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Africa First 2012 Profile: Advisor Sharifa Johka On Burdens, Pressures & Criticisms Of Program

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by Tambay A. Obenson
April 4, 2012 4:47 PM
2 Comments
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Continuing on with this 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 the advisors, were forthcoming.

And starting on Monday, I began posting all of those interviews here on S&A, starting with Ghanaian American Akosua Adoma Owusu (read our chat HERE if you missed it).

And today, I'm switching over to the other side, with my conversation with one of the advisors - Sharifa Johka.

Tambay: The first thing is to tell me your name and just a brief background.

Sharifa: I’m Sharifa Johka, an independent producer. I started in film with New Line Cinema then worked freelance and began to program and curate film festivals all around the world. Film is my background. I went to film school in Los Angeles at USC. I always knew I wanted to work in film and actually was introduced to New Line through a program through Film Independent. They had Project Involve and I was one of their participants.

TambayAnd this is not your first time as an advisor for the Africa First. It’s kind of a consistent thing every year?

SharifaI actually joined the group in their second year so I entered unsure of what this really could mean and what the possibilities were. As you can imagine, I participated in several panels and workshops, so for me it was just another one of those things that helps you to support filmmakers but I think the one thing that was very clear about this process was it was a sincere commitment from Focus not only providing an opportunity for the filmmakers to have their films shown, but actually invest which is very unique. You have showcases all over the place but whose actually putting money into the production. So when you recognize sort of that dual component, you see how this program is very different. And I think that when you think back about going into our fifth year, our next cycle will be cycle five, and that’s 25 filmmakers that have been cultivated and nourished, and propelled into a career by this single program, and just knowing the impact of that is very awesome.

TambayGiven that you’ve been involved in somewhat similar initiatives in the past, maybe with the main difference being that this one actually involves financing as well... Are there any differences between this one and the others you’ve been involved with?

SharifaTypically you might be in 3-5 hour sessions that can be very intense and for the most part, they’re a couple of hours in a day. This is extremely immersive for 5 days from 8am to 2am and it goes in and out of professional, formal spaces into informal spaces, where we teach the filmmakers just by doing, that the work that they’re getting involved in doesn’t just happen in the boardroom, it doesn’t just happen in the office. So it’s really about how you can create that social network of people that continue to push your project forward. In addition to that, once we all leave New York it doesn’t end here. We continue to have year-long conversations with the filmmakers and as someone who is in the position to program them and contact, we actually facilitate the process of getting those films shown.

And even before that, a lot of the filmmakers leave here wondering, after we beat them down to death, they wonder how am I going to achieve this? And part of it is matching them up with crew, matching them up with producers, matching them up with writers sometimes because they’re not going to get that script together on their own. So providing that sort of creative support is how we go beyond the room and the time and date, and it very unique to this program and I have relationships with all the filmmakers from three years ago and I anticipate coming to visit some of these filmmakers in their homes and continuing the conversation beyond today.

TambaySo it’s not that each advisor is assigned to a specific filmmaker?

SharifaWe all do and I think what happens is filmmakers over the course of time for whatever reason, they respond to the way to a particular advisor might give notes and their in alignment with how the direction they want to go into. So they’ll continue to reach out to people very directly and very uniquely but they know that always we’re available and they have all of our numbers and they use them. If they ever come to our town, we’re family so it’s very unique in that way. When I get the scripts in advance and I see their films, I get really excited about them and you wonder where are the similarities and where’s the distinct differences.

Tambay: So, obviously you’ve seen - this is the fourth class. I’m assuming you’ve seen the first two classes?

SharifaAbsolutely.

Tambay:  And I’m sure you’re happy. What are your general thoughts about what you’ve seen of the films? Any favorites?

SharifaI certainly can’t pick any favorites but I can tell you being involved in some of those early conversations, I have learned that you can never predict who is going to come out on the other end. We have filmmakers who weren’t familiar with rewrites, they have absolutely no idea how to construct their budgets, and you wonder how are they going to make it through.

And those films come back in the most surprising ways and I can think of one specifically, Mwansa The Great where there was the very delicious idea of the young boy who was spirited but she wanted lions and tigers and bears in her movie and we’re like look, we’re not going to have lions and tigers and bears in this movie. However, you can create the whimsical nature of lions and tigers and bears and how can we help you? When you see that film, it’s just so charming and she was able to really dig deep into where she wanted to go. And you’re able to really tie into- because her overall idea was when we thing about young children, specifically in Zambia where she is, she was concerned about the idea of poor children who really don’t have anything and because of that they have a really short, depressing outlook on life. She said, “We didn’t have much but I was a happy child. I was an adventurous child.” She wanted to recreate that. And I think that she was able to do that without her lions and tigers and bears. And being able to see where she went was fascinating and lovely.

Tambay: This is the one with the kid with the cape? I did get the whimsical nature of that and getting into the mind of the child. That was very well done.

SharifaThere’s definitely many of those. And the year that I wasn’t here for but I can totally understand is when Dyana wanted to do the Senegalese musical. And there was a lot of pushback that it wouldn’t work and how are you going to jump into song and dance in the middle of the marketplace? And prior to the advisors seeing the film the second year when I wasn’t present, they were all talking about what the hell did Dyana do? Did she pull it off and they saw the film with me and they were as surprised as I was. I didn’t know what was coming. And when they started bursting into song, I was like what!!? Literally, I screamed in the theater sitting next to James Schamus and he was like, isn’t it good? It was delicious.

Tambay: And I’m asking everybody the same questions - a common criticism that we get from people who read our site and comment is the concern that this is an American studio funding, financing, sheparding projects by African filmmakers.

SharifaI haven’t heard that before but I can certainly see how that could be brought up or even discussed. But the reality is, with or without the funding from Focus, filmmakers around the world are influenced by American filmmakers only because it’s the dominant film in the marketplace. So that’s sort of ridiculous.

However, one of the things that I will say in our process of working with the filmmakers is we are five people with five very different points of view, none of which are right, it’s just a specific perspective. And you can take pieces, all of it, or none of it. But it’s certainly not a condition of you getting this money. The money is yours with or without our notes. And I think it might be helpful for people to understand that although Focus is providing the money, the input on the script comes from the Diaspora. So you have all the mentors that represent different regions of the world who are speaking with very specific perceptions. And I think that knowing that, and knowing some of the pushback- the filmmaker don’t sit there and say I agree with you. Oh, we argue. People cry.

Tambay: That’s good.

SharifaI’m not kidding. They say, I totally disagree with you. This happened in my family. And I say listen, what you’re forgetting is a lot of the information that you’re referring to that happened in your family, is in your head and it’s not on the page. So there’s a lot of back and forth, and even the films I loved, they made choices that I disagreed with and strongly told them not to do. And more specifically with Mwansa, I said please don’t kill that kid. (laughs). I told her please don’t kill that kid. And she said he has to die Sharifa, he has to die. So he died. I think that’s a healthy concern to have and I think it’s a healthy conversation to make, but I think when people get that information, they realize that these kids are not pushovers. And I call them kids only because it’s a really quick reference but they’re adults and they know what they want and they appreciate the contribution but they know what they want and make decisions on their own.

Tambay: And finally, is there a burden on the filmmakers or even on the advisors? Do you feel that you are essentially representing Africa on the global film stage? Does that add pressure to the creative process?

SharifaI can tell you that we certainly talk about how to represent the characters in the films. Particularly when we’ll dealing with characters who aren’t specific in race on the page. We very much talk about when you start casting this movie, there’s going to be a different reaction based on who you cast in that role. There was a specific film last season called Dirty Laundry where without a black lead, that movie was a totally different film. Many of us advocated for a black lead and talked about what the consequences may be if we don’t and he thought that he could get around it based on certain things he wanted to do and the decision that he wanted to make. But certainly I think some filmmakers come with a stronger sense of that responsibility than others but we certainly remind them of it and I personally feel that all of us as advisors and filmmakers and black people, that that’s some of the bags that we carry. I carry it very happily and others see it as a burden but I see it as part of the armor that you walk into the world with.

That's it! Thanks to Sharifa for her time; installment #3 in the series before the end of the week!

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2 Comments

  • Kato | April 7, 2012 7:36 AMReply

    When they started this project, they said it was for African filmmakers based in Africa. Actually one of the conditions was that someone should have been living in Africa for at least two years prior to applying. Now we have all these people who left Africa as kids and settled in places like USA, France etc winning. They are part of societies that already have funding and support systems and taking away the only opportunity for funding available to Africa based filmmakers. So not FAIR!!!

  • other song | April 4, 2012 8:10 PMReply

    what's the best short so far? I mean 'really good', not just 'oh, that's cute'

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