Albert Egbe is an actor, writer, producer, director of films, a cultural administrator and former president general of Pan African Guild of Film makers with secretariat in South Africa. His artistic and creative experience places him at the forefront of Nigeria’s arts scene. He has played leading acting roles in many plays among them were “Hamlet” “Village Headmaster: “Basic and Company” and many others.
But his most famous role was in the “Basi and Company”, one of the most successful TV comedy series ever produced on Nigerian television.
Presently, he is planning a co-production arrangement involving creative talents, technicians and equipment from South Africa, Nigeria, Benin Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all in the spirit of New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). The versatile and outstanding artistes in this interview bares his mind on a wide range of issues. Excerpts.
BY JAPHET ALAKAM
From the cultural angle, Africans seems to have lost their culture. As a culture advocate, what’s you take?
I wouldn’t say we have lost all, in fact, basically, it’s the young people who have lost the culture. Those of us who are older still retain the culture. We are very proud of it because we know that it is the only thing we Africans have that western people do not have. Otherwise, they just have everything including technology.
In that sense, my present position has always been in the promotion of art and culture from when I started acting up till now when I am producing. Right now, I am engaged in a production that is really very solidly cultural. I am an Itsekiri man, I come from that background and the story I am telling in film for international consumption is a story about the Itsekiri people going back many years.
We started our film in 1885 when the conference of Berlin took place and there, the European powers divided Africa among themselves as if it was just their backyard, you know! During that process, there was a clash of cultures as a result of that inclusion and it brought about so much of evils and that is one of the stories I am trying to tell now. From my point of view, I am trying to uphold the culture of our people and make it known to the rest of the world. That is one way of propagating arts and culture.
How can the old ones transfer culture to the young?
How do you transfer? by example, I cannot force a youth to take care of culture, but if they watch and listen, then they can imbibe the culture. How did we imbibe the culture, it is from our parents because we listened to them? You don’t go teaching it by force, you listen. But these days, what can you teach the young ones, even if you do, they wouldn’t listen because their attitude is totally different.
What is left for those of us who are older is to continue to set examples to create something that they can aspire to, so that they would not have the excuse of saying, it wasn’t there, I didn’t know. That s just the way it is.
Looking at the old comedy Basi and company, village headmaster which were all message encompassing compared to the present genre of films that lack such, what is your take?
Well, if you ask anybody who is older, if he remembers Basi and company, they will also remember that there was a central message. Even though it was a comedy and people were laughing at all time, there was a central message that trickery and dishonesty does not pay. As much as Mr. B was a likable character, in all the schemes that he did, he never succeeded. It was a deliberate attempt by the creator of the film Ken Saro Wiwa to ensure that no matter what kind of scheme he engaged in, he never succeeded.
That was one aspect of it, the other is that it was one of the first television programmes in which there was an attempt to teach English which, whether we like it or not, its now part of our culture. And in that programme, there was not speaking of pidgin or vernacular language. There was an attempt to encourage young children to speak proper English. There is no reason why you cannot speak your own language and also speak English language.
You may have said much about the message, what about the film content, quality and acceptability?
Well what you see now has been there at the very beginning as what you know now as Nollywood. We were there. I was running a television and film training school in Gbagada, sponsored by Ford foundation and French embassy. We were training people so that they can be better writers, actors, producers and so many that they can make better movies.
I have to say that the movie industry in Nigeria has grown. But I would also say, we are still not there. They are what I would call in the middle world. We should be going for the upper world, but by that I mean, with all the productions that have been going on, and I have traveled a lot around the world, I am yet to see a Nigerian film showing prominently in important international film festivals and that’s where the promotion of culture takes place. Nollywood is great.
It makes so much money to such a point that people are beginning to lose sight of the real backbone which is arts and culture. I say this, because when you concentrate only on making money, you lose sight of the art because , when I say this is not good, the sound here is bad, the lighting is not well positioned, they say ah! That is what the people want. So we will give to them. But that is not good enough. You are exploiting the people. Who says if you give them something better, they will not watch it, after all, they watch American movies and other kind of movies.
We are getting to that level. Let us not think small and remain small. If we think big, we will grow bigger. I look forward to a day when Nigerian movie will be staring in Caine film festival in France. Burkina Faso doesn’t have money, Mauritania, Morocco, Mali doesn’t have much, but their films are showing in big international film festivals. Why are we not showing our films there?
That, to me is the next level we should be moving from the middle kingdom to the upper kingdom so that we will be counted among the people that make movies not just because it is contributing so much to the GDP. Culture really, is not supposed to be a money maker. Art and culture is the soul of the nation. And if need be, money should be brought from all sources like oil or any sector to feed and sustain art and culture. So you maintain a balance. Arts are for the soul, the rest is for the body. You must marry this two and have them working always in balance. Otherwise, you are out of balance.
How do we take it to that level?
Now, my project is an attempt. I don’t say I have the right answer; it is just an attempt because if you have not tried, you will not. My attempt is to make and tell a Nigerian story but with international input because the story luckily has international contents. As a result, I am not only using Nigerian actors, I am also using South African and British actors and South African technology and crew. I am trying to do an international movie that will help raise the standard of movie production to the upper kingdom.
When will the film be out?
Hopefully next year. The key to it is raising the fund for it which is one of the reasons I am in Nigeria. I am based in South Africa, I travel abroad a lot in respect of actualizing this project but people has always asked how much I have raised in my country. And that is what I am here and they say charity begins at home.
What is the name of the project?
It is a historical drama. It is an epic in the genre of Helen of Troy. That is what I can say. Everyone in Nigeria now is an actor or something else. Is like we lack properly trained professionals, how can we correct that anomaly? First of all, only by going to school, quite frankly. There are no two ways about it. In any kind of human endevour, you need to go to school. You need to be trained and after that, you need to be retrained and retrained.
I told you about my experience when I was running a TV school in Gbagada. We would go and even give scholarship – come and get trained, they say ‘why do we need training for when I can make my movie and sell it in Alaba market. What do you do about that, just as in any field of human endevour, without training you cannot perform at the level at which you want to perform. What we find are people who just like to act because they see other people act not because they have the talent.
In terms of raising the culture, national theatre has been an issue for now?
I may not be quite too current because I have been away for a quite a while but I have been following as much as possible. One of the things I believe that happened to the place to my knowledge is that, they were trying to run it as a commercial venture. Arts and culture is not supposed to be running for profit. Other parts of the economy should be financing art and culture.
When you put up a place like national theatre and you are charging the kind of fees other places like Muson centre are charging, it kills the art. You don’t insist that people should commercialize art if you want to promote it. Many of the great artist are not doing it because of money. Picasso wasn’t doing it because of money. They were doing it for the love of it. Because art is a spiritual thing, it comes from the soul and you don’t need to pay money for it.
How many films have you produced?
No nollywood film for now. But for television programmes, I have produced a lot, my fault is I read a book, if I like it, I adapt it into a television programme. After I left Basi and company, I did Jaguar Nanas daughter , then we went on to do short films like ‘ The trees grow in the desert by Rasheed gbadamosi, Our husband has gone mad again by Ola Rotimi, and so on.
Basi and company as popular as it was then, can it come up again?
I don’t think so. Some things has to stop. Nothing goes on forever. For instance, I do not see myself playing Mr. B at my age in my life. It was great in that time. I loved it at that time and it is rested for good. We must move on to other things.
Your advice to film producers and way forward for film industry?
It is to work hard, by that I mean , don’t be too much in a hurry. I heard the other day that somebody has produced sixteen movies in one year and I was quite surprised. To me, that is almost super human, if you want to make a good movie it will take time, for me I have written this particular script for many years, over and over and this is my tenth draft. I am trying to put together this production which will take some time. If you study America films and people who make good films, it is a major job that takes months and months to produce.