Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Interview with Afia Nkrumah, writer and filmmaker

Cafe Aphra contributor, Afia Nkrumah, is a theatre director who moved into making films a few years ago. She recently got a break when her short film, Shadow Man, was selected for funding by Film London. Here she tells us about her experiences...

Cafe Aphra: Hi Afia, I know you've been involved in film for quite a long time, but what made you want to write screenplays in the first place, rather than novels or short stories? (Or anything else!)

Afia: I come from an oral story telling background and I worked as a theatre director, so scripts are a more natural way of telling stories for me than the novel or perhaps more 'literary' forms of writing. I also love working with actors and screenplays facilitate that.

Cafe Aphra: Where did the idea for Shadow Man come from?

Afia: Last year after seeing the "go home" vans driving around parts of London asking migrants to leave the UK or be deported, I was so incensed that I sat down to write my response and a script of Shadow Man emerged. At the time of writing the script, I had no idea that the question of what should happen to migrants already in Europe would become such a looming issue for all of us. 

Cafe Aphra: I know you've also worked on documentaries in the past. Why did you decide to write and direct a piece of fiction about the migrant crisis, rather than a documentary? Doesn't the subject matter lend itself more to documentaries?

Afia: There have been countless documentaries and news reports about migration and the majority of them either cast migrants as helpless victims or as aggressors trying to break into our home. I wanted to say something different, give a different perspective of migrants which was neither of these two perspectives and to bring some humour and another cultural perspective to the subject. If I had made a documentary, it would have been very difficult to introduce humour as I did, for example through the character of Uncle Albert, the protagonist's ghostly uncle, and his African proverbs. 

Cafe Aphra: It's terribly expensive to make a film, even a short one, as we all know - where did you find the funding for this project?

Afia: The funding came from Film London, the screen agency for London who choose five emerging filmmakers each year to make a film under a production scheme called London Calling Plus. The competition is very stiff - as you can imagine - and involves two rounds of interviews with a panel and a presentation.

Cafe Aphra: Tell us a bit about the process of making the film, what were the ups and downs?

Afia: Pre-production (so getting the cast, crew and locations together and preparing for a film) is always frantic. You are often at the mercy of other people's availability and you have to make the budget stretch as far as possible. There is a roof top chase sequence in my film and persuading house owners and the council to allow us to have a stunt team and a camera crew run around and jump off their roofs safely was very challenging! 

The film is set at night and shooting during the summer meant we had much shorter nights than we would have liked. Having said that, the shoot was an amazing experience with a crew of thirty-seven people from countries as varied as Argentina, Italy, Sierre Leone and Romania. Our cast was also very diverse and ranged from a Bafta-nominated actress to local Tottenham residents such as an eighty-year-old man who had always wanted to act but had never had the courage to go for it.

 Shadow Man also had complex sound and music requirements and so the post-production sound was very demanding and took a few months to get right. I worked with Bath Spa University Sound department and their graduating students, who did a very good job.

Cafe Aphra: How has the film been received by audiences and critics, and how easy was it to get the film accepted at festivals around the world?

Afia: Short films are rarely reviewed - our version of reviews is getting selected into film festivals. Since completion, Shadow Man has been accepted and screened by six film festivals: in New York, San Francisco, Austria, South Africa and in January 2016 it will be shown in Dhaka, Bangledesh. 

At this point, the film has been nominated for one award and has won one award, but the audiences' reactions have been the best thing. I attended the screening of the film at the Century Shorts Film Festival in London this summer and it was amazing to see the audience laughing all the way through the film and clapping spontaneously at the end. That felt fantastic. Given that Shadow Man's subject matter centres around the issue of 'economic migrants', this was really great to see. I hear the film also went down well in South Africa. 

Cafe Aphra: What have you learnt - both as a writer and as a film director - from the making of Shadow Man?

Afia: The lesson I've learnt as a writer is that story is the most important component of a script. The structure of the story didn't really change from the first draft to the shooting draft, however the details within the story changed from draft to draft. For example, the protagonist Okokobioko has to persuade Tracey his neighbour to let him into her house in the middle of the night. How he went about it in the earlier draft was not believable, and I had to find better way of doing it. Also, it wasn't clear from earlier drafts that Uncle Albert was a ghost. I decided to let the character speak purely in proverbs as a way of making that difference clearer. 

Experiencing my film in countries where English is not the primary language has made me think about how I can make my future scripts less language dependent and more visual. If the audience doesn't speak the language and the film doesn't have subtitles, will they still understand what is going on in each scene? How can I make sure that an audience in, let's say, Ouagadougou gets as much out of my film as an audience in Surrey? That is my next challenge as a writer.

One of the main reasons why I got this project funded was because I decided as a director to shoot it as a film noir as a way of intensifying the story and to give the film a specific look. As a director it is not enough merely to film a script, you also have to have an idea that will clarify the story and give the film a visual resonance. The challenges I found in acquiring the right locations and with the way I like to tell stories with a camera, have made me realise that as a director I would prefer to shoot interior scenes in a studio environment, rather than on location. I would not have known that about my process had I not made this film.

Cafe Aphra: Has Shadow Man influenced what you will do in the future? And what are your hopes for the film?

Afia: I have had one offer to buy the film, but I'm keeping my options open while the film is in its festival run over the next six months. What is more important to me, is to connect the film to BAME audiences. There is a nonsense belief in the film industry that stories about black lives don't have an audience or can't make money, because films are available primarily from large cinema chains and cable subscription services. 

I have always believed that films should be shown where the audience is, especially in the BAME community. Even though I am not religious myself, churches play a central role in black lives and so I decided to do a church tour with Shadow Man and it has been surprisingly easy to organise. Shadow Man starts its local community and church tour at the start of October at Trinity Zion church in Tottenham. This is also a unique opportunity for me as a filmmaker to meet and engage with the audience of my future work.

Shadow Man on Facebook 
Bombax Media on Twitter

Friday, September 25, 2015

One Rainy Night, Midweek

Josie offered him a lift to the station so he could drink if he wanted to. Just before he got out, she yanked his tie sideways, downward, then more or less straightened it. 

“Perfect,” she said.  “Go get her, tiger!”

Did it go well?

They’d recognised each other, from their online photos, remembered each other’s names correctly.  Stephanie, Steph, either was fine with her.  She hadn’t been late. They’d both found the right clock to meet under.  From there, it wasn’t far to a bar, running, where he’d helped her off with her jacket and bought drinks.

“I’m absolutely soaked!” she said with an embarrassed laugh, shaking her head so her red hair flew out in a fan of water droplets.  He wiped his face with the end of his tie.
“Sorry, sorry!”
He waved off her apologies and noticed that her blouse was wet, perhaps too obviously: she slid her jacket off the back of her chair and back onto herself, muttering about it being colder than she’d realised. 
“I could kill this,” he said, reaching for his beer.  Froth slopped off the top and slid down the side of the glass to pool on the table.  He looked around their surroundings, the copper finishes, brown faux-leathers, beefy wallpaper, smoked glass lamp holders.
“Have you ever been on a blind date before?” he asked, suddenly.
“Once.  No, twice!  The first didn’t turn up.” 
“Maybe they did, but didn’t like what they saw,” he said, instantly regretting it when he saw her face, but not in time to stop his mouth running on with a quiet “and went home.” 
They sat in silence for a moment.
“The fool,” he added.
The bar wasn’t busy, a few office workers, the barmaid reading a phone that lit her face blue. 

Eventually he said, “You’re a school teacher, right?  Tell me about your day.”
She did, and he nodded and made noises, but he hoped he wouldn’t have to answer questions about any of it later.  He may have been opening and closing his legs without thinking because at one point, while she was still talking, she reached under the table with a slightly curious look and accidentally touched his knee.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, colouring deeply from the opening of her blouse upwards.
He laughed, it wasn’t that funny, and said “Don’t worry!” placing his own hand on the knee she had closest to him.  “See!”  She was wearing a skirt, and he felt her skin against his palm.  His hand still there, he touched around the bone with his fingertips. 

“And you think that’s where it went wrong?” Josie asked.

He’d called her on his way back.  He hadn’t wanted to interrupt her evening, but she’d said she was free now.

“I think so,” he mumbled, running his thumb around the rim of his cup.  She looked at him, and shook her head.  “Oh, my useless husband,” she sighed.  “We’ll get you having an affair yet!”

by Nick Black 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Incident at the Cafe Josephina

Two men tumble in from nowhere and crash onto the pavement, the distance of a thrown match from my al fresco table. Waiter arrives, setting down hot chocolate ordered thirty minutes ago, hardly acknowledging  brawl, as though it might be a cabaret performance. But my heart races like I’ve been ambushed in a paint-ball combat game. In Europe I’d heard Buenos Aires was a city with stories unfolding on every street corner. Surely not this; not on so balmy a Sunday evening in upmarket Recoleta? 

Bigger of the two men is wearing a well cut suit, jacket half come off in the fracas. Other man - no more than a boy now I see him clearly - is gripped in a headlock. His dirtied and oversized T-shirt emphasizes spindle arms, skin chargrilled by the sun. He twitches silently, in the manner of freshly caught prey, but otherwise puts up no further resistance. For brief seconds his gaze meets mine. His eyes have a woebegone stare; all hope given up, they say. Neither of the two men speak. Scene from an old silent slapstick movie, freeze framed. 

Hard edge of plastic seat digs into the backs of my thighs when I turn for reference to the other Cafe customers: A group of facially stretched porteñas – Chanel suited – cutting into enormous steaks; old man feeding cake to a ridiculously small dog. Other side, girl with red nail varnish smoking a cheroot returns nervously to pages of fashion magazine in her lap.  My waiter returns with a china plate layered with squares of dark chocolate in gold foil wraps, and the bill. I pick it up. Examine it. Service not included.               

by Bren Gosling

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Yard (West Hartford, 1970)

abounded light confused but radiating stirred
and lost between a summer gesture

when I was young I always wanted weather
apples strewn in grass    I heard the trees
ask after me
spectral horses
strung along the language of the hours
back there behind the house in moss
I held a story let you sound me out

or you spoke in shallow sleep: movement on the wall
bed become so small

consider what you planted with those stolen seeds:

earth reveals its layers 
a god to force me under
make me loam and garden

by Nancy Bevilaqua