Francis Duru is by no means a new comer to the Nollywood industry; it is an industry he watched as it grew to become one of the biggest employers of labour in and around Nigeria.
Even though Duru believes he was already famous for his arts before the advent of what is known today as Nollywood, he is concerned that it does seem that the same people who built up the industry are also inadvertently tearing it apart. He talks about the way forward for Nollywood, life in Abuja, his family and other sundry issues. Excerpts…
How is life in Abuja?
Well, Abuja is a beautiful place. It is a conference city; I always tell people the world comes to Abuja every day. As the Federal Capital Territory, it remains the billboard that showcases the excellence of the nation, geographically and administratively. Coming to Abuja was indeed a hard nut to crack, but today I thank God for that decision. One is not where one is supposed to be yet, but one is not where one used to be. The good thing about Abuja is that it has created a very serene environment where one can raise one’s family.
Abuja means a whole lot to my life. It was here that I found God and gave my life to Christ. And that has been very fundamental. Beyond that, Abuja has built me into one of the finest masters of ceremony in this town. I am so sorry to be a little bit immodest, but once in a while, it is good to blow one’s trumpet. My being in Abuja created that opportunity for me. My being in Abuja also gave me the opportunity to have a flip-over into consultancy and some other things. At the end of the day, it is worthwhile because it has added so much value to what I used to do.
How long have you been in Abuja?
Since 2000 precisely; that is more than 12 years ago.
Most people still see you as the Ahanna of the famed Rattle Snake movie…
Creating a believable character is something that comes with skill and experience. And for me, it is a combination of so many things: skill, experience, good mentors over the years and a cultured process of discipline passing through the academia to where one is today. So, for me, creating a believable character is very fundamental. It is something I can’t toy with.
Then filmmaking wasn’t too popular. How did you get that role?
Apparently from my first movie, The Missing Mask, directed by the late Ndubuisi Oko of blessed memory, I didn’t go for audition. I was sought for. They came all the way from Aba to the University of Port Harcourt. And I remember between Elem Nnachi and Betty Kuki then, they knew this guy. And when they told the guy about what they wanted to do; the guy told them the kind of person he was looking for. Then they brought him to my room at the campus. And from there it started.
But for Rattle Snake, I went for the audition; myself and Julius Agwu, and I was picked. For me, it is just like my approach to every other role, giving attention to details; digging deep and being able to bring out the context of the story. These are quintessential to every character you create. You just have to know that people must identify with that character and make it real.
You talked about giving your life to Christ. What happened that changed your mind?
When it gets to salvation, you don’t change your mind. You don’t have the power to change your mind. It is the power of the Spirit of God that dwells in you. So, you can’t boast to say, ‘well, I actually gave my life to Christ.’ If the hand of God is not there at that point in time, it is a wasted effort. But, if it is God himself that is orchestrating it, there is nothing anybody can do about it. It takes just one moment; once the spirit connects, the scales are off your eyes and you will begin to see and hear spiritually.
You’ve managed to remain scandal-free all these years, how did you do it?
I don’t believe I am perfect; there is no perfect human being. I believe in setting priority in everything I do; it is very quintessential. For me, I became a celebrity before Nollywood started.
How do you mean?
In the university, in Rivers State; and that is before Nollywood started. In the university, I was a well-known actor/comedian on campus. And even in the state itself then, we had a set of people who ran shows, comedy-wise: Francis and Hogan. We were two; Hogan is still in Port Harcourt. Then there were Okey Bakassi, Ibokoko, Okolo and Alex Nelson.
We had this group, West Atlantic; they were promoting stage productions. So, people knew us from stage production. Then the Nollywood phenomenon was not common. It had not come up at that time. So, before it came, having gone through the university and having identified the top notch in the industry, it was like ‘hey, I have gotten most of the things I needed.’
Again, I understand that celebrity is something you wear. I prefer to be seen as an actor than a celebrity. It is because you, as a journalist, want to excel in what you are doing. When you excel, you are a celebrity. When a medical doctor excels and is outstanding in his field, he is a celebrity. So, mine is not about fame; it is about hard work that has yielded fruit.
Being a celebrity is fine; being a superstar is fine; but I have not let that control the real me. And it has been so awesome because I find so much solace and peace in doing so. It maybe because I am not a loud person; rather than impress it, I express it.
You are a down-to-earth person then?
Well, that is me; modest, simple. Keep it that way. That is me and I have refused to change. I refuse to let celebrity change that aspect of me because any day celebrity is taken away; it is my individuality that will remain. So, at the core of my individuality is my spirituality where God rests. So, the Godhead is what stays and I dwell under it. For me, being a celebrity is good; it is fine, but I don’t worship it. It is like a shirt; I wear it when I need to wear it and pull it off when I am done with it.
How is your family doing?
My family is my strength. My family is my pivot. God has given me a wonderful family; I am a father of four kids. When I say four; I have three kids and the fourth is my little niece. She is more or less like my child and I don’t owe anybody any explanation for that.
I don’t get it.
I have three kids; two boys and a girl – Frances, Ifeanyi and Soso. Nuella is my little niece. Whether you like it or not, that one too is my kid. So, I tell people I have four kids.
Why is that? Does she not have parents?
She has. My younger brother is her father, but she is more or less like my child. She is so attached to me.
You have a girl among your children?
Yes, Frances is the first. She was 15 on January 5.
You married quite early then?
Yes, but we had Frances while I was graduating.
You married her mother?
Yes, it is the same woman.
There are a lot of failed marriages in Nollywood. How have you been able to keep your marriage from hitting the rock?
I totally disagree, and I must say that this is a total disservice to the Nollywood family. The concept of failed marriage is something that must stop. I see it as being very devious and wicked towards the same people that have mortgaged their dignity, pride and integrity just to express the wrong things of the world for people to see and correct themselves.
And people don’t have the right statistics because if you get the statistics, you will discover that it is just but a few that have such experience. But we are in a society that glorifies negativity so much that we fail to see the positive things about life. And when people begin to talk about failed marriages in Nollywood, I begin to ask: do we have in the medical profession failed marriages? Yes, and in abundance.
Is there any profession where there are no failed marriages? But people take it out of hand and begin to define somebody based on what the person does on screen in trying to educate and entertain you. It is wrong. The actors and actresses are the loneliest people in the world.
That is because when an actor is hurt he does not know who to run to. And it is because of the way the society looks at him.
They are supposed to be role models.
If someone is your role model, you don’t destroy him. I have been where people just use their mouth to tear artistes into pieces out of sheer envy and jealousy. It is wrong. It is easier to say we have a lot of failed marriages, but if I ask you to mention 10 failed marriages, it will become difficult.
Is it because they are popular?
No, when you say they are rampart, it means they should be at the tip of your fingers. If you find it difficult to mention just 10, why would you say there are failed marriages? It is because we amplify negative things at the expense of positive things that you should dwell upon.
Why do you think that is the case?
It is all because of wrong perception. It is totally a wrong perception from the audience.
The truth is that when it comes to artistes who are really popular, by the time you count up to 10, you would have named all the popular ones. And when you have a large percentage of that number having failed marriages, you can conclude that it is quite high.
So, is it because of the industry that their marriages did not work? There is a difference between you feeling so and you knowing so. If you do not know the problem I am having in my marriage that led to the failure, then you should not go speculating. But we accommodate it because that is the lifestyle.
Personally, I do not think that is what lifestyle means. I do not think that because people think in a particular way, that is the right way. I think people should pause and think and get the right facts before they begin to destroy somebody and dent the image of a particular group of people who have worked so hard to create employment; who have helped in social cohesion and even in uplifting the image of the country.
I think it is a total disservice; and it is a problem with Nigeria. We don’t know how to celebrate our own. We have used our mouth to destroy people who are supposed to be doing well in the country, especially in sports. I don’t want to mention names. We have a way of just sitting in our rooms and destroying people; not knowing what they are going through.
And it is because some soft-sell magazines blow things out of proportion. I don’t think that is what journalism is all about. It is all for easy read and easy money at the expense of somebody’s life. If we were in a country where the culture of suicide is in vogue, some things that have been written about people can drive them to commit suicide.
I am not saying some of the things they write are not true, but some are blown out of proportion that you will begin to ask yourself what does this accomplish? And somebody says ‘well, he is a role model, he should know better.’ You don’t have any right to prescribe lifestyle for anybody.
Being role models, people look up to them.
Yes, you look up to them, and if the person does well, it is a privilege. In as much as you enjoy your rights, you must be ready to respect my rights as well. You will be trampling on my rights as soon as you start prescribing a lifestyle for me. If you weigh the marriages that are thriving in Nollywood against the ones that have crashed, you will get over 80 per cent that are doing well and may be about 10 per cent of those that failed.
So, how have you been able to keep your marriage strong through the years?
For me, foundation is key. Before I got married, I had a very sound spiritual foundation from the church I attend. And anything that you plant on a sound spiritual foundation thrives. Marriage is not for babies; marriage is a discipline; it is a responsibility that demands sacrifice, tolerance, endurance, perseverance and commitment. So, for me, because this spiritual foundation is there, the radar of anything I do is within that sphere where the Bible is the template that designs everything I do.
In the past one year alone, Nollywood has witnessed more deaths than in many years. Many people even feel the industry is under a plague. How do you feel about this?
It is not as if it is under a plague; it is a course of life. There was a time in this country when plane crashes were happening as if the nation was under a plague. These are men who went through some turbulent times; stroke, diabetes, etc. These are illnesses that are killers. It is so unfortunate they happened in quick succession and as usual people will make other meanings out of it.
There are a lot of people dying of stroke and diabetes everyday and no one is talking about them.
Which we appreciate; we appreciate the value our fans place on us. That is why when some of these things happen we just take it like that. But it is not as if there is a problem or a plague in the industry.
Could it be as a result of the lifestyle of some of these celebrities?
Sickness is sickness. There are so many people who have died that way; would you say it is because of their peculiar lifestyle? These are some of the things life offers at a point you don’t expect. And that is life for you. You can shut down anytime. You can shut down at the time people expect you to be at your optimum. That is exactly what happened to them.
There are so many complaints against recent film productions in the industry. You have cases where a particular movie will have part one to four and still its continuation will come in different names; and also come in different parts. There is this particular movie you featured in that was done in Igbo language. By the time the second part came out, it was done in English language. Why so?
Well, there are some anomalies in the industry that have come to be because we don’t have structures in place for quality control, content development, distribution and best global practices. Now, when these things are not there, it becomes an all-comers affair. People come in, do anything they like and go out. It is one of those things that happen in the industry that we can’t control.
We lack the power to run against the cartel that runs the industry today – the marketers and producers. If only they have a listening ear to know that a lot is going wrong in the industry, they will realize that they are tearing down the same industry they built. Posterity will never forgive them.
The problem is with the marketers?
Yes. And then you will find that movies like that are actually associated with certain producers. But there are good movies from independent producers and even from some of the marketers themselves, who have come to realize they can’t continue that way if they desire to move to the next level.
Which body regulates the marketers and producers?
Well, we have the guild; we have always had the Nigerian Guild of Actors. Our guild is doing its best, but if you ask me, I would say we are still not there. Until the guild controls the industry, we cannot make any meaningful progress because I believe the whole idea of the guild is to promote the consciousness, the spirit, the integrity and dignity of the profession.
As a medical doctor, you cannot just wake up and start behaving anyhow because the Nigerian Medical Association will call you to order. Until our guild begins to think in that direction where you don’t have any actor that is bigger than the guild, we will not get to where we want to be. Today, you have children who are bigger than the mother that gave birth to them.
The guild is meant to actually create some level of control over the membership. The census board also has to be totally hyperactive and completely overhauled in the sense that it should be empowered to actually exert some control in the industry.