Interview: Tanzanian-American Filmmaker Ekwa Msangi-Omari Talks Funding For African Filmmakers
Photo Credit: S & A
Interviews

Interview: Tanzanian-American Filmmaker Ekwa Msangi-Omari Talks Funding For African Filmmakers

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As curator of the director’s eye

project for lettera27 Foundation, I had a talk with writer, director and producer

Ekwa Msangi-Omari on crowdfunding and funds. 

Ekwa is a Tanzanian-American

filmmaker who grew up in Kenya and is based in New York. Ekwa has directed for television and has also directed several short films

– including Taharuki in 2011, a 12-minute short thriller set

against the backdrop of the start of Kenya’s post-election violence – and most

recently Soko (The Market) – a 25-minute short comedy about a middle

class Kenyan man. The article starts series of discussions

with female African directors that focuses on funding and production strategies

for contemporary cinema.

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Vanessa

Lanari: Ekwa, you have just finished shooting your last short film, and are

preparing the next feature film called Sweet

Justice. How did you finance it?

Ekwa Msangi-Omari:

The short film that

I just shot this summer was partially funded through Focus Features’ Africa

First Program, and partly through a crowd-sourcing campaign that I conducted

online.

VL:

 You are used to finance part of your

films through crowd-funding campaigns.  Why did you have the idea of ​​using this type

of financing?

EMO: Well, crowd-funding is not only a very

popular (maybe too popular!) form of

financing, but it is also immediate and a great way to build audiences. Living

in USA, there aren’t many sources of funding for short Africa-based films (other

than the Africa First Program) that I could apply to as an alternative source

of funding. So, in other words, as an indie filmmaker working in 2013 making

non-tragic stories about Africans, I didn’t really have many options!

VL: What percentage of the total budget of your

films derived from crowd-funding campaigns?

EMO: For Taharuki

it was 100% crowd-funding, but for Soko I

only used about 20% crowd-funding!

VL: In your experience, what have been the best strategies

and methods for promoting and creating a successful campaign? How many investors did

you attract and how much money did they

contribute?

EMO: Well, for all artists (and

really all people in general) our biggest asset is our circle of friends, family

and supporters. Before you get to the point where absolute strangers are

excited about your work and paying for it, you have to start with your circle

of family and friends. They will be your biggest promoters through their

excitement and word of mouth. Even if they’re not able to give you lots of

money, their endorsement and excitement will attract other people who trust

them. And from there, your work with hold up your reputation, but it starts

with your circle. For Taharuki (1

month campaign) I attracted about 80 funders and raised $6000, and for my most

recent campaign (2 week campaign) I attracted about 50 funders who contributed

about $3,500 of the $4000 that I aimed for – and I’m still getting latecomers

who saw the campaign but weren’t able to contribute at the time so that’s

wonderful! Both have been very fruitful campaigns, so I’m very grateful.

VL: What

do you consider as the best practices and mistakes of your crowd-funding

campaign?

EMO: The most valuable tip I got

about making a successful campaign was to have a fundraising buddy! A friend

who agrees to check in with you, encourage you, help to strategize, and cheer

you on as you raise the money! Asking for money is very difficult, and

discouraging and inevitably it takes a while for people to jump aboard. It’s

important to stay hopeful, light and enthusiastic during a fundraiser and

that’s impossible to do when you’re feeling discouraged. So I advise always

having a buddy. The second thing is to keep your campaign messages short, funny

(whenever possible) and to the point. Give clear info with clear links to where

people can give money and try to have a sense of humour about it because we all

have lots of hang-ups around money (both in giving and asking for it.)

VL: How

can filmmakers best make use of the internet and social networks to

complete their film projects?

EMO: The internet and social networks can be very useful

when it comes to creating and completing film projects because it is a direct

way of measuring the temperature of our audiences and getting their feedback.

We can see the things that people are concerned about, we can immediately see

people’s reactions to things, and things that people enjoy  -or sometimes things that they hate! – can go

viral in ways that would have taken ages to do before the internet age. These

tools have given independent filmmakers/artists access in ways that we never

had before. It used to be that you needed to be endorsed by a huge company or

studio before you could share your ideas with anyone. Now we get to go straight

to the source!

VL: In

your experience, is it harder to raise finance for African filmmakers?

EMO: Hmm. Well I’m not sure because I’ve never tried to

raise money for/as a non-African filmmaker! But I will say that people here in

the US are less accustomed to the idea of African film (outside of Hollywood

films or tragic save-the-African themes) than people in Europe are. Your

average person here has no concept of what an “African film” might even look

like. So in some instances that makes it hard because you have to explain

yourself from scratch, but then again it can also be easier because people are

fascinated and excited at the idea of investing in something that’s ‘brand

new!’ It can work both ways.

VL:

Do you think that the current funds for African filmmakers are sufficient and

does the concept of a special programme for African directors really make

sense?

EMO: I think the concept of special programmes for African

directors is crucial and no, there’s not enough (is there ever?!) I do wish,

however, that we had more locally generated money from our own African

governments and investors. Our ability to tell our own stories, reflect and

represent ourselves in our own words and images is crucial to our development as a people. I don’t know of anywhere

else in the world where outsiders consistently

tell the stories and represent the local people as it has happened in Africa

and there’s something very wrong with that. If most American films were funded,

directed, and acted in by Norwegians, for example, we’d have a very different

story of who Americans are and what they’re about. The same is true for Africa.

We need to be able to develop our own voices and we’re going to need support –

monetary and otherwise – to do that. Not necessarily all foreign support – because

local support is very important as well – but support nonetheless.

VL:

You also teaching a Documentary

filmmaking study programme at New York University that takes

place in Havana, Cuba. What suggestions would you give to independent

filmmakers and in particular to African independent filmmakers about attracting

investment?

EMO: *smile* Well I’m

far from being an expert in this so all I can offer are my thoughts and what

seems to work based on the bits of success I’ve had thus far and what I’ve seen

and learned from others. I think for African filmmakers, given that we don’t

have many established sources of funding, we really have to get creative and

think outside the box about how we get our films made. It might be about going

after specific sponsors or product placement, it might mean joining forces with

other indie filmmakers and coming up with a share plan that makes sense…it could

look a number of ways. And I think the fact that there isn’t one specific

answer is a good thing. It means we get to be pioneers in many ways, try and

fail and try again at a number of things, change our strategies when they

aren’t working any longer, but keep striving to tell our stories and offering

our audiences new and fresh thoughts about what’s possible in our world!


The interview was conducted by

Vanessa Lanari for lettera27, a non-profit

foundation based in Milan. Its mission is to support the right to literacy,

education, and the access to knowledge and information with a focus on Africa.

Vanessa is the curator of the director’s eye project that was created with the aim

of supporting the authors of African cinema, throughout some of the most

important phases in the development and production of a film. The pilot edition

of the project took place in 2012, in collaboration with the Festival de Cinema Africano de Cordoba and the co-production forum Africa Produce.

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