Amaka Igwe: A little song for a Nollywood Matriarch

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By OKOH AIHE

LIKE you said, I am a young filmmaker, quote and unquote. I have not started thinking about footprints because I am not going anywhere for now.

THAT was Amaka Igwe speaking to this writer a few years ago. On Monday night, April 28, 2014, Amaka died! Once more death has ambushed the fate, fortune and determination of a brilliantly resolute woman to hold on to life and reach her heights. It is difficult to trace the point of intersection, the creative confluence relationship that would grow into some kind of blood relationship, metaphorically. She was and will always remain a sister, no matter the distance and difference in tribes and languages.

amaka-Igwe-lateDazed into incomprehension when the news was first broken to me by Dr. Don Pedro Obaseki, I am speaking to Charles now, which is the way she would even call her husband…. Charles, no ceremonies and no pretensions about those pet names laced in bemused love packages…but she was the big sister.

“Tell me what is happening. Your sister is gone. Your sister is gone. Your sister has left us.” It is a whisper. The voice is fading and becoming inaudible. The eyes are getting blurred and the tears are welling up. Soon they begin to rain and in very big drops as the heart begins to question the transiency of life and always the untimely departure of those who mean well to the society. Amaka was well endowed – large in size, large in brain and large in influence and commitment to society.

Mr. Ken Nnebue gave commercial vision to Nollywood. Amaka supplied the intellectual capacity that fired the industry to greater heights and provided benchmarks for others to follow. What she did for television she surpassed in Nollywood.

Checkmate and Fuji House of Commotion are axiomatic of some of the greatest works for television in the country, but what do you say of Rattlesnake, Violated and Forever, three great movies that would always rate as highest end of creativity in Nollywood. It wasn’t just the simplistic narrative style of her stories but the cast and ordinary characters that grow into real life and become some kindergarten psycho-babble among children. Remember Toyin Tomato in Fuji House of Commotion!

While the TV programmes and the movies are the visual manifestations of her creative proclivity, there is the other side of her that is not much appreciated. Amaka was more of a teacher than a movie maker or TV producer. Being in her cast or crew is an opportunity to be subjected to some teaching and training. And my God, did many people loathe that.

The movie industry could sometimes come with bloated images and stardom that do not allow some industry players already with some vestige of visibility to stoop, learn and conquer. No way, life would rather revolve around them. For this reason, Amaka would rather grow her stars, build her crews and release something refreshingly appealing anytime she was hitting the screen or the market.

Yes, I was there. Amaka was a star maker by choice and detailed commitment to, and an understanding of an industry that still remains an esoteric mystery to even the practitioners, not to talk of the business community.

Her concern always was to build capacity for Nollywood so that Nigerian moviemakers can do their work and not feel inferior or be ashamed of their trade. “So why can’t we leave America and do our own thing,” she once asked me.

“I think we would be masters of our people. My greatest joy was at Sithengi 2001, in South Africa, when I heard a Tanzanian say that on the bus travelling for six hours from one part of Tanzania to the other, they were playing a Nigerian movie which has to do with witchcraft, but which had people struggling to buy copies of the film after the screening. So if the Nigerian movie that is made here in Lagos or far away Aba or Enugu is making waves in Tanzania, that means there is an African story,” she concluded very emphatically.

She would teach young actors how to act for TV which is quite different from stage, especially for those coming with degrees from theatre schools, and teach young minds the art of directing for the screen. Her programmes were like a school and some people who went through them bear the testimony of success.

In the early days it took so much boldness and commitment to creativity to produce a movie not commissioned by the marketers and not be singed in the market place. With Rattlesnake, Violated and Forever, Amaka, goaded by her husband, forced the marketers to come to her.

There were some people who looked at the future of Nollywood and knew that something good could come out of the industry. Some people looked at the strength of content and projected that it would be king in the future.

Some of these residual projections were far before the coming of African Magic. I am looking at Gab Okoye (Gabosky), Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Emeka Mba, and Charles Igwe whose wife has gone to join Mr. Justus Esiri, who was also a member of the group (May God keep them in good abode). This small group had great plans and vision for the movie industry and must be very happy today as the industry has grown beyond individual aspiration and imagination.

Amaka was a thorough professional, one of the few that was very friendly with critics, and it was part of her strength and matriarchal dominance. She would do a script and pass it round to her colleagues and critics to look at. Oftentimes, the script would already be a great one but there is always something to add, a little flaw in the characters here and there to be deracinated, some credulity to be added to the story line, and what you have is a stunning outing like Rattlesnake, Violated or Forever or if you are from a polygamous home, you do a character attestation for Chief Fuji in Fuji House of Commotion.

This was the kind of open-mindedness that gave birth to Movie Half Hour, a pioneer television programme focusing on Nollywood; nothing about the razzle dazzle of stardom or the splash and dash of the movie industry but a serious programme aimed at contributing to the building process of the nascent movie industry. What most other producers and other industry players couldn’t even tolerate Amaka supported with the facilities of her studios. Amaka Igwe Studios even with little or no cash in the pockets of the journalist cum producer.

Thanks to Wale Obadeyi, Lillian Agbeyegbe, Chris Otaigbe and Ralph Ezeoke who were ready to work for very little pay, that is when it was coming at all. It is difficult to represent your collective grief in this little piece.

Some people see the coming of Best of the Best TV (BoBTV) as an enterprise or even a prestige project. They miss the point. This yearly exhibition and capacity building programme was carefully structured and nurtured to provide an avenue for the deregulated broadcast sector to source content for its stations and provide opportunities for capacity building.

The University Challenge which encouraged Nigerian universities to do short movies for competition was a major step in this direction. The University Challenge attracted entries from numerous higher institutions and the students in attendance were given the opportunity to attend master class addressed by local and international filmmakers. BoBTV was a financial drain. It never made money.

Those behind it borrowed to keep the concern going. But it was a huge success and contributed immensely to building human capital for Nollywood. It was Amaka’s resilience that kept BoBTV going and she primed the resource persons that their contributions, even without pay, was for the good of the industry and to the glory of the country which today enjoys the appellation of a top movie making country.

My sister, I told your sister with the beautiful smile last night that you were gone. That ended her day and drew a pall on the dark hours. We are unable to tell the children that you have gone on this journey from which you will never return. We are not allowing them to watch TV at the moment for them not to chance on the news.

If they do find out, and that could be very soon, we shall ask them to say a prayer for Ruby, Bobby and Danny. Above all we shall continue to pray for Charles whose business imprimatur was resplendent on all your creative masterpieces. Sleep well.
Okoh Aihe contributed this material from Abuja.

 

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