Actor, Producer and director Fred Amata is of the well-known Amata show business family. One of the pioneers of the Nigerian movie industry, Fred is better known these days as the director of popular movies like The Prostitute, The Kingmaker and the yet to be released Sierra Leonian collaboration called Bai Bureh Goes To War. He spoke with Naijarules.com editor, Sola Osofisan, in New York during a recent vacation.
Sola Osofisan: So what happened, Freddy? You were supposed to be here in January to do some kind of project, what happened? Plans changed?
Fred Amata.: We got caught up in some misunderstanding with airlines and schedule and stuff. We couldn’t make it as a team. We were going to be a team of about five or six so only few people could raise enough money to make it, so we couldn’t make that.
S.O.: So, is it still likely to happen in the future?
F.A.: Well, what happened is that there is a young female producer that’s doing a documentary on Arts for Behavioral Change and she had lined up with the help of NTA some interviews in New York, D.C., California and because of the nature of the project, she needed a lot of support and sponsorship, so part of the sponsorship was World Airlines agreed to airlift all the people, but when they got into that problem, they couldn’t take all so they had to start the last minute looking for alternatives. So just three of them came and managed to still do some of the things so it’s still going to continue. We’re going to London to do some other shooting but for now, I don’t have the full picture.
S.O.: So what are you doing in New York now?
F.A.: Now? Quite frankly, just on holiday with the family.
S.O.: What, do filmmakers take holidays? I thought you guys worked round the clock or something like that.
F.A.: Well, there’s always time. Okay, the truth of the matter is that for years we’ve been saying as a family we will travel together but it never worked out; either I’m up on location somewhere or my wife is doing something, I travel alone or she travels alone, the kids we never bring. So, luckily somehow this time, they came. Something came up. I couldn’t come with them. We were supposed to be here for two weeks, something came up and I couldn’t come with them and then everything just seemed to fit, I had one week so I said I’m going to take this chance and that’s why I’m in New York. I took a chance, take one week, spend one week, we don suffer bo, make we enjoy small.
S.O.: And how has it been, I mean being with your family, you know, away from home, even if it is just for a week, you know?
F.A.: Being away from home is not new now. It’s…
S.O.: No, you know, I mean being together and away from anything that has to do with work.
F.A.: It has been fun. It has been fun. I missed the snowstorm. My son saw it which is what we were really excited about when we were coming. It’s like it’s going to snow! We said yes, we want to see the snow. Snow, snow, snow, we want to enter the snow and play and build a snowman and throw snowballs and all that.
S.O.: Oh you like snow, you like the cold?
F.A.: Yeah, just the image, just the concept.
S.O.: (GENERAL LAUGHTER) Just the concept of the snow?
F.A.: The concept of snow, of the snowman, you know something that can be memorable, you know to the kids.
S.O.: You and Agatha, your wife were, I understand you were very good friends in school, I mean, you know, very good friends but never dated and yet you ended up marrying each other, how did that happen?
F.A.: Na as God dey plan hin thing.
S.O.: (GENRAL LAUGHTER) You had nothing to do with it? It just happened?
F.A.: Well, those days in school, I really liked her, you know, I used to tease her… my wife, I used to tease her my wife, my wife, it’s funny now. We used to dance together a lot, whenever we met at parties, nobody else will dance with any other person. We just dance together then she will go off and all that and so we drifted apart after school, one day we met again. Ah, dancing turned to another thing; here we are 10 years down the line.
S.O.: Ten years?
S.O.: How’s it been?
F.A.: It has been sweet and sour as usual with life. Ten years of marriage, that’s ten years of plenty sweet and plenty sour. But somehow because of that friendship, that bonding, we have managed to weather the storm and still stay friends, which is very important. Which is why I said this time we must leave everything at home, and come here and spend quality time with the family.
S.O.: So you think friendship is very important in a marriage?
F.A.: Of course, of course.
S.O.: More important than love?
F.A.: Friendship, communication. Love grows from friendship. Love doesn’t come… what’s love? Love must grow from friendship. You cannot just see somebody and say I love this person, wetin you love? There must be a connection and it is that connection that is friendship before it develops into what is deeper which is love and love has its own levels. The love that boyfriend and girlfriend experience may not necessary be the same love a boyfriend and a girlfriend with one kid will experience. And then down the line, marriage now brings its own, marriage now unites two families and you know, love just starts to develop different meanings, and you now begin to realize that tolerance is a major part of love. And that’s another ball game altogether. We’re filmmakers.
S.O.: Were you already acting and known, before you and Agatha decided to marry?
F.A.: Em, yeah. Of course, of course.
S.O.: Was it, was it difficult for you to leave that… because I mean, as an actor, you are known and girls like you, was it difficult for you to make the decision to marry and go away from all that?
F.A.: Funny enough, it was not difficult. I just liked her. It was better to go with the flow and you see it came up, and it looked like this is where the wind is blowing and I said yes, why not? And at that time, everybody was saying ah Fred? Lai lai, Fred no fit marry, Fred no fit serious. You know, but well ten years now, I don’t know what they can say now. People must talk sha but I was acting. In fact, I was acting right from school. And then immediately I finished university I did my youth service at NTA and luckily started acting again, met some of the network people there, then network was god. Then network in Nigerian television was god.
S.O.: Not anymore.
F.A.: (GENERAL LAUGHTER) Not anymore. Ah, home video? Home video has burst out, you know. But network is still very strong now.
F.A.: But the truth of the matter is that I got into doing a lot of things, I’ve always been known. And there’s one snag, is it a snag or twist in the story? She had never seen me acting before so it was not as if there was some external pressures as to why friendship would still develop. She’d never seen it. She just knew oh Ripples, dem dey do Ripples, okay. It was not until after we had become very serious friends that she started seeing some of the things I’d been doing on TV and even then she was not a TV person at all, she was into… She was even in finance then.
S.O.: That’s strange. A person who was not a TV person is now the producer, presenter…
F.A.: Of one of the hottest talk shows in Nigeria.
S.O.: You have two children, Oreva and Stephanie. I know that they’re making names for themselves in the acting business. You want to talk about that?
F.A.: Yeah, well, Oreva has done… right from when he was 2 or 3… In fact when I shot my first home video in ’94, Oreva acted in it. In ’95, Oreva acted in it.
S.O.: What was the title?
F.A.: The Fire and the Glory. He was just there as a little boy riding his bicycle, a really cute scene. So, they have the flare. I think Stephanie more, she, she comes across as a performer, you know…
S.O.: She likes the attention.
F.A.: She likes the attention, she likes to pose, she likes to model, and she likes to sing. Just say “Stephanie, sing a song about uncle,” and she will just make up a song immediately and find rhythm, find a melody. I find all that quite interesting. And so, well, depends on… I don’t know what’s going to happen really, where they’re going to end up yet, but right now, if anybody comes in, they like to do it. I know in Nigeria today, every little kid wants to be an actor or an actress. Oreva has had his fair share of roles he has played and Stephanie now is just growing, in fact, come to think of it, em when Stephanie was less than 6 months, she did a commercial, I just remembered that.
S.O.: So is there any recent thing we should look forward to seeing them in, both of them?
F.A.: Well, there’s one they just did now with Tade Ogidan… Dangerous Twins and they played a role. In fact, Tade complimented Stephanie. I think there was something about the character Stephanie was playing that he said oh no, he had to, because of the quality of what she did, he had to stretch it a little, expand the role just a little.
S.O.: That’s a very good sign.
F.A.: (GENERAL LAUGHTER). That’s a good sign, that’s a really good sign, coming from Tade!
S.O.: That’s a good sign. So, what is it with the Amata family and show business. I mean, it’s like it’s in blood or what?
F.A.: I don’t know o. I don’t know sha. Me I think that maybe we should have been footballers. (GENERAL LAUGHTER). Because our father used to play football, my elder brother, in fact, Zack (Amata)? Zack was an all out sportsman, he used to do triple jump, hurdles, 100 meters, 200 meters, high jump, the guy was a terror on the tracks, track and field, the guy was too much. So we all thought that, you know… But you know the truth of the matter is that em my father is the one who planted it all.
F.A.: He was in university, then University College, Ibadan with the Wole Soyinkas and stuff and then in 1957 he made a movie that we believe is the first movie to be made in Africa that has an all black… made by blacks in Africa.
S.O.: You know the name?
F.A.: It’s called Freedom. Freedom, it was in association with a group that he belonged to called Moral Re-Armament. It was a play he wrote, that my father wrote, he wrote it as a play, they performed the play on stage, they performed all over the world. It had a message and so when they saw how powerful the message was, they thought why not make this into a movie? And you know, Nigerian actors, Nigerian writer, they did the film in 1957; Nigerians, South Africans, East Africans, Ghanaians, major cast. The movie is still there… Eastman Color!
F.A.: So when we were growing up, I mean, they did the movie in 1957, I was not born until many many years later. Okay, so when I was growing up, the first thing when everybody was watching john Wayne and you know westerns, I was watching John Amata, so and everybody wanted to be like movie stars. I wanted to be like daddy and I think it had the same effect on majority of the family. Maybe there’s a streak there, you know that, something inborn I guess, that we need to tap and develop and we have managed to always somehow get there.
S.O.: So this streak now surfaced in who? Mena, Ruke, you, Zack, Eloho –
F.A.: Everybody in their own way
S.O.: Even people who marry into the family are showing the streak.
F.A.: Yeah. Funny enough, you see, it has grown. Like my wife is the first in her family, now her younger sister now has a major TV program in Nigeria which is called African Pot. It’s like a travelogue, travel all over the world and you get a look at the cultures of the people from the feminine food point of view and into the nitty gritty, really an interesting concept that they developed. My wife, of course like I said, she didn’t know jack about TV before and now she is a force to be reckoned with TV producing. She actually produced another movie which I directed that has her younger brother playing the lead role and it’s called “The Addict.”
S.O.: I know about that.
F.A.: And even if I have to say so he was outstanding in the role.
S.O.: What’s his name?
F.A.: His name is Tony Nwokolo. And since then he has been getting a few roles though the bank, the finance world is trying to snatch him away but we are fighting with him, we’re going to put everything in one basket.
S.O.: And Jeta is making a huge name for himself.
F.A.: Oh Jeta, that’s Zack’s son. Jeta, at least there was this guy who worked with Jeta. One, is it British actor, director? One Nick, Nick Moran who came into Nigeria, did a film and labeled Jeta the Quentin Tarantino of Nigeria. But apart from that, Nick Moran said a lot of bullshit.
S.O.: Oh, well, we’ll get to the Nick Moran part. So any chance of the Amata family coming together to do something collective in the future?
F.A.: There’s a way that we’re structured that that always seems to be such a huge possibility. I don’t know… There is hardly anything that we do that doesn’t have the input of one or the other, maybe not in a major sense, but Jeta is hardly going to do a script without letting me read it first. Ruke – I cannot do a story without letting Ruke to see it or if Jeta is available, you know, just like that, Zack, we always like to work together. So I know sooner or later, we’re going to collaborate. Most of the jobs we do really, there’s always more than one Amata. Most, not necessarily all, there’s always more than one Amata working on it. There’s another Amata that you don’t know about, that is an Editor, he is the youngest.
S.O.: Is that Eloho?
F.A.: No, that’s Viefe.
F.A.: That’s Zack’s second son.
S.O.: Hm, that’s the one that’s 16 years old?
F.A.: Yeah, he’s 16.
S.O.: Aha, I read about him somewhere. I follow everything you guys do.
F.A.: Ol’ boy, you dey try o.
S.O.: You think because I am not in Nigeria, I won’t know what’s going on?
F.A.: Even in Nigeria, people hardly know him.
S.O.: I read about him somewhere.
F.A.: So, like I said there’s hardly anything that we do that won’t have more than one Amata. Sometimes, he comes and he does some editing work for me. Does for Jeta, Ruke, who right now we’re doing stream, we’re into mainstream production, really.
S.O.: So, how do you still create, I mean aside of, besides all this directing and producing, how do you still create time for acting?
F.A.: I’m not afraid to say that my acting career suffered a little, but acting was always the first love which is what people don’t really realize, acting was always the first love. I started acting when I was six before I now went for formal training in the university and stuff, having worked under the great Zack, Zack Amata was my lecturer, you know? That one you know. Lectured Mena too and Ruke and Jeta… So acting… I always try to look for it, but somehow, right now, na wa sha, acting has or directing seems to take over, people now say “Fred, you are a director now,” you know, and…
S.O.: You are.
F.A.: No, no, no….
S.O.: You are, you are more a director than an actor now…
F.A.: In the sense that you are not an actor.
F.A.: Which doesn’t really go down well with me, not anymore. I tell you, I really got a lot of gratification from directing because as at the time when I decided to concentrate on directing, the truth of the matter is the evolution from TV to home video was at the very early stage and there were not so many directors who had worked extensively on TV and I happened to be one of them and so it was usually difficult for me to go and work under a director who I could see was lacking in experience in a lot of things, so I felt… I even worked as assistant director for a number of people trying to you know, at that time I just felt, let’s do this thing, let it grow, try to make people understand how it worked, but I think if I was doing a service then, I believe I’ve, you know, I have more than satisfied myself in imparting whatever knowledge it is. In fact right now, there’s so much knowledge available that I cannot even claim to be teaching a lot of people any longer, a lot of people any more, there are people who know things, like Jeta for instance, comes with crazy concepts that – where do you get these things from? – you know, and it works. And there are a lot of younger directors like that so suddenly I feel, well, let’s go back to our primary constituency, but then it is, when I say now I want to act in a movie, before I go on set, I get a couple of offers saying “come and help us direct this, come and help us direct this and it’s like the money…the money…” It’s very challenging.