Mojisola Sonoiki, founder and director of the Women of Color Arts and Film Festival (WOCAF) based in Atlanta, has found her calling as cultural activist. She talks about her passion for art and culture and her journey through three continents.
Mojisola, you have a rich background in cultural production and advocacy on three continents! Tell us a bit about your trajectory and the experiences that inspired you on this path.
I have been involved in artistic events from a very early age and music and dancing was my first love. From primary through middle school in Nigeria, I was a member of the traditional dance groups that entertained guests at our end-of-school-year cultural event. Then I was one of the organisers of the foundation week at my secondary school, the International School of Ibadan (ISI), which was a celebration of the cultural diversity at our school. At ISI, I was also involved in the Drama Society where I acted in plays, as well as a member of the school band where I played the recorder. On graduating from secondary school my plan was to study literature in university as I loved to write and had been writing since I was two years old. But being from a middle class Nigerian family and being the first born it was almost an abomination at that time to want to be anything outside of a doctor, lawyer or engineer. As I was adamant that I didn't want to study any of these, selecting computer science was the closest I could come to appeasing my parents.
Still having the artistic itch, during my first year at University of Lagos where I studied computer science, I was the social secretary of the Jazz Club, and we hosted a sold out Fela Kuti show. I was the only woman on the production and I had the nickname "Thatcher" which in retrospect established my leadership qualities I guess. This definitely peaked my interest in organising cultural events. As I grew older I knew my calling was not in the sciences but in the arts and I have managed to balance both ever since.
What have you been able to bring to your work as cultural activist having studied computer science?
Being tech savvy has definitely made my life easier working as a festival director, as I am very comfortable using the computer. When I started the festival, most times I had to update the festival website myself, create the festival brochure and market the festival online. This has meant that it was easier for me to be a one-woman show, having the skills that I had. And of course I believe I have the natural knack for organising events.
You have been involved extensively in film festival organising, in Nigeria, Ghana, the UK and in the US, please talk about these initiatives and give some highlights.
In 1998, I was one of the founding members of the Black Filmmakers Magazine (BFM) and the International Film Festival in London. I also coordinated the first of its kind mini film festival of short films by Black women filmmakers called È wá wò (come & see) Sistahs in Film in Brixton, London. It was a sold out event and the beginning of a wave of black film festivals targeting women.
In 1999 I was invited by the Women and Earth Eco-Network International in New York to program their Film Exposition for the Accra chapter of their organisation. This was an exciting and challenging project, as I had to search for films that fit the mission of the organisation. It was also one of the first times that I had to reach out to filmmakers globally. It was my first trip to Ghana and I stumbled upon a place called Lake Bosumtwi near Kumasi, which is apparently a sacred place and believed to be the home of gods and goddesses of Ghana. It is one of the most serene and beautiful places I have been to, and I have been in love with Ghana ever since.
In 2005 I was the festival director for the Out on Film Festival in Atlanta and programmed the first series of shorts by black GLBT filmmakers, which was a sold out event. I was also the first black woman to head this festival in its 18-year history.
Over the course of the years, I have taken films that were shown at my festival, the Women of Color Arts and Film (WOCAF) Festival, to other film festivals where I have programmed screenings based on that festival’s theme. I have programmed screenings for two film festivals in Nigeria—the Lagos International Film Festival and the Zuma Film Festival in Abuja. At the Zuma Film Festival, the screenings I programmed included twelve films and seven of them won awards including awards for Best Editor, Best Cinematographer, Best Documentary and Best Foreign Film. I programmed the film screening segment of the 4th Women in Africa and the African Diaspora (WAAD) International Conference in Abuja, Nigeria in 2009 and this was the first time the conference had such an extensive screening that showed films that addressed each of the conference topics.
What have you gained from your experiences as festival founder and organiser? What are some of the challenges? What are some differences, commonalities when comparing the various locations?
I have discovered I have a good eye for selecting films that capture people's attention. I have gained the ability to organise large events successfully. I am very good at multitasking at the festival and typically, I run the festival as a one-woman show most of the time, with people coming on board to help a few months before the festival. The challenges of running a festival of any size in any country is getting the funding to pay for the films that are to be screened, funding for bringing in the filmmakers to talk about their work, funding for paying the artist and her band to perform and funding to market the event. Another big challenge is getting committed and experienced people to work on the festival. One of the big differences I find is that dealing with artists and filmmakers from Africa, they make different demands and have interesting expectations as to how they want to be treated if they are invited to attend a festival. To some degree I understand that they are treated as celebrities in their home countries but at the end of the day what our festival offers them is a free platform to promote themselves and their work in a different country. I have had an artist scheduled to perform at my festival in Atlanta, who got to Atlanta and did not perform even though we had paid for everything upfront. Granted we had some technical difficulties, but these were resolved and the artist still did not perform. This is part and parcel of running a festival of this nature...you win some you lose some...
Of course when one talks about a festival, the audience plays an important role in its success. Some reflections on audience building, the role of spectatorship and the importance of Africans as cultural readers?
The audience is very important when it comes to a festival as without them, there is no point in what we are doing. Therefore I value the feedback that the audience gives and we try every year to get feedback from our audience through ballots and surveys. I find that it is important for us as Africans to explore different cultures to expand our horizon so that our culture and traditions can evolve and grow and not remain stagnant.
Benefiting from your diverse experiences, do you attempt to make connections with Africa and the African Diaspora in your work?
Always! It is very important to me as an African to reach out to other Africans and support their work. We are a marginalised group in the context of world politics, or anything else within the global context really, so the more we can support each other, the more our voices will be heard, our stories told and our problems solved.
In 2005 you founded the Women of Color Arts and Film Festival (WOCAF), bringing to it a great deal of experience with festival organising with a focus on women. How did your interest in promoting women in culture develop? What are the mission and projects of WOCAF.
I kind of metamorphosised into this lol.... It was a natural transition for me having worked with various female artists in London, managing them, playing with an all female African drum group, and being surrounded by a lot of female filmmakers, it was only a matter of time. I resisted my role in being one of the voices for African women for a long time and one day I meditated deeply on it and accepted it for what it was, "my destiny", as my mother would say.
WOCAF's mission is to be at the forefront in promoting the leadership capabilities of women of colour media makers/artists; the Festival serves to expand the global dialogue on women’s issues through the presentation of positive empowering images in film, music and art.
WOCAF will soon celebrate its seventh year in March, what are the plans for the 2012 edition?
The theme for the 2012 Festival is "Celebrating the African woman" and films by and/or about women from the African continent as well as showcasing music and art by women from the continent too. We have scheduled the films, The Education of Auma Obama by Branwen Okpaku, a documentary about president Obama's activist sister, Ties that Bind by Leila Djansi, starring Omotola Jolade Ekeiinde and Kimberly Elise, and Ma'mi by Tunde Kelani, starring Funke Akindele, to name a few.
Visit our website http://www.wocaf.org for the schedule of events. The festival is scheduled for March 15th - 18th 2012. Sponsorship is still welcome.
Interview with Mojisola Sonoiki by Beti Ellerson, February 2012.