He was only 21 when he made his first feature film and 12 years later, he single-handedly restored Nigeria's name on the world map of cine-making countries.
To most Nollywood practitioners and particularly the media, Jeta Amata's wave making film, Amazing Grace was produced with ease, as it was believed to have been bankrolled by the amiable former governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke. But Jeta recently told Daily Sun how he sold all he had and forfeited his accommodation in Lagos just to bring to fruition the Amazing Grace.
The film is a compelling and rare story of resilience and the extent to which the human spirit can move; when a man of vision is trying frantically to realise his dreams.
Jeta is a chip off the old block. His late grandfather, John Amata, was a veteran actor. John acted in Freedom, the largest motion picture during the colonial era, with a cast of five thousand. It was said to have been the first feature film in the country. John's son, the prodigious theatre veteran, Zack Amata, is Jeta's father. Renowned for his role as the no-nonsense Mr. Okonzua, and father of Nosa, in the now rested NTA's Behind the Clouds; a soap opera, that gripped the consciousness of Nigerians many years back. Zack had long time ago at the University of Ibadan made history by being his father's classmate in the Theatre Arts Department. He later taught his sibling, Fred and son, Jeta at the Benue State University, Makurdi.
In Makurdi, Jeta's father subjected him to all manners of excruciating tasks. His case was harshly different as his father prepared him for a world in which only the best is good enough. Not knowing what the father was preparing him for, he had to, on a particular occasion, reported his father to the Head of Department. But today he attributes his daring and adventurous spirit to the training he received from his father.
People seem to think that I am a new face in this business, but the truth is that I have been around for the past 12 years. In those years, I have written, directed and produced more than 15 movies of my own and numerous others for other people. So, what people are seeing now is a product of many years of hard work.
I changed my ambition early in life
While in secondary school, I offered science subjects up to the month that we registered for the WASC. Even today, I find it difficult to know I changed my ambition of becoming a pilot by registering for Literature in English and Bible Knowledge instead of Chemistry and Physics respectively.
I had to get all the recommended literature books and started reading them from the scratch and to my surprise, I discovered that these were books that I had read at some point while I was growing up at the tender age of seven or eight. Although I planned to study Law, I ended up studying Theatre Arts in the university.
My father was my teacher
When I was growing up, my father bought me toys and both of us spent time destroying the toys and putting them back together again, sometimes we got as adventurous as remaking the toys to make them fly. I wanted to open a radio/television set just to know why it works and my father was always there to guide me. When I changed to art subjects and he only found out later when it was too late, he did not say anything but he wished me well in whatever I have decided to do.
Donald Duke's involvement
The idea of producing a film on John Newton was muted by His Excellency, Donald Duke, to Nick Moran and on December 23 2003 I took Morgan to his official residence in Calabar to show off what the true picture of Nigeria is away from the chaotic life in Lagos.
In fact, it was at the tail of the visit that the governor just asked us 'look why don't you do a movie about John Newton?' and we asked: “ Who is John Newton? He asked us to go and find out on our own and Morgan and I picked up the challenge and it was amazing the volume of materials we found in London and Germany about the man. Then, I decided that if I must produce the film, it must be on 35 MM and, of course, when I first mooted the idea to friends in the industry they thought I was going crazy, considering the daunting task that is required to bring such an ambition to fruition.
My UK connection
I have been a close friend of Nick Morgan for a while and I trust him alongside my UK partner, Alicia Arece, both of whom were very instrumental to the successful making of Amazing Grace. Apart from carrying out the initial research with me, Nick virtually gave me unlimited access to his bank account, and he played the lead role of John Newton free of charge! When people say that Nigerians cannot be trusted, I usually tell them that those who chose not to be trusted would never be trusted.
No situation can daunt me, because I have always believed in facing challenges and not running away from them. People doubted my ability of producing Amazing Grace on celluloid but it became possible. They even rumoured that I was given a blank cheque by Donald Duke to produce the movie. But the truth is that, I pumped all my life's savings into Amazing Grace and apart from that, I relinquished my accommodation in Lagos to squat with family members so as to divert the money meant for the estate managers into the making of the movie.
My most memorable day
That was the day I received more than 50 crates in Calabar from the U.K, containing the equipment needed for the shooting of Amazing Grace.
The making of Amazing Grace
Honestly, Amazing Grace was a difficult project. Apart from the pains of assembling the equipment, cast and crew, we had to build a small village from the scratch by first pulling down trees and cutting down plants and creating a motorable road leading to the location. And despite the fact that we paid for the land, the land speculators, as we used to have it in Lagos, would not let us be, so we had to appeal to the state government to give us security.
Shooting on celluloid is a very dangerous gamble as you are not really sure of seeing your end product until it has undergone processing, so if your work is not registering, you may never find out until it has been sent to London and eventually developed.
Also, the cast was so huge that we were spending about N25,000 daily on drinking water. Location was so demanding that at a point, I took ill and that threatened the whole project as I suffered from exhaustion and when hospitalised, I insisted on being taken to the location while on drip. A nurse was attached to me at the location as I always sat on one spot to give instructions to the cast and crew. I did not mind giving my life to make sure the film saw the light of day. After shooting the film, I had to relocate to London for the postproduction and when we became cash strapped, I had to quickly record some excerpts from the film and returned to Nigeria.
On arrival, I went to seek audience with my mentor, Governor Donald Duke whose wife has played the role of a mother to me. Seated to watch the movie, I inserted the CD and as it played, the governor was short of words. He simply screamed: “This is Calabar!' Then turning to me, he asked, 'young man, what is holding this film from getting to the world? I want the world to see Calabar'. So, I told him the total sum needed to get the job finished and he raised the money and I hurried back overseas to get the job completed. I did not involve Duke at the beginning because I wanted to surprise him with the finished work. But he later blamed me for not carrying him along initially. I was nevertheless happy that he appreciated the work.