News of President Yahya Jammeh’s purported gifting of plots of land to Nollywood movie stars have raised some eyebrows and Germany-based Gambian filmmaker, Prince Abubacarr Aminata Sankanu was one of the first to ring the alarm bell. In this exclusive interview, he discussed at length the country’s creative industry, cautioning the kind of rewards that go to nourish foreign talents and industry will do no developmental good for the country.
What’s On-Gambia: You were seemingly not happy with the news in the Ghanaian media that President Jammeh gifted plots of land to Nollywood stars. Why?
Sankanu:As an unconventional thinker, I don’t mince my words and I have no time for all the political hypocrisy out there. It is nothing personal. When the South Africans were butchering Nigerians and other Black Africans, I expressed solidarity with the Nigerian film industry and recommended a boycott of South African TV channels. Ghanaians stood up against the “Nollywood invasion” to do their homework first before working on a win-win strategy with the Nigerians. Inter-African solidarity can work better when there is sincerity and fair-play among us Africans.
Whatever the case, I am carrying the tasks set by the Father of African Cinema, Ousmane Sembène and other pioneers of post-colonial African Cinema. When they were conceptualising the Federation of Pan African Filmmakers (FEPACI) and later the Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), they called for productive confrontations, debates and reflections on the state, dynamics and future of African Cinemas on the continent and the Diaspora. This critical thinking exercise is currently missing as people are intoxicated with endless parties, premiers, hypes and vanities of actors, actresses, marketers and producers across Africa. We have an oversupply of wannabe stars but think-tanks like me are an endangered minority. We need more criticisms and scholarships on African cinema than wasteful hype.
That said, any sincere person who compares the maps of The Gambia with those of Nigeria and Ghana would agree that it is the Ghanaians and Nigerians who should be giving land, money and other resources to The Gambians and not the other way round. I am trying to avoid the situation of South Africa were Africans started destroying each other over competition for meagre resources due to the short-sightedness and greed of the political decision makers.
But these are not developed plots. Don't you think it is a plus for The Gambia to have top African celebrities owning properties and businesses in the country?
It is a minus and not a plus. Developed or undeveloped plots, why then the secrecy? Why do we have to know about it from non-Gambian sources, if at all it was okay? I find it very insulting and it confirms what I have been saying all the while that Gambians, both at state and societal levels, don’t value their own. African celebrities owning properties and businesses in Gambia will not transform the country into an economic super power. Many people are carried away by the hype and sensational headlines when all that glitters is not gold. As a seasoned insider of the Pan African media and cinema industries, I am privy to a lot of first-hand facts, both academic and professional, that many people do not know. I need not go into details for now. Charity, we are admonished, begins at home. Even if all the African celebrities migrate into our country, reasonable people will ask: what about Gambians? Are Gambian mothers not capable of giving birth to world-class talents? I don’t want to name promising Gambian talents to save them the troubles of the political hypocrisy on the ground but during my last two visits, I saw Gambians who can beat the Nigerian and Ghanaians stars if they are given the due support. Sadly, Gambians don’t value their home-grown human capital. It is all about being sycophants to get support. If at all the praise-singers and hustlers understand how to build a film industry, why is it that with all the massive presidential support, the Gambia is not a recognisable filmmaking country?
The Holy Quran reminds us that “Allah does not change what is in a nation unless they change what is in themselves,” (Surat-ul Ra’d: 11). Until and unless we start respecting ourselves and investing in our talents, we will continue to be used and dumped. Over the past 10 years, millions of Dalasis were given to Nigerian stars to make Gambian movies and premiere them in the UK, USA, you name the rest. But I for one cannot see the corollary benefits on the ground, between Kartong and Koina. So even if we allocate 50 percent of our national territory and foreign reserves to those celebrities, they will not transform the Gambia into an important film producing nation. They did not do it before when a lot of free money was thrown at them. They will not do it now when they are required to use their own money to build houses and production facilities in the country where investment guarantees are not working. Ask the Kenyans, Ethiopians, Tanzanians, Sierra Leoneans, Liberians, Ugandans, South Africans and others on the way they built their respective film industries. They will tell you that they were not wasting their resources on invited or visiting hustlers. They harnessed the potentials of their people first before embracing inter-African cooperation. Gambians like putting the cart before the horse and unless there is an attitudinal change, it will take ages before we have an internationally-respectable national film industry. I am the first person to float the idea of a GAMBIAN FILM VILLAGE or CREATIVE CLUSTER in 2012. I did not waste my time asking the Gambian government for land as I know that I would not get it as long as I continue to check and balance the Jammeh system with the power of my pen.
Do you know that the government was supporting local actors? For example, Modou Musa Ceesay's trip to the 17th Edition of the World Championships of Performing Arts in America was sponsored by the Office of the President.
Yes, I am aware of that and I know the names of all Gambian and non-Gambian artistes who got monies and other benefits from the government or the Office of the President. You mentioned Modou Musa Ceesay. Is he now a big star in America or Gambia? Look, based on the facts I have, the sponsorships for non-Gambian artists are larger and more generous than those of the Gambians. The supports to Gambians are like Trojan horses for short-term political propaganda rather than long-term personal and national development of the Gambian creative industry. Can you name the sponsored Gambian artists who are thriving on the regional and international film scenes? How many of those artistes sponsored by the Office of the President or the para-statals can dwarf the pampered Nigerian or Ghanaian stars? See, if I need one million Dalasis for a project and you give me one hundred thousand you should not expect me to be on the same level with the Nigerian and American stars that enjoy the natural advantage of scale? Gambian artistes are given money to praise-sing or keep quite. If they want to talk they will be told “you got money from the President” and they will shut up. It is therefore no surprising that in the local Gambian creative scenes many people are not talking as they have, in one way or the other, eaten Jammeh’s money and are feeling too guilty to question things that are going wrong. The money is finished, their careers are stalling and they cannot talk.
Can you briefly tell us the problems that film producers are facing in the country?
The first problem is hypocrisy, the second is hypocrisy and the third is hypocrisy! The national sport of the Gambia is hypocrisy and this is having cascading effects on film producers. Once we develop strategies of mitigating the wasteful attitude, we will find solutions to all other technical problems. The general Gambian attitude is that people will prefer to see an initiative by a fellow-Gambian fail, even if something is in the national interest, because it does not fit their political agenda or Mboka and Mbading nepotism. The Gambia will never develop as the capacities to create space for professionalism, ethics and competence are frustrated and branded as anti- system. If speaking truth to power makes one anti-government, so be it. I will not blindly give up my core principle for any money, contract or political favours under the sun.
What do you think can be done to make the creative industry more rewarding?
Well since 2012, I have been floating well-articulated ideas for the advancement of the Gambian creative industry. The Office of The President, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture (MoTC), the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC), the Standing Committee on Beauty Pageants and Movie Production, Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), the Gambia Film Producers Association (GFPA), the Gambia Association of Theatre (GAMT) have all received sincere proposals from me, between 2012 and 2015, on how we can collaborate in making the creative economy rewarding. Any individual stakeholder who has something to do with the Gambia movie industry got a direct or indirect message from me. I have given them all the time in this world to respond. We are now approaching the end of 2015 and to be honest, I am tired of wasting ink and paper. Henceforth, I am proceeding with the implementation of my own ideas without begging or waiting for any entity. Because of my patience and understanding of the slow and laid-back way of doing things in The Gambia some of the approached entities and stakeholders started badmouthing me that I am not serious. Human beings are fastidious. If you do your things alone, they would say you don’t respect or consult them and if you do, they will waste your time and start calling you names. The waiting period is over. Can you imagine this? I invited filmmakers to submit their movies for the CINEKAMBIYA film industry projects. I got over 120 films from across the world and not a single Gambian moviemaker has so far sent me his or her DVD. I will be screening some of those movies during my next Gambia visit and don’t be surprised when you start hearing some lousy Gambians gossiping that I am not supporting Gambian films out of “jealousy and the like.” I hope one or two sincere persons would ask: “have you responded to Prince Sankanu’s call for entries and on time?”
What are established producers like you doing to collaborate with the media in putting a spotlight on the efforts of the industry?
I am grateful that I got established without the support of the Gambian government, Office of the President or the Nigerian and Ghanaian celebrities. This has given me the bargaining power and street credibility to operate without the trappings of the Faustian pact. Yes, I have a media strategy as part of my ideas for the development of the Gambian film industry. The creation of a “Gambian Arts and Cultural Journalists Association (GACJA)” is part of the institutionalization strategy. The private online and offline media outlets are very cooperative and I am looking forward to deepening the cooperation so we can advance the industry. The state or pro-government media are more interested in the praise-singers and political hypocrites and are not honest about cooperating with people like me. Yet they are surviving on my taxes and remittances. That is however, their problem as I am progressing in my endeavours without their coverage of my activities for the film industries. They can rot in hell as I will not beg or run after them for coverage.
You were one of the most famous faces on TV. Why the switch from being in front of the camera to being behind the camera?
I am already established and I don’t need to rush or compete just to remain relevant. Currently I am progressing to become a world-class professor of film. Balancing the academic and professional aspects of my métier will continue. I am versatile and can switch around the various angles of the camera with the requisite expertise and passion. For now, I just want to create opportunities for others to thrive. In other words, I am working to be the Edward Francis Small of our CINEKAMBIYA Film Industry. When I started working with the Nigerian film industry, I deliberately refused to be on the frontline. Instead I chose to sponsor and mentor promising Nigerian talents who are now becoming bigger and bigger. During my first Gambia visit in 2012, I had a meeting with my impending production crew members and told them my mission is not to just to shoot movies and leave as they have been experiencing with the fly-by-night celebrities from Nigeria or Ghana. My mission is to contribute my sincere quota towards a sustainable Gambian national film industry called CINEKAMBIYYA, one step at a time. Clogging the markets with DVDs is the easiest part of the trade but laying the foundations for dynamic national film industry is not the work of those who think of instant success and short-term favours from politicians for their personal aggrandisements.
What are your thoughts on Ibraheem Ceesay's movie, Sarata?
I am yet to get a copy to watch in full and cannot therefore give a serious professional assessment of it but from the YouTube promos and publicity materials I saw, it is an encouraging movie with a lot of potentials. I salute comrade Ibraheem Ceesay for the good work. Some of talents like him such as Ishmael Sarr, Lamin K. Janneh, Abubacarr Zaidi Jallow, ML Touray, Onyeaka, Efe Omo Ogori, Alhagie Manka, Adam Will, Yankuba Jarret, Ebou Waggeh and Essa Jallow are on my radar for future cooperation.
What about DJ Lil Sisqo's TV series, Nakala?
Same as Sarata, I did not get copies of the full episodes to review. I could only follow it from what is available online and from the TFM promotional material. Base on them, I can say yes, we Gambians have talents. It is shame that the Senegalese are the ones to provide airtime for Nakala while Gambians are running after Nollywood, boring political and religious propaganda programmes and the South American Telenovelas. It is embarrassing that the Gambia is the only country in West Africa with a monopolistic terrestrial TV market. The GRTS monopoly is causing more damage than good to our national development. Looking at the state of affairs, even if new TV licences are to be issued, only the incompetent and corrupt sycophants will get the approval to operate “independent” TV stations in the Gambia alongside GRTS and things will move from bad to worse.
According to some critics, Gambian films are poorly written, badly directed, badly acted and badly produced. What is your take?
Who are those critics? What do they know about film criticism and who among them can set the standards for what a Gambian film should be like in terms of aesthetics, narratives and politics? Today, with the affordability of digital cameras, anyone can take pictures and mix them up into a movie for the various platforms. This does not mean everybody who can do this is bona fide filmmaker. If you want to open a surgery in a hospital, you don’t go to the markets to recruit butchers to perform surgery on people. You recruit the ethical and skilled surgeons with solid understanding of the human anatomy to deliver value for money. Let those folks criticising start supporting Gambian films and talents first and then we can talk about the rest. Like I said, Gambians don’t value their own talents. You cannot tie someone’s legs and hands and expect him to defeat Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in an Olympic race. People are using their viewing patterns and addictions to Telenovelas, Hollywood movies, Nigerian movies and other foreign contents to judge Gambian movies. This is dead wrong. You cannot use un-Gambian works to define what should be Gambian. Let’s take the case of romance, one of my favourite bad boy topics. In Indian Bollywood movies since sex is censored, water and seductive dance are used to celebrate romance. The Nigerian and Ghanaians are copying the American and Europeans with the excessive kisses and imitation of soft person. European Art-house shows explicit sex and nudity to reflect the reality. So must we copy these anti-bodies as Gambian romance? My answer is No! A Sene-Gambian romance movie must show JELI-JELI waste beads, bin-bins and all other customary stuff that drive men crazy. Besides, filmmaking should involve a lot of research. I will encourage Gambian filmmakers not to rush into holding cameras. Flooding the market with DVDs is easy but counterproductive. Let them spend more time researching their scripts. They should travel to the villages to study what is left of the authentic Gambian values and heritages that we can promote and preserve through cinematic expression. We need more movies in our Indigenous Gambian languages and stakeholders should be improving their skills in Mandinka, Wollof, Fula, Jola, Sarahulleh, Manjago, Serer, Balanta and other languages of the Sene-Gambian basin, at all times. Then the primary characteristic of CINEKAMBIYAN movies should include the Gambian language.
Are there any final thoughts you would like to add?
I would like to request all those Gambia-based talents with passion for acting or directing the arts not to despair. Yes the psychopaths and hustlers are getting all the support, preferential treatments and attention but they are not omnipotent and omniscient. The creative sector is dynamic and there is a future for each and every passionate stakeholder. Personally, I will be in Gambia later this December 2015 to launch my documentary on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) titled MUSUYA KUNTOthat I directed. I will also use my stay to do all the other things I set out for the development of our CINEKAMBIYA film industry. Allow me to use your powerful medium to request all political hypocrites, cowards and fake friends to stay away from me. I am not interested in mingling with the crowds or running after people. The few sincere and passionate talents who want to work with me are welcomed. The rest should back off. Mind your business and leave me to mind mine. The Gambia belongs to all of us and I will contribute my quota towards the development of our fatherland accordingly to my conscience. Thank you and the Whats-On Gambiateam for being reliable and sincere partners of The Gambian creative industry.