Lawyer, law teacher, social commentator and film maker, Sam Kargbo is many things to many people. Although a regular TV guest on many topical issues and a newspaper columnist, Kargbo carries about his life with utmost modesty. He loves his beautiful wife from Akwa Ibom State and adores his mentors with a passion. He is the maker of Blood Diamonds, arguably one of the highest budget films in Nollywood, the Nigerian Home Video Industry. Yet, he insists film making is just an avenue for him to pass his message across to a target audience. In this interview with UGOCHUKWU EJINKEONYE (February 2005), he talks about his involvement in film making and the bold efforts of private investors that have taken the good image of Nigeria across continents.
Most people are familiar with Sam Kargbo the lawyer, not the script writer and film producer, at what point did this other side of you come up?
Yes, I studied law. But I have been doing many other things, and as lawyers would say, legal things for that matter. I have always been a heckler and proactive person. I don’t sit on the fence on matters. I like emptying my chest and putting my money where my mouth is. I realise that one stands in a better position to understand things when one is involved. I have been writing ever since my secondary school days. I have written short stories for radio presentation. I was one of the earlier contributors to the His and Hers (or something like that ) on Ogun State Broadcasting Corporation (OGBC) in 1991. I had a teacher called John Agetua who encouraged me to take writing seriously but I disappointed him when I veered off to study law. He wanted me to study English Language. Am sure he was the one that influenced people like Nnamdi Okosieme (of Independent) to study English and Literature. I followed the advice of another teacher, Mrs. Lambert Aikhion-Bare, who was equally close to me, to study law. But even at that all my colleagues at the University of Benin knew me more for my writing potentials than for my law studies. I am also a very outgoing person. My social life is, to be honest, very complex. My circle of friends cut across all classes. But I have my preference for artists. That was why people like T.J. Cole, Mike Nliam and Abay Esho of Safari could convince me to invest in movies. To cut cost and perhaps to simplify matters, I decided to write the first story I was to shoot. I wrote the screen play and Teco Benson, who directed it for me, gave it to one Bat Hills, a banker, to edit it, and he did it overnight. Blood Diamonds came out very well but I can assure you I am a better writer now and my next effort in screen play would be better than Blood Diamonds. Many people have asked me to screen play for them but I can’t afford to add that to my busy chores. For now, I will confine myself to writing my movies.
I have watched Blood Diamonds, and I think the story is good and ambitious, was it inspired by any particular incident you witnessed in real life?
Well, we have been colleagues at the Independent Editorial Board, and you know my concern for African Affairs. Am sure the general belief of the Board is that I know so much about Africa and the world because I studied International relations and Diplomatic and Consular Law at the postgraduate class. But that is not the case. I am concerned about the world and, much more, about Africa. See how the ten year war in Sierra Leone affected Nigeria. Beside the material and human resources lost by Nigeria, it is still host to hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leoneans. Agreed, Nigeria has always willingly played the ‘big brother’ to Sierra Leone, but what was expended by Nigeria to end the war in Sierra Leone could have been put into productive ventures at home. I for one believe in the reality of the global village. Charles Taylor (former Liberian President) was very brutal and ruthless to Nigerians. He marked them out as his number one foes and acted in accordance with that hate mentality. But look at where he is today. Is it not an irony? The truth is that Charles Taylor was fighting a losing war because he was not content with limiting his ambition to Liberia. He wanted more. That was how he took the war to Sierra Leone and as it is clear today he is the only one that benefited from both the war in Liberia and the one in Sierra Leone. My aim or objective was to tell the world what he had done to Sierra Leone. It was like saying I know what you did in Sierra Leone before coming to Calabar. It worked because those who have watched Blood Diamonds now know better.
Were you involved in selecting the cast? The character of Don Carlos is excellent, and several others too; but most people wouldn’t be able to say that about a few others, especially, Shan George who acted Vera.
I was the one that hired the lead cast but it was Teco Benson that assigned the roles to them. For instance TJ Cole was to play the role of Don Carlos but Teco as Director thought that the role fitted Desmond better because of his size. Luckily for me TJ did not complain and he gladly switched over to the role that Dr. Julius Spencer would have played and as you have observed Teco was right. I do not want to fault your reservations about Shan George but I believe that she did wonderfully well. I know your stand on morals but mind you, she was just acting a role scripted for her. If her role was not edited to get approval (from the Censors Board), you might have hated her the more. I will always work with her. She is wonderful and less problematic on set.
I am not referring to any moral preferences here. I watched the film with a colleague, who also is a director and producer. We both thought some measure of sprightliness was required for a character undertaking such a hazardous expedition, to endear her to the audience. But Ms. George simply refused to shine. There appeared to be a certain reluctance to really enter the character.
The role was not for a tomboy. Of course, there were others in the industry that could have played the role, but she is part of our circle and we felt that she could do well and we still feel that we did the right thing. You may not fancy our take on her but I still insist that she did well. In any case I
can’t fault your standards. As a critic, I guess you have your ideas.
We were expecting the Mother of all Battles at the well advertised “heavily guarded cave”, but alas, we were treated to some kind of anti-climax, was that intentional?
The ending is deliberate. Blood Diamonds is a big story. As you may have realised, one of the most ambitious stories of NOLLYWOOD. We intend to have a sequel which will start with the fight at the caves. Mind you, except for the few other people killed inside the cave, you only know that some of the mercenaries and Don Carlos were shot. Pray that I have the finances to shoot and accomplish Blood Diamonds 2.
What is your assessment of the Nigerian film industry? There is a growing impression that the place appears to have become a dumping ground for those who fail to find their feet in more challenging sectors?
I think the Home Video Industry personifies the resilience and ingenuity of the Nigerian. I had respect for the young men and women that are behind the industry but my respect has grown beyond bounds after my experience with Blood Diamonds. Movie making is a combination of art, science and technology. The industry has talents and artists but lacks finance. The Teco Bensons of Nigeria can give you Oscar winning movies if they get the necessary funds. The artists are fantastic. Unlike in European movies, we do not use stunts or effects to give you the larger than life performances that you credit Hollywood artists with. The industry is still in the analogue stage. Perhaps that is why I pity most critics. The standards of the pirated Western films they watch were not achieved overnight. Besides, America, India and other nations with successful film industries have patriotic nationals that patronise what is theirs. Our elite class do not patronise the industry here. They are content with watching cheap and pirated Western films. The immediate effect is that the standards are set by the lower class that are patronising the industry. So, until we have our middle and upper class people buying made in Nigeria movies, do not expect the standards to improve overnight. In any case, the present standards are fantastic for those who are investing in the industry. You may hate them but not too many people are in a position of producing movies like Blood Diamonds. I know how much I spent, and how much I realised. If commerce were strictly the reasons behind Blood Diamonds, then I would have been crying for a long time.
It is widely accepted that aside fulfilling its primary function of entertainment, works of art should equally educate and project positive values, do you think such a commitment can be detected in what is currently going on in the industry?
It is easy to be idealistic about things but mind you we are all in a country where not too many people have surpluses with which to invest in ideals. The generality of those who go into movie making do so with the aim of making what you may call honest living. It is true that every citizen is obliged to contribute his or her quota in the education and development of the citizenry. The individual would be helped and better placed to do so if public officials and bureaucrats who are paid to set standards do their own part. You do not expect a man who has borrowed money from a bank to make an esoteric film he won’t be able to get a market for. So, he would rather settle for comedy and do things that you would consider silly but would fetch him his exposure and give him some profit. In countries like Australia and New Zealand where the government partners with private individuals, the film industry is getting the necessary respect and attention. We have people here that can do better than Peter Jackson but they do not have the enabling environment. This is the sad part because the movie industry is capable of surpassing the petroleum industry in revenue earning. The ascendancy that the industry has given to Nigeria over other African countries is unimaginable.
What is your vision and mission as a writer and producer?
My vision and mission is to continue to use the medium to reach those that I would otherwise not been able to reach. I want to contribute to the building and shaping of the African conscience. I want to be remembered tomorrow as one who did his best in directing people to the right path.
We have seen Blood Diamonds, when should we expect another work from you?
I have another movie on corruption. It is called “No Place To Hide”. I believe that public officials and bureaucrats who use the colours of their offices to divert the commonwealth to private purses are enemies of progress and should not be tolerated or given safe havens. In it, I challenged the individual to fight corruption with his or her last blood. I am talking with marketers. It should hit the market soon. I also sponsor music. My adopted kids at home are coming out with a 15 track album. I have been working on the production. Some of the works were done in Nel Olivers Studio in Benin Republic .I believe in quality and I bet when they release their album you will realise that I stand for quality. They had great support from my circle of friends. They featured Baba Fryo and Lt. Shotgun in some of the tracks. Some of the tracks also featured in Blood Diamonds.
You are a successful lawyer, public commentator, and now, a film maker. Would you mind describing the road you travelled to get this far.
What else can I tell you? In addition to all of these, I find time to teach law and I think the students see me as a hardworking teacher. Because I teach postgraduate students, it is very easy for me to believe that my colleagues do appreciate me. They make good returns about me to the authorities and they in turn urge me to continue. I am self-made. I have been my own father and mother since the age of fourteen and I am 44 now. You can imagine what that has been for me. But all the same I have been touched by many people. I have always been fortunate to gain the respect of my teachers. People like Prof (Mike) Ikhariale who is a brother and friend today was my teacher. Prof Itse Sagay would always vouch for me. Because of people like them, I try to comport myself and avoid scandals. I also have my wife, Stella Samuel. She loves me and I try not to disappoint her. I also have many brothers and children that I have adopted along the way. Majirioghene Bob is one of them. I try to influence them positively and I have been lucky with some of them.
Thank you. Let’s return briefly to the film industry. Could you suggest the various areas you think the industry could use some improvement and fine-tuning?
I would just ask the Government to give it some attention. There is nothing wrong in giving it a separate ministry. The potentials of the industry are too great to be frittered away.
There is this widespread view that the easiest way to become a star actress here is to sleep with everybody that matters in the industry, starting even with mere studio hands to top officials; in fact, an insider once told me that if I got to know what it took some of our “ top stars” to get to the top, that I would just throw up, what do you think?
The industry is just like any other industry. It is difficult to penetrate. Some people get desperate and do silly things. Some unconscionable people do capitalise on the eagerness of new entrants. But I do not think it is right to say that the industry is as notorious or bad as you have put it. There are very many decent people in the industry.
Will it be possible to rescue the industry from the hands of the powerful but barely literate marketers dictating the tune and pace there today?
Funnily, the industry the world over is not for the acadas. It is the most practical industry in the world. Mind you there are many educated people in the industry but they are still lagging behind those that you are referring to as barely literate.
I had the feeling that before the worthy intervention of the Censors Board, a lot of film makers allowed desperation and desire for easy wealth to push them into producing movies that promote moral irresponsibility. In fact, even now, one can still see the vestigial remains of that preference. What do you think?
This is harsh and exhibits ignorance about the industry. Those who are making money are pirates. Have you endeavoured to imagine the amount of money pirates are making from foreign movies and musical videos? Many of those in the industry are desirous of making genuine contributions.
*Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye's book, Nigeria: Why Looting May Not Stop is available on AMAZON.COM
**This interview was conducted in February 2005 and first published in Chicken Bones: Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African-American Themes on 12 December 2006. (Email: [email protected])