Having produced blockbusters such as Back to Africa and America Dream, Tony Abulu, the United States- based Nigerian filmmaker, and CEO, Black Ivory Communications, has nothing to prove. The first Nigerian filmmaker to access the President Goodluck Jonathan’s Nollywood Fund, Abulu premiered Doctor Bello, his latest movie, in Nigeria on 25 November at the Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos. Doctor Bello features Hollywood A-list actors such as Isaiah Washington, Vivica Fox, Jimmy Jean-Louis and Nollywood stars, Genevieve Nnaji , Stephanie Okereke, Desmond Elliot and Zack. Abulu tells NEHRU ODEH about the movie, his career and how the late Afro beat maestro, Fela Anikulapo Kuti influenced him.
Could you tell us about your background?
One of the things that people don’t know about me, which I think is critical, is that I come from the school of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. That means he was my mentor, and he directly or indirectly trained all of us to be selfless. He was the first person to introduce us to Afrocentricism, which is, more or less, don’t think about yourself alone; you are an African first, even before you are a Nigerian, even before you are from Edo or Delta. And that the problem you face in Edo is the same problem others are facing in Rwanda, the same problem people are facing in Senegal.
So for some of us who are going to be leading voices in cultural development and, by extension, entertainment and so on, we must maintain that philosophy. So when you look at some of the stories that I tell, first Back in Africa, then American Dream, now you come to Doctor Bello, it is informed by the spiritual aspect.
Unfortunately for us in Nigeria, Fela did not have the opportunity to explain the way it worked in a wider reach. When you hear his music, most people don’t decipher that there is an Afrocentric base. And what is that Afrocentricism? That is, Africa must survive, culturally and economically. When I say culture, Idon’t mean traditional culture; I am talking about what makes us African, what makes us different from the Europeans.
Your environment determines who you are. So if you are making a film about boy meets girl in Lagos and you make it like boy meets girl in London, then it’s fake. So that is why you would not get anybody to take you seriously globally. And that is what our people haven’t understood yet.
Did you always go to Fela’s shrine before you left for the United States?
Ironically, I never went to Fela’s shrine before I left. I went there when I was in the States and I came back. I used to know Fela when he was 29 and I was a little kid. He was very close to my uncle and he used to come to our house. And Fela wasn’t the Fela that everybody thought they knew. He didn’t dress like he used to dress; he was like a bourgeoisie; he drove an Opel and was always in dark suits and hat and white shirt. He used to come to the house and we used to see him and respect him. He was very handsome. He was always dressed up, while most of our uncles dressed down. But he changed when he was introduced to Afrocentricism by an American woman, Sandra Akanke Isidore in one of the tours that he had in the United States . His whole philosophy changed and he started seeing life differently. You can see how he changed. He changed his views, he started facing the government. Not just because he wanted to accuse the government but because he felt the government should take care of the people. If the government cannot take care of the people who is going to take care of the people? That is why he was antagonistic to people in government. They were friends personally but he thought their policies were bad.
Talking about your career, Many Nigerians didn’t know much about you until you got the Nollywood fund…
First, if you google you will see that what I have done in 30 years is African inspired film. Ten of us left Nigeria about the same time. We were supposed to be the leading people in Nigeria in terms of the arts at that time; and we all decided we got to go get some skills. We all went to college, went to university, acquired skills, but we felt that the skill wasn’t enough to compete globally. And we all left. We stayed there for 30 years.
We wanted to see what it would take to compete on the global market and then come back to Africa, help get our appeal to a certain level and take it to the global market to compete. It is a continuum. If you google my name you will see that for the past 30 years I have been at the forefront of the fight against piracy worldwide, working with the United States Department in Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Many complained about the stringent conditionality artists must meet before accessing the Nollywood fund. How did you meet the conditions?
When the president made the announcement for the intervention fund we had to go the president’s way. Many people said it wasn’t doable. Of course, the conditionality may be very stringent, but with people like myself there, we would help to reduce it. When I saw the conditionality I knew that it would be very difficult for any Nigerian to meet.
People have to understand the problem. It is not that the bank is trying to make it difficult. But a bank is a bank. If you go to any bank to access any fund, the bank will give you the conditionality that will guarantee that you pay the money back. In this case, the way the numbers are, there is no Nigerian that will make a film in Nigeria as it is today and it will be economically viable. None. So why did the NEXIM Bank gave me the Nollywood fund? These are the things that the bank requires. If you make your film, how are you going to sell and be sure that you can pay us our money? And you say, well am going to put it in the theatre? Which theatre? How many theatres do you have? We have four. How many screens do we have in the country? Ten. Then do the figures. When you do the figures, then how much are you asking us to give you? $200, 000. Okay when you make the film for $200, 000 and you put in the theatres. Do you know what $200, 000 is? N30,000, 000. So what will give you N30, 000, 000 now? How are you going to pay us back? You will say,Oh my film is the story of Genevieve. And she met Omotola. How are you going to pay us our money. You can only do cinema. And when you get to the cinema you make a beautiful film and you gross N20,000, 000 everybody starts clapping for you. The government itself is taking 10 per cent of that money. That is another N8, 000, 000 out of your N20, 000, 000. Remaining how much? N12, 000, 000. The distributor takes 15 per cent. At the end of the day, your film grosses N40, 000, 000 but maybe you will get maybe N12, 000, 000. Now much is N12, 000, 000? N12, 000, 000 is like $75, 000. You went to NEXIM and collected $200, 000. How do you pay the money. All you have is $75, 000. That is why they can’t access the money.
The only way I could access the money is to prove to NEXIM that after I show the film at Silverbird Galleria and all that, that is not the end of my marketing. I still have another market in the US. and I showed them. My last movie was in Warmack, Blockbuster etc. And they googled it. So the way I can help Nigerian film makers is to be their distributor so that they can use my own distribution connection as their own so that they can now submit. So when the Nigerian film makers are saying why Tony Abulu? It is actually Tony Abulu that came to save them.
When did you get the idea to make Doctor Bello?
It’s been almost two and a half years now.
What inspired the movie?
To tell you the truth, I was into another movie based on my own distribution cable and then use that to help Nigerians. But guess what? Isaiah Washington, my leader-I had never met him before in my life- called me from the blue. He had a movie that he wanted to make in Sierra Leone and he wanted me to come and produce it. And when he sent me the script, I decided I wasn’t going to produce the film because part of the story in my view were pejorative of a Nigerian personality. And I told him, ‘If you really want to help Africa the way you have always said you want to help Africa let’s do a project that is going to help Africa.’
And that is how the concept started. He dropped that film and I sent him a crypt script, about half a page for him to look at. When he looked at , he said it’s good. I wrote the script in two weeks. That was when we started looking for money. And for you to do what they call a crossover film in America, you have to have American actors. You are going to be the greatest genius on the planet to tell a story acted Nigerian actors and you think Americans will go and watch it. Maybe if you tell a negative story about our women trafficking in drugs in their private parts, maybe people will watch. But I don’t tell negative stories about my people.
Why will you not tell Negative stories about Africa?
Let me put it this way. You have three sons. People are calling you a thief. And your first son starts telling everybody that you are a thief. Your son should be the one that will come and defend you. Our film makers don’t understand this. You cannot continue to tell negative stories about Africa. They ‘ve told every negative story about blacks to the world. Just look at every black person. They are fighting a stigma and they are never themselves. They try to be somebody else because they don’t have self-pride. Why? Because they have messed up who they are. This has been on for thousands of years! So Doctor Bello is a positive story about Africa.