Is Jeta Amata Nollywood’s gift to Hollywood?

Globalisation has been generous with new openings for anyone with an interest in cinema, or revolution. Jeta Amata, a maverick Nigerian director, falls into both camps.

Last summer, the 37-year-old thought he’d finished his most ambitious film yet, a drama about the Niger delta crisis called Black Gold. He presented it in July at the American Black film festival in Los Angeles — all part of the plan for a project that, alongside its Nigerian stars, featured Billy Zane, Viveca Fox, Eric Roberts, Tom Sizemore and Michael Madsen.

Nollywood was going to Hollywood.

But Amata decided his film was already out of date. “It had to be more current. It had to adhere strictly to what was going on right now — the Arab spring and all that,” he tells me. “It was a huge challenge that the Arabs posed to the rest of the world, especially the people in the Niger delta. If they can look at their dictators and say, ‘No, we want a change’, there’s no reason why people in west Africa can’t stand up. And it’s beginning to happen.”

Big names
Over six months later, Nigeria is boiling over with protests and extremism, and Amata has a new film. Now retitled Black November (a reference to the month of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution in 1995, and presumably to avoid confusion with Jean-Jacques Annaud’s forthcoming oil epic, Amata says he has reshot close to 60% of his film. Sewn on to its original storyline about the effects of a pipeline explosion in the southern city of Warri is another plot strand in which enraged militants take hostages on US soil. Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger and Anne Heche have joined a bulging cast-list that makes New Year’s Eve look like an exercise in Beckettian restraint.

Amata’s film is weighing into the 50-year history of western exploitation of the delta’s oil resources, local collusion and violent resistance to it. Last year a death threat was sent to his wife, Mbong (an actor in the film), apparently from a militant group. Amata says the shock clarified his intentions: “I looked at it and said, ‘If I’m going to tell the story, I’d better tell it irrespective of what some groups or government or companies think. I had been too conservative, trying not to make them look so bad. In [the first version], I’d blamed my own people, the Niger delta people, for part of the crisis. I put a lot of the blame on us.”

But he sounds as if he’s bursting for his film to be part of the “massive change” he’s convinced is imminent. He mentions others on the Nollywood scene of a similar political mind — the directors Greg Odutayo, Kunle Afolayan and Obi Emelolye — but he’s the one going over the parapet first.

Which brings in the idea of what Amata can do for Nollywood — arguably, with an average 2 000 titles produced a year, the world’s most prolific film industry, but not the one most focused on quality.

Already in the habit of shooting on 35mm and with some experience in the international marketplace (he directed 2006’s The Amazing Grace, starring Nick Moran as the 18th-century slaver who wrote the hymn), Amata could be the savvy alumnus who encourages Nollywood to raise its game.

Widespread corruption
Part of what holds it back, he says, is the same thing that’s choking the delta: the widespread corruption that means “sorting”, the daily greasing of palms, is part of the fabric of Nigerian life.

Amata recently had to keep some of Black November‘s Hollywood cast waiting in a hotel for a week, while he fought to get his equipment out of customs. The lack of official interest in building a proper cinema infrastructure (there are less than 10 cinemas in Nigeria) is a green light for piracy, and many Nollywood stars still don’t pay tax — galling when some do 10 pictures a year at £10 000 a pop. “The government couldn’t care less, because they’re concentrating on the money they make from oil and buying properties all over the world,” says Amata.

The director certainly has the dynastic pedigree to be a figurehead. His father was Zack Amata, a producer who also acted in a popular soap, and his grandfather was John Ifoghale Amata, a playwright and actor. But there are lessons there, too. John wrote and starred in what is cited as sub-Saharan Africa’s first celluloid colour film: 1956’s Freedom, based on his own play about a fictional African nation’s struggle for independence. It climaxes in a quixotic burst, when the revolutionary apologises to the colonial ruler for his aggression; then in turn the colonialist apologises to his former subject for his oppressive policies.

The note of concession on the African side sounds weirdly like Black November’s first draft. Amata says he watched Freedom “countless” times as a child. His grandfather’s script, written on the cusp of Nigerian independence, feels as if it was going through the same agonies: trying to overcome an apologetic urge for standing up for itself. Amata sounds as if he might have beaten the impulse.

And in grappling with the cycle of history, he has learned the revolutionary’s first lesson: the revolution can never rest. Black November has US and African releases secured; now he’s pushing for Europe, and as far as the film will go. “Let’s get the world talking about the delta — in a stronger way than a documentary,” he says, “So we can have a lot of noise in the western world that’s gonna trickle back home. So the leaders and the oil companies know they’re being watched.”

Black November will be released in Nigeria and the US later this year.

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