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'I am Nollywood': Director's tale of Niger Delta struggle

From Isha Sesay and Jessica Ellis, CNN
March 29, 2013 -- Updated 1030 GMT (1830 HKT)
Jeta Amata is a prominent Nigerian filmmaker from a family of movie stars. Jeta Amata is a prominent Nigerian filmmaker from a family of movie stars.
In pictures: 'Black November'
In pictures: 'Black November'
In pictures: 'Black November'
In pictures: 'Black November'
In pictures: 'Black November'
In pictures: 'Black November'
  • Jeta Amata is one of Nigeria's most prominent film directors
  • Amata comes from a family of Nollywood stars
  • His latest film, "Black November," features Hollywood stars Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger
  • The gripping movie is a drama about Nigeria's Niger Delta region

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

(CNN) -- He is one of Nollywood's most popular film directors, hailing from a famous family of movie stars that have shaped Nigeria's entertainment industry for decades.

Yet Jeta Amata had other career plans while growing up.

"I wanted to be a pilot," says the award-winning filmmaker. "I was about six and I was intrigued with the fact that something could fly up there and that some man could control it; I wanted to control the plane."

But Amata's dreams to conquer the skies were put aside as his family genes kicked in. Instead, Amata went on to reach great heights with his feature films, winning international acclaim and carving out a career as one of Nigeria's most prominent directors.

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For his latest film, "Black November," Amata broke new ground working with both Hollywood and Nollywood talent.

An impressive roster of American film stars, including Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Vivica Foxx, Michael Madsen and Tom Sizemore, as well as musicians Akon and Wyclef Jean, is joined by famous Nigerian actors Hakeem Kae-Kazim and Enyinna Nwigwe.

Amata's family is also part of the star-studded cast. Along with Amata's father, Fred, the film stars his wife, Mbong Amata, as the female lead.

Spotlight on Niger Delta

"Black November" is a drama about Nigeria's Niger Delta region -- a part of Nigeria still struggling to overcome a past history of rebel violence. The area is the world's third-largest wetland but decades of oil drilling had turned it into one of the most oil-polluted places on Earth.

"For years now I've been wanting to make something on Niger Delta," says Amata. "I wrote three scripts over the past maybe eight years about the Niger Delta and as things kept escalating it became almost more difficult to make but I got to the point where I knew it just has to be now."

Amata, who grew up in the Niger Delta, titled his film "Black November" after the month when local environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed.

What excites me about people's stories are the human parts of them.
Jeta Amata, film director

In 1995, Nigerian writer and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Saro-Wiwa was one of nine environmentalists arrested and executed by the then military regime. The news provoked international outrage and Nigeria was suspended from the British Commonwealth until 1999.

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Many of the Delta protests led by Saro-Wiwa targeted oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, which was sued by families of the activists, who accused the company of complicity in the deaths. The company said it never advocated any act of violence against the activists and tried to persuade the government to grant clemency. In 2009, the company agreed to an out-of-court settlement with the families, paying them $15.5 million.

Amata, who had once met Saro-Wiwa through his father, says he was affected by the activist's death.

"I have always wanted to tell a part of his story," he says. "Most of the politics in his story I didn't want to get into. I wanted to get to the human part of his story. What excites me about people's stories are the human parts of them, not necessarily the politics. Even in 'Black November' I know I touch on politics a bit but I'm more concerned about the feelings of the people, about what they've been through and where they are going through."

Amata says his goal is for viewers to realize what people in the region have been through over the past few decades.

"We want the world to stand with us," he says. "We are not trying to fight the government, trying to fight the oil companies, no -- we are trying to repair what has been damaged," adds Amata. "We can change the Niger Delta of Nigeria."

Nigeria's booming film industry

If I make a couple of Hollywood films its not going to change who I am and where I come from.
Jeta Amata, film director

Nollywood, the term coined for Nigeria's mega film industry, has grown in recent years into a mighty movie-making machine, capturing audiences with its universal themes and arresting stories of urban culture.

The booming industry has been notorious for churning out over 1,000 films a year which often struggle with shoe-string budgets and low production values.

Amata, who is often praised for the high production values and strong narratives of his movies, says he initially disliked the Nollywood name, which sounded like "not-Hollywood."

Read this: Nollywood thriller campaigns for safer skies

Yet, today he passionately defends the industry, rejecting claims that his movies are not part of Nigeria's movie-making movement.

"If I make a couple of Hollywood films its not going to change who I am and where I come from," he says. "I built Nollywood with people out there," he adds. "I was one of the first few people to make films. I worked hard for the market. I learned like all the Nollywood directors how to pull a camera apart and how to put it together. I am not going to lose that title, never.

"I don't care what people say, or what they think, or how they say it is really not Nollywood, I am Nollywood."

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