By KEMI YESUFU
Kannywood producer, Zainab Ahmed is a breath of fresh air. She is intelligent, strong and bold. It is these characteristics that stand her out as a producer in the male dominated Hausa movie industry. Yet, for years, she operated from the background in order not to offend her family. Now that she has their support to invest in Kannywood, she is one of those at the forefront, making films that hopefully will raise the bar.
In this interview with The Entertainer, Zainab shares her opinion on a number of issues affecting the Hausa movie industry. She also talks about her family and why she chooses to do things her own way. Excerpts:
How did you get into Kannywood?
I have been involved in Kannywood for a long time. But because my family didn’t want me to be in the entertainment industry, I operated from the background for many years. But in recent time, I have been carrying out my business in the film industry in the open. My family has endorsed my involvement in Kannywood so I am now in the forefront promoting the industry. Before then, I was operating from the background.
For how many years did you operate in the background?
I started out in 1998. But I never allowed anyone I worked with to mention my name, neither did I allow them ascribe anything to me. My family was very much against any of its children to get involved in entertainment especially the movie industry.
Why do you think your family was against your being in Kannywood. Was it because of the general notion that entertainers aren’t respectable people?
I think it had to do with the belief that entertainers are wayward. Members of my family were really concerned about the damage my reputation would suffer if I openly associated with Kannywood. But, you know, with time my family accepted the fact that I had always been a part of Kannywood and it was time they allowed me follow my dreams. The turning point came after my father passed on.
Was your father a politician who didn’t want any scandal? Or was he the strict and religious kind who wouldn’t want his daughter in an industry cast in bad light?
My father was a politician. But to be fair to him, his opposition to my being in Kannywood was about maintaining my honour and nothing else. He had five daughters and two sons, so he was conscious about the girls maintaining their dignity. My father was half Arab and you know how Arabs are particular about protecting their daughters. It is common knowledge that the Arab man can go to any length to protect his female offspring.
What was it like growing up under such a protective father?
My father was a sweet man. For me, there is nobody like him. He was my best friend. He was close to all of his children. He allowed us to talk to him and be open with him. Since my father died, I have never had the kind of conversations I had with him. There is no confidante like my father. For me, he wasn’t strict by certain standards. All his daughters are educated. My sisters are well known intellectuals. There is Khadra Ahmed, the renowned BBC correspondent. She also was an editor with NEXT newspaper after working for the BBC for 23 years.
Of course, there is Asia El-Rufai who is a brilliant lawyer. I am also well educated. My mother is a respected writer. So, you understand what kind of man my father was. He didn’t dictate to us, however, he would listen to you after which he would tell you why he was opposed to what you planned to do. So, I would say that I had a happy childhood. Like other families we had our disagreements because we are different individuals. But we reconcile and we have remained close. We love each other.
How exactly did you tell your dad that you wanted to get into the movie industry?
I always had friends in the movie industry. I hung out with them quite often. When one of the actresses got married, I was at her wedding, so my picture appeared in her calendar. My father was shocked when he saw the calendar. He asked people around what took me to the wedding of an actress. He called me and asked me the same question. I told him that I was interested in being part of Kannywood. And he expressed worry over how society would look at me as an entertainer. He then told me ‘I don’t ever want to see you in any movie’. This is why I never acted in a film.
Did you choose production over acting because you’re scared of the negative comments acting attracts?
No. When I started having interest in the movie industry, I was much younger. Now I don’t think I should be in front of the cameras. I would rather be behind it. I don’t think that at this age I should lose my privacy. So, my staying away from acting is a personal decision. It is no longer about pleasing my family because they have given their blessings for me to invest in Kannywood.
So, there is no role no matter how big or financial offer that will make you act?
No. I don’t think so. I have much to do as a producer, so I will concentrate on making films. Right now, I have a script that I want to make into a film as soon as I can. I am thinking of who will take the role of the lead actress because it is a role that will push the boundaries. The lady I had in mind, Fati KK got married recently. I have been thinking that I should use Zainab Indomie or maybe I should use a new face. I want a near perfect interpretation of the script. I am still thinking about who I will cast for the role.
What is it about this story that you need a bold actress to take the lead role?
The story came to me while lying down on my bed recently. It revolves around a courageous judge and a man that runs a brothel with many under-aged girls. He was given the maximum sentence by this judge and he made a vow to the judge that he would turn his daughter into a prostitute. You know prostitution is a form of organised crime, so the pimp monitored the judge’s family while in jail, and he had a baby girl born to the judge kidnapped and raised by his henchmen. They introduced her into prostitution once she hit her teens. She continued with the illicit trade as an adult. The kingpin now sent a video of the girl to the judge, telling him that the lady in the recording was his lost child. So you see why I need a bold and talented actress to pull this off?
In other words, you like producing films that have intricate plots?
Yes I do. I am highly creative. Most artistic people are. I am artistic. I would rather write than talk. Writing comes to me naturally. So, I would rather write my own scripts. I write so well that I have picked on my mother’s manuscripts and I write from where she stopped. Anyone who reads the script won’t know that I was the one who wrote that part and not my mother. I guess it won’t be wrong to say I inherited my writing skills from my mum.
What kind of books do you read?
I love V.C Andrews; I enjoy reading Danielle Steele and Stephen King. I read Muslim books, the Holy Quran; I also read the Bible and Christian books. I am someone who reads wide. I am a curious person. I read to satisfy my curiosity. I can quote the Bible to you and you will begin to wonder how I got to know the Bible that much because I am not a Christian.
Kannywood films do well in the north and in some northern African countries. How can Kannywood films cross boundaries like Nollywood where you see people watching all over Nigeria and in countless African countries?
People watch Nollywood films even as far as Malaysia. I was in Malaysia recently and I saw University students there logging on to Iroko TV to watch Nollywood films. You see, the problem with Kannywood is that there are some people who believe that if you are not part of their clique, you have no business in the industry. I have been there and I can tell you once you don’t affiliate yourself with certain people, they sabotage your efforts. But I refused to let such people bring me down. I am still standing. Secondly, we have little or no support in Kannywood unlike down south where you can convince people to invest in movie production.
Who are the members of this Kannywood mafia?
I won’t mention names. I don’t do things that way. What I will continue to do is to tell people that we need to allow people with different ideas to operate in the industry. Can you believe that I have been in the industry for long, yet some people don’t want me to succeed?
Is it a gender issue? Are they against you because you are a woman?
No it is not a gender issue.
How tough is it being a female producer in Kannywood?
It is very tough. It is even harder for someone like me because I get to expend double the amount a male producer will spend on a movie. They see me as a woman from a privileged background, so they charge higher amount for almost everything.
How much has the return of the cinema helped in Kannywood?
Yes, we do show our films in the cinema in the north. Our films go as far as Niger Republic. It has helped a little. But in Kano State I don’t think cinemas show our films because of the hypocritical Shari’a that (Governor Ibrahim) Shekarau started in the state.
Are you one of those who believe that Mallam Shekarau nearly ruined the move industry?
He ruined it. Kannywood is only trying to recover now. Shekarau did all he could to kill Kannywood. But the truth is God is on our side and that is why we survived. The fact is, if someone like him comes again we will survive. No one can kill an idea like Kannywood especially people that hide under religion to achieve their unintelligent and hypocritical objectives.
How exactly did Kannywood survive that tough period?
We survived because we had the will to. The Hausa movie industry is too big for any government to kill. Do you know that Rabo (Abdulkarim) went as far as Niger Republic to tell people that they shouldn’t watch our films, that we are prostitutes and that some of our guys are gay. And according to Islamic tenets, these are heavy accusations that shouldn’t be made without proof. He didn’t have evidence to back his claims. At a point, people didn’t want to be seen with artistes. Yet at the end of the day, this same man was caught in compromised position with a young girl in his car. The worst thing is that the girl is a relative that lived in his house. Yet, he was caught red-handed in his car on the streets. Where is Rabo now? Where is Kannywood now? We have improved greatly while he is now irrelevant. Those days, we used to shoot in Kano alone, now we shoot films in Abuja and other states. So, his persecution was a blessing in disguise.
What role did you play during the period that the former governor clamped down on the entertainment industry?
Of course, I was among those who spoke out. I don’t think anyone took on the former Executive Director of the Kano Film and Video Censors Board like I did. When I granted interviews, I mentioned his name unlike other people who were scared to. Can you imagine that Rabo (Abdulkarim) called me asking that I connive with him to destroy Kannywood? I asked how he wanted me to be a sell-out to my own people. You can’t talk about filmmaking in the north for a while without my name coming into the conversation. There was no way in the world that I would have betrayed my own people. I warned him never to call my number again. I was in Kano when he called me and I told him off. So, I left Kano immediately because I knew that I would be his next target after speaking to him boldly. Another reason I had to leave town was because I had a number of artistes staying with me in Kano. I didn’t want them to become targets. My sisters insisted that I leave town and I relocated to Abuja.
What would you say if you come across Mallam Rabo or the former governor?
I really don’t have much to say to the former governor though he was the one who appointed Rabo and gave him the power to do all those things he did. But if I see Rabo, I will disgrace him. He even had the audacity to speak with my mother about her books. He said they had to censor books and my mother told him that writers existed before he was born. So, he tried to cajole her by saying she should understand as a mother.
Now that things have returned to normal in the Hausa movie industry, how prepared are you guys to access the $200 million entertainment fund?
I heard about the fund but I am not keen about it. I am sorry but I don’t trust government that much. I campaigned for Nuhu Ribadu during the presidential election. It was the first time I participated in campaigns of any kind and I am not happy about how things turned out. I am even less trusting of politicians due to my experience last year. So, it will be great if people can access the fund but I am not expecting anything.
What are the things that make you happy?
I am a free spirit. When I feel like having fun, I go dance the night away. I do what makes me happy. I don’t bother myself with what people think. I am an introvert but when I decide to go out with friends I just do it. I have been dating the same man for years now and though we are yet to take things to the next level, I am happy to be with him. He is a nice person. He understands me. The only thing I drink is Coke. I hangout with my friends anytime I feel like, and my boyfriend allows me to hangout with them because he trusts me.
You must be considered a radical judging by the conservative nature of the north.
Yes, I am considered a radical.
Do you have children?
I have a 14-year-old son whom I love greatly. I got married at 18 but it didn’t work. My son is a product of that marriage.
Why didn’t your marriage work? Was it because you got married at a younger age?
I don’t think so. My ex-husband is a kind man. He was a good husband. The problem was that he wanted us to live in Lebanon and there was war then. I wasn’t comfortable staying in Lebanon at the time. My former husband and I are still good friends.