BC EXCLUSIVE: AN INTERVIEW WITH EKWA MSANGI-OMARI,DIRECTOR OF TAHARUKI(SUSPENSE)

A couple of weeks ago (almost a month), when browsing the internet and specifically on African Movies’ subject, I came across something that caught my profound attention. I came across a movie titled Taharuki that was/is scheduled to be screened at the New York African Film Festival. As you can guess, it is the name Taharuki Swahili word for Suspense, which generated my curiosity first. It is not very common to see “our films” in such prestigious festivals. And by “our films” I mean films from East Africa, made by East Africans.

It was then that I learned that Taharuki or Suspense in English, a short film, is actually written, produced and directed by one of our own, Ekwa Msangi-Omari (photo above) and one of the actresses in the film is Miriam Chemmoss whom I interviewed back in 2008.

I was then introduced to Ekwa by Miriam just to learn later that she is actually a distant relative of mine! Few weeks after that introduction, I had an opportunity to sit down with her for the interview you are about to read on the film Taharuki which is set against the backdrop of the start of the devastating post-election violence that took place in Kenya in 2007/2008 and has left tens of thousands of Kenyans homeless, traumatized or dead. This film is the fictional account of a man and woman from opposing ethnic tribes who’re working for an underground liberation movement to expose a child-trafficking cartel when something goes wrong, and they’re forced to make tough choices in order to stay alive and complete their mission.

Ekwa has directed for some of the biggest TV shows in East Africa including The Agency (MNET) a 13-part TV series which she created, show-ran, and directed; the hit show Block-D (KBC), and most recently co-created critically ac-claimed Higher Learning (NTV) along with several short films. She’s written for TV and film, and produced several shorts. Weakness, a short film she recently produced, has screened worldwide, including New York, Durban and Brazil and was nominated for a 2010 Kalasha Award and a 2011 AMAA-Award.

Watch the Trailer for Taharuki and then go ahead and read the full interview that follows. Pay close attention on the question of what she thinks about current state of African movies;

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BC: Let’s start with you a bit. How did you get into films? Did you go to school for it? Did you act before taking a role of a director? What motivated the shift?

EKWA:
I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was in high school in Kenya, but I can say that I truly had no idea what it entailed! It came from watching so many D-movies on TV all the time and wanting to see something different. One day they showed Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and even though I thought it was the weirdest film I’d ever seen, I decided I was going to do what he did. So I studied Spike Lee, got all his books, read up on him, and applied to his alma matter NYU to the film program and got in.

I got very discouraged along the way, mostly because there weren’t a lot of Black students and it was really hard to find my voice, coming from Africa and being amongst people who had no ideas and no references of what African film could look like. Luckily in my last year of college, one of the professor’s in the African Studies department offered a course on African Cinema and that’s when I was hooked. I did a Master’s degree in African Cinema and then got to work!

BC: How many films have you written, produced and directed so far?

EKWA:
Well, I’ve done all three jobs for my own work but have also done the individual jobs for other projects as well. Let’s see…I’d say I’ve written about 13 shorts, 4 features, created and co-created 4 television series. Then produced over 20 shorts and show-ran a television series. Directing-wise, I’ve done about 13 shorts, 2 televisions series and several other documentaries, promos, corporate videos, etc. It’s so weird to tally them up like that! Basically, I just work Jeff!

BC: Taharuki is a short film but with a strong and powerful message. I personally applaud you for making it. Walk me through the process of making it. How did the idea come about, how long did it take you to write it and then is there any specific message you are trying to send or a question you are trying to answer through this film?

EKWA: Thank you, I’m really pleased with what we accomplished with this film thus far. The idea came about as I was working on and planning for a feature film that I wanted to shoot but didn’t have any work in my repertoire of a similar genre to showcase. So I decided to put on a timer for 45mins, put pen to paper and let whatever happens, happen.

There are a number of thoughts that I had going into this, but the overall idea is one of unity and people working together to protect their own. In Africa, and in Kenya particularly after the 2007/2008 violence, many of my Kenyan peers started to really examine and ponder what it meant to be unified and tribal-blind, because there was an ugliness that came out of that election that took many by surprise. There was angst that had been boiling below the surface, unaddressed for far too long, and even in situations where people thought they were beyond those divisive feelings, they found that wasn’t quite the case. There are issues that have been carried over from our parents’ days, but our parents had very different struggles that don’t necessarily apply in the same way today, and here we’ve taken on those issues without really examining whether they’re still useful or applicable. 2007’s violence was the worst that it has been in a very long time – probably ever – and a lot of people started to really unpack the issues, the identities and ask some hard questions. So this was my idea of what one group of people working together across gender and tribal lines for a common goal in a time of war might look like.

BC: Taharuki has a wonderful cast. You have people like Miriam Chemmoss, Gilbert Owuor, Chris Kamau, and Eric Wainaina on the music side. How did you manage to gather this cast and how was the experience working with all of them. Was this the first time working together?

EKWA: My team was a dream to work with, I’m really proud of them! All three actors are people that I’ve known for many years since primary and secondary school in Kenya, Eric included. I’ve worked with Miriam and Chris before and only threatened to work with Gilbert and Eric, so when this came up I went straight to each, pitched my vision, and happily they agreed to take the risk with me. This was completely a labor of love and belief in each other’s work because no one – cast or crew – got paid on this film. The little money we raised was for food, equipment, some honorariums and a few odds and ends, but they all came on board in faith and I’m grateful for that opportunity. Now I have to work on getting enough money to pay them properly in the sequel!

WARIDI AND KEVIN DISCUSS – L-R MIRIAM CHEMMOSS, GILBERT OWUOR, Photo Credit-MILTON KAM

BC: What was the most difficult thing about shooting the film?

EKWA: Hmmm….well considering our budget, etc. it was actually a very easy and straightforward shoot, but also due to the fact that it was largely pro-bono work, I had to make it as short and sweet as possible and that’s where my producing team really got to shine! We had 30 set set-ups and 3 hours of make up to do in 12 hours on the weekend of daylight savings, in one very small location that was donated to us for one day only. So it was almost like a Game show challenge…but then again, all filmmaking is like that so I suppose our situation wasn’t special! Everyone had to be focussed and on point because we couldn’t afford to waste a single moment on set. Given the fact that people were donating their time and we had the location for the one day only, there wasn’t a possibility of coming back and doing it again if things didn’t work out the first time around, so you know…just a little bit of pressure! The good news is that everyone was healthy and in good spirits, brought positive energy to the set, and we had no disasters or acts of God that were beyond our control, so we managed to complete the mission as planned!

BC: Taharuki is scheduled to be screened at the New York African Film Festival which will take place on Monday April 11th, 2011 at 8:30pm. How did that come about? Are you nervous about how the audience will react towards it? How is the arrangement for movie fans who’d like to come see Taharuki and other movies?

EKWA: Well I’ve been an active participant and supporter of the African Film Festival for several years so it was a no brainer for me to submit my film to them when we were done. They treat their filmmakers really well and are the biggest African Film Festival in North America to date, with one of the largest archives and probably the largest reach as well. We were very honoured to have our film included in the line up.

Our people have been really supportive and encouraging thus far, and we’ve had some really good responses to the work, so I’m hoping that will remain. There’s always some nervousness when you release your “baby” out into the world after “raising” it in the best way that you possibly can, and there’s no telling what will happen thereafter, but thus far it’s been really positive.

Fans and supporters can get tickets to see the show online at http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-african-film-festival or in person at the theatre box office which is at 165 West 65th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. For other screenings of the film, we post the information on our film website http://taharukithefilm.com/ and people can also contact us through the website to schedule a screening in their area.

BC: What do you think about the current state of African movies?

EKWA: The current state is VERY exciting! There is a lot of very strong, very beautiful, very well crafted work coming out of the continent right now and people are really beginning to sit up and listen to what Africa/ns have to say about themselves which is fantastic!

There is plenty of work to be done still; lots needed in the realm of production support, training, distribution and audience development, but there are lots of very dedicated and brilliant people working on it so it will get done. Film is a very unique art form because it takes an entire team and massive collaboration to get the work done.

Similarly, it takes the same amount of collaboration to get our movies seen and supported. Production is only half of the task, after that we need to get the films out there and SEEN! It’s too expensive to make a movie without significant money and (wo)man power, but there isn’t another medium out there that has the same power to change minds and communicate across any barrier as film does. Music of course does that, but not quite in the same way that film does because film has the images.

As we artists grow and dedicate our time and energies to our work in order to reflect back to our societies the stories and messages that will help our societies to transform and grow, we also need support to keep ourselves replenished so we can give that support back to the society. It is a symbiotic relationship that we need to have, and currently we’re lacking in that regard.

Artists aren’t just frivolous people who refuse to get real work; trust me, no one does this just because they have nothing better to do. It’s HARD work! And it’s also IMPORTANT work, crucial even. What kind of society would we have if no one was out there day and night, working tirelessly to give us a reason to laugh and cry? So when I say that we need support, it’s not just about money. It’s also about encouragement and attitude.

Come see our work, engage us, dialogue, tell people about it, purchase it and show it to your family, demand more local work from our broadcasters and movie houses. Film needs an audience in order for it to work, so let’s work on this together as a society to develop our images: how we see ourselves and how the world gets to know us.

BC: Who are your favourite films directors?

EKWA: That’s a hard one, I don’t have any one person that I really love above all else, but rather, there’s people whose work I admire for different reasons. Spike Lee was the first Black director I’d ever heard of because I grew up in a time and place where we never saw ‘Black films’ and certainly not African films. By the time I went to college to study film, I wasn’t even aware that there were African filmmakers on the continent: a huge shame, considering the plethora of work that’s out there. Anyhow, so Spike was my entry into film and I appreciate his boldness and willingness to experiment (especially in his early films), Ousmane Sembene of course, for his persistence, his craftsmanship, and ability to make a very complex point so accessible and non-pretentious; Darren Aronofsky for how visceral his work is; Ang Lee, Susanne Bier and Fernando Meirelles tell really good stories and I love their style.

BC: After Taharuki (Suspense) what next?

EKWA: Well I’m in development on a number of projects, but most immediately I’m developing the sequel to Taharuki (Suspense); a feature film which is currently titled Sweet Justice. The feature takes the story from a different angle of the wife; an apolitical college professor, who comes to Nairobi City after the Post Election Violence to collect her dead husband’s remains and discovers his death was a murder for unexplained political reasons since she knew nothing of his political activity. Against better advice, she hunts for answers resulting in her son’s kidnapping, and she’s forced to seek help from a group of street boys and an underground liberation movement in order to rescue him before it’s too late. I’m really excited about the story and the team that I hope to work with, and Inshallah, will be developing the script at the Babylon International Workshop this year.

BC: Thank you for your time Ekwa. All the best.

EKWA: Thank you Jeff, it was a pleasure! Aluta Continua!

For More Information about this film including lots of photos from the set of Taharuki, please visit http://taharukithefilm.com/

  1. Zawadi, 11 April, 2011

    IT IS VERY ENCOURAGING TO SEE OUR FELLOW TANZANIA CARRYING THE TORCH UP AND HIGH..IT IS EVEN MORE SO WITH THE CURRENT NEGATIVE IMAGES ABOUT OUR BELOVED COUNTRY….CONGRATULATIONS DADA EKWA…WE ARE SO PROUD OF WHAT YOU ARE DOING…KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK MAMII

  2. James Makoy, 11 April, 2011

    Impressive!Nilikuwa sijawahi kumsikia huyu sister lakini inaonekana anafanya mambo makubwa sana.Hawa ndio watu wanatakiwa kurudi hapa Bongo na kutengeneza movie kwa sababu wamesomea na sio wababaishaji kama hawa directors tulio nao hapa.

  3. Ndalo, 11 April, 2011

    Now this is what I call seriousness in business.Way to go Ekwa.

  4. SN, 12 April, 2011

    “Artists aren’t just frivolous people who refuse to get real work; trust me, no one does this just because they have nothing better to do. It’s HARD work! And it’s also IMPORTANT work, crucial even. What kind of society would we have if no one was out there day and night, working tirelessly to give us a reason to laugh and cry? So when I say that we need support, it’s not just about money. It’s also about encouragement and attitude.”

    Word!

    I wonder how many TZ actors (and people involved in the film industry) have got this attitude.

    Nice interview, Jeff!

  5. Mwanamke wa Shoka (UK), 12 April, 2011

    ….Ekwa umenifurahisha na kunitia moyo….and you look so NATURAL…keep it up!!
    Blessings!!

  6. py, 16 April, 2011

    i have just admire ur job n love u Ekwa mi ni mpenzi wa filamu lakini nimekuwa siwezi tazama filamu za bongo kwa kuwa ni wababaishaji just receive my prayers and kisses sister umenigusa naw i knw tuna talent wabongo

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