Black Women Filmmakers Speak is a series curated by Shadow and Act that spotlights women visionaries in film and their inspiring body of work. For the full introduction to this series and an overview of the filmmakers featured, head here.
Hollywood's story has long been a white, heterosexual male-dominated narrative, and a key goal for #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak is to celebrate up-and-coming black women filmmakers who are taking the simple, seemingly radical step of telling their stories. Working across all genres, these filmmakers all share a love of cinema and an appreciation for the power it wields, engaging what the status quo might see as a kind of new cinema language to not only entertain but also enlighten.
For the series, 33 black women filmmakers from around the world completed a survey Shadow And Act issued in response to a call made earlier this year aiming to highlight black women filmmakers at some stage of development on their first feature films. We then packaged each reply into individual features highlighting these filmmakers and their feature film projects, their fears and hopes as first-time feature directors and their thoughts on a variety of topical matters. That includes what some are calling a new renaissance in black cinema today, the disruption of content production and distribution by streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon and more. Their survey profiles will be published daily (one per day) on Shadow and Act over the next month.
Ultimately, we hope these stories bring new awareness and admiration around these relatively unknown visionaries.
If you're just joining us, you can catch up on these previous profiles:
After a brief weekend break, the series continues today with London-based filmmaker Sade Adeniran. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself to the world.
I always wanted to be a filmmaker but didn't dare to follow my dreams, so, instead, I got myself a corporate job as a consultant and worked on my creative projects as a hobby. After I published my debut novel to critical success, I decided to pursue filmmaking as a career. It’s been a slow process, but as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’m working on two feature films: Imagine This and Two Weddings.
Imagine This is a 90-minute animated feature adapted from my award-winning book of the same name. It’s a coming-of-age drama which follows the story of Lola Ogunwole, who, along with her brother, is taken back home to Nigeria after growing up in London. The overarching themes are displacement, loss of identity and otherness. This project was recently selected for the 2018 Durban Talents Lab.
Two Weddings, on the other hand, is what I like to call a dramatic comedy and follows the story of a couple who are getting married and are being sabotaged by their mothers.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
I’d initially written Imagine This as live action, but I’m in the process of rewriting it as an animated story. I’m on another draft of Two Weddings.
When did this specific journey begin?
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing? Are you also the writer? Producer? Editor? DP? Production Designer? Maybe even the star? And if wearing multiple hats, how are you achieving balance?
I tend to wear multiple hats, not because I have an ego the size of Mount Kilimanjaro because if I didn’t, I would not have made any of my films. I’ve written, directed and produced all of my projects, and so far I’ve made five short films. Two have been live action: More Cake (2013) and A Mother’s Journey (2016). The other three are what I like to call experimental animation: Mrs. Bolanle Benson (2015), My Mother’s Stew (2017) and E Go Betta Oh (2018).
What would be of most help to you right now? What do you need at this moment to get over a hurdle, or to move you forward onto whatever your next step is? And how are you working to get what you need?
For me, the most important thing is access. Access to finance, access to decision-makers who can greenlight projects and access to top talent who can help bring your project alive.
What worries you most (if anything) as you embark on your first feature?
Finding the right collaborators. There’s nothing worse than working with people who have a different agenda and who are not on the same page as you. So I worry about finding the right crew who can work together and help me realise my vision for the project.
Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?
I hate confrontations and, for me, one of the toughest things was having to cut someone from a project.
Toughest challenge(s) you've faced so far?
The toughest challenge is to keep going in the face of overwhelming odds.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said there are only so many variations of stories, and thus everything's been done before; that we've seen it all. Do you agree or disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
It is true that every story has been told. At its heart, Imagine This is a coming-of-age-story, and the themes of loss of identity and displacement are universal. What I believe makes my story unique is my voice along with the cultural aspects and the lens through which I view the world. It’s what makes every storyteller different.
Your hopes for what kind of life you want your film to have after it's made? And the realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have after it's made?
Once upon a time, it was all about the cinema release. However, Netflix, Amazon and all the other streaming platforms have changed the game, which means my chance of succeeding is not limited to just one avenue. It also means that once it’s made, there is less chance of my film sitting on a shelf wallowing in "distributor hell."
I’m hoping for commercial and critical success; however, that depends not only on distribution but also marketing. What is equally vital is making a great film that people want to watch. Marketing is crucial to the success of any film; however, you can’t polish a turd; so my primary focus is on making sure I have a great foundation to build on, and that starts with the script.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project or at any other time during this journey)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
Years ago, I wrote a radio play as my final year dissertation, mainly because I didn’t want to spend weeks in the library doing research. It was one of those stark, cheerless and uninviting spaces. Plus the fact that whenever I needed a book, I could never find it. I digress a little, but, to cut a long story short, I sent my play, Memories of a Distant Past, to BBC Radio 4. Weeks later, I received a rejection letter, and I spent some time under my duvet with a box of tissues and a bowl of chin-chin (Nigerian snack).
Anyway, months later, they were running a competition looking for new voices, so I sat down and wrote another play and, as an afterthought, attached the rejected script. To my surprise, my original script was chosen. When I went in for my meeting with the commissioning editor, I expressed my bewilderment that my script was chosen, especially after receiving feedback which stated that "it was not up to BBC standards." I kid you not. Her response to me is what keeps me going in the face of Herculean challenges. She said: "Just because someone rejects your work doesn’t mean it’s not good; it just means it hasn’t found the right person."
Every time I receive a rejection, I remember her words, and I pick myself up, dust myself off and keep looking for that right person. :-)
Do you have a support system?
I have a few friends who are also struggling filmmakers; some are further along their journey than I am. Seeing them winning is an encouragement for me to keep pushing and to keep striving. The easiest thing is to give up, but these friends sustain me and keep the flame flickering.
How active are you with your use of social media as a tool for any part of the process? Do you think it's necessary? Do you embrace or shun it?
I try to, but I’m not very good at it. I’ve got Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and I can go months without logging in and posting anything. However, when I’m in pre-production, I do try to post news and photos.
Are you inspired by what many are calling a "black film renaissance" (in the USA specifically)? Are you encouraged by the success of films like Black Panther or the success of specifically black women filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.?
I am encouraged. The one thing we’ve always been told is that black films don’t sell and won’t sell. I’ve never understood that argument. So the more of us out there telling our stories in their multifaceted nature, the more normalised it will become seeing our stories on the big screen and seeing more successful black female filmmakers.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion. Do you think all of this (the few successes we've seen thus far, the various initiatives announced to diversify the industry behind and in front of the camera, etc.) will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourself? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
Anything that helps change the status quo will always get my vote, as long as it’s a change that is inclusive of all voices. Our stories are much more than the slave narrative, poverty, gangster or any of the stereotypical stories that tend to get greenlit. There’s nothing wrong with those; however, we’re more than that, and it would be great to see more superhero stories, more romantic comedies, more espionage stories and so forth that have black leads in front of and behind the camera.
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Apple and others like them, are all now competing with the big studios and TV networks. Thoughts on the emergence of these "new media" platforms, and how (if at all) this new reality factors into the business, creative, career choices you make, or plans you have for yourself? Are you targeting any specifically?
I love the fact that there are more players in the game; it means that they’ll be looking for more people to provide content, and they will be reaching out beyond their usual demographics for that content. I have an idea for a six-part drama, which I’m hoping to pitch to Netflix and Amazon. Again, it comes down to access. Without a recommendation, the likelihood of getting into a room with a key decision maker... well, let me count the odds. Maybe they’ll read this article and add me to their list of potentials. A girl can only dream. :-)
How do the trials (and triumphs) of black women filmmakers in the UK differ from those in the USA, if at all? Any desire to move to the USA to pursue your filmmaker dreams?
Am I actively seeking opportunities in the U.S.? No. Would I move to the U.S. to pursue my career? Yes, if the right opportunity came my way, I would jump at it. Having never worked in the U.S., I’m not sure how the trials of black women filmmakers in the States differ from the UK. What I would say is that there seem to be more opportunities in America, which is why a lot of filmmakers I know are looking to move.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I didn’t realise how tough it was going to be, or that I’d have to grow very thick skin. I also didn’t know how satisfying it would be to tell my stories and to articulate my truth. The key lesson is to keep looking for the right person and never to give up. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I’ve got a few more steps to go.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
What makes a film great for me is always the story and characters. Everything else is window dressing. The story has to move me; the genre doesn’t matter. The set of circumstances that a character faces and the choices they make is what ultimately fascinates me.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
I’m a Londoner, and I’m not sure if there is a provision for it in UK law or what it’s called. But I’d like to plead the Fifth on the question of films/filmmakers that have made an impact or influenced me, only because there are so many films that I love, and I couldn’t possibly list them all. Plus, I’m the kind of person who likes to admire from a distance silently. But not in a stalkerish, Single White Female kind of way.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a filmmaker requires that you tell a particular kind of story, or populate your film with specific kinds of characters, for example?
I have a responsibility to tell my truth. As a British Nigerian, my experience is entirely different from a sister growing up in Peckham, Knightsbridge, or anywhere in America. All I can do, as a storyteller, is fight to ensure that my stories get told and hopefully they will somehow resonate with the broader public.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have if you could have it (if you don't already have it). What does success look like for you?
Success, for me, is having the opportunity to make films that people want to see, and I’m not just talking about a handful of friends who think everything I make is marvelous, and that I’m a superstar which, technically, you could say that I am. Unfortunately, my fan club consists of a membership of five. But I’m not counting… much.
Where can we watch your past work, if available?
My short film, More Cake, is available to watch below.