Filmmaking is real. The boundaries between art and life can blur in unimaginable ways. In Takeshi Fukunaga’s first feature, “Out of My Hand,” Cisco, a struggling Liberian rubber worker (Bishop Blay) risks everything for a new life in America, but soon after he arrives in the new land, old secrets come to pass. It’s a nuanced portrait of immigration and the fragile hopes that come with it, shot first in Liberia, before jumping to New York City. But it’s the Liberia portion, shot against soft magenta sunsets and through dark doorways by cinematographer Ryo Murakami, that is truly striking. When I learned that Murakami died of Malaria after shooting it, I was filled with a deep feeling of loss and appreciation while watching the film, and began to see it as a living tribute to the power of imagery and humanity. Murakami truly lives through this film.
I spoke with director Takeshi Fukunaga to discuss his motivations for making the film, how the tragedy of losing his DP impacted him and the production, and why he’s uninterested in reproducing popular images of Liberian people. The film, distributed by ARRAY, opens this Friday in New York City and Los Angeles, with several one-night engagements in cities across the United States to follow.
Nijla Mu’min: What was your inspiration for the film? How did the story come to you?
Takeshi Fukunaga: I was first involved with a documentary project about the same subject, which was the lives of rubber plantation workers in Liberia and that was a project by Ryo Murakami who was the cinematographer for the Liberia part of this movie. I saw the footage of the documentary and I was really struck by the faces of the workers who make rubber in such hard working conditions and how they maintain strength and dignity. That really struck me deeply and as I was writing my script for my first feature, I always wanted to tell a story about immigrants in New York and as I had been living there for the past years and I combined the two together and by doing that, I could tell a story in an effective way and people can take notice of the fact that there’s all these people behind the things we use.
NM: Definitely, and the story is just so beautifully told, especially the cinematography in Liberia, which is just breathtaking and has a sort of documentary quality to it. Can you talk about working with DP Ryo Murakami and what he brought to the film in terms of its visual design?
TF: The DP for the Liberia part was Ryo Murakami and he was an outstanding cinematographer and had a lot of documentary experience so when we were making this in a documentary style, I could really trust him and give him minimum direction and let him be free to really capture what was going on in the scenes, so it was incredible to work with him.
After we shot the movie, and we came back to New York, he unfortunately passed away because of a severe strain of malaria and it was such a tragedy that we are still dealing with, but he left wonderful work and beautiful children and a career. We hope to share his work through this movie as much as we can, and the documentary I first talked about, was actually unfinished by the time he passed away and then I brought the footage to the producer he worked with and we finished it as a first person memoir short film. Now, the title is called “Notes From Liberia” and it’s going around the festival circuit right now.
NM: Watching the film and knowing that this story is in a lot of ways a living tribute to him and his work, is so moving. How did you go on with the project with that tragedy and how did that impact your relationship with the film?
TF: When that happened, I almost wanted to quit. I had this thought of just shooting the movie halfway like a short feature, because I had a very deep emotional attachment to his footage and wanting to finish the movie only with his footage. But then as I thought about the idea and took some time to recover from the tragedy, I was like he wouldn’t be happy if I did that and he would’ve wanted me to finish it so I put the crew together again and it took me an entire year to come back to the project.
NM: Thank you for sharing that. The lead actor Bishop Blay has a really standout performance in the film. Can you talk about working with him and his experience in the film?
TF: He’s such a talented actor and I was very lucky to have found him and be able to work with him. We found him at the audition we had in Liberia in cooperation with the Liberian Movie Union which we worked very closely with and amongst hundreds of actors, he stood out with being able to convey emotion and how he can act just by facial expression, so he was so wonderful to work with. He had some experience because he was working in local productions and he had a regular job working at the parking lot in Monrovia and because there’s no film industry there, I mean there is but it’s too small for any actor to make a living as an actor, he was extremely excited about being involved with this project. When we brought him to New York to shoot the New York scenes, it was the first time for him to be outside of Africa and thankfully it was the July before the Ebola outbreak so we avoided the worst and because of the ebola situation, he was still under the same visa, like the emergency visa, and he stayed in the states and I’m hoping to help him and bring him the attention he deserves.
NM: And can you talk about some of your experiences shooting in Liberia. A lot of times, we don’t hear about films being shot in different African countries and I think it’s important to highlight your production experience there.
TF: Shooting in a place you’re not familiar with is very difficult and shooting in Liberia was very difficult for many reasons, starting from having access to water and power. We were carrying around a generator to run an engine to charge batteries and it was dipping into the rainy season so there were many days where we just couldn’t shoot and it was like pouring rain out and it was impossible to shoot something. So there was countless challenges that we faced but thankfully we got connected to the Liberian Movie Union which was an affiliate of the Liberian government, and they helped us pave the way from pre-production to production. Without them, we couldn’t have shot a movie there.
NM: Often times, there are very limited representations of African people and countries. In your film, we have a very nuanced, specific portrait of a man. How important do you think it is to tell stories that give us a different portrait of the African experience?
TF: Well, it is extremely important. To portray anybody in one particular way, is just not right. We are all human and we all have different aspects but unfortunately, the media oftentimes prefers to force a particular type of image on a certain group of people and for the case of Liberian people, because of the tragic history of the civil war, everything we hear about them and the country, is always very negative and they are very tired of that. That was one of the reasons why they were excited about this project because the focus of this project is not about war, but particularly about human beings and my goal was to tell a universal story so I hope the audiences that watch this movie can change their perspective on Liberian people and the country.
NM: What have been some of the responses so far to the screenings of this film?
TF: At first, everyone has the question of why a Japanese filmmaker made a movie about Liberia but after they hear what my intention was and that it was to tell a universal story and have a positive impact, they really understand where I’m coming from.
ARRAY opens “Out of My Hand” this Friday, November 13, in Los Angeles and New York City, followed by a national tour to include Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Seattle, Houston and Boston.