Ebou Waggeh was born and raised in the capital, Banjul.He worked as a video editor at the state broadcaster, GRTS, before quitting to start Wags Media, a multi-media consultancy and film production company. He also serves as Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards judge.In this edition of Bantaba,Standard editor Sainey began by asking him how it all started:
Ebou Waggeh: I was born in Banjul where I grew up.I attended Muhammedan primary and subsequently Saint Augustine’s High school. I was attracted to films and books from an early age. Close to where I lived at Ingram Street were Banjul’s two cinema halls: Ritz and Odeon. In the eighties a modern amphitheatre cinema hall joined them to everyone’s delight. They all showed vintage as well as latest western, African and Indian films and cinema goers (just about everyone) loved them. I got to see a lot of blockbuster western, African and Indian films sometimes using my daily school lunch to pay for it. This triggered and propelled my interest in the drama and choreography I see in them. It also triggered my curiosity in the art of making films. I was the last person to leave the hall at the end of a film show because I had to read the entire end credits to know the names of the crew behind the camera. The following day I would recount the entire film, scene by scene, to classmates and street mates who could not afford to pay the entrance fee. That sparked my interest in journalism as well. In the late eighties I founded and edited Gamcoop News, a newsletter of the Gambia Cooperative Union. In 1991 I was asked by my general manager to produce what became my first video documentary, on the activities of the GCU. In 1996, the highly indebted organisation was liquidated and I moved on to briefly become news editor of New Citizen newspaper and producer at Citizen FM radio before joining GRTS. There I served as Tv producer, reporter and news editor for seven years. Currently, I am a media entrepreneur ,founder and Ceo of Wax Media, a multi-media consultancy and film production company.
What opportunities does film-making present for national development, economic growth and telling the African story?
Audio visual is the most authentic and convincing way to show and preserve events, actions and faces for posterity. Our definition as a people, our history, our traditions and our culture can be accurately captured, dramatised and recorded for consumption on cinema, TV and new media. This is how the USA has for decades successfully exported the American culture to the rest of the World. In our country civic and educational messages tailored to our needs and built into our film scripts will give us the opportunity to deliver pertinent messages while making productions professional, entertaining and appropriate to watch by everyone. Our historic events can be accurately reenacted and brought back to life on film to give it an audio visual context. Films help provide visual undisputable images to people, places and things near and far, as the Wollof would say ”Waidi Giss Borku Chi”. Films shot in Brikama, Soma, Basse or Fatoto will create mental images and recognition of those places which eventually lead to increased national appreciation. The multi tasking nature of film-making makes it possible for the acquisition of various skills, leading to the creation of a number of diverse jobs, especially among young people. A thriving film industry in this country could provide a niche in our tourism attractions and its productions can help promote destination Gambia at film festivals and tourism fairs. In the area of public health and hygiene, just as in agriculture and education, nothing could be more effective than audio visual production when it comes to spreading good practices and providing useful information. The socio economic benefits of a film industry are numerous and cross cutting. The example of California, a state in the United States with an economy ranked eighth in the world, (thanks to Hollywood), is enough to show the huge economic benefits a film industry can unleash.
You serve as a judge on the Africa Magic movie awards panel which is in its third season. How did you achieve this and what do the awards mean for African cinema?
My relations with MNet, the organisers of Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, date back to 2010 when the satellite TV broadcaster sent an official to The Gambia to seek material from Gambian producers to show on Africa Magic channels. This was followed months later by the visit of a researcher on documentary film-making in West Africa, commissioned by a German foundation. On both occasions my viewed products and proven ability to perform multiple tasks in film-making, from script to screen, turned out to be impressive. I was subsequently informed about and involved in MNet’s plan to start an event similar to the Oscar Awards for African cinema. In 2011 I was I interviewed and tested extensively and then invited to serve as one of 12 African film-makers on the jury of the first AMVCA. I accepted the challenge and since then the task of judging submitted entries every year takes me to Johannesburg in November and then to Lagos in March for the award ceremonies. My job involves watching and assessing film entries under various categories and scoring them in four creative and technical domains. In season One, 400 entries were received. In season Two 1,200 submissions were received. This year that figure jumped to 3,500. Out of that we have about a hundred nominees who will be invited to the awards ceremony in Lagos in March where the winner in each of the 25 categories will be announced. Films entered are largely dominated by Nigeria and they vary greatly in quality across the continent. But, as time goes on the overall standard of African film and television productions will improve, as award events like AMVCA provide the motivating factor and help raise the bar with recognition, celebration and cash prizes.
We have seen recent improvements in the quality and performance of Nigerian and Ghanaian films. What do we need to do to bring about similar developments in the industry here?
Film-making is about storytelling, casting and technical execution. It is a creative art and no one has monopoly of that as we are all endowed with creative abilities. However, some of us are more inclined to tap into our creativity than others. In places within our sub region where film-making has seen development such as Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Burkina Faso, training institutions, film festivals and television broadcast stations have been in existence for decades. These are three platforms on which successful film industries ride. As a country we do have our fair share of those creative minds. Just listen to the lyrics of our young music rappers. Craftily coining local and English language words that rhyme and make sense can only be the work of a creative mind. However, challenges faced by the film-making sector in The Gambia are more critical than that. They range from the lack of adequate capacity both technical and human to the lack of support and incentives. Unlike writers, musicians and painters who may need little resource to demonstrate their talent, a film-maker needs at least a camera, cast and editing facilities not to talk of sound and lighting equipment before he or she can show her creativity. In the absence of cinema halls in The Gambia television has become the only platform left to showcase those creations. Programme policy at the only TV station in the country, GRTS, however, is not encouraging. The national broadcaster charges independent producers airtime fee to show their material. That arrangement even rules out legal rights of the producer to intellectual property royalties. We hope new dispensations linked to the National Council for Arts and Culture will look into this matter and apply the provisions of the NCAC Act on 70 percent local content on radio and TV. In addition to that, we hope that the important matter of opening up the television broadcast market in The Gambia by government will be considered due, after 19 years of a single television channel in the country. Additional licensed private channels will only go to open up job opportunities, increase domestic viewership and create pride in and appreciation for what we have in the country. In a country with low literacy rate, pictures for which we all are literate, are the most effective medium to use in communication and storytelling.
What is your assessment of the Gambian film activity? What does it need to do in order to produce competitive and meaningful films from The Gambia?
Filmmaking in The Gambia is yet to take off as an industry due to a combination of factors not least the lack of recognition and adequate government support. A major stimulant to the development of a film culture in this country came when in 2003 the EU office in The Gambia sensitised stakeholders about an EU Cinema Support programme for ACP countries. According to them the programme has not been benefitting Gambia due largely to the absence of a production industry in the country. A year later and after numerous stakeholder meetings coordinated by myself, Forum for the Advancement of Cinema in The Gambia was born and registered, but the EU support is yet to arrive. New attempts by the NCAC to tap the EU support are currently going on. In the wake of current developments to harness national intellectual property and human resources by the NCAC, independent we film-makers have made another attempt at organising ourselves and carving a future for our creative sector. Film Producers Association of The Gambia ( FPAG) aims to bring together independent film producers in The Gambia under one umbrella. It was born out of need and aspirations of stakeholders in the industry and is in fulfillment of legislative requirements of the copyright Act of 2004. Some of our aims and objectives are to serve as the mouthpiece, platform and umbrella of film production in The Gambia and to advocate for and advance the interest of stakeholders in the industry while ensuring its professional reputation and growth. FPAG also aims to raise public awareness on the social, economic and cultural significance of a resourceful film industry in The Gambia.
What is your favorite Gambian film and why?
It may be difficult to say as there are very few feature films made by Gambians in The Gambia for now. There are however films that have featured Gambian actors and actresses such as Lamin, a film made in the 70s by a Norwegian tourist, on bumsters. A number of others currently feature professional actors in the UK such as Lamin Tamba and Louis Mahoney. In 1997 a co-production between NCAC and GRTS culminated in the making of a feature film titled Chains. The action packed production told the story of a young and educated African who ventured into politics in his country but found it difficult to integrate. He therefore left for the USA where he found job as an actor but his African past haunted him at work. He sought solace in hard drugs which eventually led to his demise. Chains is perhaps my favourite Gambian film which I incidentally produced under GRTS.
Where do you see the Gambian film industry in the next five years?
The current training of budding Gambian film-makers organised by NCAC is a vital stimulant and a source of hope for the future of the industry. 25 trained and committed young Gambians could make a significant difference in the local film market in years to come, if they work hard using their creativity. It is important to point out that the multi-faceted skill of making a film is both time-cnsuming and filled with repetitions and technical mishaps and does not bring rapid financial benefits. It requires patience and focus as each layer of the process of film-making is put in place.]]>