Installment number 3 in the series…
A quick recap… Announced last dall, the 5 filmmakers selected for the next class (2011) of Focus Features’ Africa First program were Oshosheni Hiveluah (from Namibia); Cedric Ido (from Burkina Faso); Mark Middlewick (from South Africa); Akosua Adoma Owusu (from Ghana); and Zelalem Woldemariam (from Ethiopia).
For those unfamiliar with the program… launched in 2009, Africa First was created “to foster and develop long-term relationships with some of the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers from continental Africa.”
The aim is that, through financial support of the program and mentorship provided by the Focus Features Africa First Advisory Board, to bring African filmmakers into an environment that will allow them to grow as filmmakers with an international audience. Each year, five filmmakers are awarded $10,000 each for production on a narrative short film made in continental Africa.
Kisha Cameron-Dingle runs the Africa First program for Focus Features, and her company, Completion Films, has a first-look and consulting deal with the company.
As well as on-site work in Africa, the progam includes a weekend of workshops in New York City with the program’s international advisory board of experts in African cinema.
We posted an interview with Kisha a few weeks ago (read it HERE if you haven’t; you’re strongly encouraged to do so); and, as I promised, my interviews with the 5 new filmmakers selected for the new current class (who are likely in production on their films right now, or soon to be), as well as their advisors, were forthcoming.
Today, I’m staying on the advisor side, with another informative conversation with one of the advisors, award winning Egyptian writer, documentary film director and producer, Jihan El-Tahri.
Tambay: First, your name, background, and we’ll start there.
Jihan El-Tahri: My name is Jihan El-Tahri and I’m an Egyptian filmmaker. I make feature documentaries and I guess I’m a bit French but I live in South Africa too, so quite a mix of backgrounds.
Tambay: So you’ve been with this initiative since the first-
Jihan El-Tahri: Even before it started actually.
Tambay: And you’re perception as the years have gone on-
Jihan El-Tahri: I must admit that at the very beginning, I spoke with Kisha quite a bit before the actual thing started happening and the idea was how do you structure something where you make a difference, find talent, and tell African stories, and I guess she came up with that idea and called me up and said she wanted me to be part of it. But I said I don’t do features. I only do documentaries so why would you want me? She said that a story is a story and structure of a story is something I know how to do. So I came onboard and I must say at the beginning I wouldn’t say I was skeptical but I wanted to see how things would work.
And over the past four years, I think it really has been amazing. It’s not a one-way thing. Each time I come, I do learn something. I learn something and I feel that, it’s only 2 days and by the end of it, you feel that you’ve achieved so much, and you wonder how many weeks have we been here? And it’s only been two days. It is very intense and it’s quite gratifying because you can tell that there has been a shift. And there’s that light bulb moment, and you actually see it on their faces after a while. And during the summers we come, there is always a light bulb moment.
For myself as an advisor, I take a home a fresh view of how to do certain things each and every time.
Tambay: So, it’s kind of like you’re a college professor and it’s a new class coming in?
Jihan El-Tahri: It’s different though because I do teach. I teach film at AFTA in South Africa and it’s not the same thing. Here, five people start with scripts that are actually quite exceptional, and taking it from there, I think having six people all with different energies and different perceptions all working around a script is quite profound. It’s not about, oh that’s what you should be doing. We’re talking about every word, every comma, we tear apart the characters in their stories, so by the time the day is over, that poor main character in the film, we know them intimately and we’ve torn them a part and try to understand their background in a way that they come alive in that process. I think that helps a lot for them because they can consolidate the character and move on basically.
Tambay: So, they’re having to eliminate aspects of their scripts or stories and maybe there’s tears shed at some point? It’s a struggle, right?
Jihan El-Tahri: For some reason, every year I get someone to cry and I don’t know what the hell I do to do that.
Tambay: Well, I guess I can see that as a writer or filmmaker, you become so intimately involved with-
Jihan El-Tahri: I’ll tell you what it is. Maybe it’s the accumulation of the day because I don’t want to believe that every time I get someone to cry because it’s just me, and luckily it does happen toward the end of the day so there must be another reason too. It’s a very strange combination because we’re a collection of people as advisors, but we have zero stake in that process and we’re all so committed to see five scripts at the intensity which we tear it apart, so I think that the filmmakers realize that there’s no vested interest, that for the first time, people are telling them the truth because that’s it. That’s one thing.
The other thing at least as far as I’m concerned, and I can’t speak for the others. For me, what I try to do is to push them against the wall to the point where it’s obvious that they need to ask themselves these questions, and I think the biggest, scariest things for people is asking- my position is that I don’t know what your film should be like. You know what your film should be like. All I can do is I can show where I can see the holes. I can show you where it doesn’t make sense. But the answer of what you should do about it can only come from you. So, how do you get them to answer these questions that should’ve been in the script. It’s about peeling off the layers that are stopping them from answering these questions. And these layers are sometimes technical, and sometimes very personal and are very often things they don’t want to confront. The stories are very personal but you need to get that person right there in the corner and against the wall, and ask what is it that you wanted to tell your father? What is it that the character wanted to tell their father?
I think confronting themselves with themselves at a moment where you see, Oh shit I cant run anymore, then they cry.
Tambay: Like therapy?
Jihan El-Tahri: Yea, but the first time that happens, I don’t know if that’s therapy. And it’s also for me, I’m a filmmaker. So sometimes I wished that someone would do that for me.
Tambay: Your opinions on the way this Focus Features initiative evolved with respect to maybe the other initiatives that you may be familiar with or been involved with?
Jihan El-Tahri: You know, I represent a number of African film institutions, and we’re all very grand on titles but there’s very little content out there. So I’m a member of the Executive Board of the Federation of Pan African Cinema. Also, on the guild of African filmmakers of the Diaspora, and like all these different organizations so you get to hear, there’s a fund for this, there’s a fund for this, so we’re getting lots and lots of initiatives around, and primarily because African cinema doesn’t have an African industry at all and that’s where our problem arises.
We come to all of these initiatives with a lot of suspicion because we’re so inhabited by the notion of being colonized, the post-colonial thought that someone wants us to do something that is their interest and not ours and even it’s not true, there’s the suspicion of it like where is this going? And that’s why when we started, I said- when Africa First started, I said let’s see where this is going. What is the real intention? And I think four years down the line, it’s been very gratifying to see that there’s clarity and I think clarity is the most important item. It is a proper prize, not a fund, it’s a prize for good scripts and with that prize comes we’re going to work on giving you some technical know-how and I think the clarity of this initiative doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s not just giving you some money. It’s giving you the support you need that is often as important, if not more important than the money.
I’ll add another item to it and that’s the item of hope and dreams. Imagine a young African filmmaker just thinking that Focus Features might like their work enough to turn it into a Hollywood movie. Wow, you know? When you’re young, what kind of a push is that?
Tambay: I think for any filmmaker, right? African or African American.
Jihan El-Tahri: Yes, I think it’s absolutely fantastic to give this combination of the major structural element for the growth of a filmmaker. It’s technical know-how, some money to get on with it, and the dream that he can always grow. What more can the people ask for?
Tambay: Some criticism I’ve heard of the program itself is that it takes the American studio system and that it’s essentially representing Hollywood and that they are financing and producing, and sheparding these African filmmakers to complete these films and that maybe their influence is detrimental and maybe takes away the authenticity of the African filmmakers-
Jihan El-Tahri: Okay, I agree and disagree. There’s always criticism in any process and I think that’s a healthy thing. Now, the intention of meddling in one thing and actually meddling is a completely different thing. Now, the reason for- and that’s why I said the input I give is for filmmakers to ask themselves a question- if the young filmmakers ask themselves enough questions and come up with enough answers and get the scripts tight enough. One of the films they showed last night, Mwansa the Great- nobody added a little inch of anything to that script. She got it right, she understood it, she executed it. So, why would anyone meddle if you don’t need to meddle?
The problem comes when structurally it’s not working out and they need help. And that’s when culture clash comes in. And when I think of culture clash- you can think you’re as black as you want, you can think I’m not black, but goddamnit I’m blacker than you. And black is not a notion. Africa is not a color. Africa is a culture. So you can be pitch black and I am my color but I’m more African than you can ever be because culturally there are certain things that you just don’t understand. And when you overstep them, it feels like meddling and I think it’s also about when you’re solid enough as a filmmaker in terms of years and you know what you’re doing, you can tell people no, I’m not changing this because this is part of what I need to say. Don’t come here. I can change this. I can change that I can compromise if it’s not working.
So I honestly don’t think, and believe me if I did think that that criticism was valid, I wouldn’t be here for five minutes. Not for five minutes. But I honestly think it comes out of “How do we get that script to work?” And all the advisors are in Africa and from Africa, and maybe one is from Costa Rica but that’s it. The rest of us are Africans from the continent that live on the continent so we’re talking to these filmmakers from their perspectives.
When the process goes on a little bit, and we’re less involved and though we are involved more or less throughout the process, and they’re talking directly to James Schamus let’s say, of course the input may be diverted because that’s not where he comes from but all he can do is give his real input. There’s this temptation of identifying what is good, what is bad, what is beautiful, what is ugly is a cultural space.
Tambay: And I think some people just hear American studio, African filmmakers, and we tend to be more reactive –
Jihan El-Tahri: I do think it’s something that we need to remain very vigilant about. And that’s why I personally believe that as long as this group, and who we are, continues to have this fashion, then we’re fine. Because, look who we are. What do we get from Focus Features? What can I possibly aspire from Focus Features? Nothing. I don’t do what you guys do. I don’t want to be part of your thing and I can’t. It’s not what I do. So, if that relationship changes and their advisors become beholden to them, then what they would throw in their ear that could be influential, but for the moment, what could you possibly whisper in my ear to make me comprise that? We do something else. One does programming, the other does production and there’s nothing they can lure us in with.
Tambay: So, final question. This is the 4th class in the initiative. Would you say that success has been reached or is there a definition of what the success of this program will look like?
Jihan El-Tahri: I’ll tell you what. I think that a brand is definitely emerging and it’s not a brand in terms of what the films look like. It’s combination of quality and potency so the short films that are bloody well-made and come out there and are either funny or are unusual are quite powerful, or have a message and I think there has been consistency on that level. Like out of twenty, there’s maybe one or two that I can’t remember what the name was or what happened to it. But actually, not even so each one has made it’s mark and they all traveled very widely. And they all launched careers, but the actual film I think the potency is about you see the new director’s imprint through each film and I think that’s important about that new brand. When you watch films, you see four different directors and you see what each one is capable of. And I think we see an Africa cinema that we don’t expect-
I also find that, and what is most important is that the brand African cinema is going beyond African cinema. Each one of these stories is a universal story and the universal story just happens to take place in Africa. But it doesn’t come up and hit you in the face. Like it’s not Nollywood where you say Oh my God. (laughs). And it’s not the kind of stories that you say that it’s so irrelevant that I don’t know why I should be watching that. They’re all small, good stories that could be anywhere.
Thanks very much to Jihan for her time, Kisha and Focus for making these conversations possible; installment #4 in the series before the end of the week!