Fred Amata is a seasoned Nollywood actor, film producer, and director who shot into limelight in 1986 for his role in the film ‘Legacy’. He comes from a family of movie producers, actors, and film directors who have carved a niche for themselves in Nollywood.
His father, Ifoghale Amata, was a famous Nigerian playwright and actor who died in 1997.
The Amata clan comprises Ruke, Zack, and his son, Jeta, and Mena.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Fred Amata, who has been the president of the Directors Guild of Nigeria since 2016, speaks about some of the challenges faced by Nigerian film makers and the reluctance by Nollywood practitioners to insure their health
PREMIUM TIMES: What have you been up to recently?
Amata: We’re surviving the devastating moment of COVID-19. As the president of the Directors Guild of Nigeria, the challenges have doubled. We are looking into the challenges that plague the directors in the guild. Then, there are issues that seem not to favor business, like why we are here today, double taxation. It’s a huge issue.
The challenge is actually in the Constitution, with the industry on the concurrent list, making it open to both the federal government and the state government to legislate on. Now, the federal government will tax you and the state government will still tax you. It is not the best policy and it is devastating on practitioners. So, how are we getting out of this? How are we going to make sure that businesses don’t suffer? It needs a lot of understanding and looking into it.
PT: Does DGN have any welfare plans for members?
Amata: What we try to do is try to lead the talks. So, in 2016 we mobilised this huge health plan for members and we called it Nolly-insured. It was going to be called Nolly-care like Obama-care. It has been in existence since 2016, with the support of the federal government.
At that time, AGN was not structured. Nolly-insured was designed to gather all the guilds and associations in Nigeria under an umbrella and use the numbers to drive down health insurance. We did that, got over 14 associations to sign at the major signing ceremony, Actors Guild was not there. There was a health insurance policy that gives you a fantastic cover. When we started, it was N6000 but a few years down, it became N10,000. We have TAMPAN, NANTAP, CDGN, Writers guild, Producers guild, and all of that. Actors guild, knowing the power of their numbers, also have done something similar but just for the actors.
From my point of view, the issue of health in the industry is so crucial that it does not matter how many exist but it only matters that we can get quality health care.
PT: If this has been in place all these years, why do actors constantly seek financial aids for medical treatment?
Amata: They did not register for medical treatment. Even Actors Guild now are kind of forcing members. There is a huge apathy in Nigeria for signing on to health insurance policies. The association of movie producers has the health plan that was donated by Rok TV, a hundred people at N5000 a year, which is fantastic. It covers basic health issues and all that. Just a hundred people, we didn’t have up to hundred, meanwhile, the guild has over a thousand members.
There is a huge mentality in Nigeria towards signing health insurance plans. We did Nolly-insured, it is huge. We have bankers, we have Leadway insurance, we have an HMO that is handling it, but people still didn’t sign up. They didn’t sign up for the free ones; somebody has done it before, just send your email address but they didn’t. It is a big issue.
Lagos state has insurance which is the best insurance policy I have ever seen. I have been pursuing health insurance for years, since the first year I became president. The issue of health is so crucial but people always forget. I mean, Lagos state has this policy that I think is the best. Why? It does not have a limit. If you have health insurance that does not have a limit, jump at it. Even as I am talking about Nolly-insured, it has a limit. The Actors Guild own has a limit. If you have a terminal disease, say you have cancer, our insurance policy can’t take care of it. Lagos state brought a policy with no limit, that if everybody in Lagos state registers for it, it can succeed. But who is going to register? There is Lagos state, there is Nolly-insured, there is the one from AGN, there is another private one, that four or five organisations have come together to put up.
All these things are on ground and the people you see who are sick have never registered and the culture of begging has grown. The same thing the Actors Guild is saying today was what we were saying four years ago and people are still not registering.
The issue as far as I am concerned with health insurance is that Nigerians don’t want to accept it. There is cultural issue, there is religious issue and there is simple ego; why should I go and pay that amount of money? What if I don’t fall sick? When was the last time I fell sick? Like with Nolly-insured, we have a cover that if you die, you get up to 5 million naira, if you were registered. They will say, you wan kill me abi? I tell you say I wan die now?
PT: How has being the president of DGN affected your acting career?
Amata: There are several factors. You know, as a pioneer filmmaker, we introduce as much as the style of shooting, the camera angle, and all of that. In the earlier years, we were more innovative, more forward-looking but it has evolved. As soon as I became the president, the challenges were so huge. Acting has slowed down. A lot of time I can’t go to the location because it is conflicting with some other things. I have not done as much as I used to do. It became cumbersome, you can’t work, you can’t act. As a director, from when the script is ready and until the film is in the market, you have to be involved. It is very challenging. There are always issues you have to attend to, to make sure things are running smoothly. In an environment where there is no proper funding, we have to think out of the box to figure out some initiative that could give us some funding to survive. We have managed to raise the guild from where it was before and put it on a pedestal, yet it is still not climbing. So it is a lot more work to do and it is very challenging.
PT: Are you looking to retire from acting?
Amata: Once an actor, always an actor. By the way, my father was an actor. When he was 73, just before he died, he still took part in Nollywood films.
PT: How would you compare your early days in acting to what is obtainable now?
Amata: Nollywood, first of all, is a phenomenon. It is an industry that was stumbled upon by compassion and love and not as a business venture. It has been evolving since then, into what would be a properly structured industry. This evolution is many faced.
For instance, scriptwriting. When we started, coming from television, our scripts were mostly television-like scripts. Like ‘Glamour Girls’ where we have this story and this story and this story, like a soap. We just watched all the stories and it came to one end. Now, the idea of the heroic journey, which is a character, a protagonist, who we follow from what he wants to achieve to the obstacles that try to stop him until he achieves it. It is called the “hero’s journey”. Which is the basic style recommended for writing all over the world.
We have evolved a little faster, yet, we have not gone through the other nuances of scriptwriting, dialogue, characterization, all those are still not as advanced as they should be.
In acting, because it comes naturally, it is supposed to evolve higher. Yet, we still have not reached areas where we transcend acting to becoming real. Where you want to shoot a person who is blind and you make the person go blindfolded for one month or six months like Al Pacino.
PT: And production-wise?
Amata: So, while we are still struggling production-wise, in the area of financial expectations, we have evolved higher than anything. This is because professionals came in and set their standards.
There are other areas like in directing where we are still struggling. We have a lot of ingenuity in Nigeria. For instance, today, we now have the tripod called the running. You’re walking down the road, I can hold it and follow you or put tracks and follow you. In our days, we couldn’t even afford that.
There was a time we were going to shoot a driving scene, so we made the cameraman sit on the window of the car. It was a small golf. The actor was acting like he was driving and the rest of us were pushing the car. Now, we don’t need that bullshit. We now have better equipment.
Another example I have was when we were shooting in Calabar at a time, we had a crane that was 40 feet high. In those days, the cameraman had to go up with it. Luckily, we could just put the camera on this crane and control it. From that height, we were sitting down and wondering why the camera was bent. Before we knew what was going on, the camera came crashing down from the whole 40 feet. Now we don’t need that again, there are drones.
So you see, things have changed. Directing has improved technically in terms of using the available equipment creatively.
At that time, people started traveling abroad to study and started coming back with chips on their shoulders and saying these people don’t know what they are doing. When they got into the system, they discovered how ingenious these guys are and they slowly conformed.
There is evolution in different places though it is not uniform but we are doing much better than when we started. We still have a long way to go and I think the audience is traveling with us.
I have been privileged to work in the heart of Hollywood and I have seen their set. One set can be as large as the whole of this place. Just one set. Parking alone, there’s a very large space for parking only cars. Then, there is a second level of parking which is for parking caravans. These caravans will hold food, costumes, and lighting equipment. You now start to have the performers, the lead actors, and the support, about four or five of those. Then you have the crew, they all have caravans. Parking alone is a big issue. We haven’t even gotten to that stage place yet.
We still have a long way to go but we have come a long way.
PT: What is your assessment of the present crop of Nollywood actors?
Amata: I have said this severally, if you give Genevieve Nnaji and Halle Berry the same roles, give Genevieve the same condition Halle has in America, Genevieve in Nigeria, Halle Berry will look like nonsense and Genevieve will look like gold.
We have fantastic actors. I say this and say it categorically that 90% of our actors are performing below their capacities. They have not reached their true abilities and capacities and I know this because I have been a director for years. I have been hearing my artistes talk about this.
Thank God Ramsey Noauh is now a director. In my presence, he once told an upcoming actor to just act his lines. Now he is a director let us see if he can allow that. Meritoriously, Ramsey is now one of the best directors out there.
PT: Why do Nollywood films portray the African traditional religion as evil?
Amata: It is a mentality. It is a wrong notion that has been fed into the industry. It is the audience that determines the content of Nollywood films. We have been brainwashed and misled so the practitioners believe that if they do it that way, it will be accepted. What is important is that filmmakers can properly sensitise and project the culture of the people. Don’t forget that culture is dynamic.
We need to re-orientate our filmmakers on that. In DGN, we say we are the custodian of the film art of Nigeria. So we insist that art cannot just be for art’s sake. The audio-visual medium is too powerful to be tribalised or to be reduced just for art’s sake. People live their entire lives believing what they have seen on TV.