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10 Filmmakers Of The African Diaspora You May Not Know, But Should

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act March 27, 2014 at 1:26PM

10 Filmmakers Of The African Diaspora You May Not Know, But Should
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Filmmaker Spotlight

This is a list that could easily have run up to as many as 50 names, given the number of who I believe are promising filmmakers I've been introduced to in the last 12 months, with the potential to eventually make their own individual splashes in the coming years.

Alas, a cut-off of 10 felt solid, and these are all filmmakers whose works I've seen, and was able to make a determination based on, but not only in terms of what I believe is talent; there's also a diligence and hustle to this business that each has demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, to match the talent. It's a necessary aspect of showbiz, if one's desire is to stand out and above the deluge. 

A common theme amongst them is what I feel is a desire to challenge the status quo, whether in terms of what is considered "acceptable" fodder for the screen, telling the kinds of stories that are typically ignored or even considered taboo, or challenges in terms of film structure, culture and industry norms.

I also narrowed my list down to filmmakers who, even though they may have been toiling away in so-called *obscurity* during previous years, seemed to suddenly burst onto the film scene in the last 12 months; At least, it was in that time period that I was really forced to pay attention to their work, for one reason or another, and have been following closely since. 

Although many of these filmmakers saw their first films (features especially) premiere in 2013, so, of course, it would seem logical then that I learned about them in the last year. Others I've been following for a little longer, and maybe should've included them on past lists like this, but, failed to do so. 

Ultimately, my intent here is really to highlight those filmmakers who maybe haven't received the kind of attention that their contemporaries have, even though I'd argue that they are just as capable. These are relatively *new* filmmakers I believe you should know about, and whose work you should follow, because I expect much to come from these artists in the coming years, as they continue to labor, grow as filmmakers and impress. As I suggested at the start, each, with a combination of talent, work ethic and perseverance, are candidates for their very own "coming out" parties some time in the near future.

It was also important that these be filmmakers (although not every single one of them) who, despite a growing body of work, still find themselves on the outside looking in, so to speak; filmmakers of the Diaspora whose work I've seen and respect, and who I'd like to help raise further awareness of, especially here in the USA, since the bulk of our readership resides Stateside, which I'd hope will help ensure that more and more of you (film fans, as well as film professionals and decision makers working within the film industry) are familiar with them and consider what they each have to offer. 

And finally, needless to say, it was important that the list included filmmakers of the African Diaspora (not just African American filmmakers); after all, as the title of this blog states, our emphasis is on cinema of the African Diaspora. 

Without further ado, here are 10 filmmakers you may not be familiar with, but should know of, in really no particular order:

1. Chika Anadu (UK/Nigeira): Her 15-minute short film The Marriage Factor - a Nigeria-set contemporary comedy/drama about a young woman and her marriage-minded mother - was my intro to her work last year. The film combined scripted elements, with documentary footage, and dance sequences to tell a tale that I'm sure many will identify with - the pressure one's parents, in this case mothers, put on their daughters to find Mr Right, walk down the isle and eventually, give birth to grandchildren. Chika's impressive and powerful feature film debut, B For Boy, was developed at the Cannes Cinefondation Residence Program, and made its debut at the BFI in London last year, followed by a USA premiere at the AFI Fest in LA, where we saw it. The drama, a realist film that questions Nigeria’s gender divide as a middle-class woman resorts to desperate measures after a miscarriage, won the Breakthrough award for the filmmaker at AFI. It tackles the struggles between tradition and modernity in present-day Nigeria, highlighting the limits assigned to what women are expected to be and accomplish, and is just as bold and uncompromising as its director. A glimpse at Chika's work can be found HERE.

2 - Jahmil X.T. Qubeka (South Africa)His 2013 thriller Of Good Report, premiered early last year to controversy at the 34th Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), in Durban, South Africa, where the film was censored following the classification refusal by the South African Film and Publications Board, citing that it "promotes child abuse & pornography." The film was not screened in any of its allocated slots during the festival, as a result, and so could not be in competition; however, the Durban International Film Festival acknowledged the film’s achievements in stimulating national debate and highlighting local issues of importance. Festival manager Peter Machen awarded the film with the Artistic Bravery honor, for the first time ever. The South African Film Board eventually did reverse their decision and gave the film the US equivalent of an R-rating. Qubeka's homage to classic film noir, and "serial origins story" Of Good Report tells the story of a demented school teacher's attempts to get away with the brutal murder of a teenage beauty. The film, directed steadily by an assured hand in Qubeka, is rich in symbolism and pop culture references that underscore its themes. References to other films abound, as Qubeka demonstrates, on screen, his love and great knowledge of cinema, notably the classics. Call it a South Africa-set contemporary cinematic adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (a novel already considered controversial) with its own killer twist.

3 - Jono Oliver (USA) - The writer/director/producer made his feature film directorial debut with an absolutely heartwarming and inspiring drama titled Home, which stars Gbenga Akinnagbe as a man suffering from mental illness, trying to rebuild his life. It's a quietly impressive indie, anchored by a strong performance by Akinnagbe as a man who simply wants nothing more than to live as any other man would - with dignity. Comparisons to films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest will likely be made, but that's not exactly bad company to be in. Not that it's a mirror of that film, but that's a landmark movie I think most will immediately recognize and refer to when conversations about dramas set in mental institutions (like Oliver's Home) are had. But Home is a drama about hope and determination that I think will resonate universally. While director Jono Oliver's name may not be familiar to you (yet), he's worked as an assistant director on a number of projects that you'll be familiar with, including The Great DebatersNotoriousGuess WhoBarbershop 2, and Soul Food. Home is his feature film debut; and hopefully only the beginning of a strong filmmaking career.


4 - Kenneth Gyang (Nigeria) - I had to include at least once Nollywood filmmaker on this list; although after having seen Kenneth Gyang's Confusion Na Wa, the filmmaker clearly has ambitions beyond that prolific film industry's constructs, and he would have had my attention anyway, whether he was a Nollywood filmmaker or not. "6 Strangers, 2 Days, 1 Phone" is the 2013 Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Film's tagline. It traces the lives of a disparate group of individuals as their paths cross over the course of one day, resulting in tales of lust, infidelity, friendship, revenge, heartbreak and, of course, confusion, as the title suggests. Some reviews of the film likened Gyang to a kind of Nigerian Quentin Tarantino, and his seminal 1994 hit Pulp Fiction, itself also following several intersecting stories, dealing with similar themes. Gyang's social-commentary dramedy is production house Cinema Kpatakpata’s first film. Cinema Kpatakpata was formed in 2010 by Kenneth Gyang himself, Yinka Edward and Tom Rowlands-Rees, with their goal being to produce feature films, documentary and television, in Nigeria and throughout Africa. Confusion Na Wa was funded by the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam Film FestivalBy the way, the "na wa" in the film's titled is akin to an exclamation mark - as in, if you're really taken, overwhelmed, or enamored by something. It can both be a positive or a negative.

5 - Mischa Webley (USA) - His feature film debut The Kill Hole puts a spotlight on war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That this is a subject still woefully ignored on screen, especially where black war veterans are concerned, makes it even more significant. Although the film has a lot more than that going for it, including its strong performances by stars Chadwick Boseman (before the world saw him as Jackie Robinson in 42), and Tory Kittles. The Kill Hole tells the tale of a troubled vet who is plagued by actions he took while he was deployed in Iraq. Set against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest wilderness, the quietly haunting story of one man forced to confront his violent past, as he's forced to face a mysterious assassin in his quest for redemption, is effectively crafted, despite a very limited budget and a 22-day shooting schedule. The strength of the film also lies in its atmospheric feel, thanks to the cinematography by Eric Billman, its original score by Jason Wells and editing by James Westby. Webley told me previously that he drew from familial experiences in coming up with the film's underlining motif of disregarded veteran servicemen, expected to adjust to civilian life, even though they may be unequipped to do so. It's a genre mish-mash and it works. 


6 - Hala Lotfy (Egypt)Lotfy is a leader of a new generation of energetic, defiant filmmakers collecting in post-revolution Egypt. She's a founding member of a new indie film movement shaping up in Cairo, intent on challenging the monopoly long-held by the country's film and TV industry’s old guard. The group has launched their own union that will challenge the existing Egypt Cinema Professions Syndicate, which has been the face of the country's film industry since 1955. Lotfy and company intend to force a rethinking of the country's strict cinema censorship laws that ban religion or sex-related subjects/topics on screen, and are exploring alternative methods for getting their films in theaters, given the country's monopolistic distribution market. Lotfy's debut, Coming Forth By Day, gives audiences a look at Egypt unlike much previous Egyptian cinema prior to it, with comparisons being made to European arthouse films of yesteryear. It premiered in the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival earlier last year. It also won her the FIPRESCI prize in Abu Dhabi. The film follows one day in the life of Soad, who lives with her mother and bed-ridden father on the outskirts of Cairo, as the camera patiently follows her movements and daily activities that have become routine, capturing her frustrations as well as moments of great tenderness. She calls making her feature debut, Coming Forth By Day, "an act of resistance," adding, "we are trying to do films that are revolutionary in content, take risks and are adventurous in low-budget form... This is how things will change."

7 - Mati Diop (France/Senegal) - If you're not already familiar, the last name might give you a clue. Mati is the niece of the late, great Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty (director of African cinema classics like Touki Bouki and Hyènes). And as if that wasn't impressive enough, she's the daughter of Senegalese jazz musician Wasis Diop. Clearly talent runs in that family, as Mati strikes out to make a name for herself as well, as a multihyphenate (actress, writer, director, producer). Cinephiles will likely be familiar with her work in 2012's Simon Killer, as writer and co-star, for which she picked up the AFI FEST 2012 Special Mention For Performance nod (both for writing and acting). Prior to Simon Killer, she starred alongside Alex Descas in celebrated French auteur Claire Denis' acclaimed drama 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum). At 30 years old, she's been making films since she was 22, when she directed her first film, a short titled, Last Night. Mati's next film, Mille soleils (A Thousand Suns), which is currently touring the film festival circuit, is a documentary that explores the legacy of her uncle's masterwork. In the film, Diop journeys in search of her origins through the footprints left by that film, and along the way gets to know Touki Bouki's 2 main actors (Magaye Niang and Mareme Niang) thirty five years later. But she's rooted in a tremendously gifted family, and I'd guess that frequent questions and comparisons to her late great uncle's work aren't uncommon.

8 - The Filmmakers Of The New Caribbean Cinema Series - I initially intended to highlight just one filmmaker from the group, but decided to instead highlight the collective, because I love this kind of communal power in the name of progress. It takes a village, as the saying goes. The New Caribbean Cinema Series is a pioneering approach to filmmaking in the Caribbean, with what it calls a mixture of ‘First World’ technical know-how and business savvy, flavored with a distinctly Caribbean world view. Launched by Storm Saulter (the recently-released Better Mus Come) from Jamaica, and St Lucian-born Michelle Serieux, with contributions from Joel Burke and Nile Saulter, the collective intends to showcase the best of what the region has to offer, in terms of up and coming filmmakers, who are tired of waiting on change to come to them, and are instead making change happen on their own terms. New Caribbean Cinema exists to challenge old models (a popular and key theme amongst filmmakers on this list) and to prove that, in the region, there is indeed innovation and ingenuity in the arts. The first film to come from the collective is Ring di Alarm!, which comprises of a compilation of 8 short films by different directors from the Caribbean, including Desmond Young, Kyle ChinMichael "Ras Tingle" Tingling, as well as the aforementioned Michelle Serieux, Nile Saulter, Joel Burke, and Storm Saulter. It made its USA premiere at the 3rd Annual Flatbush Film Festival: West Indian Edition (presented by caribBEING), a year ago. As the festival write-up describes it... Moving from the majestic Blue Mountains, to the gritty ghetto, to the stunning north coast, and spinning stories funny, suspenseful, thrilling and poignant, this is a cinematic mosaic as diverse and complex as the island that inspired it. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next for them.

9 - Yidnekachew Shumete (Ethiopia) - Over a year ago, Yidnekachew Shumete was one of 3 Ethiopian filmmakers selected for a week-long visit to Monaco and Cannes for workshops, programs and events happening during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Shumete, along with Henok Mebratu and Olisarali Olibui Tongolu, were selected by the International Emerging Film Talent Association (IEFTA) and the Ethiopian Film Initiative (EFI). On their trip to Cannes, they met a range of international distributors, sales agents, producers, directors and film commissioners at the festival, and also had one-on-one sessions with established producers and production companies. The goal of the ongoing initiative is to help raise the international profile of Ethiopian films, by presenting the country's best young filmmakers and helping them establish themselves in the international film marketplace. During his Cannes meetings, Shumete pitched his then upcoming project, titled Nishan (or Medal Of Honor), which he did eventually get produced and has since completed, and which made its debut last year, at FESPACO in Burkina Faso. The film follows a young woman who dreams of leaving the country to seek her fortune elsewhere, and hopes to do so with the help of her father, who mortgages his house to allow his daughter to emigrate. Of course, all doesn't quite go as planned, eventually resulting in conflict within the family. It was Shot in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and stars Bertukan BefkaduFeleke AbebeTewodros Sifraye, and Alebachew Mekonnen. And while director Shumete is practically an unknown here in the USA, he's a well-respected director in Addis Ababa, as well as a cameraman, editor, teacher and screenwriter. His first feature film was the suspense drama Siryet (released in 2007). Nishan, his second feature, was my introduction to his work, and will likely be yours as well, as the film is starting to receive the kind of international exposure that his first film did not see at all.

10 - Destiny Ekaragha (UK/Nigeria) - We've been following the production progress of her feature film debut Gone Too Far, since 2011, when, before a single frame had been shot, when its script was shortlisted for Film London’s 4-day boot camp - an initiative that's backed by BBC Films, which includes seminars, masterclasses and mentoring from established directors, writers and producers. Afterward, the filmmakers are given an extended development period, later pitching their projects to a greenlight panel; and after that, 6 of the 12 feature projects are greenlit for production, with budgets of up to £120,000, or about $186,000. Destiny's was officially greenlit in February 2012, after making it through the entire development process. The script was written by playwright Bola Agbaje, based on her original Olivier Award-winning stage work. Prior to Gone Too Far, Ekaragha directed a number of short films (we featured 2 of them: A Bloody Muddle and Tight Jeans years back). Gone Too Far, her feature debut, is a funny, sharp and observant coming-of-age comedy, representing black Britain on screen via a vibrant group of teens, in a way that is rarely even seen. Set on a small up-beat estate in Peckham, in the heart of the Afro-Caribbean community, the film follows a group of kids (led by two estranged teenage brothers meeting for the first time) over a single day as they struggle with reality, and risk dreams deferred. The film features a young cast of up and coming actors, with Malachi Kirby (My Brother The Devil) leading. O.C. Ukeje, Shanika Warren-Markland and Adelayo Adedayo. It's currently touring the international film festival circuit.

The end.

Again, while not an exhaustive list (no list ever is), these 10 are a good start for any of you interested in broadening your diaspora film interests and vocabulary beyond the popular, the expected and the comfortable.

This site continues to highlight filmmakers from all over the world, as we learn about them, and as I've done several times in the past, I'll continue to request that those filmmakers we aren't already aware of, introduce themselves and their work to us. After all, if we don't know you exist, how can we write about you? Typically, I spend my days canvassing the the web, searching for new voices that impress or intrigue me, and occasionally I land on a few. But your willing participation would help greatly!

I'm looking forward to what 2014 will offer by year's end..

This article is related to: FYI, Lists


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