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:
The series continues today with Brooklyn, New York-based Iquo B. Essien. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
My name is Iquo B. Essien and I’m a Nigerian-American writer and director based in Brooklyn, New York. I received a B.S. from Stanford University and a Master of Fine Arts in film from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
I studied biology as an undergrad and ultimately wasn’t passionate about science and medicine, so I decided to pursue a creative career since I’d grown up doing lots of performing arts and also danced and sang at Stanford. I trained in classical piano and violin as a child and performed West African dance, modern and roots all through college. My first real job was at a strategic communications firm serving global health clients such as the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. When I left that job, I did lots of odd creative jobs including writing for some African magazines, blogging and medical copyediting. I deeply wanted to be a professional dancer until I had a bad dance audition and realized that probably wasn’t in the cards for me.
After seeing Nanette Burstein’s IFC docu-series Film School, I thought film might be something I could do, so I applied to Tisch. I had never made a film before, but I’d been in performing arts groups since I was a child, working creatively with diverse people, and that seemed the main skill needed in addition to creativity and gumption. I got accepted on a platform of telling stories about Africa, women and immigrants, and I guess the rest is history!
It wasn’t easy, though. I went broke many times and had to go on leave from work, so I took quite a while to get through the program (I finally had my thesis review in September 2015, and walked for graduation in May 2016), as I worked on finding my creative voice. I now write, direct and edit films, viewing them as tools for storytelling and connecting people with ideas that can create social change. I sometimes think, had I done well at that dance audition, I would’ve never made a film. So, in a certain way, I’m grateful that I blew it because film allows me to bring all of those sensibilities—writing, movement, sound and music—together in one medium. That said, I’ve learned the most about directing from dancing, how to choreograph bodies in space, how to use pacing while you edit. I realize it’s something you can’t teach.
My films have screened in 15 countries worldwide, including at the Panafrican Film & Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the Durban International Film Festival, New York African Film Festival and Zanzibar International Film Festival.
My short film Aissa's Story was nominated for the 2013 Student Academy Awards, 2015 Africa Movie Academy Awards and won Best Student Short at the 2014 Africa International Film Festival. I'm developing the short into a feature film with 234 Media, and I am currently crowdfunding my Nigeria-based debut feature film, Back Home, at backhomefilm.com.
The story: Seventeen years after she left home, Emem returns to Nigeria to care for her ailing grandmother. On this hilarious journey, she confronts her identity, finds love, faces loss and discovers a story waiting to be told.
In addition to the film projects, I’ve written a memoir, Elizabeth's Daughter, about losing my mother to cancer that I’m hoping to publish soon. My production company, Editi Films, is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
I wrote Aissa’s Story as a feature a couple of years ago and didn’t get a bunch of grants/support, so I tabled it in hopes of revising the script and making it better. Now I’m in development with 234 Media, and it looks like the project is getting wings. During the time that I stepped away from the Aissa project, I wrote Back Home and did a table reading in Lagos in January 2017. I’ve revised the script a lot since then, and it’s close to production ready. I created a proposal and a lookbook and soft-launched a crowdfunding campaign while continuing to reach out to individual investors and build my team. My producer on the project is Seyi Babatope. Comparatively speaking, Back Home is much cheaper and with a smaller cast, set in my family’s village and also Calabar and Uyo, Nigeria, so it’s more feasible for me as an independent filmmaker. I thought it would be a more realistic first feature, but whichever project I get backing for, I am prepared to direct. It’s also important to have a few scripts in the drawer for whenever opportunities arrive, so I’m working on being more prolific in that way.
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing? And if wearing multiple hats, how are you achieving balance?
I’m a writer, and until I get further in my career, it will likely continue to be the case that I write my work. I prefer it that way, as I’m still establishing my directorial voice. I’ve also produced all of the shorts I directed, although I usually had a unit production manager on set; I just never struck up a solid relationship with a producer. I’ve edited my shorts, although I brought in assistant editors for both Aissa’s Story and New York, I Love You. I will not be editing either of the features and will not be producing either, although, to a certain extent I will be pitching and fundraising.
I don’t think balance is a realistic expectation of any filmmaker. I always think back to Ang Lee, who spoke to our directing class with Spike Lee after a screening of Lust, Caution. He said that when the film wrapped, he had to “get healthy.” I tend to be very balanced in my everyday life, but there is no balance in my creative life, so this ebb and flow of hectic periods with more balanced periods is my normal. For balance, I dance every week, exercise, eat healthy, sleep and meditate.
As you work on your first feature, 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?
I was surprised, in reaching out to some black women producers I know whom I thought would be great partners, that things didn’t work out to produce Back Home. I think many of us are so overcommitted and stressed that it’s hard to triage projects and collaborations. At this point, I soft-launched the campaign so I can have funds to bring someone on, since money is really the bottom line, and perhaps that will help alleviate the stress that makes partnerships difficult to strike. After locking in an executive producer and money, I would say the next steps would be visibility, publicity and getting the word out on the film and campaign. For Aissa’s Story, vision is the most important because the project I’m now conceiving is much broader than what I initially imagined. I have 234 Media to thank for that! I’m being pushed to embrace the broader themes of the film and really go for it. That kind of support is really invaluable.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
I try not to dwell on fears; I don’t think they’re real. The worst has happened. I came up with an idea (Aissa’s Story, the short film) that nobody wanted to help me make, so I raised the money and made it. It was a film school project, but none of my classmates crewed for me, so I had to hire a crew. When the film took me around the world, to FESPACO and the Student Academy Awards, I realized that it’s important to stay true to your vision and convictions, especially when nobody believes in you. Only you control your destiny, and action is the antidote to fear. I’ve made my luck as a filmmaker and will continue to do so.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything's been done before, and we've seen it all. Agree/disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
I think white men in positions of power say that because they’ve been telling their stories for decades and have nothing interesting left to say. There are plenty of untapped stories in communities of color, in immigrant families, in the African continent and diaspora. There are millions of things we’ve never seen depicted on film. I honestly changed Back Home from a drama to a comedic drama because it needed to lighten up and also have a broader appeal. I don’t think the story is that original, actually, although it is largely autobiographical. What’s interesting is the setting, the people, the relationship of my lead character with her grandmother, the importance of inter-generational relationships among women. That is something I hardly see on screen.
With Aissa’s Story, the entire idea of making a film about an African immigrant maid is utterly different from what’s been told about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn/Nafissatou Diallo story. Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York (inspired by the Strauss-Kahn/Diallo story) was 2.5 hours of a self-absorbed man falling from grace and remaining just as self-absorbed as he began. The maid was on screen for 2.5 minutes of the film. She wasn’t a character but merely a subject to be exploited. In my work, I seek to re-center the stories of Africans, immigrants, women and other marginalized people. My films also distinguish themselves in the artistry and also what I bring to the direction.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it's made? And realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have after it's made?
Similar to the short, the Aissa’s Story feature should screen everywhere from festivals, to a theatrical run, the United Nations, schools and universities. My short film screened in 15 countries and received international coverage in The Guardian, Vice and NBC. The feature film will also travel widely and will be used as a platform for a #MeToo campaign centered on low-wage workers and ending violence against women. The grassroots/digital campaign will be led through partnerships with labor, immigration and women’s organizations, elevating marginalized voices, leading a global conversation and inspiring other women to tell their stories. Back Home, as a comedic drama, has more limited potential; however, it could do very well on the festival circuit, a limited theatrical run and streaming platforms.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers... alcohol (#Jokes... kind of)? What does that system look like, and how much of a role does it play in your life as you strive for greatness (whatever "greatness" is to you)?
I have the emotional support of my immediate family, primarily my sisters, which helped me a lot through film school, and also some of my short films. I also have creative/artsy friends in New York. I’ll also reiterate that dance keeps me sane. Without the dance community, I’d feel disconnected in a big city like New York. I also think it’s important to find a loving, supportive partner, which I’ve never been able to do, although I’ve tried! Having lost my mother early to cancer, I know how important family is. It’s perhaps my greatest failure that I haven’t built one with someone who shares my values. I think there is also a difficulty reconciling the desire to be autonomous with the desire to be connected.
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 it?
I use social media quite a bit, Facebook and Instagram more so than Twitter, and I’m not on Snapchat. I’ve worked as a marketing director, so I think it’s necessary, but it’s ultimately up to the individual. I wouldn’t be able to run a crowdfunding campaign without it.
Are you inspired by what many are calling a "black film renaissance" (in the USA specifically)? Do you buy it? 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 don’t think the individual success of filmmakers means that the rest of us are going to get money for our films. Believing that seems naive. The question I really want answered is: does Black Panther’s success mean more money for films set in real African countries? I can’t say that it does. The kind of change that’s needed to democratize the industry takes at least a generation and will also require (as I recently heard BET’s Robert Johnson say in the How I Built This podcast) an infusion of financial resources into marginalized communities. What we typically see are a few one-off outliers, as though Hollywood can only tolerate one Ava or Lupita Nyong'o at a time. What’s promising is Ava empowers women and POC directors on her sets, and Lupita is taking on directing certain untold stories, so it’s encouraging although the industry remains staunchly old and white.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion? Do you think all of this will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourselves?
I wrote about this in my Gawker essay, "Selma and the American-ness of the Academy." In June, the Directors Guild of America released a study that found the number of minority film directors hit a five-year low despite efforts by the Academy to attract more members of color than ever. To be fair, the kind of change that’s needed won’t happen overnight, but I think the initiatives function as a kind of window dressing. I will never understand people jockeying for seats at a broken table, but it seems like everyone is excited. I don’t think we need the Academy anymore. It’s possible Rotten Tomatoes, though flawed, is more relevant, as it reflects how real audiences view films.
But each industry has its problems. I’ve been chatting with friends just back from Durban Film Mart, and if you’re talking about funding for films on the African continent, the issues are just as entrenched. As a black African female, I will always be in the position of convincing someone who doesn’t look like me to support my film, highlighting or downplaying certain things based on how they’re viewed. I was in the running for a prestigious screenwriting residency in South Africa and had an interview with the organizers telling me that the jurors of the program were “not Africans, but gatekeepers that serve as stakeholders of production on the continent.” And so I was on this call, figuring out how to pander both to the organizers and the imagined gatekeepers, and at the end of it all, I had had enough. I did not get that opportunity, and I’m not waiting for more like it! Connecting to people who support my work, crowdfunding and building one's platform are time-tested techniques to free anyone from a neo-colonial complex of filmmaking.
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?
If Netflix or Amazon want to give me money to make a film, I’ll take it.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Just keep going. Don’t let rejection or disappointment get you down.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
I’m never good at answering this question because my favorite film is the one I’m yet to make! However, I’m inspired by the work of directors Asghar Farhadi, Lynne Ramsay, Fernando Meirelles, Abderrahmane Sissako, Mahamat Saleh-Haroun, Ousmane Sembene and other great African filmmakers. Also various films by Gus Van Sant, Edward Zwick, Rungano Nyoni, Denis Villeneuve, Claire Denis and Bazi Gete.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a creative person requires that you "give back," or tell a particular story, or not do something specific? Why or why not?
I do feel a responsibility, but that’s an individual choice each filmmaker makes for herself. I was raised with a sense of duty to the culture, and my mother was a cultural ambassador in upstate New York where I grew up. I started my production company, Editi Films, in remembrance of her. All my work, whether in writing or dance or film, is about highlighting marginalized stories and voices. I feel if you have a platform, you have a responsibility to use it wisely! However, I recognize that other filmmakers might make different choices.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?
Writing and directing films, writing books and plays, speaking, performing, traveling and working on creative projects at my choosing. I would like to sing again and make music and also plan to be financially free in ten years. Yes, plan.
How can others contact you or follow your progress?
Any final thoughts or words? Please feel free to share.
I am currently crowdfunding the budget for my feature Back Home. Watch the pitch video for the project below to learn even more; also you can make a tax-deductible donation, join our mailing list and follow us on Facebook to stay in touch! Special thanks to all those helping make this dream come true!
My short film Aissa's Story is streaming on KweliTV, which features content from the African diaspora. A trailer for that film follows after the below pitch video. You can also watch my film, New York, I Love You, on Saturday, July 28, at 4:00 p.m. ET on Shorts International (Channel 573 on DirectTV).