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Interview: Tanzanian-American Filmmaker Ekwa Msangi-Omari Talks Funding For African Filmmakers

Interview: Tanzanian-American Filmmaker Ekwa Msangi-Omari Talks Funding For African Filmmakers

As curator of the director’s eye
project for lettera27 Foundation, I had a talk with writer, director and producer
Ekwa Msangi-Omari
on crowdfunding and funds. 

Ekwa is a Tanzanian-American
filmmaker who grew up in Kenya and is based in New York.
Ekwa has directed for television and has also directed several short films
– including 
Taharuki in 2011, a 12-minute short thriller set
against the backdrop of the start of Kenya’s post-election violence – and most
recently Soko (The Market) – a 25-minute short comedy about a middle
class Kenyan man. The article starts
series of discussions
with female African directors that focuses on funding and production strategies
for contemporary cinema

Lanari: Ekwa, you have just finished shooting your last short film, and are
preparing the next feature film called
. How did you finance it?

Ekwa Msangi-Omari:
The short film that
I just shot this summer was partially funded through Focus Features’ Africa
First Program, and partly through a crowd-sourcing campaign that I conducted

 You are used to finance part of your
films through crowd-funding campaigns.  Why did you have the idea of ​​using this type
of financing?

EMO: Well, crowd-funding is not only a very
popular (maybe too popular!) form of
financing, but it is also immediate and a great way to build audiences. Living
in USA, there aren’t many sources of funding for short Africa-based films (other
than the Africa First Program) that I could apply to as an alternative source
of funding. So, in other words, as an indie filmmaker working in 2013 making
non-tragic stories about Africans, I didn’t really have many options!

VL: What percentage of the total budget of your
films derived from crowd-funding campaigns?

EMO: For Taharuki
it was 100% crowd-funding, but for Soko I
only used about 20% crowd-funding!

VL: In your experience, what have been the best strategies
and methods for promoting and creating a successful campaign?
How many investors did
you attract and how much money did they

EMO: Well, for all artists (and
really all people in general) our biggest asset is our circle of friends, family
and supporters. Before you get to the point where absolute strangers are
excited about your work and paying for it, you have to start with your circle
of family and friends. They will be your biggest promoters through their
excitement and word of mouth. Even if they’re not able to give you lots of
money, their endorsement and excitement will attract other people who trust
them. And from there, your work with hold up your reputation, but it starts
with your circle. For Taharuki (1
month campaign) I attracted about 80 funders and raised $6000, and for my most
recent campaign (2 week campaign) I attracted about 50 funders who contributed
about $3,500 of the $4000 that I aimed for – and I’m still getting latecomers
who saw the campaign but weren’t able to contribute at the time so that’s
wonderful! Both have been very fruitful campaigns, so I’m very grateful.

VL: What
do you consider as the best practices and mistakes of your crowd-funding

EMO: The most valuable tip I got
about making a successful campaign was to have a fundraising buddy! A friend
who agrees to check in with you, encourage you, help to strategize, and cheer
you on as you raise the money! Asking for money is very difficult, and
discouraging and inevitably it takes a while for people to jump aboard. It’s
important to stay hopeful, light and enthusiastic during a fundraiser and
that’s impossible to do when you’re feeling discouraged. So I advise always
having a buddy. The second thing is to keep your campaign messages short, funny
(whenever possible) and to the point. Give clear info with clear links to where
people can give money and try to have a sense of humour about it because we all
have lots of hang-ups around money (both in giving and asking for it.)

VL: How
can filmmakers best make use of the internet and social networks 
complete their film projects?

EMO: The internet and social networks can be very useful
when it comes to creating and completing film projects because it is a direct
way of measuring the temperature of our audiences and getting their feedback.
We can see the things that people are concerned about, we can immediately see
people’s reactions to things, and things that people enjoy  -or sometimes things that they hate! – can go
viral in ways that would have taken ages to do before the internet age. These
tools have given independent filmmakers/artists access in ways that we never
had before. It used to be that you needed to be endorsed by a huge company or
studio before you could share your ideas with anyone. Now we get to go straight
to the source!

VL: In
your experience, is it harder to raise finance for African filmmakers?

EMO: Hmm. Well I’m not sure because I’ve never tried to
raise money for/as a non-African filmmaker! But I will say that people here in
the US are less accustomed to the idea of African film (outside of Hollywood
films or tragic save-the-African themes) than people in Europe are. Your
average person here has no concept of what an “African film” might even look
like. So in some instances that makes it hard because you have to explain
yourself from scratch, but then again it can also be easier because people are
fascinated and excited at the idea of investing in something that’s ‘brand
new!’ It can work both ways.

Do you think that the current funds for African filmmakers are sufficient and
does the concept of a special programme for African directors really make

EMO: I think the concept of special programmes for African
directors is crucial and no, there’s not enough (is there ever?!) I do wish,
however, that we had more locally generated money from our own African
governments and investors. Our ability to tell our own stories, reflect and
represent ourselves in our own words and images is crucial to our development as a people. I don’t know of anywhere
else in the world where outsiders consistently
tell the stories and represent the local people as it has happened in Africa
and there’s something very wrong with that. If most American films were funded,
directed, and acted in by Norwegians, for example, we’d have a very different
story of who Americans are and what they’re about. The same is true for Africa.
We need to be able to develop our own voices and we’re going to need support –
monetary and otherwise – to do that. Not necessarily all foreign support – because
local support is very important as well – but support nonetheless.

You also teaching a
filmmaking study programme at New York University
that takes
place in Havana, Cuba. What suggestions would you give to independent
filmmakers and in particular to African independent filmmakers about attracting

EMO: *smile* Well I’m
far from being an expert in this so all I can offer are my thoughts and what
seems to work based on the bits of success I’ve had thus far and what I’ve seen
and learned from others. I think for African filmmakers, given that we don’t
have many established sources of funding, we really have to get creative and
think outside the box about how we get our films made. It might be about going
after specific sponsors or product placement, it might mean joining forces with
other indie filmmakers and coming up with a share plan that makes sense…it could
look a number of ways. And I think the fact that there isn’t one specific
answer is a good thing. It means we get to be pioneers in many ways, try and
fail and try again at a number of things, change our strategies when they
aren’t working any longer, but keep striving to tell our stories and offering
our audiences new and fresh thoughts about what’s possible in our world!

The interview was conducted by
Vanessa Lanari for
lettera27, a non-profit
foundation based in Milan. Its mission is to support the right to literacy,
education, and the access to knowledge and information with a focus on Africa.
Vanessa is the curator of
the director’s eye project that was created with the aim
of supporting the authors of African cinema, throughout some of the most
important phases in the development and production of a film. The pilot edition
of the project took place in 2012, in collaboration with the
Festival de Cinema Africano de Cordoba and the co-production forum Africa Produce.

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