In Conversation with Agbor Gilbert Ebot
Agbor Gilbert Ebot aka AGE is an award-winning Cameroonian film producer and the founder/CEO of the Cameroon International Festival (CAMIFF). A thoroughbred thespian, Ebot’s success as a filmmaker includes movies like Before Sunrise, The Blues Kingdom, The Land of Shadow, Pink Poison and Far. With a broader focus on the African cinema, the festival aims to promote the Cameroonian film industry both economically and culturally through exchanges, mutual understanding and co-operation between filmmakers and countries. AGE speaks with Adebimpe Adebambo about his experience organizing the festival, other significant projects, as well as his future plans for the Cameroonian film industry.
Please tell us who Agbor Gilbert Ebot is, including your experience at film school, inspiration and journey to becoming a notable film producer from Africa.
Agbor Gilbert Ebot AGE is a Cameroonian and Nigerian; my father is Cameroonian and my mother is Nigerian from Cross River State. I attended the Government Technical High School in Mamfe, Cameroon and The Polytechnic, Calabar where I studied Electrical Engineering. Funny if I say this, but I did not go to a technical school for film. In 2003, I met Jeta Amata, Fred Amata, Olu Jacobs and Rita Dominic in Calabar while they were shooting a movie. I kept going to the location as I was always sent out of class because I did not have the right textbooks or tools. Each time, I returned to the location, I would sit there and help as a production assistant on the set, and that is how my interest in film grew. Later I left Calabar and travelled to Lagos even though I knew no one there. For three months, I tried to get hold of Fred Amata, sleeping in the streets of Lagos while looking for him until one day I met and told him, I wanted to be a filmmaker. Mr Amata encouraged me to pursue my dreams, he told me that being a filmmaker is not easy and that art is not easy because people don’t value it. He said I had to stay strong and keep pushing. Those few words propelled me so I kept pushing, trying to network, looking for people I could partner with and who would support my dreams.
Congratulations on your just concluded film festival. How will you ensure its sustainability given the fact that many film festivals have not managed to survive beyond a few editions?
The just concluded CAMIFF will sustain itself with the love and passion of filmmakers because it is needed in this part of Cameroon. Festivals are also film markets and we are looking for opportunities and means through which Cameroonian filmmakers can get in contact and do business with content buyers like Africa Magic, Afrinolly, Netflix and Iroko TV, to make a living from their work and get returns on their investments. Every year, people will wait for CAMIFF to meet new content buyers and new opportunities. The exchange programmes and workshops also help to better their techniques in filmmaking. We introduced exchanges in terms of socio-cultural programmes during the festival, which are very key as they will help Cameroonian filmmakers learn from their colleagues all over the world and vice versa. It will be sustainable because we believe in the festival and want to get it to the zenith by improving on the inaugural edition. I look up to people like Chioma Ude, the founder of African International Film Festival (AFRIFF). She is a pusher and has a huge, creative mind. If she can do it, we can as well. We are looking forward to 2017, which will be another opportunity to bring people together to benefit from one another.
Is the Cameroonian government supportive and what is your plan to gain more private and public partnership?
The Cameroonian government has been supportive in different ways. They gave all the legal support and a lot of advice in directing cinema. Financially they could not do much because there was no money. What is happening today in Nigeria, where you have special funds to support the Nollywood filmmakers, has been in Cameroon since the sixties. We have a fund that is voted by our Cameroonian House of Assembly to support Cameroonian filmmakers. How the money is being spent and who spends it, is unknown to everyone. However, the present minister of arts and culture, Prof. Jean Narcisse Mouelle Kombi is very dynamic, pushful and young so I think many things are going to happen differently.
You managed to get support from Camair-Co and Ethiopian Airlines, how difficult was it getting them to buy into your vision for the inaugural edition of CAMIFF?
I was able to get Camair-Co to come on board as sponsors because of my work. I have also been promoting them in my films and through the many other things I do, as they are the national carrier of Cameroon. This year, they did well for us! They gave us six tickets from Paris—one business class and five economy tickets from Lagos and four tickets from Abidjan. Ethiopian Airlines gave us a fifteen percent discount on the tickets. A lot will come into play with time as the deals go by and as we keep working for the improvement of the Cameroonian film industry and the world at large.
The festival drew professionals and students working in the film industry from Cameroon and across the world; actors technicians, film distributors and equipment manufacturers. Would you say you were able to achieve most of your goals?
The festival brought in some good people—filmmakers from Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood, who are great professionals and have excelled in their different fields. However, that doesn’t mean I met my goal or expectations. I was hoping to organize more film screenings and workshops. This year, we managed to screen the festival movies in only one cinema hall in Buea, the W Cinema. This is a country where all the cinemas have been shut down and people look down on filmmaking and those working in the film industry including actors as jobless, useless and never-do-wells. I hope next year will be different but as of now, I am still trying to achieve my goal.
How did you source for your facilitators for the workshops and training sessions?
Facilitators for the workshops and training were Frank Rajah who is a household name, Prince Afam, Moses Inwang and others like Ramsey Nouah who is an experienced actor and filmmaker. These are people I relied on because they are friends and family and willing and happy to contribute to the success and vision of CAMIFF. They came with their expertise, brought some light and talked to young Cameroonian filmmakers, giving them a reason to believe in their dream. I didn’t do much but they believed in my vision and came. I appreciate their efforts and for coming through for me.
You are passionate about raising the standards of your local film industry. What are your plans for achieving this over the years?
My position in trying to raise the standard of the local film industry is simple—look for means through which all the cinemas that existed can re-open. In Nigeria, you have states but in Cameroon we have regions. Back in the eighties, every region had five active cinemas and one in the big city. If that can be worked on and Cameroonian filmmakers can recoup the money they invested in their movies, it will be great. The filmmakers will also be encouraged and strive to do better productions, and by so doing, raise the standards of the industry. CAMIFF is only there as a bridge to link them with people, companies and platforms that can help propel the industry
Do you provide content for distribution channels outside Cameroon and if so, which?
From this year, CAMIFF is going to help facilitate Cameroonian content on Africa Magic from this year. We plan to give films continually from Cameroon to the channel and so will help mediate that process. Hopefully, we will provide them with movies that meet their broadcast criteria. It’s a gradual process; as the festival grows together with the network that we are trying to put in place and by inviting other TV channels, we hope to get Cameroonian productions on other platforms.
There were over 2,000 submissions from across four continents; Africa, North America, Europe and Asia with countries like the United States, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Ethiopia, Morocco, Bahrain, Burkina Faso and Angola. What were the criteria used in selecting the final 70 films across the different categories?
It was easy for us to select the films we wanted to show at CAMIFF because we had criteria laid down for the movies we wanted to screen. We tried to avoid those with subjects like same sex unions so it was easy to whittle the entries down. We wanted true-life stories, those dealing with social ills and the ones that are very relatable.
Who were the jury members for your inaugural edition and will they change yearly?
The jury was made up of filmmakers from Cameroon and all over the world who didn’t have their movies in competition, and who have done a lot of work, been to other film festivals and seen what obtains in those countries. Some of them have also won credible awards.
How did you get director, producer, writer and actor, Spike Lee involved as a patron?
Spike Lee is a Cameroonian! He traced his roots/DNA back to Cameroon. He is a mentor and I love and admire him so much. We met in New York in 2008 and since then I have looked up to him. I was hoping he could come to Cameroon for CAMIFF but I could not get the finances to bring him over. Hopefully, the next edition will give me the opportunity to do that.
As a film producer, do you have any current project you are presently working on?
I am a film producer and every day I want to produce a new film. There is a movie I am currently working on. The script is ready but I don’t yet have the finances to start the production. Once I get the right funding by His grace, I can then get the cast and crew together and start work.
Who are your favourite African actors and whom would you like to work with?
Top on my list is still Idris Elba who is an African though he acts in Hollywood. There is also Richard Mofe-Damijo, Ramsey Nouah and Jim Iyke from Nigeria, and from Cameroon, there is Jeffrey Epule, Chifo Valerie, Quinta Eyong -Ascou, Simbi Emade, Yijika Solange…the list is long. I would love to work with them and many more.
How did you choose your festival ambassadors who happen to be Nigerian and Cameroonian actors?
The two festival ambassadors were chosen as a result of much respect accorded them as professionals. In every industry, some people stand out and shine brightly. For me, Ramsey Nouah stands out in Nollywood and has been very supportive and instrumental to the success of CAMIFF—bringing ideas, making suggestions, writing proposals, speaking with prospective sponsors and people who can support the dream, initiative and cause. Yijika Solange is a Cameroonian actress who is very humble, understanding and supportive. She is also quite religious; in fact she is a `prayer warrior’! She also talked to many Cameroonians and who helped immensely. Our ambassadors were not just there, they played a very pivotal role to the success of the festival.
Where is your favourite filming location and where would you like to explore?
My favourite filming location still remains Limbe in Cameroon. It is a city close to the sea and has beautiful scenery—landscape and all. It’s very picturesque.
How do you relax and what’s your favourite holiday destination?
I relax by watching films because I love movies. My favourite holiday destination has been the United States. I love to go on vacation there because I have family and friends who live there. I also love to meet and chat with other people who I can exchange ideas with. I don’t relax much as I am constantly thinking about what to do and how to go about it, but thank you very much for asking! I don’t really have time to rest!
Images: Agbor Gilbert Ebot
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