department of English by establishing what they called a sub-division of the dramatic arts, and the then Head of Department of English invited me on the teaching staff of the new department. I responded to the call and returned to serve my country.
Having made your name in drama over the years, you recently joined the Nigerian home video industry. How exactly did this happen and what is the motivation behind it?
My entry into the Nigerian home video was providential. Initially, it was more concerned with dramaturgy than acting. But it is necessary to point out that scripts one considered excellent may not be the kind desired by the marketers who were more interested in the commercial success of their productions. To them, what made a good movie was the one that sold well, the one that people liked, and when you talk about the likes of people, you are talking about the Onitsha people, the Aba people and the enlarged Alaba. But the interesting question is how did I come into acting? It was just something that started like a joke, and from a joke, it became a reality. I was always interested in visiting the locations and dropping my ideas especially when I seem dissatisfied with the interpretation of lines, or when I believe that they sacrificed communication on the altar of spectacle and overplayed dramatic activity in place of dramatic action.
This sounds academic, intellectual, and sometimes considered utopian. But such professorial statements in the home video outfit were essentially academic which may not add anything to the commercial success of the production. And when you talk about an academic concept, some practitioners describe it as theory without practice. In one of the productions at Nsukka, Obi Okoli was the director, one of my staff, Uche Nwaozuzu was the artistic director and my former student, Eucharia Anunobi, was a star in the production.
So, in order to make them understand and realize that there are professors who can also match theory with practice, I sought one of the roles in Andy Best's production of My Father's Love. I played the role of Chief Kalu and I tried to interpret the lines and actions along the lines of my artistic ideas which hinged on the scientific, internalized psychology of the actor trying to pass through what he is saying to get to the audience.
In that production, we had renowned stars like Kenneth Okonkwo, Eucharia Anunobi, Maureen Solomon, Nkiru Sylvanus, Elder Martin Njubigbo, etc. And with the success of that production and the uniqueness of my interpretation, I was promptly cast in another production, No More War, which I gladly accepted the role.
This time, I starred with Pete Edochie, Chiwetalu Agu, and Rita Edochie. And from there, other roles came along until the production of Rising Moon where I played the major protagonist, and which won four academy awards. The major success of that film was that the director, Andy Nwakalor, apart from being aptly devoted, was also open to suggestions. He had respect for matching intellectual activity with practical work and so were the other members of the cast and crew, notably, Justus Esiri, Emeka Ike, Onyeka Onwenu and Akoma Akoma. What it means really is that with intellectual activity being injected into practical work, you get the best.
Since then, I have taken part in other productions like The Lost Son, notably with Clems Ohameze, Camilla Mberekpe, Maureen Solomon, Chinelo Ndigwe and Nonso Diobu. Right now, there are two other productions awaiting release, and I don't have to talk about them here.
You are in literature and also in film. What do you think is the relationship between the written word and the screen/the stage?
The main relationship is that a film is the transformation of the written word into practical reality, an avenue for the transformation of a blueprint into a living image. If you believe in histrionics, the idea of standing out, distributing roles, delivering lines extemporaneously, it may not work effectively unless the person is well trained in the art. We should know that without an adequate script, there would not be an adequate film. A good script is the first step to a good film. Even if the script is not excellent but has vision and an appropriate message, the interpretation can be realized by a good director when he has in his cast, talented and gifted actors who are able to realize interpretation through simulation and dissimulation. I see the future of the Nigerian home video as very bright.
I predict that within a short time, people who are trained in the art will claim what belongs to them, satisfying the performative concept of insisting that all social realities are constructed. If you are not trained in the art, you may not effectively interpret the roles well.
I've always let people know that there is a difference between the dramatic and drama itself. Most of the things that happen in the society are dramatic - like a man fighting with his wife in the marketplace; like the madman tearing the dress of a sane man. They all appear dramatic, but they are not drama. Drama is a deliberate act which is aimed at communication and the people doing it are not actually performing those things that they perform in their normal workaday lives.
How do you see the last fifteen years of the institutional existence of the Nigerian home video, right from its inception in 1992?
Well, the last 15 years have been a period of counter-information, counter-themes, counter-activities, stereotyped characters, unnecessary projection of ancient and out-dated culture, and blurring the liveness to the aspects of social life depicted in the productions. In this period, one finds a situation where the movies have become highly predictable.
It was a period of maturation and inevitably fraught with repetition, poor costuming and poor understanding of performance aesthetics. But within that period of performative poverty, there were flickers of light. And I see significant light sojourning at the end of the tunnel. There are certain persons who have given their best to improve the health of the industry particularly Pete Edochie, Kenneth Okonkwo, Eucharia Anunobi, Zack Orji, and others who try to show that within a very uncomfortable situation, there could be some highpoints of artistic excellence, of performance aesthetics and legitimate interpretation.
I have also discovered that favouritism has eaten deep into the fabrics of the industry leading people to make very incongruous casting. This is in tune with the aphorism that the man who pays the piper dictates the tune. I see significant success waiting in the wings, I see a group of people who are learning from experience and there is no way you can learn from experience without improving on your past performances. But now, we are in a period of discrimination, of critical evaluation, of artistic regeneration. People are no longer ready to take rubbish, or accept illusion as reality. That is the era we are in now.
How would you explain the film culture that existed in Nigeria before the advent of Living in Bondage in 1992? People tend to erroneously believe that, that film marks the beginning of the film culture in Nigeria
The error or mistake there is the generalization that Living in Bondage was the progenitor of the Nigerian film. You can describe it as the progenitor of Igbo films. Referring to it generally as the progenitor of the Nigerian movie is tantamount to disregarding the works of people like Hubert Ogunde and Ola Balogun. These people were working then and they produced films that probed the moral conscience of the enlarged society as well as providing avenues for the understanding and preservation of our cultural heritage. We can say two things about Living in Bondage.
One, it is an important progenitor of the home video industry in Igboland and secondly, it was the progenitor of the commercialization and the realization, reformation, and training people in relation to the morals of the society. Where the others did not project these morals specifically, Living in Bondage did. We cannot dismiss that film with a wave of the hand, but to give it the glory that does not belong to it is improper.
What do you think are the variables that can identify the authentic Nigerian film?
To answer that, let us realize that if one begins to set up traffic signals that will determine authenticity, one is bound to sacrifice matter for manner. It can make one to forget that what matters is not what is “authentic” but what is able to communicate, what is able to leave a significant message with the percipient.
So I would say that for you to have the authentic Nigerian film, critically and literally, it first has to start with the language which is the vehicle for communication. If the language is not indigenous, it should be tailored in such a way that the audience will understand that this is English language spoken by a non-native speaker of the English language without sacrificing the intelligibility of the language or trivializing the culture it is depicting. This pretense of trying to speak Anglo-Saxon dialect when you are trying to project a traditional situation - a local chief speaking Anglo-Saxon dialect is unnecessary.
Invariably, the themes should project the authenticity of what happens in Nigeria without trying to dissipate the culture of the situation by injecting incidents that will commercialize the films. Thirdly, we should draw a difference between time and space. We should know that if we are talking about traditional culture in Nigeria, there is a difference between traditional culture in Nigeria in the 21st Century and traditional culture in Nigeria in the 10th Century. So this idea where a woman loses her husband and the husband's relatives come to dispossess her of all the property makes a caricature of the whole gamut of the Nigerian culture.