Spotlight: Amaka Igwe
"Amaka was a very strong-minded, focused, determined young woman. Very creative. She had a very active imagination. Even when she was much younger and was working for the television station in Enugu at the time, she was always writing, always creating. That was who she was.”
Nigerian actor and producer Ego Boyo, discussing her friend and collaborator Amaka Igwe.
Amaka Igwe (1963-2014) was ahead of Nollywood. She strived for excellence at a time when her contemporaries were comfortable with mediocrity. Her films were feminist, socio-culturally relevant, and had a conscience. Nollywood films of the 90s were mostly cautionary tales propagating christian beliefs but not Amaka’s. She was concerned with empathetic portrayals of those society would naturally cast aside—street kids, drug addicts, petty thieves, rape survivors.
Born Uzoamaka Audrey Isaac-Ene on 2nd January 1963 in Port Harcourt, a city in eastern Nigeria, Amaka was the sixth of seven children, the fourth of six sisters and was raised in the serene environment of Enugu. It was during her time at Idia College, Benin City that Amaka became passionate about storytelling. She began to organise cultural events, including stage plays which she both directed and appeared in as an actor.
Although her passion and talent was clear at an early stage, Amaka’s route into filmmaking was circuitous. Instead of pursuing further training in theatre, she studied Education and Religion at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), followed by a Masters in Library and Information Services at the University of Ibadan. Her love of storytelling remained burning however. Throughout her studies Amaka was involved in several theatrical productions and continued even as a member of the NYSC (for National Youth Service Corps), the one-year paramilitary programme all Nigerian graduates are mandated to serve after their time in university.
Upon her return to Enugu after her NYSC, Amaka started learning about television production and was inspired by the works of Loni Fani-Kayode, a reputable name in Nigerian television at that time. She’s the creator of the classic TV series Mirror in the Sun. The show started airing in 1984 and it was the first Nigerian show to depict the life of upper and middle-class Nigerians. The series influenced Checkmate, Amaka’s production, which launched on the same NTA channel in 1991, 7 years after Mirror in the Sun's debut.
Checkmate concerns Ann Haatrope, played by Ego Boyo (formerly Ego Nnamani), who returns to Lagos after her education in America and takes charge of the family’s business, which is on the brink of collapse due to her older brother’s incompetence. The show was designed to be feminist. Amaka had initially written Checkmate to be a traditional stage play about an all-conquering female hero modelled after Queen Amina of Zaria (the 14th century warrior queen and first woman to rule the Hausa society of Northern Nigeria) but after watching Mirrors in the Sun, she decided to make it a modern story for television.
Checkmate wasn’t Amaka’s only creation with a feminist theme. The Nollywood of Amaka’s time was gynophobic. The women in the home videos were portrayed in just two ways, either as witches or saints. The archetypal characters women played were roles like the wicked stepmother or mother-in-law, campus prostitute, or the churchy submissive wife. Women could only be good or evil. These depictions were harmful; a good number of films were more sympathetic to rape perpetrators than their victims. When a female character was raped, the films made it a matter of the consequence of her grooming or perceived immorality. But Amaka’s sophomore feature Violated (1996) challenged the narrative with a brilliant tale about the life of a young woman Peggy (Ego Boyo) who had been raped by her uncle. At the end of the film, not only does Peggy find restitution, but Amaka ensures that her rapist meets his comeuppance. This is in stark contrast with many contemporary films, which would invariably portray a rapist finding forgiveness, a forgiveness that sometimes even translated into a romantic relationship between victim and perpetrator.
Amaka also wrote her female characters to be humans with flaws, an agency, not as idealised beings that could either be exclusively good or bad. To Live Again, her 1999 film, was about a married woman who had found love outside wedlock. In Nigerian culture, infidelity and promiscuity are associated with men. In an interview with academic Uzonma Esonwane, Amaka revealed that the movie had upset her male audience. They just could not conceive of the man being the supporting partner who had to bear the pain and disappointment of infidelity.
Amaka's films criticised the patriarchal traditions in Nigeria, especially of her Igbo culture, exposing the ways it disadvantaged women. In Rattlesnake (1995), a young widow loses her husband’s wealth to his brother because women are not allowed to inherit property. The Igbo culture is also obsessed with a male heir, and so in Forever (1997), a man chases his wife from his home because she keeps having miscarriages. He thinks her a witch, when in actuality, she has the Rhesus (RH) factor that makes it difficult for her to carry a pregnancy to term. Interestingly, she was pregnant when he threw her out and went on to have a boy. Meanwhile, the man remarries, and his new wife births only girls. He’s disappointed but when he discovers he has a son with the divorced wife, he goes to her and forcefully takes the child from her. Even though Amaka's films were not didactic so as to proclaim an eternity in hell for the deeds of these male characters, her storytelling never justified their actions, instead, she sympathised with the women.
Her criticisms also extended to Nollywood. She was vocal about the problems in the industry, especially about how limited film distribution was and the way the inadequacies made it possible for piracy to thrive. During her speech at the inaugural Nigerian Entertainment Conference in 2013, she condemned the Actor’s Guild for failing to cater to the welfare of actors in their membership and institute better working conditions for them, calling out the union's president at the time. Her condemnations of some of the failures of the industry surely did not endear her to all of her colleagues and had been regarded as an outsider of the industry. But her comments stemmed from her love and passion for Nollywood and her hope for better. She believed that with money and time, which would mean better training for filmmakers and a more robust distribution network, the industry would reach unimaginable heights.
It wasn't all just talk with Amaka. She walked the talk too. She created a form of annual film festival known as the Best of the Best African Film and TV Programme Market that allowed for film practitioners to converge at a place to critically assess their films, acquire and transfer filmmaking skills, and broker production deals. It was also a platform for the buying and selling of some of the finest Nigerian films and content.
Amaka refused to be identified as a feminist. She was, however, a champion of women’s cause, not just in her films but in real life. Tope Oshin, one of her protégés, made a documentary in her honour, inviting other Nigerian female filmmakers working in Nollywood today to share how Amaka had inspired and supported them into becoming filmmakers. Mildred Okwo, Jade Osiberu, Omoni Oboli, Blessing Effiom-Egbe, and Michelle Bello were some of the filmmakers featured in Amaka's Kin: The Women of Nollywood, 2016.
Tope, herself, started as an actor and had been nudged by Amaka to also pursue a career behind the cameras after noting qualities in her that would make for a good director. She is now one of the most revered filmmakers in Nollywood. Ego Boyo's first filmmaking experience is also due to Amaka. Although cast to play Peggy/Amuche in Violated, she expressed desire to produce the film too and Amaka approved. Her most recent films A Hotel Called Memory (2017) and The Ghost and House of Truth (2019) have challenged Nigerian filmmaking. The former, a silent film. The latter, a slow-burn meditative drama. Unusual films from an industry known for melodramas and slapstick comedies.
When Amaka started making films in the 90s, she was the only female director working in the industry. Three decades later and since her death in 2014, Nollywood can no longer be described as male-dominated. Women are now at the forefront of affairs. Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart became the first African film to be acquired by the streaming giant Netflix as an original in 2018. There is no film mogul in the industry bigger than Mo Abudu who has signed multiple deals with international studios to tell Nigerian and African stories, including a partnership with Sony for the production of a series on the ancient female warriors of Dahomey. Chioma Ude is the organiser of the largest film festival in Africa, the Africa International Film Festival.
These are just a few of Nollywood’s female practitioners who are committed to flying the industry's flag and putting her on the global map. At least part of the thanks for this should go to Amaka, whose success and defiance at the early stage of the industry was inspiring for the women who came after her. Tope, had shared in the documentary that one motto of Amaka was, “I will give to you what I have, added to what you have, so you can be more than me.”
Dika Ofoma (@dikaofoma) is a Nigerian-based culture and film writer.
Adesokan, Akin, "Why I stopped Making Films"—Amaka Igwe, Premium Times, 2014
Obinna, Emelike, Amaka Igwe, the Entertainment Amazon, in My Mind, Business Day, 2021
Esonwanne, Uzonma, Interviews with Amaka Igwe, Tunde Kelani, and Kenneth Nnebue, Research in African Literature Vol. 39 (4), 2008