Film is like fashion, you go with the trend or you are out of fashion– Sonny Mcdon
After 25 years on screen, he veered into film production and directing. He is at present the Executive Secretary, Board of Trustees, Actors Guild of Nigeria and the Programme Director, African Movie Academy Award(AMAA). He is a very busy person in the field of entertainment which got him the name Big Daddy. In this interview with CHIOMA AGALI, he speaks on the challenges he is facing in the Nigerian movie industry and the reason why he is no longer seen on screen unlike when the industry was still young among other issues. Excerpts:
Tell us about your background?
I am a film producer and director. I worked with NTA and from NTA to the era of home video in the early 90's by God grace we are part of the pioneer practitioner of home video and thank God we have gotten to the level we are now.
What was growing up like for you and where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Niger Delta area. As a child, when we were growing up there was no rampant power failure as it is right now. Then in Port Harcourt every body in the area, we are all friends, every body around you knows your parents so we use to be very careful and when you do anything wrong they will report you to your parents. I grew up in Assemblies of God Church and it was one of the prominent pentecostal church in the early 70's. Once you are part of it everybody will say all those church boys. It will be different from what every other child does. Coming from that background we try as much as possible to behave well in the neighborhood even though we have peer pressure. But we have thorough religious background, not only because of your parents but also the Sunday school teacher is also there. And after my high school I moved to Lagos and I started with NTA and then it was only NTA and stage play at the national theatre we are always there to rehearse before the invention of home video and television soaps. And the home video started with Igbo films. So the artists were there craving for attention that never came or came poorly. Then, some of us who where thinking creatively about the frustrations moved to break away from the poisoned hole that was NTA. The result was Living in Bondage and Nollywood was born.
Why are you no longer doing films in Igbo?
The Igbo films are still there, though they are few. What happened is that we transited from regional language to a more widely used language. We started with Igbo films and only a section of the country was addressed. The others were left out. So we thought of how we would involve others to share in what we were doing. So, we began to do the stories, which are of course our traditional stories, in English. And the reach spread, taking the industry higher. But there are still Igbo films, as other languages have theirs.
Nollywood has come a long way from what it used to be described as poorly written and poorly interpreted scripts by interlopers. As one who was there at the teething stage, how will you assess the progress so far?
Like in every other industry or profession, there is always a beginning– from the expectant stage before hatching, then the move towards the dreamed height. Nollywood's beginning was humble. If you look back from where we are coming from in the early 90's and where we are now, you will agree with me that there has been a great stride. From a dream then to what has now attracted the attention of the whole world. There has been, indeed, a big progress given the fact that it has been a private- sector driven venture supported by itself. And, of course, nobody gave it any chance of survival in the beginning. But it has conquered, it has survived and attracted admirers from far and wide . Europe, the Americas and Asia now pay attention when Nollywood is mentioned. There has been challenges, though, and they are expected. We began empty-handedly but have moved on without any support from either the government, multinationals or any other sector. We are lone- rangers and we have conquered our environment, Africa, and now we are facing the world. So, I can tell you that Nollywood has made a gigantic progress, not just because of its wide reach from what was just a regional platform, but because of the obstacles it surmounted to make statements that now echoes far.
Who were your mentors?
You know because we came in earlier and started on television but there were people we look up to then people like Olu Jacobs.
You are no longer seen on screen as when the industry was still young. Why?
I started as an actor in the early days of the home video industry, when it evolved from television, like I said. Before then, we were in NTA doing tele-movies, soap operas. And when the home video thing came, we started doing video. But I was actively involved. But at a time, I decided to go for training in other segments of the industry. I was trained in directing and producing. After that I started producing, and since 2000. I have been producing and directing. I was into active acting from 1980 to 2000. That was not a short time for one to make a statement in a field and move on.
Besides, there was the need to give the younger artists space to express their talents. The roles I played as a young man, I can no longer play now. So, younger artists must take over. And the part of a father, which is the only area I can fit in now, is not always there. Film is like fashion. You go with the trend or you are out of fashion. Right now, most of our movies are based on love stories. And love stories are mostly stories of young men and young girls and very few fathers. Among 30 characters, you may have only one father and, maybe, two uncles. The rest are young men and young girls. You find out that roles for people like us are becoming rare. So, we have to transit to other departments of the industry, like directing and producing. And there is also events management. I am, by the grace of God, the programme director for African Movie Academy. I am also involved in Guilds activities. So I am actually very much active in the industry, from acting I have moved to organising one thing or the other in the industry. In fact, I tell you, African Movie Academy Award (AMAA), which I am also involved in, is so time consuming that by the time you go from one country to the other, meeting with other film makers to collect entries for the award every year. So, you can see that I am really very busy in the field of entertainment. Though you see me less on screen, my credits are always there in movies. If I am not producing, I am directing or involved in consulting for the production companies.
If you were not in the Nigeria Movie industry, what other job would you have preferred?
As a child I wanted to to be a lawyer but as you grow up you find out that some certain things you desire as a child changes. I grew up to find out that entertainment was my gift. I found out am friendly with art related and I decided to take acting as my profession and since then I don't think I have missed my step.
How long have you been in the industry?
I have been on television screen before the advent of the film industry, I have been on screen before home video started. But when you are talking about home video I have been there since its advent. Let me say I have been in the entertainment industry for 25years now.
Which of your movie do you think is the most challenging?
I have done several movies that are challenging to me. But people said 'wages' is like the story of a prodigal daughter that came to realise that in all her wayward life there is nothing like respecting your parents especially when you have parental care. Then after wages, shattered home those are the two major films that people still commend. Shattered home won an award outside Nigeria.
In the league of producers and directors, how would you rate your self?
Well, I wouldn't be sounding my trumpet but I know myself, in the industry I am called “big daddy” and you can not bear an acronym like that if you had not merited it. So, when they call me “big daddy” it is because of my contributions to the industry. In those days, when people watch our movie, for example, after people watch rattle snake, they began to call me papa Ahana and the likes, I believe when I hear that people call me “big daddy”, it is not just for the fun of it, but I have really contributed my portion to the industry.
If you have opportunity to work in the industry now, what would be your main agenda?
The only thing I'll like to do now is to fight against piracy. This would be my main desire because if I am able to vanquish piracy in the industry, the industry will get the better life it deserve. If you look back to some of us who are veteran in the industry, you'll imagine how can someone put so much money on a work and have nothing to show for it. For over 25 years in the industry and look at the little I can show for it, it is not our fault, the pirates has not allow the industry to develop. The pirate had actually plugged into our treasure house and have make nonsense of our years of efforts. The pirates are not just those that steal our work but they have entered into the industry. The problem is that the industry is not guided by laws and where you have Chinedu as the writer and Chinedu's brother is the director and he is the producer and marketer at the same time. They've turned the industry into a family business. People no longer think, they only recircle other people's work. If you are not gifted in this industry, you are no where to be found, it requires training and re-training. Don't think you can use your money anyhow, if you are not talented you must attend trainings. Many movies we have today are just recycled ones and there are people who recycled old movies and in that attempt, they bring down the standard of the old movie and there are many more foxes that is killing the industry but I am looking forward to a day when government will help enact a law that will checkmate the scandals in the industry. Our people are no longer looking for originality, they only go for what they think they can afford, but the work of art is not like that. When you patronize pirated product, you deprived the owner of his investment. You can use big money to produce a film at the end of it. You find out that because of piracy you are not making a dime that is why we are pleading with them to look for a better job.
As the industry is now, what exactly do you think the industry need now?
Acting of films is not just what is required but those that are just coming into the industry need training and those that are there already needs to trained again. In every profession, training and retraining is the basic requirements for progress, even the trainers needs to be trained. That is why we organize seminars for our directors and writers. We also encourage our trainers to be trained. Government should encourage training in this profession (movie industry), we want to compete with our counterparts in other countries. As the Director of Africa Movie Academy Award (AMAA), looking at the movie that come from Nigeria industry, it cannot withstand the ones that come other countries. Our directors and cinematographies needs to be trained because the type of camera that is in vogue now is beyond what we use to have before. They are now digitalised, it is no more Analog. Every thing has changed the technology is no more the same it has improved. We really need to work on the industry, no location for film production. Instead of using the studio, we use individual houses. The house they used in film A, you will also see it in film B. The same curtton, furniture, no difference. You be hearing funny sounds in the background of the film, horn of vehicles passing by and even dog barking. That is why there is the need for studio. When somebody in South Africa will take three years to produce a film, In Nigeria, if you raised money to produce film before three months the person will start asking you for the money. You will be pushed to take the film to the market so that you will be able to raise the money and give it back to the owner. But somebody who have grant in South Africa can be able to do the work by taking his time before bringing out the film in the market. We hope and pray that our Government will assist us and help us to build studio. They are suppose to help us improve on this agent. In the last five years I can't remember the Nigerian film census board organising any training. All the training that has been going on in the industry is all through individual effort. When Steph Nora went for training in New York, she spoke with them to come to Nigeria and she was able to speak to some practitioners that attended the training. It will really go along way in helping the industry grow because a lot of people are tired of watching the same story line.
Looking back at the beginning when some academics dismissed what you were doing as very inferior and now that you and your colleagues are receiving international acclaim, how do you feel?
Yes, I have been to London for one award; it's called Zafa Award. This award was actually put in place to recognise Nollywood practitioners. Like I keep telling people, only the extremely lucky prophets are recognised in their homeland. Outside this country, people have made so much money with our works. People's homes have been blessed, I must tell you, by our works which is based on our cultural heritage, especially those brothers and sisters in the diaspora. Through our films, they have been able to teach their household the missing link, their roots. The morals, the values are there in the films for them to learn. They know, for instance, that a child does not say “hi, dad,” with his hands in his trousers pockets in Nigeria. Or say to his parents, “stay cool popsy and mumsy, I'm going to see my girl friend.” They know from what we do that it's not part of our culture.
They know it is not the way it is said where they come from. They know our foods, drinks and dances and jokes. They understand all these and more from the Nollywood films they view. And they value and appreciate Nollywood because, as Bob Marley said, 'if you do not know where you are coming from, you can not know where you are going.' So, those Africans in the diaspora who had missed their links are happy and grateful to us for linking them to their source. So, I must tell you that Nollywood has been recognised beyond our borders. Most of the awards that some of us have received come from outside the country, even before we started receiving awards from the home front here in Nigeria.
Are you married and how did you meet your wife?
I am humbly married with three children. I met my wife when the mother use to live next to my brothers apartment. Then she was still a child and when my brother packed out of the place we did not see again. Unfortunately by the time I saw her again she was already a grown up Lady. And when she greeted me, I said can I remember you my dear. And we never saw again until when she graduated from school. One day my friend invited me to his church, it happened to be that she attends that same church. And from there one thing led to another. She is now the mother of my children.
So what will you say has kept the marriage?
I will say it is the love I have for her as a child that has always been there and I know it will never go and the respect she has for me as uncle Sonny has always been there too. And most importantly we both have the fear of God. I must tell you the truth this our industry is a place you be and must have the fear of God or else you might be distracted and I give God the glory because he has kept me and my family. By his grace we are where we are today.
How do you manage your job vis-a-vis the home front?
My wife is an economist. She happens to be the most wonderful wife in the whole wide world. She understands, and manages me and the children. She is simply a blessing to me.
What advice do you have for the upcoming ones that want to take after your path?
The future is bright for the industry. Let them not look at it as a profession but they should take it as a profession. If you take it up as a profession you will know that this is where your bread is buttered.