« I’m proud of Nigeria »

Interview of Olivier Barlet with Jeta Amata (Nigeria) on "The Amazing Grace"

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Jeta Amata, you are a young filmmaker but you did a lot of films already. How many films did you do ?
I have done not less than thirty long pictures films but I shot all of them on video.
What are the main themes of your films, until now, until The Amazing Grace ?
I am interested in people, I am interested in what makes people react, the way they behave. So anything I do goes deep into the ways of life of people. I would not say I do action or I do comedies, what I am more concerned about is how to create a character for people to feel his pains or his joys. That is what excites me more, I could do a science fiction but I would be more interested in the characters in the science-fiction and not in the entire film.
May I ask you how old you are ?
I am going to be thirty-two this year.
So thirty films and thirty-two years old…
In fact, it is lightly more than thirty films.
It is incredible for us, even if video is a very quickly done process. How long do you take to shoot a film ?
Well, not pre-production included I spend about seven days, beetween five and seven days to finish the recording and I spend another five to seven days doing the post-production. So let us say in two weeks I can get a film out.
And you do that with stars of the Nigerian stars system ?
Yes, in every film. In Nigeria, when you are doing a film, you have to use stars because if you don’t, nobody will buy the film.
How many copies of each film do you sell in video or VCT ?
The least I have sold is about twenty thousand copies. When it is good, it goes up to fifty thousand, a hundred thousand. Twenty thousand is the normal.
Do you have your own production house or are you working with a special producer ?
I have my own production house, I have my equipments on video and I work with.
And then you work with marketers ?
Yes, so when I finish the film, all I have to do is just get it to a marketer, he sees if he likes it, he pays me and he goes and sells it and does what he wants.
So he pays you the film, it is not a percent on the sales ?
No I don’t do that, it is risque. I don’t want stories. If I spend twenty thousand dollars during a film and I am going to sell it fifty thousand, I will rather do that. I know my money is with me so I can get it immediately to do another film. That is why we do a lot of job.
So a 35mm film is quite an event in Nigeria today ?
Yes it is a big deal, because the last 35mm film was done about 26 years ago. So it is a big event. We have been in several film festivals in the world, we have been invited to Berlin, we have been in Cannes, Toronto, but we have never had anything to sell, anything to show. So that was another thing that pushed us.
The idea of being represented internationally ?
Yes, right now, today, we have people sitting in there watching a Nigerian film. It is something for us, it never happened before, I am really glad that it is happening.
Did you send the film to the different selections to see if it had a chance ?
No, I did not. I was still doing post-production. The film was not ready for them to be shown.
I was in Lagos, there is nearly no cinema working there. The possibilities of showing 35 mm in this country are very short. How will you do ?
Right now, there are four cinemas in Nigeria. In Lagos there are three and there is one in Abuja. Then there is Ghana, I have a french release in Cameroun, I am doing Ivory Coast, Kenya, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and South Africa. There is a french dub of the film, there is the french version and the english version. So there is a big African release for it. An African film that is dubbed into French, an independant film with a general African release, it is a big deal for Africa.
So you think people will run into the cinemas ?
Yes, I am very sure of it. Nigeria is where my biggest market is. I can tell you categorically that I will have a huge success in Nigeria because it has never happened before. And the story is historical, it is a story you don’t find everyday even in Hollywood. Everyone knows the song « the Amazing Grace » but nobody knows where it came from. And this is the first time the Africans are telling their own account of slavery. All that african countries will look up to Nigeria for Nigerian movies.
Are you going to make a VCT or DVD of it to markete it in Nigeria as well ?
Yes, after cinema, definitely, because DVD and VCT as well are marketes.
Why did you choose that subject of slavering and historical reconstitution, and not the kind of subject I guess you are making your videos on ?
The Governor of Cross River State, Mister Donald Duke had told me « why don’t you do something on John Newton ? ». I didn’t know who it was, so I went on the Internet and I saw it was the guy who wrote the song of Amazing Grace. I read about him, I read about someone who was a slave trader, who turned later on to fight for the emancipation of slaves. That touched me. He wrote the song from what he had gathered the melody of the people. So I wanted to know the relationship he would have had with the people at that time, that would have lead him to be born again. That really interested me, I thought I had to do research on it and to tell the story.
Let us speak about what interest you in this special Newton personnage ? What is the meaning for you, for the society ?
The most important is : Newton was a slave trader. He was a slave trader because he thought that Black people were not human. He thought that White people were above Black people and if after all they were human, when they caught them, made them slaves and forced them into christianity, they lead the Blacks closer to salvation and made them get closer to God. He was doing all that because he felt Blacks were not human. But he first time they spoke his language to him, he suddenly realized that they were human and he started changing his ways. Because they could speak, they could talk and they could learn his language. People in the society still have a problem of racism because of the mentality of certain people. But if they can see it differently, will they change ? Will they become better people ? One very important message the film also carries is : if there was a reverse, Black people in the role of the White people, they would do the same, because at that time Blacks met Whites, Black people thought they were the only humans and White people thought they were the only humans. The people need to be reminded of that.
When I saw this film, I thought about this Newton guy and I thought that he was saved from the slaves, he understood that the grace actually can come from people he thought they were not human.
That is it. Grace can come from anyone. And most times in history you notice that you actually meet grace from people much lower than you, you would never had considered as a part of the society.
The Christian content of the film is very strong, the film is very oriented on Christianity.
I would not completely say Christianity, I would say on life.
Maybe is it something of that time also ?
That is right. At that time you had all the Africans talking about their Creator and you had John Newton talking about God. By my understanding, the Creator and God are just one being. So it is more about life, it is not necessarily Christianity, it could be Islam, it could be Buddhism or Hindouism, it could be anyone of them. They talk about the Bible in the film because John Newton had a Bible but you don’t have to be a Christian for you to meet grace.
I wonder if your message in the film is to say that a kind of redemption can come today from the Black people.
Definitely. Religion is going back to Africa. There are most Christians right now in Africa than in the rest of the world. The White men brought the religion to us and left the religion. Now we are taking the religion back to the White men. So that redemption can come from the African people, it is real.
Generally speaking, the film is very well-done, it is beautifully shot, with amazing pictures, how did you manage, in terms of team ?
I take my crew from the UK and my DP, my soundman, my loader. We don’t have much experience with 35 mm in Nigeria, so you need a DP who knows what to do. So I went out for one.
How was it, the relationship beetween Nigerian and the rest of the team ?
It was OK. It was quite a bit of strain because the White guys were working with people who had been doing things differently for years and the Black guys were meeting these people who had been doing it differently for years so we had to meet halfway. There was a bit of strain but we were able to get by.
I know well the francophone side and I know it is a big probleme, because they are working a lot with outsiders, I mean technicians, and people who don’t know Africa.
This is always a problem, they don’t know Africa, they don’t understand Africans, they see things differently. It is all the same message passing in the film. Everyone has to understand. Without the artists and without the director and other people, the DP can’t work. And without the DP, the artists and the director can’t work. We had to try to understand ourselves.The DP is been doing films on 35 but I have more experience in films, I have done more that forty films. Even if the quality is not so good, at least I have directed productions not less than forty times in my life.
Do you think that the question of slavery which is quite old now, even if in some parts of the world it is not so old, is one of the main problems the people have to resolve for themselves ?
It is a major problem. Black Americans and Black in Jamaica are not happy with Africans because they say « we sold them off to slavery ».
This is the question of its own history, it is still very deep.
Very deep. It is still a very sensitive issue. I have done a lot of travelling and I have met a lot of people, they are not comfortable with that. It is time for them to let it go. People are still going through inslavement, it is something they should let it go. If the Judes completely let go, the Arabs let go, the Blacks let go, we will have peace in this world, but nobody wants to let go, everyone is thinking about the past, that is the problem. They are thinking of how it has started years ago. For the sake of our children, we need to let go.
Generally speaking, what are you thinking about Nigeria today, a few years after the beginning of the democratisation ?
We have just known what democracy is and I think things are getting better. We will be able to rise. Things are changing very, very fast. I am proud of the Nigeria I see right now.
Nigeria and South Africa, two big countries coming out, in Africa it will really change it all.
Yes, I believe in that. In another ten years, you will not have such problems in smaller countries in Africa because Nigeria will give a helply hand to other African countries. And South Africa is doing the same too. Africa will get to the promise land.
What are your influences, your main filmmakers or your main films ?
When I started making films, I was excited by Steven Spielberg but along the line I moved away from him because I suddenly realized that he loved and enjoyed destruction. His mind is filled with destruction.
And you want to be more positive ?
Yes I want to be positive. I don’t want to see death of thousand people, I don’t want to create a monster or a hurricane that would destroyed a city. I loved his artistry but I have seen it differently. But he has always been a great influence.
Did you have the possibility to see African films, from Souleymane Cissé for example ?
Most African films are done in a francophone country and we don’t speak french and distribution makes it difficult for us to see them. I have seen a few South-African films but I am not a huge fan of them. All their films talk about apartheid. They should let it go. Well, I am doing something on slavery but I am not going to stay doing everything on slavery. I don’t want to be reminded of racism.

Cannes film festival, may 2006///Article N° : 5751

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