Emerging filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu‘s hard work will pay off soon as she puts the finishing touches on her first feature film, Alaskaland. We’ve been following her journey this year, from raising funds to post production, and anticipate covering her next phase of the festival circuit.
You may recall, Chinonye — a recipient of the prestigious Princess Grace Award — is a Nigerian born writer and director who was raised in Alaska.
Her short film Dance Lesson received favorable responses from S&A readers so, hopefully, Alaskaland will interest you as well.
The film deals with the estrangement of a Nigerian-American brother and sister. The synopsis states…”Alaskaland tells the story of Chukwuma, an Alaskan-raised Nigerian struggling to balance the expectations of his traditional Nigerian parents and the larger world around him. After his parents are killed in a tragic car crash, Chukwuma is separated from his younger sister, Chidinma, who moves to Nigeria with their Uncle until she becomes of legal age.
After two years the siblings reconnect to find their estrangement has created new personal and cultural frictions in ways that bring them closer to each other and their roots, as well as help them define what it means to be a Nigerian in Alaska.”
The cast includes Alex Ubokudom, Chioma Dunkley, Chijike Nwoga, Leland Martin and Corey Campbell.
Below is an exclusive sneak peek clip and an interview with Chinonye. We touched on her upbringing, the kismet she encountered while making Alaskaland and her future goals. Her outlook, focus and overall attitude was not just positive but completely refreshing.
Was filmmaking always in the plans for you?
I have wanted to tell stories cinematically since I was 10. I’ve always dreamt in scenes, there would be harsh cuts and transitions in my dreams. I started out screenwriting and I really love writing in general. In junior high school, I never really had a lot of friends and I was always socially awkward so all the fantasies I had I would carry out in screenplay format. It wasn’t until college that I really had the courage to pursue it, it’s something I kept under wraps for a long time. A lot of people thought I would be a lawyer or doctor…something “practical” but for me this is practical.
Did you have the support of your family?
My parents are Nigerian immigrants. When we came to the states they made it very clear we were here for advanced education and they wanted us to have a very good living. In Nigeria, it’s not fully embracing of the arts so it’s not that my parents didn’t support me, they just didn’t understand. My parents are petroleum engineers, my father has a PhD and my mother has two Master’s. To them, you do “A” then “B” and “C” so there’s always a clear goal. They had no idea about this filmmaking thing and they wanted to give me advice so that was their biggest struggle. When I graduated from undergrad I had to make a case for going to film school. I said “You know dad, I gotta do it” and now they’re my biggest cheerleaders. They’ve seen and believe in my work. They actually visited me in Alaska when we were shooting.
Is the script derived from your life?
It’s definitely not autobiographical but I’m not able to tell a story about some Nigerians in Alaska and not take from some personal experience. It’s a combination of things I’ve observed, things I have fantasized about and insecurities I’ve gone through growing up. There’s a little bit of personal experience, just a little. Before I wrote the script, I interviewed just about everyone I grew up with in Fairbanks and talked to them about their experiences. I wanted to get as many experiences as possible so I could tell a more layered story, particularly because the protagonist is male. I have an older brother and I talked with him and his friends in depth, as well as other guys I knew, to kind of get their perspective growing up in the AK.
What made you choose this particular story?
This is actually not what I had plan to be my first feature film, I was working on getting another project made but the funding wasn’t happening. I always wanted to tell a story that took place in Alaska . I only had a draft of the script together and I just kind of put it away and stopped thinking about it but then everything fell into place with the funding.
Oh really, everything fell into place? That’s unusual.
Yeah really. The script was polished in January and we shot the film the end of March, part of April. As I was writing the script, in different stages, I was of course seeking funds. It was just falling into place and that’s such a rarity. There were enough people who were hungry enough to see this story on screen and/or just believed in me as an emerging filmmaker so I had to go where the funding was. (laughing) As it became more and more of a reality, I realized this is what I was suppose to do first because it was such a cathartic experience writing the script. It was like a homecoming going back and shooting the film in the place I grew up around people that really helped mentor me and saw me grow up. I moved to Fairbanks when I was six years old and left when I was eighteen so it was like coming full circle.
In terms of funds, what sources were you able to utilize for that?
Everything and anything. (laughing) Investors, friends, family, aunties, personal funds, strangers who donated…everybody. I’ve applied to grants which I’ll hear about in the future.
How did you get your cast?
One of the leads, who plays the sister, was actually in the Dance Lesson. We had auditions in Philly, New York and DC as well as postings in LA. The lead was so significant to get and we actually thought we had him but I had a dream, the night before we were suppose to buy the plane tickets, that the casting we were leaning towards was not it. I can’t describe it but I woke up in the middle of the night and I was in a sweat. Everything in my spirit was telling me you need to keep looking, of course I was freaking out because where was I going to find someone in 24 hours. I kid you not, the next morning, the person who’s currently the lead emailed me out of the blue saying “I heard about your film from a casting director in New York. Are you still holding auditions?” Something told me this could be it. He came into Philly the next day and as soon as he walked in I knew this was Chukwuma.
Based on reading your blog, I realized there’s one thing you have to get use to as a filmmaker…adjusting. You can do all the planning in the world but you have all these ups and downs, bends and turns… So you have to learn how to adjust. Right?
Exactly. One of the great things about having done two shorts before the feature is that it prepped me a bit. With Alaskaland we had some cancellations, so we had to find other people at the last minute. Also, there were locations issues. Of course, shooting a feature in two weeks, in and of itself, is maddening. I had an amazing team and was fortunate to have enough people around me to help with the problem solving.
What type of filmmaker do you see yourself as?
I want to try a lot of different genres. I also want to explore mixing genres. Alaskaland is very much a dramatic, character driven story. For me, story and character have the utmost importance. That’s hopefully what I’ll be known for in terms of my filmmaking career.
Who are some of your influences?
It spans the gamut. Federico Fellini…8 ½ changed my life. What he’s able to do with visual style, composition and depth of field is just fantastic. John Luc Godard I’m a huge fan of. Also, Ousmane Sembène. There’re a whole bunch of films that have really inspired as well, as opposed to just the filmmaker in general. I would say Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and what he was able to do with it visually is amazing. I’m also a huge Guillermo del Toro fan, Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my favorite movies. I love Kasi Lemmons and hope she’s working on another film because I’m hungry for more.
Different mediums influence me as well and I read a lot of books. For instance, I just finished reading The Other Wes Moore and it’s so cinematically told. I would love to see it as a movie. Bell Hooks, her writing influenced me in terms of issues I need to think about as a filmmaker who tells stories with black presences and female presences on screen.
So what’s next after this? Heading to Hollywood perhaps?
I’m working on two scripts right now because you have to be armed with a lot of stories as a filmmaker. One of my other passions is teaching and I discovered that when I moved to Philadelphia. Teaching is the single-most selfless thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s so important to me that I stay connected to community so I’m so not Hollywood. (laughing) But I want my films to be seen by people in north Philly to Seattle and New York. I recognize the navigation of industry politics that I’m going to embark on and I’m willing to do that to an extent but I also believe that we need to be our own gatekeepers. What I’m interested in is figuring out what that balance is.
I want to tell real stories about real people and be at the forefront of change. Filmmaking is one way while community organizing and teaching are other ways to do that.