The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.


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07 December 2020

NYAFF 2020: Ngozi Onwurah in conversation

New York African Film Festival 2020
Ngozi Onwurah and Karen McMullen in conversation
UPDATE: Also see below a conversation with Ngozi Onwurah and Beti Ellerson

Ngozi talks about her films Coffee Colored Children (1988) and Shoot the Messenger (2006).

The film screening and the conversation are part of the New York African Film Festival's Streaming Rivers: The Past into the Present 2020 virtual edition.

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On this post I will take the opportunity to present excerpts from our interview in 1997 published in my book Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television, 2000--Beti Ellerson.

During the interview Nigerian-British filmmaker elaborated on a diversity of themes: being a woman, filmmaker, bi-racial person, her transnational upbringing. Below are excerpts exploring these themes.

Identity as a transnational filmmaker:

As a black woman filmmaker, I get invited to a lot of different things and sometimes they want me to wear different hats.  Sometimes I am a woman filmmaker and that's the priority at that particular event.  Where it gets particularly muddy is when it has to do with being an African filmmaker.  Because the way that black America has appropriated the word African American, the context in which people refer to Africa gets very muddy.

As a filmmaker who works out of London, the problems that I have making films are completely different to a woman who, say, lives in Nigeria, who lives and works in Zambia, or Zaire, or Tanzania.  The problems that she has as a filmmaker are completely different to the problems that I have as a filmmaker, or the people who we make the films for are different.  So, in terms of who I am on a professional level, it gets very complicated.

It is less complicated on a personal level.  On a personal level, I know who I am; I know where I am from.  But in terms of talking about it, you cannot lump together a woman who lives in London, who gets funding from the BBC to make films, with someone who is living in Nigeria, where literally the budgets, the facilities, everything, would be completely different in terms of how she has to work.  So it gets complicated and sometimes I don't think there is enough differential made between black people or people of African descent working outside of Africa and people of African descent working in Africa.  It is two different experiences.

Mixed-race, bi-cultural identities:

The fact that I have a white mother and a black father is essential to my identity.  Obviously, it gives me a unique perspective politically.  Politically I am black; emotionally I'm black.  But once you say that "unequivocally, I'm black," there are specifics that come out of the fact that I have a white mother and a black father and that I lived half my childhood in Africa and half my childhood in an all-white neighborhood in Newcastle in England, that give me a specific viewpoint on everything I see.

On another level, there are issues around a kind of polarization, especially in America, but also in England, though nowhere near to the extent as in America: The two races are incredibly polarized in America, there's black and there's white and they seem to very rarely mix.  They seem to very rarely live in the same neighborhoods, and that's not the case in England.

My work has always been specifically about being three or four things simultaneously.  It's about being black British, it's about being bi-racial, it's about being African and it's about being all those things, because that is what I am.

...I have these three identities that are concurrent with each other and yet the only natural one, the only one that was natural and not forced on me in any way was the one I had in Nigeria up until the age of twelve.


…What I inherited coming from Africa and living in Africa until I was twelve, the thing that was the most important to me, was storytelling.  I was told a lot of stories.  My whole approach to storytelling comes from what I grew up on in Africa.
...In Africa, stories are neither realism nor non-realism, there is no line between what is real and what is non-real.  So the spirit's world, or whatever, co-exists side-by-side with the real world.  And they are not one thing or another.  And what I think about European filmmaking, even African-American filmmaking, is that it is very much lodged in realism.

Storytelling is realism, so that if you are walking down the street, you are real, you are three-dimensional and what is going on in your brain is something that you cannot see.  If you look at all of my other work apart from Mondays' Girls there is a certain amount of mixing of reality, what's called reality, and what's called non-reality.

In The Body Beautiful, the mother is having the love scene with the younger man.  That didn't really in actual fact happen; that happens in her head, but you bring it to life and the daughter is watching it.  In Welcome to the Terrordome, the Africans go underneath the water because they are trying to walk back to Africa and we see what their life is like underneath the water.  These are all things that are absolutely comprehensible to Africans.  If you look at a lot of African literature, it deals with the spiritual world side by side with the real world….

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