Troubled by portrayal of Black fathers in mainstream media, the Haitian-Reunionese filmmaker set out to make a film about loss and humanity.
"Cinema Africa" is your guide to African film. Writer Ciku Kimeria is highlighting new movies and documentaries that tell fascinating stories or questioning prevailing narratives and occasionally returning to the classics that paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers.
28 jours (28 days) the debut short film from a Lome raised, Haitian-Reunionese filmmaker, Jahëna Louisin is the story of a widower and his eleven year old daughter going through an interesting stage in her transition to womanhood—her first period. As they grapple with the brutal loss of his wife and her mother, the two find themselves confronting this life-changing moment on their own.
On a call with the call with the first-time filmmaker hunkered down in Lome, Togo, we discuss her debut film that won the Togolese edition of the "7 jours pour 1" film award and was this year's official selection for an international fiction film at the largest North American film festival focusing on films from Africa and the diaspora, Vues D'Afrique in Canada.
Read our conversation below.
Jahëna, what was your motivation for telling this particular story?
It was inspired by real life events. One of my closest Togolese friends went through a similar tragic loss years back. He had traveled and was out of the country when his wife, their two children and his mother in law were involved in a tragic road accident. Only the one-year old baby survived. I watched him grief, but also adjust to this new and difficult transition from being a devoted husband and loving father, to being a bereaved widower with a nursing infant. As I watched the two of them adjust to this tough new life and how he took on his role with loving tenderness, I felt that this was a story that needed to be shared.
Beyond this, though I have always been troubled by the general portrayal of black men and black fathers in mainstream media. Most of the time they are portrayed as being absent or negligent, violent and abusive, unfaithful, unreliable, emotionally unavailable and a whole set of other issues. I am not saying that such fathers do not exist, but they are to be found across all races. I wanted to tell the stories of the black fathers that we rarely see in media—humanize them. I wanted to tell a story not only of amazing fathers such as my friend, but also all the other black fathers elsewhere who take this responsibility very seriously and fathers who can be vulnerable, present and very active in raising their children.
What has surprised you the most about the film's reception?
Definitely, how the film affected different people. When I wrote the script, I thought it would most appeal to single fathers, widowers or people who were raised by them. I have had quite a few people writing to thank me for portraying their real fathers—great, present fathers who they see reflected in the character of Edem, Pépés, father. In some cases, these fathers might still be alive or have passed on, but the film made them thankful for the fathers and father figures who have positively impacted their lives.
Still from '28 jours'
I know you have mostly worked as a journalist. How has the transition from journalism to filmmaking been and how did the opportunity come about for you to make your first film?
I love storytelling and I'm interested in using different means to tell my stories. The passion behind my work has always been about changing the African narrative. My journalism career has equipped me with the skills to tell and frame stories, but also knowledge on the practical aspects of filming. These are skills that are vital for filmmaking. The camera is my pen. A writer will use their pen, a dancer will use their body, I will use my camera, my lenses and my eyes.
Through my TV reporting work, I have traveled round West Africa and been exposed to so much that I know can also inspire my storytelling. I have learnt a lot from my time in front of and behind the camera. Even choosing to focus on menstruation in this film is based on my previous work that showed me just how much shame and silence there is around periods. Shame means that not much is discussed with young girls before they have their first periods which means that at that vulnerable time, many are unprepared for the blood, the pain. It becomes such a taboo issue—and a traumatizing one for many young girls as they don't understand what is going on, but know from society that this is something dirty and shameful. I wanted to capture this as a natural process that happens during a teenagers life, but also show how a supportive single father would address it, given he himself might not be well informed either on the issue.
This film came about with support from an initiative called 7 jours pour 1 film that brings together different partners including Acajou Productions, CFI Médias, TV5 Monde. Through a call for female filmmakers, I was selected as one of the 10 laureates late last year for a training course. The writer of the winning script from this course would get the opportunity and tools to make their film in 7 days. I was the winner in Togo and my film was first screened at the Emergence film festival in Lome shortly thereafter. After this the film also showed at films femmes Afrique festival in Dakar in February this year whose theme of the year was "Women in resistance."
In late April, 28 jours was selected as the international fiction film to show at the largest film festival in North America for African and diasporan films, Vues D'Afrique in Canada. The festival moved online for this year due to COVID-19. The film also got a special mention from the jury.
Congratulations Jahëna, this is big news! So where can readers watch 28 jours?
COVID-19 has really changed plans. The normal route with short films would be for the production company to propose the film for various festivals. If successful, the film would show there. 28 jours had already successfully been accepted to various film festivals, but COVID-19 meant that most of them have been postponed indefinitely. This means it might take longer for the film to reach audiences as first films show at festivals, then likely make it to TV before going online.
For updates on where and when the film will be available, readers should check out my Instagram page that is always up to date.