|Ekwa Msangi on the set of "Farewell Meu Amor"
Tanzanian-American Ekwa Msangi, who grew up in Kenya and is based in the United States, talks about her multiple identities and their influences on her storytelling and filmmaking.
Ekwa, you are a growing cohort of American/African first-gen filmmakers born or raised outside of the parents’ homeland telling stories about their hybrid experiences, dual identities, relationship with their birth home and their parents homeland. You, in fact are part of a cohort of “third culture individuals”. Talk a bit about yourself in relationship to these experiences.
I was born during the time that my parents were living as students abroad, and then later our family moved to Kenya where my parents had lived/worked in the 60s during the first East African union and bought a house. So while I have always identified with being Tanzanian, I have always lived outside and have learned about Tanzania as a defence mechanism of sorts. When we moved back to Kenya in 1985, Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere, a socialist, stepped down from power and the country opened up to capitalism for the first time. Coming out of the Cold War, Tanzania was incredibly poor then, and although its merely an hour to the Tanzanian border from Nairobi, most Kenyans knew absolutely nothing about Tanzania, other than that Tanzania was a poor country where no one spoke English. At least that’s the feedback that I got from the people around me. I was from an immigrant family from a murky, poverty-stricken wasteland that was crossing the border and “stealing jobs” from Kenyans. I had kids ask me often times “what do you people have over there anyways?” Tanzania did not have television until the mid 90s so there was not any imagery of what it was like there. So when I would come back from our Christmas and Easter holidays, I would sit and regale my friends with adventure stories of my cousins and relatives, and the things they would say and how they would say it. Our slang, our new dances, the parties gone wrong…I suppose that was my first filmmaking, my first scriptwriting. Not because I was fabricating things, I was not. I was telling stories as I had seen and heard them, and often just as colourfully as they had been told to me. My father was an artist and a wonderful storyteller himself, and I remember him telling me that a big reason that he wanted me to grow up in Africa and not the US was because he wanted me to know Africa. To experience it first hand and not to grow up as a “minority.” I think he might have had some disappointments with what socialist Tanzania did or did not afford him as far as his career as an artist, but he always spoke with such pride about Tanzania and of our people. He believed deeply in the recording of oral histories, and would interview and talk to as many elders as he could. He instilled this importance of history keeping in me, so I tried to learn everything that I could. About my family history, about Tanzania’s legacy as a nation in support of many liberation movements, and about regular everyday life of the people that I know and love. The other thing that I will say has been a huge influence on me is language. While Kenyans speak Swahili, its use (outside of the coastal Swahili communities) is mostly for instructing servants and communicating orders. In Tanzania, its use is much wider, and therefore much more colourful in terms of expression. Most Africans (all?) speak whatever colonial language we inherited and it is used in instruction, education and government, but I find that Africans are most expressive and creative in our native languages. So even when we are speaking whatever foreign language we speak, we tend to be most expressive when we “pidginize” it in the way that we would say things in our mother tongue. I find that true of all African heritage people actually, including African Americans and Caribbean Americans too. The way which we say something, even if it is in English, is just so beautifully delicious to me! I was able to appreciate that as a child, translating stories and experiences from the colourful Swahili in which they were originally presented while trying to maintain the spirit in which it was said.
How did you come to cinema?
I came to cinema almost as a dare actually. Growing up my parents thought I would be a dancer at first, and then later a writer, but the idea of cinema came much later. In the 80s and 90s aside from never seeing any films or programs that reflected my life or that of anyone I knew, on television they showed some of the most god-awful films known to man. I am talking D-rate action films where the people drop dead before the bullets are fired, and it was like 30 remakes of Rambo. And why would any country need to watch Rambo so many times anyway? I would love to see the research on that film. I honestly believe that Africans made that film a hit by force! But I digress. I would complain bitterly all through the shows on TV, and finally my father was like, “Well then become a filmmaker so you can make your own films!” I am sure he meant that as an encouraging challenge as much as he wanted me to just let him watch his show in peace! I liked the idea, but had no idea how to become a filmmaker. An uncle, who had moved to Tanzania in the late 60s as a Black Panther, had worked in film in Los Angeles, and advised that I go to film school. And then a random late-night showing of Spike Lee’s film School Daze sealed the deal. I didn’t really understand the film, but I remember it having the most Black people I had seen in a film and the film director was Black too. And there was the 2-week run of Sarafina which was huge too. So when I left for the United States, I knew I wanted to make something like Sarafina (but without the unconvincing African character played by an American actor), and I knew there was a black filmmaker named Spike Lee. So I studied as much as I could about him and decided to do what he did. He went to school at NYU so I decided to do the same. It is funny because when I finally got into film school I was surrounded by people who were mostly brought there by their love of cinema. I was brought there by my hate of the kind of cinema that was offered to me as a young person and desperately wanting to see something different.
You recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign for your film project, “Farewell” before discussing that experience, talk about your other films, Soko Sonko, Taharuki, The Agency and the reception to them.
(Smile) The Agency was a TV show that I created, showran, and directed in 2008 in Kenya, and it was commissioned by South African DSTV company (MNET) which, were opening their East Africa branch and put a call out for local content. It was my first professional film experience out of film school and my first time shooting on the continent as well. I could tell you horror stories for days about that show, but the short version is that my producers mismanaged the production and so while we had fabulous scripts, an incredible crew and cast, we only managed to air 4 episodes before the show was cancelled so it crashed and burned before we really had a chance to breathe. It was an incredible experience though. Life changing. After The Agency was done and I had worked on two other local television shows, I came back to New York and decided to really focus on film work. Unlike the industry in Africa which is pretty open to direct whatever, the US industry is pretty narrow, so directing for TV does not mean you can easily hop into a film directing position and vice versa. Thus, Taharuki was born. I wrote it as an exercise in writing suspense, and only had the resources to shoot for one day with the help of friends. The premise came out of my time in Kenya during the post-election violence that followed the 2007 elections and wanting to say something about what happened. Tribal tensions have always existed in Kenya, and even breakouts of violence, but it is always quickly swept under the carpet and ignored, and I felt moved to say something about it. To say something about the fact that there were and are normal Kenyan citizens who are organizing and working towards peace, unity and justice. At the time watching any media, it looked like there were only foreign agencies interested in peace/justice while citizens just sat around wringing their hands or ignoring the situation altogether. The film did well and was a wonderful re-learning experience of how independent films can be made given the economic crash and everyone’s scramble to figure out new ways of making work. It was also my first crowdfunding experience which was also wonderful and very hopeful. My only regret with that film is that it has never been shown in Kenya. Anything politically related is sensitive so…maybe in some years I can show it there, as part of some anthology!
Soko Sonko came as a result of a few things: a) I was accepted to the Focus Features Africa First program, b) I went to FESPACO with Taharuki, and while I watched the most amazing African films from across the continent, they were all so sad and depressing!; and c) it was the 10th year anniversary of my father’s passing and I wanted to write a story about my relationship with him. He was a major proponent of my being a filmmaker in the first place, and was a brilliant, funny, remarkable African father, which is also something that is not often showcased about Black men in general. Positive stories about Black men just being Black men. I loved filming Soko Sonko and have loved screening it as well. It is always such a special feeling to watch an audience cringe, grimace and laugh at the characters in the film, but come away feeling hopeful as opposed to scolded.
Congratulations on meeting your campaign goal for the film “Farewell meu amor” I am especially drawn to the story because of its focus on the emotional experiences of the immigrant and the family left at home. There is much discussion about the economic and political aspects of immigration, and of course integration into the host country. But the need for love, longing, waiting on both sides, is not given as much attention. Talk about your choice of this topic, your intentions and where you are in the production process.
Just when I was sure that I was done with shorts for a while, Soko Sonko won a prize at the Zanzibar International Film Festival which gave $2,000 to shoot a short film and present it at the following year’s festival, which is how “Farewell Meu Amor” came about. Given how small the budget was, my aim was to make something that I could shoot in one day, with one location and two characters maximum. I have had a feature story about immigration mulling in my head for a while based on an experience of a close relative who came to the United States in the mid-90s and lost his visa status before he was able to get his family to join him, but does not want to go back because it feels like he is able to financially provide better from the USA. So the feature story is based on the idea of “WHAT IF the family finally got their visas to come join him? What happens if this wish is finally granted?” “Farewell” then became the prequel to that story, where we get to witness the few hours preceding this major life change. I have just recently finalized the film and am now waiting to hear back from film festivals that I have applied to. For me, “Farewell” shows some growth for me as a filmmaker. It is a very different film from any of the ones I have made before, and also such a wonderful filming experience. I absolutely adored the entire experience from the writing all the way through to the post-production. Thus far I have mostly showed the film to cast, crew and backers, but all the responses have been very strong. It is a ten-minute film that packs a punch! I am really excited about it.
How has your Tanzanian-American experience shaped your filmmaking?
Aaaah!! My Tanzanian-American experience is everything Beti! Recently I was mentoring some Tanzanian filmmakers on some film shoots, and being surrounded by Tanzanians who were not my relatives was so incredibly refreshing because I finally got to see the Tanzanian-ness in my storytelling style. I mean, I think my storytelling is very African in general, but specifically very Tanzanian too. We can tell a story boy! And our stories are all about detail and the emotional connection to the moment and circumstance, not just the list of events. We are all about attention to detail. Even if you listen to the lyrics in our popular music, its not just about “You loved me and left me” but all the details in that loving and leaving that people hang on to. I grew up in Kenya and at that time Tanzania was just coming out of socialism, there was not any television or local film, and most Kenyans knew nothing about Tanzania other than that it was the poor neighbouring country where people did not speak English. I was completely dependent on stories from visiting relatives, and later became the one providing stories to my friends after the holidays, as to what was going on in Tanzania and who my people were. So my Tanzanian-ness is seen in the details that fascinate me in a story, and my Americaness is seen in my aesthetic choices as far as acting style and camera. At least that is what I see it as for now. I imagine as I keep working on my craft, I will create some newness there. I should also say that as a Tanzanian who has lived outside of Tanzania for the most part, I am able to be objective and curious about things that I would possibly take for granted if I were born and raised there, so I appreciate that as well. To me, those are all strengths in my filmmaking.
Next steps? You have a feature film project Eastlands in the works.
Indeed I do! “Eastlands” is the sequel to “Taharuki” and a little more ambitious as far as the scope of the story, so raising money to produce it has taken a while. I’m RAVENOUSLY working towards my first feature film now and have a few film scripts in development. America is not normally the place where people go to find financing for African films that do not feature Americans running around saving folks, dodging warlords, or finding themselves in the savannahs, and European funders think that filmmakers living in the USA are not “needs-based” enough, so I am busy strategizing private equity options to get something done the way that I want it done. There is so much happening on the continent and in the diaspora, and Africans are really showing themselves in ways that we never did before. There is a real sense of pride and ownership that was not there before that I really enjoy, so I’m excited to be a part of the cadre of African creatives that get to show “us” in all our complexity, beauty, humour and brilliance. Very, very excited about that. A luta continua!
Interview with Ekwa Msangi by Beti Ellerson, December 2016
Photo credit: http://www.farewellmeuamorfilm.com