7 Directors Share Their Best Tips for Aspiring Filmmakers
Whether working in Nollywood or on the documentary circuit, these directors share the advice that helped them get their films made.
No matter if they're a newcomer or a well established name in the game, directors know that making a film is always a huge undertaking, filled with massive challenges. Filmmakers from both the continent and in the diaspora continue to tackle these challenges head on, in an effort to tell their stories and make their movies.
OkayAfrica spoke to a number of directors, from South Africa's Milisuthando Bongela, who took eight years to make her first film, Milisuthando, which debuted to positive reviews at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, to C.J. Obasi who's made his name in Nollywood for years and now is riding a wave of acclaim for his latest thriller, Mami Wata.
Each director shared some words of wisdom that helped them overcome the hurdles of making a film, words that should provide some inspiration to any new filmmaker looking to make their mark on the African film industry.
Babetida Sadjo and Jennifer Tchiakpe star in Our Father, The Devil.
Foumbi's debut feature, 'Our Father the Devil,' earned a Film Independent Spirit Award for best feature.
"Write from your heart, write what you care about, put out what you want to see. I always create for myself first, I say that, always, because I'm a cinephile, and I'm always trying to create what I want to see up on screen, what I think is missing. As long as you're being honest about that, and you are staying true to who you are, then you're going to make something special. When I'm writing things, I'm also looking at what's already in the landscape and asking myself, ‘How can I add to this conversation? How can I offer something new and unique?’ Because I think that's important. There's a lot of films being made every year. There's a lot of talent out there. It's about finding the thing that's unique about your perspective that can help you stand out from the pack, if that's possible. It's hard, but I think that's worth trying to do.
Wale Oyéjidé shot 'Bravo, Burkina' in both Italy and Burkina Faso over two weeks.
Photo: Sundance Film Institute.
Oyéjidé, whose 'Bravo, Burkina!' debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and opened this year's Fespaco, moved from fashion to filmmaking.
"There was no notion whatsoever of Sundance when Bravo, Burkina! was written. We weren't aiming for that, even though we [were] over the moon to be [there]. And I think the point of that is to not aim for a particular accolade or trophy, but to aim for a feeling and to aim for an impact.
First of all, find out who you are and what it is that you have to do on this planet. It's a continuing conversation with yourself, but I think at least begin to ask yourself what that is, and that will guide the work that you create, and things will come along the way. Sundance came, but there are many, many things which didn't happen for me, which I was hoping to have. If one focuses too much on any particular tangible thing, there's so many other people aiming for that one thing, just statistically, it has no bearing on you being great. You're great, but there are a thousand great people. If you attach yourself emotionally to like, 'I want to be at Sundance,' it's going to be a very, very long, sad road for you because lots of people want to be at Sundance. But I think if you attach yourself to 'I want to make my mom or my cousins or my best friends feel better about who they are,' that's a little bit closer to home and actually, frankly, more meaningful over time.
So I think the game should be to have an impact, not to be at a particular place, and you might find many places along the way that give you that same level of gratification."
Oliver Schmitz recently restored 'Mapantsula' for its 35th anniversary and showed it at the Berlin Film Festival.
Photo: Oliver Schmitz.
Schmitz' made 'Mapantsula' in 1988, which was considered the first anti-apartheid film, before going on to make a number of highly-acclaimed titles, like 'Life, Above All' and 'Hijack Stories.'
"You don't necessarily need to go to a film school. You don't necessarily need to have 20 years built up of experience before you make a film. If you have something to say and you want to say it strong enough, then you find the means to do it. That's the most important thing.
Enjoy the journey. I recently heard Walter Murch, the film editor, speak about the creative process, and he compared it to a game where different people in the room are thinking different things. It's like a complicated version of 20 Questions where everybody has something else in their head at the beginning of the process with an idea, and it can go terribly right or terribly wrong. This is the nature of filmmaking.
What you learn in the process is to find that communication because if that doesn't happen between you and your actors and your team -- camera and editing and music and so on -- it's not going to ignite. Because whatever you start with, what you want to end up with is more than the sum total of those individual pieces. That's probably an important lesson. It's not about being dogmatic, 'Yes, I want this scene to be exactly like this.' You don't know beforehand how it's going to be exactly. It depends on a lot of things, not just practical, but creative things. So to try and stay open to that process.
And also, most importantly, don't think too much about what do other people want, but what do you want? Because when we made this Mapantsula, the desire was to make it very specifically for a South African audience, and not to be confused about, 'Well, what festival is it going to be on? What are the buyers going to think? What will people in other countries think?' because if it's got something authentic about it, it will resonate."
Adura Onashile's 'Girl'
Photo: Sundance Film Institute
Onashile, who spent her formative years in Nigeria, cemented her reputation in theater before diving into her first feature film with 'Girl'.
"Something from theater that I brought to [making a film] was, basically, once you've made a point -- once you've made the emotional point or the visual point, or the story point -- move on. Presume your audience is incredibly intelligent, just presume that. So I would absolutely say to anybody making any piece of work, but in film, in particular, don't harp on it.
In terms of working with people, and the difficulty of being on set and the pressing nature of time, don't take any of it personally. Do not take any of it personally. It literally is the nature of how we make work, and it needs to change and improvements need to be made. But don't think it's you; it's just the vagaries of the industry."
Mami Wata centers on the Yoruba myth
Photo: Sundance Film Institute
Obasi, as part of the Surreal16 Collective, made 'Juju Stories', and also directed short films, before his black and white thriller, 'Mami Wata' won the cinematography prize at Sundance this year.
"Be true to yourself. Film festivals, and the global film market generally, are looking for unique voices. Actually, I think they are desperate for unique voices because right now the world is inundated with content so the only thing that will stand out is your unique voice. Find it and be true to it 'til the very end. It is definitely not going to be easy to do this. There will be lots of hunger strikes but if you are true and remain intentional about your craft, you will get there."
Mbithi Masya's short film, Baba, has won a number of awards over the past year, including Film Africa's Baobab Award.
Masya wears many hats but his cinematic work, whether in short film or full-length feature, is fast-earning him prominence as an African filmmaker of note.
"Believe in yourself. Don’t give up. And never stop learning because you never know enough."
Milisuthando Bongela puts her unique spin on the personal essay in the film, 'Milisuthando.'
Photo: Sundance Film Institute.
Joburg-based Bongela spent years diving into stories about her family's roots in the former-Transkei to make her debut documentary, 'Milisuthando,' which is currently on the festival circuit.
“You really have to serve your story and your voice. That’s the most important thing. I know it's really hard, especially in this image-aggressive era that we're in, where you see so much stuff on Instagram, so much stuff on Twitter, so much stuff on Netflix, and how stories are being told in very particular ways. I can see in South Africa, we could go into a very particularly glossy direction of telling stories.
For me, the thing is, what is the sound of your own voice? What is the shape of your own hand? If you draw an apple - what is my hand going to do to this apple? The most important thing is to be at pains to discover what the sound of your own voice is because racism is a thing that's been spoken about since it existed by everybody and anybody who is an artist or who's an African artist or Black artists. So what is it that I'm going to say that can only come from me? There are many other people who will consider many other different things but the most important thing to do is to discover what you're pursuing.
When you have that perspective, it then tells you what your lighting is going to look like. It tells you what your set is going to look like. Have the audacity and the gumption to take your idea seriously, and to fail and to have bad ideas. I mean, there were many bad ideas [while making Milisuthando] – I don't want to call them bad but less good ideas, as William Kentridge says, before we got to the ones that we were finally happy with.”
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