Adze Ugah is one of Africa’s finest filmmakers whose artistic vision is responsible for some of the most widely followed productions in South Africa and indeed across Africa. What separates the grain from the proverbial chaff as pertains Ugah is his growing repertoire of television and film helming productions such as Society II and III, Zone 14, Tshisa II, Skwizas II, My Perfect Family II, Isibaya, Room 9 within the context of an environment that is generally hostile to African immigrants. A past Best Achievement in Directing – TV Soap winner for Isibaya in the South African Film and Television Awards, Ugah is a pioneering Nigerian creative plying his trade in South Africa. His critically acclaimed pan African television series Jacob’s Cross is perhaps his crowning achievement in a glittering film career in terms of forging pan African relations. The 2008 documentary The Burning Man garnered international notice and earned several awards.His first feature film Gog’Helen was released in late 2012 and he is currently involved in various stages of production of other film and television projects. This creative visionary is a little lauded articulate giant of African film. Culture Beat Africa editor Addy Kudita manages to prise him away from his busy schedule for an insightful one on one.
CBA: How did you get your break in the cut throat world of television, it’s cut throat isn’t it?
ADZE UGAH: Every industry is cut throat, but for one to make it in TV and film, I feel one must always start with believing that one has something to offer.So it is not about entering the industry with the notion of what one can get out of it. I lived, breathed and ‘slept’ film and TV.Everyone around me could see it.So after film school in Nigeria, I sought to increase my knowledge base, and that’s what led me to do my honours in SA. After graduating, I sought more knowledge by volunteering to be a trainee for little or no pay on the film and TV sets.As long as it meant I could learn more about making TV and film from a practical perspective without having to pay for it.It was very hard considering that I had no support system in SA and relied on just the kindness of God and others for survival. And those who allowed me to work as a trainee could see my potential in even the most menial of film and TV functions and just saw it fit to assign bigger responsibilities to me.When the time came, that’s what happened and that’s how I started. It all began with Home affairs and the producer of Home affairs, Roberta Durant, for seeing that potential and giving me that opportunity.
CBA: Can you recall for me some of the projects you have worked on aside from famous ones such as Zone 14 and others such as Society which I enjoyed thoroughly?
ADZE UGAH: My first work experience in SA Television was on a SABC 1 show called Home affairs, as a trainee assistant director. I recall being nervous when it was time to apply for a work permit to work on that show because I thought the department of Home affairs might think we were making a show about them and be worried about being shown in a negative light on TV and maybe refuse the permit. But the show had nothing to do with the department.In a way; it was like Society, just about the four disparate lives of women living in SA. I then went to work as an assistant director on an SABC 2 show called Heartlines that was where I met Angus Gibson, the creator/director of Yizo Yizo. He also directed the Oscar nominated documentary on Mandela and he has since been my mentor. He was intrigued by my passion for movies and TV. He then invited me to meet his business partner and producer Desiree Markgraaf. At the time they were creating a pan African series for MNET, and they invited me to contribute to the project. It went on to become the acclaimed pan-African series that we know today as Jacob’s Cross, and I became one of the anchor directors of the show. Since then I have done Tshisa season three, some episodes of Room 9, the supernatural detective series set in a future dystopian South Africa. I have done some episodes of the sitcom, My Perfect Family and Skwizas. Also directed an anti xenophobia Mfolozi Street and have directed feature films for SA cinema such as Gog Helen, Mrs Right Guy, and 10 Days in Sun City.
CBA: As a migrant, what obstacles did you have to overcome to get to a place where you could “eat” from the craft?
ADZE UGAH: Firstly for me, it wasn’t about what and where I could “eat”, I was about what I could give others to “eat”, even though at the time I virtually had nothing, but I had my ideas, my point of view on things, my creativity, i had my vision and my passion and that’s what I believe created the opportunities for me
CBA: Did you train in S.A. or Nigeria and how did you cut your teeth in the business?
ADZE UGAH: My first degree in film was from Nigeria, at the National Film Institute, in Jos. I was able to make one film after I graduated with money from my parents and I used my family as the cast.The film went on to win some awards in Nigeria at that time but didn’t really make me any money.But it was a great learning curve that led to the desire to seek more knowledge in making films.
CBA: What kind of a premium do you think as Africans are placing on our own narratives?
ADZE UGAH: Not nearly enough as we should, other countries like Asia, Europe and the Americas see their narratives as a commodity.For them their art and culture and entertainment is not just a government mandate, it is big business. It is something to invest in and to export to other nations. It grows their economy and shapes their identities -the best of both worlds as far as I am concerned. It’s about time Africans saw it as more than just stories told round a fire place or under a tree or just a novelty. It is big business.
CBA: What in your opinion is the importance of story telling from a developmental point of view?
ADZE UGAH: Story telling shapes emotions, identity and consciousness.America has used it to colonize the world, advance its notions and ingrained itself into the global psyche. We have the same opportunity to do like wise.
CBA: What stories do you believe need to be told more insistently about Africa?
ADZE UGAH: Historical ones for starters and even contemporary ones.
CBA: How do you view issues around xenophobia?
ADZE UGAH: Just like any other malady, you can’t endorse something that every one agrees it is a social ill. Even those who are xenophobic know that it is a negative attitude, and just like any other social ill, it is mostly fueled by ignorance and the only way to counter ignorance is to inform and educate.That’s why platforms like film and TV become very important. I meant, I directed an anti-xenophobia documentary called The Burning Man, and feature films for SA cinema such as Gog helen, Mrs Right Guy, 10 days in Sun City.
CBA: The work of yours that I have seen tends to have a gritty realism to it. The characters tend to be the most interesting ones and a good example are the Zone 14 ones such as Spinach…Do you deliberately seek out scripts with strong memorable characters?
ADZE UGAH: I think i have just been lucky to work with people who are also drawn to the same issues as I am. That’s what it’s really all about at the end of the day.
CBA: What are currently working on?
ADZE UGAH: I am working on Isibaya at the moment and working towards releasing a feature film in 2018
CBA: Are you eating from this?
ADZE UGAH: I think it’s more important that I know others can eat from the projects I am work on first and foremost.That is the only thing that guarantees that I can also eat from it eventually.
CBA: What inspires you personally?
ADZE UGAH: Good films, good books and good television series, but most of all the human experience in all its permutations mostly inspire me.