Foremost film maker in Nigeria, Zeb Ejiro, shares the story of his life with Ademola Olonilua
We learnt you were born in Equatorial Guinea….
I was actually born in Nigeria but I was just a few months old when my parents took me to Equatorial Guinea. My parents were already based there but my mother came to Nigeria to give birth to me. My father had a big cocoa plantation in Equatorial Guinea; it was a very big farm
Why did your parents relocate to Nigeria when they had a big farm in Equatorial Guinea?
At a point when they got their independence in Equatorial Guinea and the Spaniards left, the new regime wanted all the non-indigenes to leave their country and it was a very tough time for my parents. It was a brutal time. The Nigerians living in that country had to flee, it was not a good time for us either. We did not have an exit plan because we were forced to leave the country because things got very bloody.
How was the adjustment process for everyone since your family had to hurriedly leave all that they had laboured for in Equatorial Guinea to start over in Nigeria?
It was a very tough period for us. My mother, Chico and I were the first to come to Nigeria and we left our father behind. It was a very tough period because we had to start all over again. My father was very young when he got to Equatorial Guinea so he had planned all his life over there; he had invested everything he had in that country. When we got back to Nigeria, we were lucky because my maternal uncles were very helpful. One of them took responsibility of Chico while another took me in. He brought me to Lagos and I lived with him till my father came back to Nigeria.
We learnt you were raised in Ajegunle?
Yes I was.
How was life in Ajegunle as a youngster?
When we were in Equatorial Guinea, we stayed at Malabo and that is a very beautiful city. In fact, if you land in Malabo, you would probably think you are in a city in Europe; that is how beautiful the city is. When we got to Nigeria, we landed in my village; it was very shocking because of the sharp contrast. Subsequently, when we got to Lagos and we did not go to Ikoyi or the posh part of Lagos, it was straight to Ajegunle and the contrast was too sharp for me. I could not take it, so I fell ill for many months because of the change of environment.
I was 15 years old when I came to Nigeria and at a point, I told myself that I was in my country and I was at a point of no return so I had to accept the situation. It was tough but I adjusted and witnessed the good, bad and ugly side of Ajegunle. I told myself when I was in Ajegunle that I was not meant to be in that place and I needed to move away from that environment but the only way to do so was to be a better person for myself and my family through hard work. I knew I needed to do something unique and different and that is what I did.
Were you exposed to any vice while you grew up in Ajegunle?
Ajegunle is a place filled with the good, bad and the ugly people but I told myself that I needed to make my own choice and that was to be somebody in life and in this country. I decided that the only way to do that was to be with the good guys. I avoided joining the bad guys.
Did you do any menial job?
In my own case, I did some menial jobs. I hawked boiled eggs. I was also a welder and I went to a workshop to learn how to become a welder. I worked in Lever Brothers as a casual worker where we loaded trailers with cartons of their products.
At what point did you venture into film making?
I had some of my primary education in Equatorial Guinea and also in Ajegunle. Then I proceeded to Kwara State for my secondary school. I read Mass Communication at the University of Nsukka. I was sitting at home one day when an announcement came on air calling for people who could write a play. They said interested participants should write a short play and send it to NTA. They said those selected would be trained by NTA and also sent to BBC for further training by directors and producers. I wrote a horror piece titled ‘Put my ring on my grave’ which was a thirty minutes play and I sent it to NTA. Days later, one of my friends asked me if I applied for anything in NTA and I replied affirmatively. He then asked me to get a copy of Daily Times newspaper because my name was in it. About 5,000 people applied but only 27 people were accepted nationwide.
Although before that opportunity came, I had already made up my mind that I wanted to become a film maker because my mother was so addicted to the cinema. When Chico and I were growing up, she always took us to the cinema and that was where we actually developed the interest.
It means there was no objection to your decision to make it a full time career?
There was no opposition from my parents and when I got the call for training, they were so happy for me. Before I even became a professional, each time we were watching movies together, I was fond of spotting out errors and they were always surprised.
I decided to opt for film making instead of journalism because I just wanted to be able to tell stories through the camera instead of through the pen. I worked with NTA for a very long time and I was one of their screen writers for a while. I was a major contributor to all the big television series like the Village Headmaster, Second Chance, Tales by Moonlight, etc. At a point, writing those series became boring and I wanted to do something for myself. I wanted to challenge myself because I get bored easily, so I created my own television series called ‘Ripples’ which ran for five years uninterrupted.
How did you get the concept for Ripples?
I write and produce series better than full length movies. Because of my cinematic background, thanks to my mother, when I was in Ajegunle, I was always watching a television series called ‘Another Life.’ It is a Christian television series. While watching it one day, I told myself I could create something like that but it must not be a religious series.
Why did you rest the series after five years?
It had run for five years and at that point, we felt we should rest the series. Also, I got tired because at that point in time, two of my friends and I had also created another series called ‘Mega Fortunes.’ I just thought it was time for us to rest ‘Ripples’ because it was dragging.
You have made several big stars. How come you hide behind the camera; have you ever thought about acting?
I acted only once and I told myself that I would never act again. I vowed that I would never act again. When I was writing for ‘Second Chance,’ Danladi Bako was the director and during that time, I wrote one powerful script titled ‘Antonio.’
It was the story of a Nigerian who had lived in Spain for a long time. The guy came back to Nigeria but could not speak English, so he went to school to learn how to speak English. When we did the casting, there was nobody that could play the role, so Danladi Bako told me that since I wrote the script, I would be the one to interpret the role. I played the role and that was my first and last time of acting.
Why is that?
I hate to be in front of the camera. I do not like it at all and I feel I look funny when I am in front of the camera. When I watched the movie, I laughed throughout and I told myself that would be the last time. I decided that I wanted to be a power behind instead of in front of the camera.
If you were not a film maker, what other profession would you have embraced?
I would have been a civil right fighter, an activist. I would have been part of the Gani Fawehinmi movement. That part of me is still alive and you would notice that I infuse social activism in my movies because they talk about topical issues. It talks about the society and its ills. I could also have gone back to study law and fight for the common people.
Don’t you think you look too gentle for that?
Well, looking at my appearance you may think so but I am a very tough person and I put my foot down when it comes to the things that I believe in and I am not afraid of anybody.
Did you always have things easy for you while building your career?
Before I started writing for ‘Second Chance,’ all the scripts I wrote were rejected because the script editor of Second Chance, Mrs. Cordelia Eke, felt that I was not a very strong script writer. Thank God for her in my life because that rejection prepared me and made me what I am today. At that point, I wanted to quit and do something else.
The second point in life I wanted to quit this profession was when I shot the pilot for my series, Ripples. I went to more than 46 companies in this country. They would look at the soap opera and admit that it was beautiful then they would ask for my name, once I mentioned my name, all they said was that they would get back to me just because Zeb Ejiro was nobody. I was just a small boy trying to make a mark but the pilot episode I held in my hand then was good. One day, after being tired of walking the length and breadth of Lagos in search of a sponsor, I went to the office of the director of programmes in NTA. There was a boy working with her and I begged him to help me dub copies of the series because I did not have money to dub more copies to give to intending sponsors. He said that his boss was around and I should wait till she had gone then he would help me. She left but as he began to dub some copies for me, his boss walked in because she forgot something. She noticed the machine was on, then she looked at the first picture, it caught her attention and she continued to watch. In a short while, she forgot that she had returned to pick something. She watched everything, then called the boy that was helping me out; he was so afraid that he almost passed out because he thought he had lost his job. His boss asked for the owner of the work and sent for me as well as all the departmental heads of NTA. When everyone assembled in her office, she played the tape again. The first 13 episodes were sponsored by NTA and when NTA started running the promo, John Holt and AJC World, companies that I had earlier gone to for sponsorship and rejected me rushed to NTA with their cheques. Luckily AJC World came hours before John Holt and that was how they became its sponsor.
How did that make you feel?
I was so happy, the first day the first episode hit the air waves on October 6, 1988, I was crying. The tears of joy were so much that people were holding me. When I watched the programme, I could not believe the fact that millions of Nigerians were watching my work; my wife who was my girlfriend then held me while consoling me that it was okay.
The movie, ‘Domitila,’ was first of its kind. How did you get the concept for that movie?
I got the story from my background in Ajegunle because that place made me realise that some people did what they did to survive and help their family and not because they liked being prostitutes. It was from that point of view that I got inspiration for the story. When I was in Ajegunle, I saw girls who went into prostitution not because they liked it but that was the situation they found themselves. Their father was sick and their younger ones had to go to school. You would not believe that it was the smallest budget movie that I have ever done and it is the biggest movie I have done. It cost me less than a million naira to do the movie.
When I did the movie, I went to NTA and I told the general manager that we should take it to the cinema together but he declined saying people did not go to the cinemas any more. They said that they were interested in partnering but for them to be a part of the movie project, I needed to pay them about N6m. I said that if I had N6m, I would not have approached them. I left them and went to meet Chief Raymond Dokpesi of AIT. He was in a meeting and I was asked to see one of his managers but I refused. I got there at about 10am but did not see him till 5pm. When I was in his office, he called all his directors and asked me to sell my proposal which I did. I told him that we should take the movie to the cinema.
He said that it was a movie about Ajegunle, about the streets and I replied him that the man in Ajegunle would relate with the movie while the man in Ikoyi would be amused by it. He countered me again saying that people no longer went to the cinemas but I told him that we could revive the culture with the movie. He asked his directors for their opinion but they all said that it would not work; that it was a bad idea. He thought for a while and said that they were going to support me. Behold, it was a huge success and that is why I say that when you talk about the history of cinemas in Nigeria, after you talk about the likes of Pa Ogunde, I am next. When it comes to my generation, I am the first when it comes to cinema exhibition in this country.
After the era of Pa Ogunde, with due respect to him, I come next because for the first time in the history of this country, a movie was shown in ten cinema houses simultaneously. It had never been done before. For three weeks, I held Lagos. I saw big men, ‘ajebutters’, parking their cars struggling for tickets of my movie and for the second time, I cried over a movie I made.
How did you get the name for the movie?
When my office was in Aguda, Surulere, the name of my head of production was Domitila Omokha. When she started working with me, I just liked the name because it was unique, so, when I started creating the concept for the film, Domitila, I played with titles till it occurred to me that I could call the lead character Domitila and revolve the story around her. The name was just unique and that was how I got the title.
I also did the film, ‘Sakobi the snake girl.’ If you watch my movies, they are topical and they touch a subject about the society. When I did ‘Sakobi the snake girl,’ it was at the height of 419 in Nigeria and many people were doing rituals and other things to make money in Nigeria. That was how I got the concept of the film. The aim of the film was to let people know that some people would do anything for money forgetting that no matter what you do, there is a Supreme Being and because of your craze for money, you cannot take somebody’s life. Why take a life you cannot make?
You have done a lot of great movies but have they translated to financial gain?
It has translated to money; if not I would not be here today, I probably would be in my village. Unless you want me to tell you how much I have in my bank account.
In the 80s, 90s and even early 2000s, you held sway in the Nigerian movie industry but it seems you have piped down, is it intentional or have you lost the magic?
It is intentional. If anything, the magic is stronger. Today I have one of the biggest film schools in the country. I took time off to go and build that big edifice. God gave me this huge talent and it would be unfair and wicked of me to go into my grave without imparting this knowledge into the younger generation. It is time to give back to the society that made me so I built a big school on film and broadcast in Delta State and it is big. It is on JAMB polytechnic list and has been approved by the National Board for Technical Education , Kaduna. It is recognised by the government.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife before I became anything in life. When I was in Ajegunle and I was working as a casual worker at Lever Brothers, my wife’s father was the area manager of the entire west of Glasgow Pharmaceutical; she is from a good home. In one of the big houses that the man lived, there was a small room by the side which I occupied. He had so many girls and each time they went in or out of the house, they passed the front of my room. I would stay at the window and watch them. Then at a point, I made up my mind that Joy was the lady I should go for. I spoke to her and after a while, we became lovers.
Was the wooing stage easy?
No, it was not. They kept telling her at home that she could not go out with me but she insisted that it was either me or no one else. The argument raged on for days till there was a battle between her brothers and I.
The funny part is that for me to leave my room, I must pass in front of their house and from the upstairs, her mother would shout, ‘leave my daughter alone you this boy. Where are you from?’ She would remove her slippers and throw it at me. There was a day they arrested me and took me to a police station and locked me up. My wife came and said that she would sleep in the cell with me if they did not release me. The police saw that it was a lover’s affair, so they left me. However, they eventually saw something in me; they saw that even though I was nobody then, with the way I was going about my life, I was determined to excel. Later, we had our first son and at that point, I had already become a part of the family.
When they found out that she was pregnant for you, did they not become angrier at you?
Before they found out she was pregnant, they had already accepted me as their son. They realised that there was nothing they said that would make my wife leave me. I was already a part of the family and went to their house freely as she did mine. Eventually she got pregnant, we had our first son and got married, then the break came. If there is anything to say about her father, it is that he is one of the best fathers-in-law I have ever seen in my life. He was so wonderful. When I was with him, you could not know if I was a son or son-in-law.
When you had your big break, how did the family feel?
They were so happy. My wife and her brothers contributed to my success. When I wanted to shoot the pilot for ‘Ripples,’ I did not have the money and my wife was working at the Presidency, back then when it was at Obalende. My wife brought part of her salary to help me out and when the money was not enough, her elder brother, Charles, had to contribute some money for us to shoot that pilot. So you see that at that point, I was already part of the family even before I had my breakthrough. Her father was so proud of me and whenever he was with his friends, he always made sure they knew who I was when I was in the room.