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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Hollywood has never been quick to change, especially when it comes to diversity: Ekwa Msangi

Committed to create multi-dimensional African heritage characters in her stories, Tanzanian-American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi in her debut feature Farewell Amor tells the deeply personal story of an Angolan immigrant family.

Written by Alaka Sahani | Updated: December 15, 2020 1:16:05 pm
Ekwa MsangiEkwa Msangi's Farewell Amor offers a three-dimensional perspective of a family's attempt to make a fresh start. (Photo: Nadia Kist)

When an Angolan immigrant Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is reunited with his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) at the JFK airport after 17 years, the meeting is awkward. In fact, each of them remembers this meeting differently. Farewell Amor, a feature film written and directed by Ekwa Msangi, offers a three-dimensional perspective of a family’s attempt to make a fresh start. Inspired by the real-life struggle of her uncle and aunt to build their life together in America, Msangi uses dance remarkably to help the characters reconnect with each other and rediscover their shared identity.

Farewell Amor, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, tells the story of their reunion and struggle to overcome the emotional distance between them as they share a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment. The film that will stream on MUBI, starting December 18, has received much critical appreciation in the festival circuit and Msangi has been hailed as a new talent. A Tanzanian-American filmmaker who grew up in Kenya and is based in New York, Msangi is currently the resident educational instructor with the African Film Festival, and teaches screenwriting at The New School and Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, Brooklyn College. Excerpts from an email interview with Msangi:

Your debut feature film, Farewell Amor, is inspired by the real-life story of your uncle and aunt. How did their ‘story’ stay with you?

The story is inspired by the relationship of an aunt and uncle of mine who were married in Tanzania in the mid ’90s. Soon afterwards, my uncle got a student visa to the US and came with every intention of bringing my aunt and cousin right behind him. Unfortunately, to this day they have been stuck in a never-ending cycle of visa applications and rejections, all the while remaining hopeful that one day they will be reunited. Over the years we’ve watched how this separation has changed them, both individually and as a family, and how they’ve had to turn into different people in order to remain hopeful. So, I was inspired to write the “what if” story. What if the visa was no longer an issue and aunty and my cousin were able to join my uncle (in the US), where would they begin at that point? I wanted to follow that journey.

You have got multi-cultural and multi-continent exposure. How has that shaped your art and storytelling?

I’ve lived as an immigrant of sorts all of my life. That has forced me to be very observant of people and surroundings. One’s ability to carefully observe in order to determine how others move and interact is key to one’s ability to survive a foreign environment and has greatly shaped my love for developing characters with a lot of attention to detail. I’ve also seen, firsthand, that no one is a monolith. African characters tend to be painted largely by the problems that they face and I am determined to create multi-dimensional African heritage characters in my stories.

Farewell Amor Farewell Amor has received much critical appreciation in the festival circuit.

Most fascinating aspect of your feature film for me was the three-dimensional portrait of a family’s reunion after 17 years. Were you trying to bring together different perspectives of immigrants through this?

I was fascinated by the idea that although all three characters were experiencing the one same, monumental event – the triumph of the reunion – they were each having such different and unique experiences. I loved the idea that we think we know or understand a situation when we see it from one point of view, but it can be so vastly different when looking at it from someone else’s point of view.

Your actors have got a lot of praise. What was the casting process like?

I was extremely blessed to have found the actors that I did. I had a wonderful casting director – Rebecca Dealy – who found most of the actors and brought them in to read the parts, including Zainab Jah who plays Esther and is a powerhouse actress who has been featured in many on and off Broadway shows in New York, as well as Jayme Lawson, who plays Sylvia. Jayme had graduated from her acting programme at Juilliard Acting School, New York City, a week or two before she came to the audition. Both Zainab and Jayme were absolutely captivating and their acting was just undeniable. Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, who plays Walter, is a friend and filmmaking colleague. I met him some years ago when our short films were travelling to festivals together. We have always wanted to find a project to work on together.

What was your brief to your actors?

I worked with the actors for about two weeks in pre-production. Aside from giving them some films to watch in order to understand the history of Angola and the civil war, I also had music playlists for each one of them since music was such a big part of the story and of their characters. I also wanted their on-set interactions to be as awkward and honest as possible, so we didn’t work on the script in pre-production. I wanted them to experience it like it was the first time for real. I had them do some improv exercises in order to establish their life before, during the separation.

Dance plays a major role in the film. Yet, you don’t show a lot of dancing.

The dance was used for a particular purpose in the film: as a third language of sorts for the characters to express their inner feelings and what they were going through. I love dance and love the use of it in this film, but I am aware that ‘Dance Films’ are seen in a way as less serious, especially with teenagers engaging in dancing. It tends to fall into a less dramatic, less ‘cinema’ category. I didn’t want the story to be dismissed that way. Dance is merely a tool used in the film.

Ekwa Msangi, farewell amor Farewell Amor will stream on MUBI, starting December 18.

In a world where many of us are migrants looking for a better job and life, what gives us a sense of home? What makes you feel at home?

For me, home is where one feels safe, and is loved and supported. I, personally, have many places in the world that I consider to be home. I know many people who feel that way as well. The world is so small now. There are neighborhoods in New York where people don’t even speak English but their native languages from other countries. There you can buy food, clothes, spices, and wares from the homeland so easily that you can create a ‘home` right here. The definition has expanded over the years for a lot of people.

You have been working towards telling more stories related to and about Africa. What has stopped these stories from featuring on the big screen?

Coming from East Africa, where a great many Hollywood films have been shot, these films tend not to portray any people, only animals and savannahs, and then White people finding themselves against the backdrop of animals and savannahs. For the few films that do portray African people, the stories that Hollywood tend to fund have been stories about either the most exceptional Africans that ever lived, or the most wretched one. Unless there’s a ‘cause’ behind the film — the elimination of war or famine, of FGM or child soldiers — it has often been believed that “there isn’t a market” for African films. This is changing slowly and with the introduction of so many A-level African heritage actors now demanding to play serious roles. It’s been a slow climb and the climb isn’t over yet. I do believe that as I build my career and allyship, things will change, but Hollywood has never been quick to change, especially when it comes to diversity. So, the struggle continues, and happily, we have stamina.

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