If you spent your childhood in Nigeria, Madu Chikwendu might have touched your life in some ways. In his early years, he wrote scripts for the popular children’s show, Tales by Moonlight. He was also part of the first English speaking Nollywood movie in Nigeria, Living in Bondage. Today he has transformed from being a moviemaker to a spokesperson for Nollywood on the international stage. In a chat with SENIOR CORRESPONDENT Hazeez Balogun, he speaks about his grouse with many industry kingpins like himself.
Everyone is trying to do big budget movies these days, should we be expecting a major blockbuster from someone like you who has been in the industry for a while.
Well, you should know that I opted out of movie making for about three years now because the environment was not encouraging and was not conducive. But now we are back. We are developing a set of movies. It is a Pan African project with which we will shoot seven high quality films. We are working with partners in the UK, Ghana, Kenya, Congo, Zimbabwe, South Africa and France. We are trying to make films that will create the framework for film distribution on the continent. The success of the distribution of these films will create a distribution mechanism that will service the movie industry around the continent.
What else have you been up to?
As you also know, I am the regional Secretary of the Pan African Federation for Film Makers. We are preparing for congress in South Africa. You also know that there is the African Film Fund and all that. So we are working.
Talking about these funds, many Nigerian movie makers always complain that they never get access to them. Is this a deliberate thing?
That is a very important question. I have been a victim of such accusations. Some people think that they are working more than the others. There is no one who has made a film that someone else cannot make. It is very unfortunate. People have just been selling their movies on the basis of hype. There is no one that can say they have made a film that can compete internationally. Some people always like to thumb their nose at Nollywood. They go abroad to say they are not part of Nollywood yet their products are beneficiaries of that process.
The funds are there and it is a clear process. In Nigeria alone there are funds. We have the BOI, we have NEXIM, we have SMEDAN. They should just apply and follow guidelines.
But many film makers say they are not getting these funds
Firstly, I must say that I am not a spokesperson for these bodies that give these grants. I am a victim myself. Let us look at the history of financial intervention in Nollywood. Eco Bank came in with N100million, what became of that money? There has been interventions by MTN; Diamond Bank also gave money twice. One for Amazing Grace and another to Don Pedro. I don’t know if these funds were recouped. The corporate sector has had a history of investing in Nollywood without getting anything in return. Most of these provisions were made on sentiments.
One of the funds I mentioned was given to people from the South-South. They went to a GM in a bank and said that all the Igbo people are killing us in the industry, give us money. This is the subject of a chapter in my book. Where is corporate Nigeria getting it wrong? Is it because they see a popular actor or a beautiful girl, you give her money to do a movie. When that movie fails, they turn around and say that the industry does not give back money? That is why we have these institutional fundings coming from NEXIM and the rest. There is no paddy paddy in that one. There are laid down rules before you can access their funds. And if the movie practitioners feel that they are not satisfied with the criteria NEXIM and the others are giving, they can walk up to them and say they are not satisfied. It is the industry that should be driving the process. But that will not happen. I know of an association that went to NEXIM and said give our members and don’t give other people. There are also some that will go and say all other bodies are fraudulent. So the question will be, who are the genuine film makers?
There was a man who was making films and was saying that he was the only one making films in Nigeria. Today, the man is no longer making films. One would have expected that by now the industry on it’s own should have held a conference and all these issues ironed out. Nollywood is not reasonable. Nollywood is anything but sane. We should sit down and call all the parties. Not the one you will call your wife, and your brothers and say you have formed a body representing the whole industry. You call all the stakeholders and we have a discussion. We say if the government wants us to really have these funds, these are our conditions. We have the right to say that we reject NEXIM and BOI. The industry should have the moral will power and capacity to say that these funds are not reaching us. We have not been exercising our rights.
Should investment in Nollywood be in terms of production, or should it be in terms of facilities, trainings and distribution channels?
You are echoing my thoughts. Nollywood is not yet ripe for investments in production. The distribution infrastructure to support such investments is not there. These funds are meant to be revolving funds. Funds that some people should use and return for other people to use. So when some people get these money and they do not return it, there will be no more funds. A representative from NEXIM explained that the funds will not be for production alone but for the training and infrastructure. Jonathan’s N200million is yet to come, but I know they have invested in cinemas.
And you cannot compare us to Hollywood. How can you compare a movie that is made with $10,000 to an American film like Avatar that was made with over $200m. That is more than some country’s budget for a year. When I look at the Nigerian movies we have today, I cry. Some will say that Hollywood is too far ahead but my question is how far ahead are they? Look at Bollywood. Just a few years ago, their movies were not that good. We all knew how it was. The same thing with Chinese films. Just a few years ago, they were doing movies where they will say, “you killed my father, you killed my mother, now I will kill you”. We all remember these films and how poor many of them were. Please go and watch Chinese movies of today. Go and watch Indian movies today; you will be shocked at the progress they have made.
Today their movies are doing better than American films. Except for a few American films, they really cannot compare with Chinese films of today. The same can be said of Indian films. These are people that were not too far from us a few years ago. It is our business as film makers to give Nigerians something good to watch. Even if they are used to watching crap, we should give them something better to watch.
You started off in NTA as a script writer, why script writing?
I started with NTA writing scripts for Tales by Moonlight, Storyland and Third Eye. I had a style then. I would send in a lot of scripts because they pay every three months so that by the time the money comes in, it will be a lot. That was how I was able to afford my first apartment.
When I sat for JAMB the first time, I scored 266, which was high in those days. Everyone wanted me to study law but I was not and still not fascinated by lawyers; I think they are overrated. My father read English and also teaches it. In those days, I was very stubborn. My father would punish me by locking me up in his room where he had a lot of great books and novels from many great authors; I spent my time reading books. I later developed a great interest in arts. I went to the University of Port Harcourt to study Literature. Later I got my Masters from the University of Lagos. When I finished serving in Sokoto, some of friends and I wrote a soap opera called Small World. We took it to NTA and showed them. They said it was good but it was too violent for that time but said that I could write for their programmes.
The situation of scriptwriters has not improved much. Today we have just about two or three major scriptwriters and they earn about N150,000 to N200,000 per script. Funny enough, we have other script writers that are ready to take N20,000 per script yet they do not get patronage. As a screenwriter myself, though I have not written for a long time, I can say that many people do not know how to write. Many people think they can write, but their output is really poor.
You were in Living in Bondage, at what point did you decide to do your own movie?
I have always been interested in doing my own thing. Not just movies but showbiz as a whole. I remember that I was the first to use Femi Kuti and the Positive Force in a show in Port Harcourt. His father supported him with buses and all that. We called Mandators and Charley Boy to the show as well. Then I got into acting, but I did not like the kind of fame I was getting. People would just call me on the road and start asking me questions. I decided to stick with producing movies and writing scripts.
My first movie was Scultorico. While doing another movie, Frame Up, we had engaged Enebelli Elebuwa and Nkem Owoh as directors then. The cast started taking sides during the shoot. Nkem Owoh was my friend so I was on his side as well. So one day while we were discussing, I said all sorts of things about Enebeli Elebuwa. I did not know that he was right there in the same room with us. Immediately I saw him, I knelt down to beg him. I wish he gets well soon.
So when did you decide to start DGN?
I am a doer, an activist. If something is wrong, I will do something about it. If I cannot do it alone, I get people together and we talk about it. I realised that there are directors everywhere and there are no standards and no body with which we can air our views and discuss our problems. I researched and found out that every movie industry has a guild for directors. That was when I decided that we too should have our own Directors’ Guild of Nigeria (DGN). There was this stampede in Surulere where the industry people came together. I and someone else were chosen to speak for the directors. That was the beginning. Coincidentally, that was a moment of crisis in the industry. Eventually, DGN triumphed.
DGN is almost becoming a status symbol. Every director now puts it after their name as if to show superiority over those that are not members of DGN.
That is the funny thing. To be honest with you, I have not been active in DGN as I should be. I don’t quite agree with some of the policies of the past president, Bond Emerua. He and some people had an ideal to form, CONGA, a Committee of Nollywood Guilds. The idea was a good one but the implementation was very poor. The composition of CONGA was unnecessarily selective. Bond had an opportunity to write his name in gold but messed it up. It was meant to be a collective vision, but turned out to be a personal vision.
How does one become a DGN director?
It is simple. You have to get a form and fulfil all the criteria. The present leadership is a visionary one. The actors are dominating every aspect of the industry. When I tell my colleagues, they will say that that is how it is everywhere. No, it is not like that everywhere. We should have our own standard. People should see the hands of a director in every work. That is why it is hard to do collaborative works with foreign film makers. Do we really have those that can match these people?
So what is the problem with Nollywood?
The problem of Nollywood is an offshoot of the problem of Nigeria as a whole. The people too have their faults. I mean, there was a day I was on set with Ngozi Nwosu. I paid her for a movie. One day she just got up from the set, carried her bag and left. Till today, I have not got any official explanation from her. Not a word, no call, nothing. This is someone I knew for a long time. She just left the set just like that. It was later I was hearing some rumours that she had problems with one of the crew members.
So as part of the Nigerian problem, it will be difficult for me to sue Ngozi, because the case will just sit there in court and I will be spending money. We talk about piracy, is it not the same police that we say are corrupt that we will use and arrest the pirates? We talk about bad audio in movies, but remember that there is no electricity and we have to shoot with noisy generators. So most of the problems of the film industry are actually problems of the society at large.
Why does fighting occur among movie makers.
We are creative people and we are very expressive and emotional. Also as Nigerians, we have this PDP mentality. Take for example in the Association of Nollywood Core Producers, which I was president. After my term, I supported Paul Obazele. After his own term, he was the one who made most of the electoral rules for the election. Later he found out that most of the candidates who he was routing for could not meet the criteria he himself set. He now tried to change it. It all turned to a big fracas. Then I made an observation that it is traditional that before an election, the incumbent give an income and expenditure account of the association’s finances. I was shocked that the so-called elders were saying that it is not necessary. That is why I left and joined another association.
Tell us about your family
I am a family man. I always like to watch movies with my wife and children. My wife and I grew up together but I didn’t know. One day in Surulere, she saw me and called my name in full, I knew she must be someone that grew up with me, because they were the only ones that knew my full names. From there we kicked it off. She is a wonderful lady, and we have three kids together. She is a script writer herself.
Is any of your children showing interest in the arts?
I don’t want to think about that. I want them to grow up and decide what they want for themselves. I don’t want to push anyone. I was not pushed. I would want them to have a good grasp of science. I wish one of them could be a soldier because that was what I wanted to be.