Interview with Afia Nkrumah, writer and filmmaker

Cafe Aphra contributor, Afia Nkrumah, is a theatre director who moved into making films a few years ago. She recently got a break when her short film, Shadow Man, was selected for funding by Film London. Here she tells us about her experiences...

Cafe Aphra: Hi Afia, I know you've been involved in film for quite a long time, but what made you want to write screenplays in the first place, rather than novels or short stories? (Or anything else!)

Afia: I come from an oral story telling background and I worked as a theatre director, so scripts are a more natural way of telling stories for me than the novel or perhaps more 'literary' forms of writing. I also love working with actors and screenplays facilitate that.

Cafe Aphra: Where did the idea for Shadow Man come from?

Afia: Last year after seeing the "go home" vans driving around parts of London asking migrants to leave the UK or be deported, I was so incensed that I sat down to write my response and a script of Shadow Man emerged. At the time of writing the script, I had no idea that the question of what should happen to migrants already in Europe would become such a looming issue for all of us. 

Cafe Aphra: I know you've also worked on documentaries in the past. Why did you decide to write and direct a piece of fiction about the migrant crisis, rather than a documentary? Doesn't the subject matter lend itself more to documentaries?

Afia: There have been countless documentaries and news reports about migration and the majority of them either cast migrants as helpless victims or as aggressors trying to break into our home. I wanted to say something different, give a different perspective of migrants which was neither of these two perspectives and to bring some humour and another cultural perspective to the subject. If I had made a documentary, it would have been very difficult to introduce humour as I did, for example through the character of Uncle Albert, the protagonist's ghostly uncle, and his African proverbs. 

Cafe Aphra: It's terribly expensive to make a film, even a short one, as we all know - where did you find the funding for this project?

Afia: The funding came from Film London, the screen agency for London who choose five emerging filmmakers each year to make a film under a production scheme called London Calling Plus. The competition is very stiff - as you can imagine - and involves two rounds of interviews with a panel and a presentation.

Cafe Aphra: Tell us a bit about the process of making the film, what were the ups and downs?

Afia: Pre-production (so getting the cast, crew and locations together and preparing for a film) is always frantic. You are often at the mercy of other people's availability and you have to make the budget stretch as far as possible. There is a roof top chase sequence in my film and persuading house owners and the council to allow us to have a stunt team and a camera crew run around and jump off their roofs safely was very challenging! 

The film is set at night and shooting during the summer meant we had much shorter nights than we would have liked. Having said that, the shoot was an amazing experience with a crew of thirty-seven people from countries as varied as Argentina, Italy, Sierre Leone and Romania. Our cast was also very diverse and ranged from a Bafta-nominated actress to local Tottenham residents such as an eighty-year-old man who had always wanted to act but had never had the courage to go for it.

 Shadow Man also had complex sound and music requirements and so the post-production sound was very demanding and took a few months to get right. I worked with Bath Spa University Sound department and their graduating students, who did a very good job.

Cafe Aphra: How has the film been received by audiences and critics, and how easy was it to get the film accepted at festivals around the world?

Afia: Short films are rarely reviewed - our version of reviews is getting selected into film festivals. Since completion, Shadow Man has been accepted and screened by six film festivals: in New York, San Francisco, Austria, South Africa and in January 2016 it will be shown in Dhaka, Bangledesh. 

At this point, the film has been nominated for one award and has won one award, but the audiences' reactions have been the best thing. I attended the screening of the film at the Century Shorts Film Festival in London this summer and it was amazing to see the audience laughing all the way through the film and clapping spontaneously at the end. That felt fantastic. Given that Shadow Man's subject matter centres around the issue of 'economic migrants', this was really great to see. I hear the film also went down well in South Africa. 

Cafe Aphra: What have you learnt - both as a writer and as a film director - from the making of Shadow Man?

Afia: The lesson I've learnt as a writer is that story is the most important component of a script. The structure of the story didn't really change from the first draft to the shooting draft, however the details within the story changed from draft to draft. For example, the protagonist Okokobioko has to persuade Tracey his neighbour to let him into her house in the middle of the night. How he went about it in the earlier draft was not believable, and I had to find better way of doing it. Also, it wasn't clear from earlier drafts that Uncle Albert was a ghost. I decided to let the character speak purely in proverbs as a way of making that difference clearer. 

Experiencing my film in countries where English is not the primary language has made me think about how I can make my future scripts less language dependent and more visual. If the audience doesn't speak the language and the film doesn't have subtitles, will they still understand what is going on in each scene? How can I make sure that an audience in, let's say, Ouagadougou gets as much out of my film as an audience in Surrey? That is my next challenge as a writer.

One of the main reasons why I got this project funded was because I decided as a director to shoot it as a film noir as a way of intensifying the story and to give the film a specific look. As a director it is not enough merely to film a script, you also have to have an idea that will clarify the story and give the film a visual resonance. The challenges I found in acquiring the right locations and with the way I like to tell stories with a camera, have made me realise that as a director I would prefer to shoot interior scenes in a studio environment, rather than on location. I would not have known that about my process had I not made this film.

Cafe Aphra: Has Shadow Man influenced what you will do in the future? And what are your hopes for the film?

Afia: I have had one offer to buy the film, but I'm keeping my options open while the film is in its festival run over the next six months. What is more important to me, is to connect the film to BAME audiences. There is a nonsense belief in the film industry that stories about black lives don't have an audience or can't make money, because films are available primarily from large cinema chains and cable subscription services. 

I have always believed that films should be shown where the audience is, especially in the BAME community. Even though I am not religious myself, churches play a central role in black lives and so I decided to do a church tour with Shadow Man and it has been surprisingly easy to organise. Shadow Man starts its local community and church tour at the start of October at Trinity Zion church in Tottenham. This is also a unique opportunity for me as a filmmaker to meet and engage with the audience of my future work.

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