Women And Children Are Agents of Change in ‘African Folktales Reimagined’
They were selected from over 2,000 applicants from thirteen countries, who responded to the Netflix/UNESCO call for storytellers/filmmakers to make short films reimagining folktales in their own languages.
Each storyteller was paired with a local production company under the guidance of Netflix-appointed mentors, with Big World Cinema’s Steven Markovitz acting as Executive Producer.
The films of different genres with male and female directors from diverse cultural, geographic, and linguistic backgrounds all portray women or children as agents of change. Main characters are bearers of light, courageous survivors, victorious warriors, storytellers, mystics and prophets, defenders of the vulnerable, and challengers of the status quo.
The Nollywood Reporter spoke to five of the six filmmakers. The sixth was unavailable for an interview.
Ugandan, Loukman Ali’s film, Katera of the Punishment Island is based on a legend about an island called Akampene, a Ruchiga word for ‘punishment’ in western Uganda, where unmarried girls who fell pregnant were banished. Local languages spoken in the film are English and Runyankole.
For Ali, whose obsession with Westerns goes back to childhood, the idea that one of these girls may have taken revenge captured his imagination.
The main character – Katera – is named after Ali’s mother. “I grew up with an extraordinarily strong woman. My mom is the strongest of my parents. She is the one who will go out and fight. I would picture my mom, what she would do, and that is exactly what she would do,” says Ali.
“Of course, nothing like that really happened,” he adds. “It just slowly went out of fashion. But in my mind, I thought someone should have stood up. I was not incredibly happy that all these girls had to wait for some guy to save them.”
Questioned about his passion to make westerns set in Africa, Ali said, “From an exceedingly early age I wanted to do film. I used to draw comic strips, then, when I was around seven or eight, I watched a war film from the 80s and it blew my mind. After that, I watched Westerns endlessly on our black-and-white TV. I asked my dad if it was okay for me to make movies and he said something like, yes, if you do not make inappropriate films. I always remember that.”
In Nigerian filmmaker, Korede Azeez’s film, Zabin Halima (Halima’s Choice), the main character is torn between her duty as a daughter in a rural, Hausa-speaking Fulani community and her desperation to escape the rigid expectations of her as a young woman.
The setting for Azeez’s Sci-Fi, Fantasy film is a world in which 99% of the population has been uploaded into virtual worlds. The main character elopes with an ‘AI’ to escape an arranged marriage.
Azeez is fired up about the way young women are treated in northern Nigeria, where she currently lives with her husband and toddler. Growing up in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria, Azeez is from the Yoruba ethnic group, which is considered more liberal. “I went to Christian schools and to a Catholic University,” she explains. “I came to Islam on my own.”
The Prophet Muhammad did not treat women as inferior, Azeez asserts. The way that Muslim women are treated “doesn’t come from religion; it comes from culture.”
Regarding her film, Azeez said, “I see women going through this repeatedly and it is something that bothers me a lot. It is not just about arranged marriages and trying to force your daughter to marry somebody; it is also about career choices. It was important for me to say: ‘Look there are consequences to this!’ This is something that has been on my mind for a while.”
Anyango and the Ogre is the title of Vaoline Ogutu’s film in Swahili and English. Ogutu grew up in rural Kenya, speaking Luhya, English, and Swahili. The narrative of the film shifts from legend to reality. The light bearer is the eldest son of three children in a family where the father is an abuser. The boy, himself a victim of abuse, persuades his mother to leave her violent marriage even if it means sacrificing financial security.
Most of the women who auditioned for the part of the mother were or had been victims of gender-based violence. In an unexpected development during auditions, Sarah Hassan, who produced the film, auditioned for the main part. “I needed someone who could portray a vast range of emotions,” Ogutu said. “At the very last minute, we asked Sarah if she would double as an actress and audition.”
Shortlisted auditions were sent to Markovitz to make the final decision. “I asked him, who in your opinion portrays this character the best? I already knew in my heart who was the best, but I wanted to make sure I was not being biased,” Ogutu said.
Markovitz chose Sarah Hassan. “Steven is the best,” Ogutu said. “He would give me advice but not forceful advice… essentially the decisions were in my court as the director and the custodian of the vision.”
Katope, co-created by Tanzanian filmmaker, Walt Mzengi Corey, and his wife Rebecca, is based on a fairy tale about a young girl with mystical and prophetic gifts, who saves her community from a devastating drought.
The film was shot in Nzali, the village where Mzengi’s mother grew up and the story is told in Swahili and ciGogo.
“The high point for me was that Netflix was very willing for us to do the film in my mother tongue, the language of my actual mother. That was really fulfilling. We were able to shoot in the area where my mother grew up, in her tribe.
“The difficulty was finding the balance between a commercial and an artistic film,” Mzengi said. “In the end, I think we found a balance and Netflix allowed us to do that.”
The Nyati musical ensemble has a prominent place in the film. “They are possibly the largest ciGogo musicians in the country. We worked closely with them to find actors in the choir, children and adults, to be part of the film. The whole choir features at the end of the film, which is something special,” Mzengi said.
All the behind the scenes stills of Katope were taken by Sudi Masomwa.
Mohammed Echkouna from Mauritania is another filmmaker who grew up in a family of strong women. The influence of Echkouna’s mother, a devout Sufi Muslim, is evident in the role of the grandmother in Echkouna’s film Enmity Dijinn.
The film’s settings are intimately familiar to Echkouna, who spent his childhood in the desert up until the age of 11 when he relocated to Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania, to attend school.
“I grew up in the northern and middle parts of Mauritania. My family was nomadic so we would travel the desert for half a year looking for food for our camels and then return to the village to harvest the palm trees,” he explains.
Autobiographical elements, such as a childhood memory of standing in front of the tent in the early morning and seeing/ not seeing a mysterious presence, are woven into the film.
Dijinn stories are common in the Islamic part of the continent. The Enmity Dijinn whispers in people’s ears and makes them fight and do wicked things, Echkouna explains. “I wanted to explore that concept and re-imagine it in this film and the idea of the dijinn that is a manifestation of peoples’ hate.”
Echkouna had a keen sense of the kinds of mannerisms he was looking for so casting in semi-nomadic communities went smoothly, but casting in the city came with unexpected challenges.
“The name Netflix was everywhere, so people went the extra mile to present themselves in a good light, like buying new clothes.” The professional setting for the auditions with lights and chairs for the director and team made it worse.
Echkouna’s sister, who was appointed as casting director, saved the day by insisting that the chairs and lights were removed and that the director and team mingle with the people.
All the filmmakers plan to make more films.
“People always talk about short films being your calling card as a director. Here we have short films on Netflix, which is a bonus for filmmakers early in their career,” Markovitz said.