AiW Guests: Libby Gervais, Abi Taphouse, James Truscott & Maddy Holmes
“Let’s actually think about who they are, not just what they are here to take from us”.
Ekwa Msangi is a film director, writer and producer, who has been making films since 2003. Her short films, notably Farewell Meu Amor, Soko Sonko (The Market King) and Taharuki encompass a broad variety of themes including human connection, political violence and the everyday life of the ordinary person.
Her film Farewell Amor premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, receiving global attention and much critical acclaim. Vibrantly depicting the lives of an Angolan family, Esther and her teenage daughter Sylvia are reunited with husband and father Walter, who has been living in New York for seventeen years in the hope of making a better life for them. Msangi explores the importance of dance in expressing their Angolan identity, the complexity of new beginnings and the ways in which life sometimes doesn’t turn out how you thought it would.
We had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Msangi about Farewell Amor, her experiences and observations as an African woman filmmaker and looking forward, the ways in which she hopes to influence the film industry.
Maddy Holmes for AiW: We know that Farewell Amor is inspired by your Auntie and Uncles’ story, but what was your reasoning behind choosing this title for the film?
It’s interesting because I wanted to tell this story from a while back and to raise the money for it we decided to make a short prequel. It’s kinda the moment before, where Walter is getting ready to go to the airport and Linda comes to drop off the keys. That was quite literally him saying goodbye to his lover, so that film is called Farewell Meu Amor. I immediately started working on the feature after that. It has a lot to do with them as a family, as individuals having to say goodbye to what they thought they knew.
Farewell Amor explores love in what is not a conventionally ‘romantic’ way. After their long-awaited reunion in New York, Esther and Walter’s connection is not the same as they once knew. Do you feel a responsibility to expose the fragility but also the power of human connections?
I don’t know about responsibility, but maybe an obligation. I am a person who enjoys writing about character as opposed to situations or events. I love writing about relationships because that’s what everything is. To me, that’s sort of the essence of every good story.
You mention in a previous interview that this project was an “opportunity to depoliticise the immigrant” and instead focus on transforming society’s image with African cultures. Why is it important to you that your audience connects to these stories in a way outside of the migrant experience?
I think that when it’s politicised it’s taken less seriously. You feel pity for those people over there, [gestures] their problems that you have no connection with. I could never relate to what it’s like to not have enough food or employment and have to walk through a desert, at the risk of death and dehydration, or climb a wall into this country to live illegally. I myself could never relate to that, as opposed to missing somebody I love, being in a long term relationship with somebody I can’t quite get to. We can all relate to that. You don’t have to be in any special circumstances to have that experience and so I feel like it brings it a little closer and it’s not just “Oh let’s raise some pennies or give five dollars each to the starving and now I feel better about myself.” No, they are actually people. Let’s actually think about who they are not just what they are here to take from us because that’s what they said in the news. Consider what their lives might be like.
James Truscott for AiW: In cinema Black women are often depicted as passive, unnoticed characters or stereotyped as aggressive in society. In Farewell Amor, I really like how we see the film from differing perspectives thanks to the triptych structure. Towards the end of the film, Esther says “We see you” to Sylvia after she said that the crowd “saw her” during her performance. How important do you feel it was to give Sylvia and Esther a voice? And how does this relate to how you feel as a Black African woman in American society?
Similar to things that are said about immigrants, there are a lot of things that are assumed about African women: that we’re all oppressed, that we’re all dealing with horrible, beating husbands who are taking all our money and making terrible decisions. I know that those circumstances are true for some people – not just African women – all over the world. But there’s a way in which Black African women have been portrayed as victims of all these terrible things and that has also been portrayed to us as unempowered people.
Then there also tends to be women who are portrayed as the complete opposite. What I do know is a lot of women – looking at my aunties – have what people refer to as soft power. If you examine traditions or even our language, dances or different cultural practices, there’s a lot of evidence to show that women were very empowered. Most of us came from matriarchal societies. So I wanted to be very specific in terms of my portrayal of Esther and Sylvia in terms of how they are empowered. Because of her religious practice, Esther is a traditional woman. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her own goals and desires. It’s just that the way that she presents them is very specific. While we were editing there were a lot of moments where, especially with Sylvia, people were like “Well, you know, if she’s annoyed with her parents wouldn’t she just blah blah blah [gestures]…wouldn’t Walter just walk into her room?” No. You have to understand the dynamic between an African girl and her father.
On the topic of empowerment, I think that one way you empower Black people through the film, in addition to the speech and dialogue, is through the cinematography such as the lighting of Black skin.
In terms of shooting Black skin, I mean come on now! I’m a Black director, there’s no way I can be out here just messing up people’s images! [laughs] That would be a high shame.
Did you feel a lot more pressure to deliver on that front?
Yeah, because we notice these things! Because WE notice these things. And so, if anyone is going to make a point of doing a good job, then surely it should be us! I made sure I found a Director of Photography (DP) who could address those things and it would be equally important to him – Bruce Francis Cole is amazing. Most of the Black DPs I’ve worked with are able to play in that space and are not afraid to use colour. There was a period where, right after I graduated from college for example, where everyone would just use orange filters because that was ‘the only way to light Black skin’ [gestures sarcastically], so everybody just looks kind of golden! Then everyone went to blue or purple and we see that in Insecure. That’s great, but I think now that we’re seeing a lot more Black faces on screen – and they’re not just incidental faces – people are putting in a lot more effort.
Do you see lighting as purely a visual aspect? Or something that aids the storytelling?
I think it plays a role in aiding the storytelling. Considering a group of immigrants from a different perspective, I think it’s also like “I’ve never seen Black people look like that.” But it’s really for us, because we’ve spent years and decades saying “Man, I know we can look better than that.” Looking ashy, the makeup is off or we have this weird pink situation. I remember hearing in film school, the way that Kodak, Fuji or any of those celluloid was created was … you know, “we can’t light Black and white people together well… the contrast is going to be too much”. Usually it’s the Black person who suffers. Now there are people who actually know how to do that work, so let’s revel in it.
Libby Gervais for AiW: I can’t talk about Farewell Amor without talking about music and dance. What attracted you to the Angolan Kuduro and Kizomba music? Did you always know you would focus on an Angolan family specifically?
Yeah, it’s just that I love the music and the dance. The end [laughs].
My family is not from Angola. I just wanted to involve that particular style of music because it’s beautiful. Tanzania borders Congo and Congolese music was heavy when I was growing up, which is not dissimilar.
I thought both dances – Kizomba and Kuduro – are wonderful representations of what the characters were emotionally going through or what they have to overcome in order to be dance partners. There is a certain level of trust that has to be created between dance partners in order to dance Kizomba.
I was excited to showcase Angolan music, because why not? In my opinion a lot of what is making Afrobeat as big as it is now, is because it sounds very much like dancehall and reggae. So here in New York for example a lot of people will play Nigerian Afrobeat not knowing it’s Nigerian. [Exhales] Love me some Afrobeat, but also we have so much other music. This is just one style from one country on the continent.
Did you get to collaborate with any Angolan artists specifically for the soundtrack?
Not specifically. I would have loved to, but we didn’t have that kind of money. I was just going through my playlist and going through songs/artists that I really love and then stalking people and google translating long messages about how much I love their music. It’s hard, you know, there’s not a lot of protections for artists on the continent and so they get screwed over all the time. I’m really glad that we were able to deliver on the promises that we made to people.
It’s interesting that you mentioned your own playlists because after watching the film I thought I’d go on to Spotify and see if there was a soundtrack playlist and I found your Spotify account. So now I follow you…
[laughs] Oh great.
…I noticed you had long playlists for each of the main characters. When were these made and how did they function in your creative process?
Mmm smart woman, okay [laughs].
I made playlists for each character to get into their shoes as I was writing their chapters. My relationship with music is very specific and I can’t listen to one thing for everything. I would listen to a lot of Kizomba when I was writing for Walter. I would listen to a lot of Kuduro when I was writing for Sylvia. I had certain playlists like Tanzanian choir music for Esther. Then, when we were in pre production and working on building the characters, I shared the playlists with the actors.
Can I dive into Sylvia’s dance and how she uses it for self-expression? The dance name ‘Young Afrikka’ highlights her presence as an outsider. It feels as though the film challenges a monolithic, essentialist depiction of Black people and maybe even making us question pan-Africanism today. What are you communicating about the difference between the African foreigner experience and the Black experience, specifically through Sylvia’s dance style?
There is a homogenisation of African dance, African culture, African music, where it’s like this is what everyone listens to. This is the entire continent. I went to a party a few years ago that was celebrating Congo’s Independence Day. The whole night they played Nigerian music. They had two, literally two Congolese songs. I was like y’all are not even serious. Africa has a lot more music and very specific styles.
Part of it too is that there is a lot of miscommunication amongst groups. The pan-Africanism that existed in my parents’ heyday for example, where people were really communicating with each other doesn’t exist in the same way for all sorts of reasons, many of them political. There’s genuinely a little bit more of a distrust today, like “what are you taking from us?”
There’s a lot of people who are first generation who grew up here and have assimilated and therefore present as African American. So, when someone is ‘fresh off the boat’ so to speak – and you know because of the accent and because of these things that are different – it’s much easier to be like “you don’t know us, and you don’t know what’s going on over here and you wouldn’t want to be a part of this.”
Basically, what I was trying to get at is the commentary on the pressure to assimilate and that’s the choice Sylvia’s trying to make through the film. There are ways we assimilate because it’s safe and there’s ways we assimilate because we don’t want to be different – being the odd one and having to explain ourselves again and again. It’s not just Black people, it’s something that happens to every single group that comes to the US.
Abi Taphouse for AiW: Since Farewell Amor premiered at the Sundance Festival how has your audience or the reception towards your work changed?
This is the first film that I’ve shown at a non-Black film festival. Sundance is a white film festival in terms of the content that they share – for the most part – and certainly in terms of the people that go there and can afford to go there. I’ve applied to Sundance for years, you know. A group of filmmakers that I work with, our joke was that we were applying for our annual rejection letter from Sundance.
I am so glad my investors took this risk to support us, and I say risk because these aren’t people who are in the business of making films about Black people or Africans. It was like, y’all took a hard left! But they loved our story and we had a wonderful time working with them. I had the final cut on my film so people were panicking. In conversations we had with our investors, we said listen, “how many of you have ever made a film about Africans? What do you know about any of this that you’re going to be able to cut this better than Ekwa? You’re gonna have to trust her.”
Then to get not only audience feedback but also the critical feedback that we got was amazing. People were so excited and still nobody bought the film. My investors were so perplexed as to what the fuck was happening. My producer and I had to sit them down and be like dear friends, this is called racism. This is what happens in this industry. This is not a new line, everyone gets told: we don’t know how to market your film because there’s Black people. So you’re going to have to go talk to your friends about their racism and yeah, it’s going to be really uncomfortable. They did and we finally got our distribution deals. There’s still work that needs to be done and who knows how long that will take. But I know there’s a lot of people who are pushing for those things to change and hopefully – inshallah – it will change sooner rather than later.
Yeah, good change takes a long time! Do you think the success of your film will hopefully make it easier to raise money for future projects?
Unfortunately, it’s this horrible chicken and egg thing. We can make a beautiful film, nobody wants to buy it or market it because they’re afraid and then we don’t make our money back. So when the next person comes they say “Oh, that other film was beautiful but they never made their money back, so I don’t know if that’s a really good investment.” But is that true? I think it’s going to be a hard thing to convince anybody until the marketing distribution part of the chain changes.
There’s a film that came out in 2011, this really interesting Congolese film called Viva Riva! It’s a Blackploitation, packed with action and sex scenes. It showed at the African Film Festival, standing room only, an 800 person theatre, Walter Reade, Lincoln Center. Everyone was so excited about this film and the distributors who bought the film, Music Box, this was the first Black film they had ever distributed. They see this screening the festival had done work to find people to come to and they were like “our work is done, we don’t have to do any kind of marketing because it’s clearly going to be a hit.” They book it at Angelika, a very respectable art house theatre in Manhattan, Lower East Side. It’s not the kind of place that a lot of Black people are going to know about. I went to five screenings and there were no more than ten people maximum at any screening because nobody knew.
I spoke to the distributor and said what are you doing, what is your plan for how to market this film? And they replied “there were all these people who showed up even though we didn’t tell them we were going to release the film on this day” and magically he just thought they would show up again. Do they go to Angelika? Do they have memberships? Why would you expect those people would come? I was sending the producer urgent messages saying you have to do something, the film is dying. But they just said well, as a producer, we’ve done our job, we’ve sold it to a distributor. It’s the distributor’s job to do these things. In a normal circumstance is it their job, but you’re talking about an African film and they have no experience so you’re going to have to get in here and do something and they just couldn’t get it together.
Given these structural issues that limit the industry in this way, what were the particular practical challenges that stood in your way with this film, as an African filmmaker?
I mean we’re at a very interesting changeover point where people are doing a little bit better in recognising their biases. I’m hoping in my career to be in a position where either through the people I work with, or who approach me, it will cause them to think, to pause.
In Africa, we don’t all wear kente cloth, listen to the same music or look the same. African people are very specific looking. There are certain groups that you can kind of interchange. But with a film like Black Hawk Down, a movie which was set in Somalia, Somali people look very specific; you can’t just interchange any brown face for Somalis. They cast a whole bunch of Haitian people in LA and I thought, friends, those actors aren’t Somalis. That is just laziness because you would never do that for white people films. A Norwegian film would never cast a bunch of mediteranen Italian folks or a story that takes place in New Orleans, cast a Boston actor and not even bother working on their accent. It wouldn’t work. If I did that I would never get a job again!
Even within the same country in Africa we don’t all speak the same language. These are elements I wanted to account for with Farewell Amor. Like what is Walter’s education level, did he go to school in the north or the south? If he went in the north that probably meant he went to a catholic school, and can speak proper Portugese vs Esther her Portugese might be more mixed with Kimbondo, which is an African language, therefore she’ll sound like this you know? That much detail for roughly the fifteen lines of Portugese in the entire film!
I want to be able to bring that level of specificity to my films so that over time, I hope, I can influence the standard and norms in terms of how to think about people of colour and diversity within the realms of cinema. If you’re going to actually tell stories about Black people or any POC – aiming or just hoping that they would get the same amount of treatment and level of specificity, that we’ve been giving to white films forever, is deserved.
Yes and that can have a dual effect because hopefully if we see proper representation then we will learn and understand the differences between different places in Africa. Our final question is given that many creatives have struggled to produce new work during the pandemic, are you managing to work on anything currently? If not is there any story you particularly hope to tell in the future?
No. I haven’t started writing but have been thinking about writing which is… better. Covid has been a big distraction. Farewell Amor took a lot out of me, we were under the gun for two to three years straight. For many artists in this particular time it makes sense to make a goofy movie. I ask myself what I should actually be talking about because there is so much struggle and suffering. But at the same time I don’t want to necessarily do a movie about struggling and suffering because God damn, that’s all we’ve been doing!
It’s hard, especially in this country, because of how people think about film. Everyone I visit says, “this is our formula, this is what we’ve been able to figure out is gonna make us money.” So within these parameters in which everyone is working, the only thing they’ve been able to see about my latest film is asking if I want to do a teen hip hop dance film – definitely not – or a film about immigration and I just did an immigrant film! Part of me is trying to be strategic about what projects I select so that I don’t get stuck in a rut of being the “chick who makes those kinds of movies.”
There is a film I’m pitching for right now, it’s a biopic too that’s actually based on an African character who I really love and revere so I’m really excited about that. I can’t talk about it in detail because I haven’t got the job yet, everything is moving really really slowly. Fingers crossed that I get that! It’s a little embarrassing but I am a person who doesn’t believe in talking about my relationships until we’re heading to the altar, so the same goes for my projects.
That’s okay we respect that, we don’t want to jinx it!
We’ve not put a ring on it yet! I’m not taking this man seriously until he puts a ring on it and then we can talk.
Abi Taphouse is a final-year English student at the University of Exeter. Her interests lie in the exploration of the postcolonial, within African and British settings. Her particular focus is on how texts work to de-homogenise perceptions and images of formerly colonised spaces. She hopes to begin a PGCE in September.
Maddy Holmes is a final-year English and Drama student at the University of Exeter. Her interests lie in Refugee and African literature which aim to transform representations of postcoloniality. Maddy aspires for a career within the creative industries upon graduation.
James Truscott is a final year French student at University of Exeter with an interest in African disapora narratives. Alongside his degree he works as sports commentator, journalist and musician.
Libby Gervais is in her final year at the University of Exeter studying English Literature. She is hoping to take a Masters in Comparative/Contemporary Literature, where she can further pursue her interests in Black British film and literary activism. She aims to be a publicly engaged scholar for racial equality.