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To Become an American Filmmaker, Ekwa Msangi Found Her African Voice

As her feature film debut draws critical acclaim, the NYU grad is resolute in her decision to tell specifically African stories.

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, and Jayme Lawson appear in Farewell Amor by Ekwa Msangi, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Bruce Francis Cole.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Farewell Amor”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Bruce Francis Cole.

This is the latest installment of “Breaking Black,” a weekly column focused on emerging black talent.

Stories of the immigrant experience are as old as cinema, but Tanzanian-American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi is using them to create something new. “Farewell Amor” is a quietly evocative drama in which an Angolan family, long separated by visa struggles, finally achieves its reunion in Brooklyn — and almost immediately, finds themselves emotionally estranged as they come to terms with 17 years without each other.

Father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is trying to let go of a relationship, while his wife, Esther (Zainab Jah), has found religious solace he doesn’t understand. Meanwhile, she and their daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) must adapt to life in a new country that makes each of them wonder if fighting to be in America was the right thing to do.

Msangi’s feature debut made its world premiere in competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which also presented producer Huriyyah Muhammad with the Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award. The film is inspired by a true story: Msangi’s uncle came to the U.S. from Tanzania in 1996 on a student visa, with every intention to bring her aunt. Twenty-four years later, they’re still apart, applying for visas that are denied, but hopeful that they will reunite one day. The film imagines a scenario in which that happens.

“I wanted to look at the gulf that can widen between loved ones who are separated, whether it be by immigration or any other means,” said Msangi. “How can they maintain that status and stay hopeful? But then also, what happens when they finally reconnect, and is it even possible? I’d love for audiences to step away thinking about these ideas as if they were the characters.”

The character of Sylvia proves to be a talented dancer, a skill that her father shares. Msangi wanted to use the idea of dance as a universal language to widen the scope of the story, communicating thoughts and feelings independent of identity and culture.

“I thought it was an interesting metaphor for relationships that would resonate,” said the filmmaker, who also has a background in dance. “Walter practices Kizomba, which is a partner dance that doesn’t have a regular foot pattern to it. But you really do have to be engaged with your partner in order to understand what they’re leading you to do, what they’re communicating to you, and which way both of you will go in this ‘relationship’ together.”

Dance also helped Msangi showcase a variety in African music — Congolese, Angolan, and generally more southern African music — that she hoped would counter the West’s tendency to “lump everything together.”

Ekwa Msangi

Ekwa Msangi

Nadia Kist

There are many who will be unfamiliar with the circumstances that face the family members in “Farewell Amor,” although it’s a situation that’s hidden in plain sight. Broad political forces — including hundreds of years of conquest, colonialism, and globalization — have long left the global South at a huge disadvantage.

“People don’t seem to consider that it isn’t by choice that people, in some cases, risk life when they leave their home country for another, leaving families behind,” said Msangi. “In New York alone, there are so many who do this; your taxi driver is probably one of them, and he is likely supporting a family back home with his salary. So I just wanted to shed light on how complex the subject is.”

A child of immigrants, Msangi was born in Oakland to Fulbright scholar parents who studied at Stanford University in the 1980s. They returned to Kenya when she was five years old.

Growing up in the east African country, where there was no original local programming, Msangi said it wasn’t immediately obvious to her that African filmmakers existed. She rarely saw herself in the imported Indian and American movies, or in the British TV shows.

“I complained about it so much, and finally, my father said, ‘Why don’t you go make your own movies, instead of complaining about what you’re not seeing?'” she said. “And I thought, ‘OK, I will.’ So I embarked on it thinking, ‘I’m going to be the first African movie pioneer’.”

Later, she caught a late-night showing on a local TV station of Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” “It was a film that had all black people, and they said in the introduction that the director was black, and I got excited thinking, ‘All right, great, I’ll just do whatever he did’.”

Inspired by Lee, at 17 she was accepted into New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1998. However, she initially struggled to find acceptance of her work as an African filmmaker at a time when there wasn’t much understanding of an “African aesthetic.”

“There is a way, as an African telling stories about Africans that are not within certain stereotypes, that people get very confused about,” said Msangi. “And so that meant having to constantly negotiate and explain things that are inherent to us, that may not make sense to you because of a limited awareness.”

Frustrated and discouraged, she almost gave up on becoming a filmmaker. However, a defining moment came in her senior year when she took a course by African film historian Manthia Diawara. He introduced her to all the African cinema greats, including Ousmane Sembéne, Djibril Diop Mambéty, and Souleymane Cissé.

“That was definitely a game changer for me, because I realized that I’d just been speaking to the wrong audience,” she said. “I needed to be making films for African people.”

With that specificity, she found universality. “Farewell Amor” drew near-universal acclaim following its Sundance premiere. Endeavor Content is handling all North American rights, and said it is fielding offers.

The film’s ending is hopeful, and open, but while Msangi wouldn’t rule out a sequel she said there are other stories she wants to tell. “There’s so much about African life that hasn’t been touched in film,” she said. “I can’t spend 10 years on one story. Getting this financed was tough.”

She said she would love to create in a world in which there was a pool of African or people of color financiers that existed almost solely to invest in films like hers.

“I have been taking a bunch of meetings, and rubbing all the shoulders, and seeing what actually comes with the hype of this film, because there’s a lot of hype,” she said. “But, I’m like, ‘Who’s got money to go with this hype? What’s going on?'”

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