Actress and scriptwriter, Ebbe Bassey wants to make films that can be used not only as a form of entertainment for the masses but as a tool for agitation and activism. Interview.
-You were born in the US but, grew up in Nigeria – where your father is from – what is the inspiration you get from living in these two countries to do what you are doing today?
My mother is an African-American born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. My father is Nigerian born and raised in the city of Calabar, Cross River State. I find that growing up in Nigeria has given me a unique advantage in that it really is a somewhat untapped market amongst actors, I fill that void with authenticity even though I find sometimes that casting agents prefer it not too authentic. They want more of a Pan African accent assuming that people wouldn’t understand the character, I find that laughable because when they have French actors, they don’t tone them down. Anyway, I have become sort of the go-to person in the acting community here in New York for playing a Nigerian or coaching folks on the proper accent or case in point teaching the Ibibio dialect as I have done for playwright Mfoniso Udofia’s plays for the past two years. I served as the dialect coach for her play Sojourner’s currently running at the reputable off Broadway playhouse Playwright’s Horizon. I have worked a lot performing voice over work requiring a Nigerian/African accent for such organizations like the Gates Foundation, CNN and Sesame Street. In working as an MC/host for various events in New York, my ability to flow between my Nigerian and American accent has been highly utilized because I can make the American members of the audience as equally comfortable as the Nigerians/Africans present. My African American heritage is obviously a plus for me because then I am not pigeon holed into only playing Africans. Funnily enough, the first time I auditioned for NBC’s Law & Order: SVU, I auditioned for the role of a Nigerian Consulate General and did not book the gig. They gave the role to Erica Alexander (Maxine Shaw in Single Ladies), however when I auditioned the next time for an American school principal role, I nailed it. Go figure! I don’t want to be seen as a “Nigerian actress”, I want to be an actress period but I am always pleased to be able to show case my heritage at any given opportunity as I have done in several projects including the first short film I wrote and executive produced, Siri Oko Fo (Mending Fences).
-Mutilation, senior people, HIV…Why the movies you write are mostly engaged?
My company is focused on presenting film not only as a form of entertainment for the masses but as a tool to be used for agitation and activism through the telling vital stories that engage, motivate, inspire, push, encourage, comfort, prod, expose, challenge the audience. Our motto is to entertain but educate. I will always want to address important issues through my projects.
-As script writer and actress, tell us about your passion for cinema?
I remember as a child growing up Nigeria and the TV station only ran between 3pm and 12am, we could never finish one movie within a night because of this cut off. The first film I can clearly recall watching (and it took two nights) that struck a cord and made me weep was The Champ with Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder. I just thought it was simply amazing how someone (a couple of people) I don’t even know could affect me so much with their story telling, acting, cinematography, music etc. Funnily enough even with being very moved by the movie and therefore the medium that is cinema/film, I never came to America to pursue it. I am grateful that I’ve met many kind people along the way who encouraged me to live this life and pursue this goal and dream. I want to touch lives, agitate, motivate, inspire people the same way I was touched by The Champ. We have indelible stories to tell and to quote the great fillmmaker Alejandro Gonzelez Inarritu “Cinema is universal, beyond flags and borders and passports.”
-You started your career as actress in Nigerian movies. What did change from that environment and time compared to the new Nollywood?
Actually, I did not start my career in Nigerian movies. I have only had roles in five Nigerian movies all of which are tantamount to cameo roles and mostly shot here in New York, not in Nollywood proper. All these opportunities happened after I had been working here in the States. My first film was a short film shot by then NYU film student Andrea Williams-Ortega called A Spoonful of Sugar which won the prize for the Best Short Film at the American Black Film Festival and showed on Showtime. I played a Jamaican nurse with HIV whose teenage daughter who is also positive makes unwise decisions as she’s being influenced by her hormones and friends.
I cannot really comment extensively on Nollywood. The only thing I can venture to say is that I believe at the beginning of the industry there was poor production quality but substantive story telling but from what I have glimpsed recently, there is better production quality but paper thin plots. There are a few film makers that are telling great stories and trying to elevate the game such as the icon Tunde Kelani, Kunle Afoloyan, Mildred Okwo, Kenneth Gyang to mention but a few. Certainly, in everything one does in this world there is always room to improve.
-Are people listening what you are trying to tell them with your movies?
I absolutely believe that people are listening. And even if I don’t get 100% of the audience I want to listen, I do believe there is a percentage that have/will listen. When I shot “Siri Oko Fo (Mending Fences)”, I was invited to Rutgers University to screen the film and to address the students who were part of Women and African American Studies program on the issues of female gender mutilation. I was not surprised to find that most of them had not even heard of such a thing or did they think such an ugly episode can happen and has happened in “civilized” countries such as France and the United States of America. They watched, listened and took with them a knowledge of other cultures even if it wasn’t wrapped in the prettiest package. I am in the post production stage of my second project “Saving Father”, people listened well enough to donate their hard earn money in order for me to complete the shoot. I am hoping more will listen hard enough to continue donating towards helping me complete it so that I can show it to the world and generate much needed dialogue around HIV and seniors citizens.
-Tell us more about your last movie…what is the lesson you want us to keep from that movie and what is next?
The lesson I want people to take away from Saving Father is that senior citizens are having sex and some of them are engaging in dangerous sex, we need to talk about it and we need to educate them on safe sex, period. What is next for me is to continue my fund raising efforts to get past the post production stage to screening this film at film festivals, nothing more.