Aduaka: No apologies being a black filmmaker in Britain
On a good day, moving around Lagos is usually not an easy ride, so, when it rains, the situation becomes intense. This was the condition France-based Nigerian filmmaker Newton Aduaka and his producer found themselves on this day; the traffic was ‘bumper to bumper’ as a result of heavy rain that lasted into the evening.
Aduaka was in Nigeria recently on the invitation of the Goethe Institut, Lagos, where his works were presented in retrospective. Having been away for a long time where he made great exploits, this reporter resolved to hook up with him at Gbogobiri Hotel, Ikoyi, where he stayed. Our call time was 6pm, but Aduaka and his French producer did not return till about 7pm.
“I’m sooo sorry Chuks, we were caught up in traffic. We had a lot of meetings to attend in town, but when the rain started, our plans were messed up; the traffic was terrible, but we are here now,” he said remorsefully.Though a known filmmaker internationally, for Aduaka, showing his works at home was a great honour. Aside from providing a platform for the Nigerian audience to see his works, it was an opportunity for the filmmaker to assess his journey so far.
“It’s an honour when your work is presented in retrospective; where all your works are presented together; we showed three long films and three short films. It helps you see how your works progresses from the beginning and then you see how they are linked together in a strange way,” he said.
However, there’s an unfortunate side of the film show. “What saddened me was that it took a young German guy (Marc-André Schmachtel) from the Goethe Institut to mount a retrospective of my work in my own country; there was a bit of sadness about it. I wish it was by my people, but that’s life.”Though most Nigerian filmmakers would preface their works to be screened at one of the multiplex cinemas in town, Aduaka is at home with the good old NFC Cinema on Marina, Lagos.
“It’s an old cinema built in the old way; the walls are designed for sound. The sound it’s nice and crisp because, it’s all padded and nicely done. The room is like a cinema with a stage; I like the idea. It’s an old cinema, not the new multiplex type that looks too clinical for me. For me, the cinema is a temple of dream,” he enthused.For those, who still think Nigerian film audience would take just anything for a movie, Aduaka thinks otherwise.
“I think that filmmakers, especially in Nollywood, underestimate the intelligence of their audience. For two days, I saw these people watching these films that have nothing to do with Nollywood, but they still get it; they understand it. The level of questions they were asking after the screening was mind blowing and challenging,” he observed.
Born in Eastern Nigeria, Abagana community to be precise, Newton Aduaka and his family moved to Lagos in 1970 at the end of the Nigerian Civil War. And from the way he recounted his post war experiences, it’s obvious the incident, though happened many years ago, is still fresh in his memory.“With my family, we lived throughout the war in Biafra (southeastern Nigeria). My father was a geologist and worked for Mobil, so, when the war started, we left Port Harcourt for home,” he recalled.
By the time the war ended in 1970, Aduaka’s father left home for Lagos in search of greener pasture for the family he left in the war ravaged Biafra. “He went back to Lagos to try and get his job back. Luckily, he succeeded and brought us to Lagos. I was four years when we arrived Lagos, so, I grew up in Lagos. I went to Methodist Boys’ High School and I attended a private school called Onward. The first time we came to Lagos, we lived in Mushin; we had lost everything,” he lamented.
Recalling their trip to Lagos, Aduaka hinted, “you know, as a child, movement is exciting. So, in my child’s eye, I remember when my dad left us to travel to Lagos to get his job back and rebuild his family. I remember we missed him so much, but he came back quite early. I still remember our journey from the east to Lagos; we traveled in ‘Gwongworo’ truck from Onitsha all the way to Lagos.”
He continued: “I remember I was sick; it was a long journey. We go to Lagos and it was exciting. We moved into Mushin; it was the ‘face me I face you’ apartment. We had like three rooms to ourselves and we lived there for about two years. As a child at that age, you would accept what you have; there was no dream of something better. My mum got a job as a teacher and we were in the school where my mother taught,” he narrated.For young Newton, coping with life after the Civil War was a bit tough.
“At primary school, my mother was very protective of us; she took care of my siblings and myself. She took us from school and we go home straight; there were not too many interactions with people. Now, I can analyse it; that you keep a low profile because, you just came from Biafra; you lost the war. But I could sense that there’s this sort of over protectiveness; my parents were a bit conscious of the fact that we are living in a place where, few months ago, people just wanted you dead; Biafra should be wiped out,” he lamented.
By the time Aduaka got to secondary School, things became clearer. “I got to hear all sorts of things; people called you names for being Igbo, which we took offence for. Along the line, you start to feel that you came from somewhere else. But as child also, you resist. By then, I spoke Yoruba; I hung out with friends. Lagos has always been cosmopolitan as it is today; people came from all kinds of places.”
Notwithstanding, there was fun.“ It was a fun childhood; we had a lot of fun. We later moved to Aguda, Surulere, from there, we moved to Palm Avenue; it was the better part of Mushin. That was the time I got into Methodist High School, it was cool at the time with friends. While in school, we formed a band, which got us into a lot of troubles,” he recalled.
Unlike other bands that got permission from school management to operate, Aduaka’s Disguise Band was illegally. “We got into troubles doing that because, we were supposed to be studying,” he said.Recalling his experiences with the band, he said, “I was the synthesizer player and vocalist and we had guitars, drums, keyboards and we wrote songs. We were called ‘Disguise’ because we didn’t want anyone to know who we were; we went about painting graffiti on the school walls.”
Though the band succeeded in recording an album here in Nigeria with Recordisk, that work never saw the light of the day.“Some businessman promised us that he was going to pay for the sessions, but at the last minute, he didn’t. So, Recordisk seized our master tape; the record didn’t materialize,” he said. By age 17-18 years, young Aduaka was getting restless with the country and all efforts to gain admission failed.
“I did my A level and then by 1984-1985, universities were closed. I was trying to get into the university and study Engineering, but nothing was working; I just needed to leave, I needed to get out. I had an aunty in London and I asked my mum to just get me a ticket for me to go, that I will take care of myself. The plan was with my friends in the band for us to get to London, regroup and continue to do our music.
I didn’t tell my father; I only told him a night before my travel date. That was how I left Nigeria In 1985,” he recalled.
Aduaka left home with just 150 pounds to start a new life in the UK. But with a working class aunty and little cash he made doing odd jobs, he was fine.“I arrived in the middle of one of the worst winters in London, but it was cool because, you were with optimism; new possibilities. I started to do odd jobs just to make some money, while I await my fellow band members to arrive; they didn’t arrive eventually. But I met some other people from my school, while trying to figure out what I was going to do,” he said.
All the while in Nigeria, Aduaka had always thought of being an engineer, but somehow, cinema cropped up.“A year after, I went to a friend who wanted to go study cinematography, so, I went with him for an interview for cinematography and I thought, ‘this is amazing.’ At that time, I was a science student; I did mathematics and physics. So, I felt there’s something about cinematography; it’s creative, it’s scientific, cameras, lights, optic, magnetic… everything one learnt in physics began to make real practical sense. I fell in love with it, so, I registered for the foundation course for one year to learn everything I could learn about cinema.”
After his foundation course, Aduaka wrote his first ever script, made a short film and applied for the London Film School.“I was accepted in 1987. That was it; the rest is history. I just gave my life to cinema; cinema became my life,” he sang.
Upon graduation, he established Granite Film Works in 1997. In 2001, Aduaka’s debut feature film, Rage, became the first wholly independently financed film by a black filmmaker in the history of British cinema to be released nationwide. “It opened to critical acclaim; we started shooting the movie in 1998 and we finished in 1999. Before that, we had made a short film called On The Edge; that was where my career actually started. However, I had made a couple of short films before then, and I was writing a lot,” he noted.
However, as a black filmmaker, practicing in the United Kingdom was tough and equally frustrating.“I was writing a lot and getting a lot of rejections from British systems; I was sending scripts from the BBC to Channel 4 to other TV stations. I would write to British Film Institute to try and get funding to make a film, like it’s normal, and for over six years, it was about rejections. Rejections, rejections, and rejections! Then, I was working as a sound recorder just to make a decent living,” he said.
More frustrating for the young filmmaker was the fact that he was writing a lot, but not making film. “I don’t see myself as just a writer. A script is nothing; it’s a bad literature because that’s not its final purpose. The final purpose is for it to become a film. So, I get rejection and I would write a new one. After writing about 20 scripts, it was rejections,” he lamented.
At that time, Aduaka never realised the power of cinema and the loneliness of a black filmmaker living in the UK. “I didn’t look around me to ask myself, ‘how many black people do you see making films?’ I didn’t think about it, I was just focusing on doing my film. But if I had looked around, I would have seen that there were not a lot; there was hardly any. And if I had seen that, I would have realised that it’s not by chance that there were not black people making films and representing themselves on screen. If I had seen that, I would have seen the power of cinema and why a people are denied the voice to speak cinematically; it’s because cinema is powerful,” he noted.
Recalling his meetings at television stations in the UK, he said, “I remember being told, ‘Newton, we like your writing, but the British audience won’t understand it. Can you make it a bit more for the British audience? And I would argue. But the message is that, your image of yourself won’t be understood and that was society; that’s what’s called racism. You cannot write about who you really are; you have to write what they think you are. I didn’t see that,” he noted.
Along the line, Aduaka resolved to go on a solo journey, starting with selling off his personal belongings to finance his film project.“I said, ‘okay, enough.’ I had a nice place, I had a good income, I had a car; I sold everything to make my film, On The Edge. It was like saying, ‘this is me; this is what I am about.’ Because at that time, everyone had said, ‘this film is impossible; you can’t make this film. It’s too expensive.’ But we made it even cheaper. Then I went to festival and was opened to the world of cinema; I realised the cinema world was bigger than the UK and my life changed.”
Aduaka sold On The Edge to a few TV and made some money, which he ploughed into another film project.“We decide to put the money into making another film, but this time a feature film. We put the money into shooting Rage and we begged and borrowed some money. A television promised us that they would put some money into the film, but at the last minute, they pulled out. However, we decided to continue. So, it took us about two years eventually to finish the film,” he said.
After Rage, which won several awards, Aduaka was hoping for institutional support, which never came, thereby forcing the filmmaker to look elsewhere.“It won prizes, won awards and I felt, ‘okay, I’ve proved something. Now, I should get some support.’ But nothing came. For a year, nothing came. So, I said, ‘I’m done with the UK, time to leave.”He applied for a residency to Cannes Film Festival and was selected alongside five other filmmakers to come to Paris and work on their next project.
“I got that and I left England in 2001 and I haven’t returned since then. I left quite unhappy, upset and went to France and it was good to be somewhere you felt appreciated; where you felt respected. And then, the reality came up after a while,” he noted.Between 2005 and 2007, Aduaka co-wrote, directed and executive-produced Ezra, his first non-independently funded film, for Arte France. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at several film festivals, including FESPACO, Durban, Amiens and Balafon, and was an official selection at Sundance and Cannes.
“We shot it in Rwanda; it was a film about child soldiers; they commissioned me to do the work. It was the time when there was a lot of talk about child soldiers. I had written a script about Biafra in 1992; I had researched that for three years. So, I started to feel this thing about my childhood and Biafra; there was talk about Sierra Leone, the issue of child soldier. So, when they asked me the film I would love to do, I said, ‘a film about child soldier,’ he said.
Though he has been involved in different productions, Ezra seems to be Aduaka’s most challenging project so far.“Psychologically, it was the most challenging; it took me to places I didn’t understand were still on my mind. It took me back to Biafra; it took me back to the torment of war. It just opened up to places I wasn’t prepared for because I was wanted to make a film. But then, your mind starts pouring out things you never knew were there,” he noted.For Aduaka, cinema is far beyond just entertainment.
“It’s too difficult to be just about entertainment; I try to make my films engaging to tell people a story, not to be didactic. But at the same time, I’m aware that I’m trying to talk about something very, very important. If it’s just to make people eat popcorn, laugh and go home happy, then it’s not important. You are dealing with serious subject; it takes a lot of energy, research, rewriting, trying to understand your characters to be able to communicate with depth; it’s a lot of work. So, it better be something very useful,” he noted.
Though he commended efforts by the likes of Tunde Kelani and other conscious filmmakers for their understanding of the power of cinema, Aduaka is of the opinion that Nollywood is not pure cinema. “I watch Tunde Kelani’s films and I see a lot about culture; you see someone doing something consciously. Maybe Nollywood is not cinema, I must tell you that; not the cinema that I learned. I think Nollywood, by virtue of where it comes from, is TV; like soap opera, comedy, series that has been cut into drama… but its TV, it’s not cinema. I know some people will attack me for saying this, but there’s no point. We can be honest to ourselves among filmmakers; it’s not cinema,” he harped.
He continued: “But that’s not even it’s problem. Even TV series and soap operas, sometimes, deal with issues. There’s this sense that we want to make money; Nollywood comes from making money, it’s a commercial thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it should not pretend to be what it’s not,” he said.However, the future, according to Aduaka, looks bright for the industry.
“I hope that through this, cinema will come, like it has done in many parts of the world. I expect that one day, two, three young filmmakers will come with a new radical idea to do something different. Cinema is a language; it has a certain rule, but you can find your way of speaking it. It has certain methods you have to understand; it has a certain rhythm.”
Describing cinema as a powerful tool, Aduaka said, “Hollywood is used by the Americans to show the world how powerful America is. America is not as powerful as it’s being portrayed; America has never won a war. They didn’t win Vietnam, they didn’t win Iraq, they didn’t win Afghanistan, they didn’t win Korea, but if you believe Hollywood, America has conquered the universe; that’s the power of cinema.”
He continued: “The Soviet knew that and they control the voice of filmmakers; they have a commission that looks into the script and decide which to be commissioned, it’s a controlled art. So, when you talk about Nollywood, we don’t even understand what we are playing with; we are playing with people’s mind. It’s a very dangerous art and a great propaganda tool,” he concluded.