By FRED IWENJORA
Ernest Bhabor made a name for himself as a scripts writer, film producer and director.Many Nollywood films like Blind Date, Mourn You forever, Sad Christmas, Dirty Diana and a host of others owe their scripts to Bhabor known for his story telling talents.
But he soon zoomed off to the United States never to return in a very long time. He had been accredited to attend a film festival in Texas only to get stranded by the unsuspected liquidation of Nigeria Airways which he had traveled and hoped to return with on a particular date.
Bhabor tells FRED IWENJORA in a recent meeting of some of the many shocks and surprises he encountered to finally settle down and raise a family in New York.
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He also discusses his two new books, Neighbours and Legacy while talking about his immediate plans to make more films with his newly acquired technical and artistic know-how. Plus…more…and more.
Two new books of yours Legacy and Neighbours are reigning..what are you trying to say in them?
In Neighbours, I was trying to write about the immigrant experience in America in particular and around the world generally. I mean immigrant experience in terms of the hardship and those kinds of things only the immigrant knows. A lot of people think going abroad is a piece of cake so I try to capture the experience from my perspective. I observed from immigrants from all over the world who live around Brooklyn, New York. For Legacy, it is an overview of Nigeria of the 80s and 90s. I grew up in Nigeria and saw and experienced a lot and wonder how far we have gone down in terms of development, in terms of infrastructure.
Light is not constant even as Nigeria is the 5th oil producing nation. Nigerians, without exaggeration, live in terrible condition of squalor. People resort to crime for survival especially financial crime because of the hardships they have to live with. That is the background of the book Legacy. The two books were published with the help of Create a space, an Amazon company. And they are doing well.
You wrote many scripts for films, and television before your relocation. Is it over for the films?
Aaah I am still a serious scripts writer and film maker as a matter of fact. That is my primary passion. Writing comes naturally for me. I have had screen plays, essays and now books. For me writing is writing depending on context and style. A book is a little different from screen plays but in the end they are basically same thing to read. You may be writing fiction or nonfiction or making a documentary Yes I may write books but will never give up on film and screen writing.
Let’s talk of Blind Date, one of the films that made you famous..Does it still feel nostalgic?
Blind Date was the first film of the Anyiam Osigwes before they switched to giving Africa one of its biggest film award AMAA. I doubt if they have done another film of that nature for many years. I wrote that film and directed it. We had late James Iroha alias Giringori Akabogu of Masquerade, Papi Aluwe and others. It was a big project I remain ever grateful to Anyiam Osigwes for being supportive. Producer of the film was my mentor Madu Chikwendu. It is a project I remain so proud of. I later wrote Mourn you forever for Charles Abazie, Dirty Diana for Big Tony Ogbetere, Sad Christmas for Micky Rodstick. I also had scripts for Fidelis Duker, Taiwo Oduala. I also did a TV series script for Ada Ameh. Some of the scripts are still waiting to be produced.
Then you zoomed off…..?
Yes o. I zoomed off in your words in 2002 to the United States. At first it was not to stay but that is another story. However it has been a learning curve for me. I am very grateful to God that I am still alive and healthy. Many have died. I have been able to learn a few things like film making techniques, a lot of skills. I have been able to rub shoulders with international film makers across the world aside from raising a family. I am so proud of it. I guarantee you that if I make a film today it will resonate because of the many things I have learnt in the last few years.
So what’s stopping you from making a film?
You know that the film industry is a capital intensive business. Money has been holding me but I am in talks with investors across the world to raise capital for a major project. Until that clicks, then I wait.
I have a couple of scripts and they are getting vetted though. I have also done a short film titled; Up in smoke. It is an education content on how to quit smoking. I had also worked with Jetta Amatta on a Niger Delta film project.
You were in University of Ibadan, Nollywood and now in the United States, what differences do you see in production ethics and style?
My dear brother, organization is key for every project in the world I live in Nigeria where I was born. They also have better structures in place and the facilities. Ofcourse you know that an artiste earns a better and decent living with his works. Piracy is everywhere but Nigeria is different. Genevieve Nnaji made a film LionHeart I heard that before the release of the movie, it was already all over the place in DVD. That is a big shame. The government should help the industry fight the scourge. Nigerian artistes are living in poverty. People make several big movies, yet it does not show on their lives. Their life style does not show anything. Piracy has destroyed everything. Producers do not earn their due and when this is so, the artistes suffer. It is so hard for the producer to make his next film.
17 years down the line, you may have to recall your first days in the US
Hey!I saw permanent electricity. I was surprised to see constant light. I mean power. It did not blink. It only goes off when you switch it off. It was the first big difference I noticed. I have lived in Nigeria. In Sapele, Ibadan, Lagos, Surulere, Ikeja etc. where there is still no constant light. It is either not there or rationed. Of course I met a different people – some friendly, some not, some smiling, many not at all. I got to the US in summer so it was warm and nice. But when it started getting cold I started praying to God that I survive it. It was cold, really cold. It was also a huge shock for me. I can say light and weather were the initial big concerns.
Also driving is a real issue. Drivers obey traffic signs. I was amazed at how organized the American society is in terms of driving. There are a lot of laws in New York and people are mindful of the other driver. If compared to Lagos, we have horns blaring forever. There is no littering or dumping of refuse anywhere. People who eat snacks keep the wrappers with them till they get to a corner where there is a refuse bin to drop it. If you bump into someone in error you say excuse me or pardon me but in Lagos you may have to get a punch.
Any other shocks….?
The population of people in New York City is just amazing when you talk about population. You come from a city like Lagos thinking you have seen it all, New York is massive my dear. I was raised in Sapele, a small city where everyone knew almost everyone. Then Lagos seemed crowded and bigger but New York in my estimation is to me like Lagos a hundredth times. The crowd of people is intense that you bump into people even on the train. I originally was in Texas where I had attended a film festival.
You mean you were in New York during the famous 9/11?
No. I went not long after. 9/11 was in 2001 September while I arrived in 2002. One could still feel the impact of the disaster when I arrived. People were still very conscious and traumatized and apprehensive even more than eight months after. I went to see the rubbles. It is one of the most terrible times in the history of America and Americans. When I visited Ground Zero as the place is now called I was shocked at the mass of debris on the ground
Could you now tell the story of your residing in the US since it was not the original intention?
This was caused by Nigeria Airways going out of business. I had flown to the US with a Nigeria Airways return ticket. I was to attend a film festival in Texas and then spend the other months to do a course in film and return to Nigeria. My return ticket was valid for a year while my visa was multiple entries. By the time I was due to return, I called Nigeria Airways office to validate my ticket but a voice told me to call later. I did and another voice said they will get back to me. When I got no calls I called again to ask if I could get a refund I was told Nigeria Airways had gone bankrupt.
My next call met a dead line. That was how I started to survive. I spent the early days brooding about my Nigerian schedules. Several unfinished businesses. The early days were unbearable. I contemplated return but ….. I started to fling my scripts up and down. I met with several producers who had read my scripts and agreed to make a film. But there was always a big snag. You must be signed to a contract and on the top page of the contract form is social security number. I had non and did not even know what that meant at that time.
It was then I realised that coming to America is different from working and living in America. I have been living in the US since and I have no regrets.