When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder, lions hunker down in tall grasses, and even elephants, lumber after safety… Maya Angelou
The reverberations caused by the surprising death of Amaka Igwe on the 28th of April, 2014 are truly like the fall of great trees that Maya Angelou’s poem graphically captures. A colossal figure in the Nigerian film industry, Amaka Igwe was widely recognised for her passion as a filmmaker and her contribution towards the development of the industry.
Born on the 2nd of January 1963, Amaka was the daughter of Isaac Ene, a civil engineer from Obinagu-Udi in Enugu State. In a 2006 interview, she traced the source of her values and philosophy to her father, who, according to her, “was very principled and taught us to strive for the best at all times.” It can be also be said that the basis for what would be her life’s work was laid by the love for stories that her father’s storytelling inculcated in her. It was also her father who captured her forthright approach to things in his nickname for her – GOC (General Officer Commanding).
Amaka grew up in Enugu and attended first All Saints School (now Trans Ekulu Primary School) and then Girls High School Awkunanaw, Enugu. She subsequently did her A levels at Idia College, in Benin City. Her inclination to the arts was fostered in Idia College, where she directed and acted in plays. Although she had intended to study Law at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), she ended up with a degree in Education/ Religious Studies. But this was a disappointment that turned out to be a blessing: “What I studied in the university must have prepared me for what I now do. I got stuffed with a lot of psychology, sociology, theology, philosophy and the entire arts and humanities. It’s a combination of two things really – education, which gave me everything about teaching, and communicating. I have a broad spectrum of knowledge about people and cultures.”
Her first degree was followed by a master’s degree from the University of Ibadan where she studied Library, Archival and Information Science. She then worked in the Anambra State University of Technology (now ESUT) as the head of research in the library and as a lecturer. She was also engaged at this time with writing, producing and presenting in both radio and television. It was largely in the studios of the Enugu State Broadcasting Service that she learnt the ropes for television production. This led to the production of her successful television soap opera, Checkmate, which ran for about five years. Eventually, spurred on by others, she ventured into the burgeoning video film industry by producing Rattlesnake. This was followed by The Last Operation (a sequel to Rattlesnake), Violated, To Live Again, Forever, and Adamma. She later began the production of the popular and long-running television sit-com, Fuji House of Commotion. Her productions also include The Barber’s Wisdom (a short film shot in celluloid) and the television film, Decrees of Fate.
What were the sources of Amaka Igwe’s stories? Although she ascribed some of her storytelling techniques to a knowledge of folklore, in which she was well grounded, her stories were largely drawn from societal happenings. In her words, “…most of my stories are social. They are realistic portraits of real life issues that people prefer to avoid or conceal. For example, Rattlesnake is biographical. It is based on the life of a man called Big Fish. Tall, handsome, and successful, Big Fish was our culture hero when I was a child. We all loved him. But later he was killed. Then we learned that he was a notorious armed robber. You can imagine our shock.”
Her filmic stories sought to explore aspects of Nigerian life, and she usually brought to the fore issues that people generally preferred to turn a blind eye to. She tended to choose her topics with the eye of a sociologist, seeking to understand the whys and wherefores. “I think that story selection is intuitive. Generally, the ideas I select for a story are based on experience, mine or someone else’s. After choosing an idea, I formulate a story around it. Most ideas for my story are based on real social experiences. For example, Violated was inspired by the commerce in children that I discovered on a trip to Enugu. A family friend revealed that she had just bought a baby for N2,500. This revelation got me thinking about the circumstances under which a human being would sell her baby.”
As a woman in a male dominated industry, she identified what she termed a problem of lack of sociological knowledge in the generally negative portrayal of women in the Nigerian films. “There is a direct correlation between the way Nigerians perceive women and the way women are portrayed in films. The problem is that the male directors who make such films are ignorant, aggressive, and gynophobic. Basically, many of them think that a woman is either good or evil, saint or devil. Intellectually insecure, they abhor competition with women. For most of them, women are playthings. As for the women directors, some react by portraying women as better than men. Consequently, in their films women are idealized and men demonized.”
Accordingly, she always strove for balance trying to show both men and women as full-fledged beings and individuals capable of both good and evil. She was also not afraid to delve into such taboo topics as female infidelity (To Live Again) or to challenge the notion of male promiscuity as the accepted norm. Nevertheless, she was not focused on what she termed the male-female divide. “Rather than write about the male-female divide, I write about strong characters.”
Amaka Igwe was a professional to the core and did not tolerate half measures. She devoted a lot to learning her craft and never considered that she ‘knew it all.’ Neither her first nor her second degree was in filmmaking, but she noted that, “As far as I am concerned, what I studied is equally good. I had a good background in arts, in philosophy, in social science, theology, so it is a whole body of knowledge which aids my understanding of human character – to have a psychological theme of a character, to have the sociological knowledge of environment of people. I had that background, and I had a master’s degree, which gave me the ability to understand management and research. The work I studied prepared me. So, subsequently, I have also undergone many trainings in the career I have chosen today. I created my talent through the skills that work for me, and I am still learning on a daily basis. The biggest thing I do when I travel is to study, buy books; I have a library on my chosen area.”
She was very demanding on herself and did not expect less from those that worked with her. Such persons have testified to her willingness to teach, to create space and challenges for others to prove themselves. But she always expected and respected professionalism in those she worked with. Speaking with reference to actors, she stated: “… I love working with professionals, people who understand what it takes to deliver a role, that is to deliver a script, as different from people who walk around the air having their heads in the clouds with an exaggerated feeling of self-importance. […] When you work for me, you work. I choose people who I know have ability to work. They have the ability to break down a role to get it to the real stage and to deliver. I work with people who have integrity; if they say they are coming by 9 o’clock, they come. I don’t work with people that I have to go to their houses to beg to do their work. I work with people who are professionals, people who have an understanding of the work, people who are well- trained, who went for proper training and understand what it takes to be an actor.”
Amaka Igwe worked hard at promoting this same sense of professionalism in the industry at large. She emphasised the need for increased training and development as well as the importance of creating a structure for training in the industry. Towards this end, she did a lot of training herself, especially on the platform of Best of the Best TV (BOBTV), the international film and television programmes expo that she founded. The expo offered master classes and included a universities challenge to promote filmmaking among students.
Part of the drive for professionalism in the industry was carried out through her active participation in various professional bodies of the industry. She was, for instance, one of the champions of the Movie Practitioners Council of Nigeria (MOPICON) bill, which is yet to be passed through the House. She also contributed generously of her time to the committee established to provide the guidelines for the President’s grant to Nollywood. Her entrepreneurial efforts have also included the setting up of Top FM, a radio station.
Amaka Igwe has left this earth. It would certainly be pretentious to expect to cover in one article all her works and contribution to the Nigerian film industry and the lives of so many people. Hers has been a rich and fulfilling life, and much of the fruits are yet to be reaped. Charles Novia, in his tribute to her, has affirmed that Amaka Igwe has not died; rather, she lives on in the hearts of those that loved her and appreciated her work. These are words that many will agree with. Truly, Amaka Igwe’s life and legacy will not be easily forgotten. Rest in peace, Amaka.
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
Maya Angelou, ‘When Great Trees Fall’
This tribute was written and prepare by The Nollywood Studies Centre