As curator of the project the director’s eye for lettera27 Foundation, I interviewed Mira Tanna-Händel, scriptwriter and director.
Mira Tanna-Händel was born in Kenya to Indian parents and currently lives in Berlin. She has written and directed feature films, documentaries and short films for BBC, Channel 4 and ARD.
Salme’s Freedom is her third feature film script and is set in Zanzibar. Salme is the story of the impulsive youngest daughter of the Sultan who tires of living in the palace. After meeting a German trader, Salme and her new partner decide to run away.
The interview is the second chapter of series of discussions with female African directors that focuses on funding and production strategies for contemporary cinema.
Vanessa Lanari: Tell us about your experience on the Salme's Freedom screenplay. How did you have the idea and how did you develop the work that brought you to the final version?
Mira Tanna-Händel: I was born in East Africa, in Mombasa to be precise. I left Kenya when I was 11 years old. Many years later while searching for stories about my Indian ancestors in Africa, I came across Salme. In the Zanzibar archives I saw memoirs of an Arab Princess called Emily Ruete. This combination of a German name for an Arab woman was intriguing for me. The memoirs of Princess Salme or Emily Ruete turned out to be so fascinating that I began planning a feature film. I discussed the idea with people at a Screenwriters’ Association meeting in Berlin, where my idea found a partner. I came across an article about Media Mundus’s Babylon International Programme, which was looking for ideas for treatments or scripts related to Africa and Europe. I saw this as my platform for getting the script developed. I was accepted onto the programme and the outcome of the two Babylon workshops held in Berlin and Abuja was a first draft and a screener. I won a travel bursary to attend a film market of my choice. At the Cordoba African Film Market in October 2012, I attended a special workshop to learn pitch my project to a jury. My project won special mention from the jury members for telling a complex story in an elegant manner. My project has been taken on board by two producers from Europe and Africa. Once we have a German partner the team will be complete as more than half of the film takes place in Hamburg and Berlin.
VL: What other screenplays have you written?
Mira Tanna-Händel: I have written two screenplays which are in the development process. One is about a young illegal African migrant who is found hiding in a German village. He comes under the wings of a woman who has always lived life according to the rules. The other story is set in the Philippines where a German businessman suddenly finds himself in a dilemma when confronted with preserving his paradise island or supporting a revolutionary movement in this area.
VL: In your experience, what are the positive and negative connotations of being a screenwriter in the context of African cinema?
MTH: In my opinion, the positive side is that the field is still wide open for stories from Africa. Not everything has been told. One doesn’t have to bend over backwards to find a new angle to old stories. The negative side is that the world has been fed on a certain diet of stories from Africa that is impertinent in the way it see things. So to try and break these clichés is an act of courage and endurance. New perspectives have to be brought forward and this means fighting at every level, from the idea stage to the script-writing and finally to finding like-minded financiers and audiences. For example, in my story, my protagonist is an Arab-Swahili woman who took on a German identity. Some funders have seen this as problematic because she is not really German. The idea that some nationalities do not come out positively in this colonial drama is also seen as problematic. The fact that there is no European saviour in my African drama is also most definitely seen as problematic. It is up to the individual writer to decide how much to agree to make fundamental changes things like this to find recognition.
VL: In your opinion, are there enough funds to help authors /directors? Are the existing supports for scripts/productions allocated in a correct way or do they restrict the freedom of expression or action of the authors?
MTH: I have been truly lucky with Babylon International and the Cordoba Festival. If I were to look again I might think differently. My problem is that I live in Europe and write cross-border stories. There are lots of us in this boat and we have fantastic stories to tell. The market caters heavily for stories which have region-specific/culture-specific identities. The African market and funds are meant for Africans, and rightly so. What we all have to get used to is that the funds are in the West and the major markets are in the West too. Therefore, the products have to be pitched for these financiers and audiences. This is the biggest challenge for any persons with “original stories”. Here is where our freedom as writers gets challenged and attacked the most. My advice would be stick to your guns and as one German producer told me, “all lids eventually find their own pots.” If one believes in the project then one will never take no for an answer.
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.