Emem Isong: on song in a man’s world
Emem Isong: on song in a man's world
EMEM ISONG, is not only one of the few writer-producers in Nollywood, but a noteworthy professional. She spoke to Adia Ukoyen, in Abuja, about her journey so far, and the challenges she faces in her trade.
How easy or difficult has it been?
At the beginning, it wasn't very easy. I started making films in 1994, when I left my job. It was very difficult. But, ten years after, it is not so difficult anymore. Then, when the industry was just starting, raising money to make a film was very difficult, especially from investors who knew nothing about the film business. And, then, going to the marketers, who were then investing money in the business, and being a woman, was particularly difficult to convince anyone to give you money to do a film, especially if they do not know your track record. Being a woman, they tended to take you as unserious. It was a challenge to me and I was determined and I believed that I knew what I was doing. So, I raised money from family and friends and I made my first movie which was Breaking Point. I gave it that title because I almost reached my breaking point when I made the movie. But I succeeded. It was a success. And in collaboration with AIT, I marketed it. Then, the marketers took note and were able to finance my work thereafter. I still say that I meet challenges now and again, but it hasn't been as bad as it was when we first started. The industry has really grown, so people now know that there is money to be made in the industry.
From then till date, how many films have you made?
I have written and produced about seventeen films. I have written for some of my colleague producers another ten.
Of all the films you have made, which made you the happiest, which gave you the break and which gave you the biggest recognition?
I would say a film called Hit and Run was the one that made people sit up and notice what I could do. But the one that made me happiest was Emotional Crack which, took me to festivals outside the country, particularly the African Film Festival, in New York. I was invited for that and that exposed me to meet with a lot of other film-makers and some others in the film industry. That is the one, I would say, that gave me the break that I needed.
Could you please state some of your other works?
Private Sin 1&2, Games Women Play, and most recently, Darkest Night. The one I premiered in the US on February 5th, that is Behind Closed Doors, which was very well received. Those are some of my works.
And the most challenging?
Let me see, most of them have had their challenges. My first film was the most difficult to make.
In the course of film-making, you definitely have made stars, as some stars are notable for being part of your works. Who are these stars that you can categorically claim to have made?
Well, Dakore Egbuson was one actress that I tried, who had not done anything before. I gave her the lead roles in Playboy and Silent Tears, and she did very well. And for Emotional Crack, she won several awards for that film. Stephanie Okereke, who was also up-coming at that time, she had done about two or three films, but Emotional Crack was the one that really brought her out, and I gave her the chance. Stella Damasus, also from Breaking Point, now Stella Damasus Aboderin, also came out from my stable. I like working with new actors and actresses, though, sometimes, I do work with established ones. I particularly like working with Genevieve.
Because she is very flexible, and she interprets my roles very well.
What is your background in the movie world?
I read Theatre Arts at the University of Calabar. I have always liked the entertainment industry and I read a lot. So, I knew from the outset that I was going to be a part of the entertainment industry. Before I sat for my JAMB exams, I already knew what I was going to become and that influenced me into studying what I studied. I read Theatre Arts against my parents' wishes, advice and everything. Despite this, I stuck to my decision and when I finished, I worked in the bank because the industry had not yet exploded. Once the first film was made, the one that really broke out, that is Living in Bondage, I left the bank and started off.
So, would you say that from making films, you are a rich girl?
No, I wouldn't say I am rich. Being rich, anyway, is relative. I am satisfied. I am being paid to do what I enjoy doing. I pay my bills, so, I am okay.
How do you cope with working with so many men? Do you feel comfortable with it? Do some of them see you as a threat and, so, become antagonistic?
In every industry, everybody who is successful is always viewed as a threat. But, then, I haven't really noticed anything like that. Most of my colleagues are males, anyway, especially those behind the scene. You hardly find women behind the scene in this industry, there are very few. And, as a result of that, I work with a lot of my male counterparts and I am very comfortable with them.
Are you ever sexually harassed?
Not, at all. Maybe because I work at the top, so that never happens.
What are the things you look out for in a man?
Someone who is confident in himself, one who is comfortable with what he is doing, and will not feel threatened by what I am doing, and the fact that I have to attend festivals abroad and everywhere, someone who is very exposed, who can understand that a woman does these things does not make her any less of a woman. I believe I can combine my role as a filmmaker, as well as my role as a wife. I don't think that will be a problem at all.
When you are not making films or writing scripts, what do you do?
I am a very private person. I like reading, I like watching TV. If I am not making films, I am mostly at home reading. I read a whole lot. My way of relaxing is to have a good book on my bed, and that is it. I like going out sometimes, to listen to jazz music, anywhere they have a live band. I do that once in a while.
What are those things that turn you off people?
I like people who are serious. I do not like people who talk a lot. I like people who are focused in whatever it is that they are doing, because I believe that when you are busy doing something, there will be less time for unnecessary and frivolous talk..
What is your fashion signature?
I like casual things. I am not a fashion buff, no. Anything that looks good on me is good enough for me. I like very casual and unconventional things. And most of the time, I buy my things when I travel. Jeans, T-shirts are okay by me.
And native wears, do you wear them too?
Yes, I love African wears.
Do you have any local designers?
Not the known designers. Any good tailor that makes me look good, I subscribe to.
Do you have any fashion passions?
Oh yes! I am a bag and shoes freak. I do a lot of designer shoes and bags.
Any favourite designers?
I love Gucci. I like Ralph Laurent, and I like Calvin Klein shoes.
You say you are a private person, yet you write scripts that are far from private. Couldn't you be writing some wild inert wishes?Emotional Crack is one of such scripts.
Was it wild? Well as a writer, I have to be very imaginative, but it does not mean that I am what I write about. I may not be that kind of person, but I am an artiste, and I have to do my art justice. So, I put in the best in what I am doing. My works have no reflection, at all, of who I am.
You seem to have a passion for contact lens. The last time I saw you, you did not look this colour. So what colour is it now? And how many do you have?
Not too many. I love wearing amestyst particularly, which is what I am wearing now. Sometimes, I wear hazel in the night. A lot of times, I do wear plain, colourless.
Tell us, how was growing up like? Did your background influence what you are today?
Oh yes, it did. I come from a family of three. My parents are very private people. My mum has always been an educationist. And because of the fact that they never used to let me play much, except when I go to school, I had to invent playmates in my mind. And I think that is what actually gave rise to my writing. And because of the fact that I couldn't really go out and do stuff with other children, I used to seek solace in my books. I started reading from about the age of seven. And I think I read my first novel at the age of nine. I wrote a play at the age of ten. My mum still says that it was quite good. So, I guess my background must have actually contributed to my being a writer and a film-maker. Because, I was always alone, I needed to invent some things to keep me occupied.
Where are you from?
I am from Akwa-Ibom. I am from Ikonno. I went to school in Calabar: Federal Government Girls' College, Calabar. And then, I came to Lagos for my youth service.
Where did you serve?
I served in the National Theatre, Lagos. Then, it was the Ministry of Information, Culture department in 1991.