I’ve never benefited from the Government financially. Most people think Cross River and Donald Duke funded my film, The Amazing Grace. It’s wrong. The budget was 400,000 GBP ($800,000 then) of which the majority were foreign investments. What I got from Cross River State Government was the location to build my sets and accommodation for my foreign cast and crew which I appreciated. Ansa was a producer.
Mary Slessor was funded by me and the same foreign partners as The Amazing Grace, and I brought in the same crew. I am loyal. The people who should get the credit would be Alicia Arce, my partner, and producer then and Nick Moran who has become one of my dearest friends, and godfather to my daughter. They, especially Alicia Arce made it possible for me to rise in the industry. She is one person I will forever be grateful to in my life.
I met them when the BBC came to do a documentary on Nollywood, and the film, Game of Life which I produced. After we finished, I convinced them to come with me to Calabar and I called Donald Duke ahead of time saying, I need you to charm some people I think would be helping me make a big movie. You know DD, you know he was on point. 11 months later, we were back, but this time with 35mm equipment and crew.
The Amazing Grace was a financial failure as we hardly made any money from sales. Between the US and UK, we got about $27,000 in all. Wilson Ebiye was the one I gave the rights to. He got the deal with Vivendi/Codeblack and It became the first Nigeria film on Netflix far back as 2007. It’s still on Amazon selling, several TV Stations have and are still playing it, yet no money apart from the first. I know this is coming as a shock to a lot of people. Alicia and I lost almost everything. So all that while people were hating on me, all I was doing was bringing them jobs. The last time I saw the Governor in Nigeria, we talked and laughed about it, and he brought it up. He said, “no mind them.”
What eased the pain was the branding Donald Duke made happen as he organized the premiere at Aso Rock. The premiere was to show President Obasanjo what Cross River could do.
I remember how a car ran over Uduak Akpabio’s feet while he was handling everything tech for me. It was Uduak’s idea the guys who made the poster in Hollywood used. Today Uduak has an innovation no one else in the world has.
This is why I kept going on. I did those productions in Calabar so Donald Duke could see the potential of Nollywood and to raise my people. I was always working so the guys continued training. I had presented a thesis to Duke in 2001 about setting up a studio, so all my productions were aimed at him seeing me bring equipment and crew from the UK and US. That riled him up.
All that sacrifice and hard work were aimed at one thing, Studio Tinapa. I remember one morning Donald Duke called. In the car, he said, “I’m going to show you where your permanent office will be.” We drove to where Tinapa is now but was all forest and Bush. It would have been one of the memorable days of my life, but its still one of my saddest along with the passing of Ansa.
When Liyel Imoke became Governor, he called me with Gershom Bassey. His words, “I want to finish the good things Donald started.” I was elated and flew to Calabar. I proposed to him to fund films done by his people and 10 people were given N500,000 each with more to come. Eric Anderson and Ansa were some of the recipients. I remember Magnus Edet, he was barely a teenager when he started coming to set. Today he’s a director and informed me that he just moved his family out of Calabar, to Lagos.
I didn’t last one month, as the same people who had always accused me of “chopping” Cross River money, said I had come to chop more, and I left and they never got the balance, even when they made their films. I never forget the pride I felt seeing Ansa and Bassey Ekpo Bassey directing.
I never returned.
Now you can guess why I’ve never been to AFRIFF.
The entire structure I built that made several people today, was taken down. Ansa, Enyinna, Mbong, Bassey Ekpo Bassey were still students. People insulted me at different times, some wrote petitions to Government that I paid them less what they heard had been provided for them. I still get them! I sacrificed so much, trained a lot of them, made several stars, yet when the time came to run the studio I made happen, I became an outsider. To date, The Amazing Grace is still played, like every day at the Slave Museum in Calabar because the people think they own it. They don’t have the rights to it and I’ve only allowed it so they could still feel some ownership since it’s their story. I remember those days with Ibok Ekpenyong, we lost Utibe, Olivia, Edith, Charles, and then Godwin my driver and most trusted friend. We lost so much.
AAMA and Nollywood killed that film. No one supported it even though it was our biggest film. I didn’t submit for the film because I expected the outcome. Fred Amata my uncle did it behind my back, and I’m not sure I’ve forgiven him, or he, forgiven himself. When I saw the nominations come out, I insisted they took me out, but Fred and some practitioners I respect came to my house to convince me. I remember Chico Ejiro saying, “dem no fit try am, at least you go win Best Director.” I told them it wouldn’t happen. I’m not in any way saying the film was the best, however of all the other films, it is the only film that’s still in the market, worldwide. It was 15 years ago we made it and it is still selling. The other films would not even meet with the quality of 10 years ago, not to mention today. I remember Pearl Osibu was with me one day as I was writing the script. Rachel, her sister was a good friend then. I actually asked her for some suggestions, though she was still really young, I knew she was a star from that day. She’s today one of the best writers in Nigeria. I remember telling Kejie while I was writing and she teased, “This one that the lead is called Ansa…” I always worked as a community.
I got 15 nominations and won one, Cinematography. Then I was also nominated for Best Visual (I think) Effects. I thought they meant just visual, but the others in that category were all special effects. My film didn’t have any special effects. I built a village and burnt it down. I built a ship and fucking wrecked it! Some thought I was mad. We took the ship under the Itu Bridge and I got firefighters and their trucks (thanks to Duke) to spray water on us like was a storm. I didn’t even win Best Sound when I was the only film with a Dolby Digital Certificate that cost $10k for someone to just check that it met international quality. I remember Keith Shiri, one of the jurors, ran after me as we were leaving the venue. He wanted my film for his festival in London and Ansa muttered something as Keith explained what he thought happened. This is the reason I don’t attend AAMA. It has nothing to do with Peace, who’s my friend, but all the foreigners who knew that in another 100 years, only my film in the pack, would be remembered.
In the first Calabar Carnival, there were not much of us; it was the Governor, the First Lady, their friends and family, my cast and crew as well as cabinet members. Maybe about 200 in total. Though I wore a costume, everyone from Ansa to Austin Nwaolie and Richard had costumes, so I filmed the entire thing myself so we could use the materials to promote and market the next carnival, which happened only two weeks later because we were all excited at the success. I’d never seen Governor Duke that excited. Now you see what he visioned. That time, we were about 5,000.
Some people don’t know, but I wrote, produced and directed three stage musicals in Calabar. Ansa and Esther Bassey produced them with me. One of them promoted the people and was called, “The Cross River Experience,” which we performed for the late First Lady, Stella Obasanjo and again for President Obasanjo. This was while the Governor was trying to make the President see his vision for tourism. Then during the opening of Tinapa, we did another called “Nollywood.”
That was when I discovered Iyanya. I cast him and told him he was going to be a star. His first performance was in front of OBJ.
The theme was investments. I even flew once with the Governor to see the Minister of Culture then, Emeka Chikelu who promised that the Ministry would fund my post-production. He signed his part, but when it was time to release funds, came the sharks. I never got it. I had to raise money on my own for that, and after waiting for almost six months.
Eric Anderson who was just Commissioner of Tourism as of a few months ago was one of the people with me at all times with the films and stage musicals. I saw his potential from the beginning and always gave him lead roles. He was Ansa’s cousin and always, one of my guys.
In the last Christmas Carnival, I made sure every major artist and comedian in Nigeria came. I negotiated their fees and prepared the budget. From P-Square to Eedris Abdulkareem. I got all the old-timers too. I told the Governor I was going to put the Plantation Boyz on stage for the first time in years, and I scheduled, Tuface, Faze and Blackface to perform on the same day. They didn’t know until we were all backstage. I knew they loved each other enough to sing together, and they did. I paid some of them with my own money and the Government later refunded.
Never once did I ask any of them to “sort” me as is the practice. I didn’t do it because it would have been cheating them. We’re never paid enough, why cut people’s money? I’m sure they all remember. Not trying to make money off over 80 or so musicians and comedians were the right thing to do. I have never gotten anyone a deal and asked for a cut. I was building a structure I wanted to last over 100 years. Ansa and Enyinna were at the forefront picking them up from the airport to hotel bookings.
When you go to Tinapa today, you would understand the pain I’ve carried in me for several years. Just like with Black November, once again, people are wrong. My integrity and honor are what put me in trouble, and yet I always still excel.
Our issue in Nigeria is not Government, our problem is us. It’s all about dog eat dog. This entirety was the last conversation I had with Ansa, and now she rests but before, telling me why Tinapa is the way it is today. If I could buy it off the Government, I would call it Studio Ansa because she started it.
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