By Chude Jideonwo
There is an old debate, one that I find necessary: should a man who has hardly finished the first half of his life – let’s put that at 40 – be writing a biography.
Isn’t that rather presumptuous? My answer is mostly no, if that man’s name is Charles Novia.
But I only came to that conclusion after I had read every word of ‘Nollywood till November’, which is the first book on Nigeria’s film industry written by an insider.
I began reading what the author describes as “a detailed narrative of my road to fame and glory”, with the skepticism mentioned above. The fact that the author has a supreme sense of his self and destiny didn’t help.
“I was incensed,” he reports on the very first page, reeling off his series of accomplishments as he shares the story of a director, Solomon Nwoko, who belittled his talent and his experience when he set
about his first movie, Deep Secrets. “He had a mindset and it was left for me to either do away with his services or prove him wrong. I chose the latter.”
By the time the author gets to that stage in his career where movie icon Richard Mofe-Damijo tells him, “Your name is the hottest topic right now. You have done well. I am proud to know you,” he had certainly proven every single detractor wrong.
But this is not just a story of personal achievement; it is also a story of a collective glory. Novia, through this finely-narrated work, tells me a story I thought I knew. I didn’t even know the half of it.
It speaks to how Nollywood has risen and fallen every now and again like a wave, as Novia became the king of love stories from Bridesmaid to Cinderella, Lover’s Day to For Your Love; how the industry began to conquer the rest of the world, and even delicious little gems like how he came to find out that Jim Iyke’s accent, like we all had suspected, was faker than a beauty queen’s eye-lashes.
Straddling the space between critical and acclaim and popular fare, Novia became so successful that he had four hit movies back to back at some point, as he reports a marketer tell him.
I, like many others, fell under the Charles Novia Think spell over the period from 2000: I particularly remember When Love Dies, the movie he made in 2003 which sold over two hundred thousand copies and took Novia to “another stratosphere in Nollywood”; I will die for You, a political tale that was one of RMD’s finest showcases if there ever was one; and of course, the ambitious Missing Angel – complete with a first-of-its kind premiere and billboards across Lagos – which reportedly sold over one million copies and, according to him, has a shelf life that yet endures. To many people, he says,
characteristically, “it is one of my Nollywood classics.”
His venture with November Records is another branch of an impressive story. He might not have worked that magic with other artistes on the label – Yemi Esho, Zubby Enebeli and Danny Dolor – but what he did with Majek Fashek, a project he took on after he attended a concert and found that Majek would “suddenly stop and then go towards the right hand side of the stage and begin to rail against nobody in particular”, is the stuff of legends.
But, like I said, the primary power of the book might come from the way he interweaves his own personal stories; the fire that razed his office for one, to the larger narrative; for instance, the
relationship between Surulere, Idumota, and Upper Iweka Road. And in telling that narrative, he answers so many questions many must have had, including the one he so eloquently captured on page 83: what went wrong with the lavish, flambuoyant delicious Nollywood of the Amatas and the Ejiros? As he tells stories of marketers as “demigods who created new monsters”, Novia surmises that “all in all,” the ridiculous ban on actors about in 2004 “was a no-win situation for all the parties involved.” It is a powerful chapter.
But, of course, the book has its faults. For one, if I got a dollar for every exclamation mark that Novia used in this 140-page book, I would by now be able to park my private jet beside Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor’s!
There is also a frustrating tendency to use the biggest words he could lay his hands on. Two examples: “I moved the plot from the romantic surrealism I toyed with… to deep spiritualism tinged with a poignant emotional drama”, and then, “… one senses a growing despondency which may simmer into an explosive fracas”.
Added to this, many parts of the story seem like the story teller fell unto the temptation of exaggeration. But, because that cannot be verified, at least not by this reviewer, and also because who amongst us can cast that first stone, one can only point to the fact that, suspected inflation aside, the heart of this story, its essence, is no lie. Novia has accomplished a story-book career. And he has a lot to be happy, fulfilled and grateful for.
And of gratitude he has a lot: To Kingley Ogoro, who, from the beginning of the story till now, is still a rock for Novia and other colleagues, he gives thanks. His wife and rock, Happy, whom he talks about again and again and again and again, he gives thanks. And to Don Pedro Obaseki, Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, that genius Ojiofor Ezeanyache of OJ Productions (whose story it turns out requires a full book that someone must tell someday) and others who have been crucial for this odyssey that is his, he gives thanks.
But from the purity of his soul as an artiste comes the more affecting thanks – that for the talent he has worked with, and his joy is beautiful to … read. “Desmond (Elliot) did exactly what I wanted from him, if not more!” he crowed of the movie Missing Angel. “Before long, he ‘became’ the character. I was thrilled.” But if he can be grateful, then, by God, he can also get angry – and even. And, oh my goodness, his willingness to draw blood reminds me of another impressive Nollywood movie, Scores to Settle.
However, this comes from another powerful narrative tool that he employs so deftly – honesty. What he thinks of Stella Damasus and her rivalry with Genevieve Nnaji, he tells; what he went through in the hands of Sypder, the creative, uhm, business storyteller that was his first marketer, he says; just how he feels about the “notorious” actress Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde and her legendary “wahala” he shares –
and oh, what a delicious story he tells. But there is no place where this honesty is more useful than when he shares the stories of two ambitious, but impressive, even historic projects that would have transformed the Nigerian film space – the Film Market and Project Nollywood. You have to read the book to hear the stories.
Sadly, the book tapers off towards the end, doing a great disservice to what was until then one helluva story. After the “epic” tale that was Project Nollywood, its as if the book suddenly lost interest in
itself – tired, wistful, almost sad.
Don’t get it twisted, as musician D’banj would say, that last chapter is engaging – he tells of Benin City where his talent was first discovered, of what a profound effect programmes like Hotel De Jordan
and Pot of Life had on him, his odyssey through stage and the NTA, his influences from Michael Jackson – for whom he has a touching affection – to Teddy Riley whom he calls his “creative mentor”. It is an interesting, humorous, engaging end to this 140-page work.
However, for a man who migrated from Benin to Lagos when he was only 19, armed only with his luggage in hand and dreams in his heart, it wasn’t good enough. I expected this to end on a high note – with an eye towards the future, and more trails to blaze, more mountains to conquer; the world at his feet.
Did Novia deliberately end this book on this note of nostalgia? I cannot say. But it is very instructive, and for me, deeply worrisome, that the book ended up abruptly after the costly adventure with our
friends at EcoBank. Incidentally, this is around the same time that Nollywood seemed to have become the subject of ‘Is Nollywood dead’ essays in the newspapers.
Is this, therefore, an ominous sign? Is Novia tired? Is his heart broken? Is he disappointed in the industry over which he reigned? Is he worried for the new generation of ‘New Nollywood’ film-makers? Does he see danger ahead?
I am asking this question of Novia. But it is not just him I ask, because this story is not his alone. I am asking many of you in this room – Nollywood’s innovators and tastemakers. I am asking the Zeb
Ejiros and the Fred Amatas, the Kingsley Ogoros and the Segun Arinzes – what next?
Yes, as one who grew up under your influence, and who used to be a raving fan of your industry, I think understand. You may be disappointed, you may have fought too many battles, and it must be hard to continue to confront the many challenges of being a film-maker in Nigeria.
But you’ve changed the world before.
That was Phase 1. That story has now been, fittingly told by the iconic Charles Novia. We all now await your second act. This curtail will not be drawn. Not yet. Not now. Not anytime soon.