How Military, Economy Murdered Nigeria’s Cinemas


Eddie Ugbomah via The Guardian

Eddie Ugbomah is a veteran Nigerian filmmaker. He has directed and produced over 12 films, including the Rise and Fall of Oyenusi, The Boy is Good and Apalara, as well as documentaries on economic and social issues. He spoke to OMIKO AWA on the challenges facing the Nigerian cinema and the way forward.

Why are the cinemas no longer busy as they used to be in the 80s and late 90s?

The economy is the major cause. It keeps on nose-diving, making people to have little to spend. Also, most of the materials, including the movies shown in the cinemas, are imported, which means cinema owners need foreign exchange to bring in the movies.

Lastly, the home video fag, coupled with the security situation, made it difficult for people to patronise the cinemas.

However, it must be noted that government is still not prepared for the cinema and even for tourism with the way things are going.

Government should first talk of infrastructure and security, and then, other things will fall in place. Nigeria has so many sites for tourism, but they are highly underdeveloped.

We should take a clue from France where they make 60 per cent of their income from tourism and entertainment, including the cinema.

They organise Cannes Film Festival for 11 days, and after that, they move to tennis, Toure de Paris and so on.

For complete nine months in a year, the country holds one festival or the other and drawing people from different countries to theirs; that is a country that is prepared for tourism. The government backs their tourism and entertainment sector.

Take for instance, this year; France banned American high-tech films from featuring in Cannes Film Festival, because they want to protect their cinema.

If you must talk about the cinema, you must handle security, make mobility easy and create the right environment for business to strive.

Entertainment is a big business; it is part of the economy of a nation. It creates job, brings in both foreign and internally generated revenue aside other things.

Despite the harsh economy, the cinemas are coming back. What could be responsible for this?

This is a good development, but we still do not have enough. How many cinemas do we have within the Lagos metropolis, and as it is in Lagos State, so it is in other parts of the country.

From Mile 2 to Badagry is a distance of 75 kilometres and has over 36 towns, yet there is not a single cinema hall for the people.

This shows we do not have a cinema culture or know the importance of cinema. Cinema helps bring normalcy to life after the week’s hustling. But there is always a way of increasing the number if only government would allow it.

There are 775 local councils in the country and all of them collect viewing centre fund, but they have refused to use such fund to develop the cinema.

Do you know what it means for a film to go round the 775 council areas, whether good or bad, the filmmaker will make money and the centres will also make theirs.

Also, how many films of cinema standard are our producers bringing out each year? This is part of the things that affect cinema culture.

A good movie will always ignite discussions that would make you go back to watch the movie again, because on each occasion, you will see a new thing to talk about.

For instance, the management of the then National Theatre gave me 10 days to show Oyenusi, but the movie stayed at the theatre for three months, because people would come over and over to watch it; the same thing happened to the Black President, The Boy Is Good and Ogunde’s Aiye.

People that do not have time to watch the movies during the week do so on Saturdays and Sundays.

One thing government do not know or knows but have refused to put into practice is that movies just like any other genre of entertainment calm the nerves and could be used to project and pass sensitive messages to the people.

When I did the Mask, which is about how the British government came into the country to cart away our masks, and also, how we plan to get them back from the British Museum by bombing the place.

The British government on watching the movie called the Nigerian government to come for a negotiation.

The then DG of Nigerian Museum, Ekpo Eyo, went to London to negotiate with the British government on behalf of Nigeria.

This is the power of a movie. The Whiteman knows this power and appreciates it, but we are yet to get there.

Are you saying through the cinemas, one could influence public opinion, draw attention to the plight of the people and send warning signals to the enemies?
Yes! Look at the warships in the American movies.

The producers cannot pay for them to be used in movies; rather they are used to warn the enemies of America or the country producing the movie to be careful.

They use the movies to showcase what they have in their arsenal.

You see how their war aircraft demonstrate in movies; it is all a showoff. It is a way of using the cinema to talk to people. Look at Rambo, how he entered the Taliban enclave and killed all the people, just one man.

Movies played a great role in dismembering USSR into smaller independent states.

I could remember a big film festival I attended in Russia and a Russian lady was busy touching my buttocks, she wanted to feel the scare of my assumed tail; but I told her that my tail is in my front; this is what movies can do, some have used it to blackmail others.

The lady at this time and age believe blacks have tails. I must tell you that I went into filmmaking because of the attitude of Charlton Heston.

He was a great American filmmaker who featured in the movie called Ben Hur, the Roman slave who became a prince.

In 1959, when Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe brought Mr. Heston to Nigeria for the pre-independence party at Glover Memorial Hall and while reading his address he said: ”It is a shame that a big country like Nigeria that has been existing and wants to have its independence does not have a film industry. Don’t they know the power of films?”

I shouted from the window my friends and I were peeping from that, “Oyinbo you will never come back to Nigeria because I am going to be a filmmaker,” and that was it.

I was to study medicine or engineer, but I shunned all that for the movies. I always remembered the promise I made on my first contact with Mr. Heston.

Another thing that made me come into the movies was the gimmick the Whiteman use film to do.

Take for instance, the movie Tarzan that talks to the animals in Africa and, also, single handedly killed many blacks; it is all lies, but that is the power of films.

Look at John Wayne that will use eight-round-gun to kill a lot of Indians and after doing that would walk away and people will shout, ‘John Wayne!’ It is part of the American brainwashing.

So, films and entertainment is the power of any nation; it should not be toyed with.

How much could Nigeria be losing by not reactivating the sector?
The first one is the National Theatre, which is losing about N900 billion a year for the past thirty-something years. The facility is made up of eight big halls, aside other smaller ones that could also be used to screen or show movies.

How did you come up with this figure?

It is because I use the facility and knows what is going on there. The main hall of the National theatre sits 5000 people; so you work out the simple arithmetic of having shows, 8 to10, 11 to 1, 2 to 4, 5 to 7 and 8 to 10.

Imagine 5,000 people paying N2,000 throughout the shows. That would amount to N10 million in one show, then calculate this throughout the show in a day then in a week, a month and year.

Then calculate it by the number of halls, including the exhibition centres and other smaller places that could be used to generate fund.

I am not telling you what I do not know, because I have experienced it with my films. The National Theatre is a money-making facility, but it has never being managed properly by the people concerned.

Were the private cinemas also making as such money as the National theatre?
Yes, they were making such money, huge profit; but their setback was the drop in the value of the naira, insecurity in the country and later the home video fag.

Do not forget that it was N2 to a dollar, during the period I was talking about, but things change when it became N20 to a dollar.

It is the military and economy that murdered our cinemas.

From the global view is Nigerian cinema moving in the right direction?

No, we in the sense that we are leaving strangers to take over.

In fact, the only viable broadcasting station in the country is MultiChoice with GOTV and DSTV, because it is the only way you can see Nigerian stations.

The Nigerian private owners of broadcasting stations are not measuring up to the demand, but instead of coming together to form a strong bloc like BBC and reach out to the people, they chose to remain the way they are because of their greed to be in charged. It is a shame that this is happening.

When I was appointed Chairman of Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC), I discovered that some Lebanese and Indians were collecting huge sums of money to bring films from the United State and Canada to the country.

The worse thing was that most of the films they were bringing were pirated and I had to stop them and advised government to establish the Nigerian Film Corporation Laboratory in Jos.

With this, we began to process films in the country. Government gave me N88million to build a sound and colour laboratory in Jos.

Jos was chosen as a location for a few reasons: the availability of land, the serene topography and the pure spring water. If you process film with the water you will not see any holes in it like the type of water we have in the south.

While all the state in the south requested we give them some money before they could give us land, the people from Jos just asked to take as much land as we wanted: they asked me to throw stone and anywhere it landed would be the length and breath of the land.

Do you know that civil servants, especially those who were no longer benefitting from the oversea ban on film processing began to sabotage the corporation, to the extent that it was starved of water; a necessary component in film processing.

Nigerians killed the laboratory; we cut our nose to spite our face, if not by now we would have been processing all our films locally.

Nigeria needs at least a 100 films per year; the world is waiting to hear our story.

People are tired of these tech-driven movies; they want to watch our epics and other stories, so they are waiting for the African story, they want to sing and dance along with us like we have in the Indian films.

Entertainment yields fast returns; in those days, we use N1 or N2million to make films and that is a huge sum and within 10 days you get back your money in the National Theatre.

What is the role of these 30-in-one CDs to our cinema?

It is part of the problem. It is worst. I was embarrassed in the United State of America, when I attended a seminar on the World Cinema because of this.

The American filmmakers say our people steal their films and sell them in our streets and that it is until we start protecting their films that they would not protect ours.

The 30-in-1 films are all stolen films. If you watch some of them, you will see that they were dubbed with a telephone.

And then, because of technology they are mass-produced and sold at give away prices.

These pirates sell these films as little as N100 or less and they still make huge profits.

Of what use are our films to the people in the Diaspora when they are not properly produced?

The truth is every film has its own market; our style is different from their style and theirs from ours.

Hollywood filmmakers have learnt a lot from us, especially in areas of production, where they learnt that Nigerians pay people to shoot films in their homes.

Before now they taught that all the structures they see in our movies were movie settings, so, they have learnt things from us even though they have been there before us.

There is no way we can catch up with Hollywood style with our low budget. Titanic was shot with US$400billion and you cannot expect it to be the same with movie shot with US$10million.

What is the way out?

The way out is to put Nigeria first and put up the necessary structures.

The Director General of NFC, Dr. Maduekwe, should sit down with the stakeholders and think of how to revive the sector; that is the job of the Nigeria Film Corporation, it is a production centre.

He should partner filmmakers to come out with the true Nigerian films because it is a production centre.

Also, government should not relegate the cinema to the background because the sector could help take some urchins and indigent people off the street by giving them jobs and even calming the nerves of stressed up people.

We need to understand that entertainment create more direct and indirect jobs than any sector in the economy; it provides jobs more than oil and gas companies, from the printers to the cast and CD sellers.

Nigeria should have had the best movie estate in Africa, but our people, especially those in government are not taking the industry serious.

Imagine, some Americans came to me two years ago, asking for some parcel of land to construct a film village with their own money and I took them to the Delta State government, but till the government in power left nothing happened.

Another way we are killing our cinema and local production is through the importation of already edited films; they are cheaper, but keep our local producers and artistes unemployed.

Our government should emulate France that is making huge money from cinema, entertainment and tourism.

The Canne film festival is huge; it is a place where ideas are exchanged and filmmakers can get co-production contact, but is unfortunate that some of us go there and come back empty-handed.

In fact, revenue from films, tourism and entertainment can adequately be used to run the economy if only our government can manage it properly as it is done in other countries that do not have oil.

It is also time for us to start asking, which organisation or group of people have been collecting on behalf of the Nigerian filmmakers the money the Europe Union through France has been releasing to Africa countries for their cinemas.

Burkina Faso has been getting it, but we don’t know who gets ours.

The fund has being ongoing for the past 38 years. The fund is to help our cinemas and filmmaking.