The British television industry has been described as one of the toughest corporate jungles in the world. Competition is razor sharp and without friendly 'godfathers' it is virtually impossible for anybody, especially from the developing world, to make any kind of impact. It is therefore a matter of great pride for the continent that two leading lights of the current crop of film-makers, Moise Shewa and Tabitha Jackson have African origins.
Cameroonian television producer Moise Shewa has had a long struggle against the odds as a film maker in the United Kingdom but he has now won a reputation for producing challenging; hard hitting; intelligent television documentaries. His mission statement is simple: telling African stories to the world. His latest TV documentary series, telling the story of day to day life at the Murtala Mohamed International Airport in Nigeria, is due for release later this month. It is expected to become one of the most watched series of the year.
African Business met him at his company's London office, Afro Wisdom Films, where he explained how it all started.
While I was doing my university course in Cameroon I was really interested in getting into films. I thought movies were a great way of telling a story. At that time, while all my friends were saying they wanted to do this or that, I knew I wanted to be a film maker. And they would say 'Oh my God, you can't, it's too difficult, it's an impossibility'. And I would say 'what's difficult about it?'
At the time, when you said 'films', they thought you were going to Hollywood, that you wanted to be like the big names of Hollywood! But I knew that Hollywood wasn't what I wanted and that there were many film makers around the world doing some lovely things. We used to go and watch documentaries at the British Council and the French and German Cultural Centres. I thought these were great; you could find other ways of telling stories.
How did you get into film-making?
I was actually sent over here to London and was given a scholarship to do a Phd in African Literature in 1985. My government sponsored me, but I left the university course to attend Film School in 1987. It was quite lucky really that the university course was five years and the film course was only two years, so by the time they noticed I was not doing what I was sent over here to do, I had already finished my film studies.
But making films is what I wanted to do. I thought it would be beneficial to me and to the country, and probably to the world at large! I think I have proved myself right.
After graduating, I worked for the British Government's Central Office for Information for a year, then as a researcher for some production companies. All this time I was putting down my own ideas and waiting to get a break. Then suddenly it happened - a commissioning editor said: 'Oh I like this idea, come on lets talk'.
I'm so, so grateful to that guy, so grateful. It took about two years for him to get the finance together, but that was a series called Out of Africa: four one-hour programmes.
The programme consisted of a series of interviews with African leaders. We just got them over here, sat them down and let them talk. About 20 of Africa's big political names talked about their problems direct to a Western audience. We also did loads of filming in Africa.
The editor was quite impressed but I was still inexperienced. Really I was a bit naive, I couldn't see the difficulties. People would say of my ideas, 'these are exercises in futility'. But instead of spending hours and days, months and years sitting down thinking about the difficulties, I just got on with it. I think that was the same spirit in which I have made all my own films. I was determined. And it worked.
Can you run through the films you have made?
Over the years I have made a number of difficult films, films that others wouldn't touch. For example my latest film, Hitler's Forgotten Victims, was a subject which a lot of people just wouldn't touch. But to me that was sexy, a great idea. If there were blacks in Hitler's concentration camps, why shouldn't we tell the history? There is no way you can deny people their history.
Those who objected said, 'Well, even if there were Africans in the camps, there were not that many'. But I countered that even if there were only one or two, the story should be told. Finding interviewees was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but eventually we came up with about 30 survivors of the camps. Although we could only use six or seven in the film, we managed to capture the essence of the extraordinary trauma these people had been subjected to.
I wanted to make a documentary on Somalia while it was going through its frenzy of violence. The country was a no-go area, a war zone. I just didn't think about how dangerous it was going to be. I don't think about those kind of things. I just say, or my guts say, let's go for it. Two days before I left, all the guys on the crew developed cold feet; they chickened out! So, I picked up my cameraman in Nairobi and in we went. Five weeks later we came back and made a wonderful documentary The Price of Peace.
It has always been like that. I always rely on gut feelings, and until now I have had providence on my side and I am quite grateful for that.
When I returned to London, I made a short film called Love Doctors. It was about people who go to voodoo doctors to look for love potions, that kind of thing. It was lighthearted, amusing.
Later, the BBC were making an African series and they asked me to contribute and again I interviewed African heads of state. I remember Kaunda discussing the question of the bullet or the ballot and him saying 'If it's necessary, then the bullet should come into play.' I thought that was remarkable.
We asked Ian Smith if there was a place for the white man in Africa. We talked to Jerry Rawlings, Chief Buthelezi and Paul Kagami in Rwanda. And the BBC loved it.
You've just completed your latest film, to be screened this month on British TV. What's this one about?
This one is about Lagos Airport. We spent six months in Lagos filming at the Mohamed Murtala Airport. This was a very difficult project. It took two years to get the permits, the authorisation. All that bureaucracy! At the start General Sani Abacha was the President and he said a categoric 'No'. Don't forget that in Africa, airports are a number one security zone.
Two months after he died I went back to the Nigerians. "Look," I said, "this is one of the busiest airports in this part of the world, there are a lot of changes happening here with your new airport MD, Peter Igbenidion. Why not tell the world what you are doing?"
I told them "You know Lagos Airport has a horrible reputation, everyone knows that. My film may help you get rid of this reputation! Especially in the US." CBS had done a Sixty Minutes programme which stated that all the crooks were the ones in uniforms. One of the guys they showed, an immigration officer caught on camera taking bribes, committed suicide after the programme was broadcast in the States.
I went there knowing I could find a lot of drama and it is difficult now to get serious documentaries out of Africa.
Lagos Airport certainly provided a great deal of day to day drama behind the scenes. This passengers never see. We spent six months actually filming, and these were the six most difficult months of my life. We were attacked by armed robbers, our hotel room was broken into, the heat was around 43 degrees with humidity of about 70% and we had to work 18 hours some days. Sometimes we had set off from the hotel at 2am to meet a plane arriving say 5am, just the time when Lagos is at its most dangerous. We had to take those risks. But we are back, and I think it is going to be a great series.
Do you think this film will be broadcast in Nigeria?
Yes, I think it will be. I think it's necessary it's shown in Nigeria, because it is going to help the people who want to make the changes at the airport. They might have thought 'Oh no, here are those western television people again', but in the end we are just presenting a mirror for them to look at themselves, we are not trying to fabricate things. We are just showing the problems at the airport.
This is cinema verite, we follow the people around, the workers, the ordinary people of Lagos, and show what they do. They talk to you about the problems they face. These are not our stories, they're their stories. Yes I think it should be shown in Nigeria, but [laughs] I don't actually get involved with selling these programmes.
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|Title Annotation:||interview with television producer Moise Shewa; UK TV's African Stars|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1999|
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