On September 3, 2014, former Akademie Schloss Solitude resident Achille Brice and fellow filmmaker Eka Christa Assam presented the German premiere of three film shorts – I.C.U., I-BEMSI and Beleh – at Generationshaus, Stuttgart. Barbadian artist and writer Katherine Kennedy, who is currently in residence at the Akademie acting as a correspondent between the Caribbean and the community here, spoke with them after the screening. The conversation provided an opportunity to discuss not only the works themselves, but the larger context in which they function in Cameroonian society. Through a series of questions, observations and personal anecdotes, cultural exchanges occurred, emphasizing the importance of perspective in both the telling and appreciation of a story.
Read the interview originally conducted for the Akademie Schloss Solitude Blog below:
Katherine Kennedy: Can you begin by telling me about your background in acting/filmmaking, and the context you are working out of in Cameroon; is there already an industry you are situating yourself in, or is it now emerging?
Eka Christa Assam: I actually studied accounting after high school, but I always wanted to act. At some point I dropped out, and after a year or two I got my first movie role in 2006. After being in a couple of films, I realized I wasn’t interested in the kind of scripts that came my way. In Cameroon, the film industry is still trying to find its feet, especially the English speaking section. Many filmmakers try to copy what Nollywood – the Nigerian film industry – is doing, which is mostly home videos for entertainment that don’t follow cinematic techniques, and I wanted more from the genre. I felt that film was tool we could use to address some of the issues we are facing in our country.
After a while I tried writing and directing my first short – but that didn’t even make it out of post. It was very hard because I hadn’t been to film school, I had no experience. I tried to read up on it but I don’t think I was quite prepared yet. I tried to get books on filmmaking, looked for information online and studied lots of Western films. Then I met Achille, who had been here at Akademie Schloss Solitude, and he was kind of like a mentor. He gave me pointers and sources for material, and he helped me with the second short, Doormat, which was 6 minutes long. With that piece I got accepted into the Durban Talent Campus 2012.
The second project we worked on was Beleh, which has been doing really well. It’s been screened at 12 festivals to date and won best short film at the ZAFAA African Film Academy Awards in London in 2013 and got a jury mention at the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) in Nigeria. It’s a slow process, but it’s picking up – the more you do, the more you improve, and because we have no formal training we learn on the job. It’s a bit of a struggle, but now that our work is getting out there and we’re getting opportunities to interact with other artists, we’re learning from them, getting inspired by their work, and approaching our own work from a different perspective.
Achille Brice: In terms of coming into the industry, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a film artist at first. I started as more of a recording artist and I was editing pictures for fun part time. A Cameroonian director had seen some of my work, and approached me in 2003 to suggest I try my hand at video editing. The first movie I ever edited was feature length; it was chaotic, but it was an amazing experience and ever since then I have been doing a lot of homework, trying to gain experience. I was lucky to be selected for the Durban Talent Campus in 2008, and in the same year selected for the Berlinale Talent Campus in Germany, so I think those were turning points in my artistic career. I got to meet professionals that have been in the industry for a long time, network and share ideas. I think that was a source of motivation.
Being able to manipulate scenarios, in a sense giving meaning to nothing, is what brought me to the industry. As Eka said, I discovered it was a platform where I could pick out relevant topics, and use video to break a barrier that other genres cannot really cross in the same way. I would say the artistic scene in Cameroon, especially in film, is slow because there are no real film institutions. If you want to become an artist you have to take the initiative in educating yourself.
KK: Given that the industry is still in its latent phases, did that lead to the founding of BinAm Studios? What are some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome?
AB: There is a problem with movie financing because a lot of investors don’t want to put their money into a sector where nobody has had formal training, but I think it’s a necessary risk to invest in and encourage talent. BinAm Studios was created as a platform to celebrate our own, because the general population of Cameroon tends to embrace foreign products. Sometimes when we do movies, people say that we’re copying Nigeria, but we’re trying to tell our own stories. It’s a gradual process; first we have to prove our worth, and then we can use this platform to showcase ourselves so that Cameroonians and those living in the diaspora know that things like this can happen in our own home. I founded BinAm Studios to cultivate this field while exposing our best. We have amazing actors, directors and producers who don’t get recognition because people think moviemaking is just a part time thing, but for me moviemaking is my saviour. It’s where I found my home.
ECA: Film is more than a hobby – it’s a passion and a profession, and you have to find that balance. Too many people do it for the wrong reasons. They may not even be finished editing the first draft, and they’re already starting on the promotion because they want their friends to know they will be on camera. They’re in a hurry to get it out there – but why are they doing it? The reason determines how well it is done. I feel that, as much talent as we have – and there are so many talented Cameroonians – once your attitude gets tainted, your whole art will crumble. And that is one of the biggest problems in our industry. We don’t have a market for our films yet, so the challenge is for us to be able to find our own voice and style, and make the public believe in our ability to present unique content.
KK: A lot of what you’re saying feels familiar – a lack of formal support and finding a viable way to market our art is a problem we face in the Caribbean too, which has led to the establishment of informal networks or programming. In the area of film, for example, there is the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff) happening this month, providing a platform regionally whilst forming links internationally. Having participated in numerous film festivals yourselves, how important are these outlets to the wider distribution of your work and advancing the local industry?
AB: There was a point where all of my time on the Internet was spent Googling film festivals! The whole idea is for it to be seen, to let people know that we are using the field to achieve something with the little we have, and of course developing the quality of the project. I always say that the content is key before anything else.
ECA: Especially for our industry, which is still very much underdeveloped, participation in these events and having our work at a high, competitive standard is critical. Not having access to the best equipment, in order for us to make films that will captivate our audience we have to be particularly aware of the content. Sometimes, I will hear a Cameroonian say ‘I want to do a film about martial arts’ – they don’t have the equipment or qualified actors, and in the end, the movie is a flop. I think they get carried away with the glamour of film. They think movies need big cars, big houses, the girls have to dress nicely – even sitting in my living room on a hot afternoon, I should be wearing heels and makeup. That’s not reality.
KK: Do you think staying true to reality and making your work relatable gives you an advantage?
ECA: Definitely. When we did Beleh, some people said ‘Oh my God, why did you use that location?’ but I’m like – that’s who we are. And at the end of the day, so many people can identify with it because that’s our community. That’s another selling point of the movie, the originality. I think we have to focus on realistic pieces first in order to get the industry to a standard where we can say one day, ok, I want to make a sci-fi movie – at least then you have the base to work on.
AB: I think it is equally important for us to give firsthand accounts. We shouldn’t wait for someone else to do it. There are millions of stories to be told from Cameroon, we’ve got two official languages and about 250 ethnic languages. Even Eka and I speak two completely different dialects. But first and foremost, we are Cameroonians, and we are united in that way.
KK: The gaze of the author has a tremendous impact on how any tale gets relayed, and I imagine another parallel that Caribbean and African nations share is the exoticism of our cultures by external sources.
ECA: I met a documentary filmmaker when I was at the Durban Talent Campus, she’s half Nigerian half German. One thing she told me that I took note of is that we have to be able to dictate our own narrative. She said while shooting a documentary once, there was a scene where a lady was cooking from a fireplace as Africans traditionally do. Her foreign cinematographer found it fascinating, and he wanted to play up that shot, and she was like, no – for us, this is normal. Those are the little differences, outsiders would see and represent things differently, and the entire direction of a piece can shift.
KK: I’d like to discuss the films premiered in Germany. Common threads that ran between I.C.U. and I-BEMSI were themes of legacy and faith. Whether it was a loss of faith in political leaders, a loss of faith in yourself and your dreams, or rediscovering faith, both dealt with it in a poignant way. Tell me some more about these shorts.
AB: The driving force of those two pieces is hope. In I.C.U., the concept was to send a message to various governments, especially in regions where there are a lot of issues with hunger and poor living conditions. We’re not trying to point fingers, but to invite them to become the last leaders to witness hunger, because we know it is possible.
African governments are well noted for corruption, but we are asking them to do right by the people. That is the common link between I-BEMSI and I.C.U., that there is a future. We shouldn’t turn our backs away from those in power, we should invite them to the same table to sit and discuss. Sometimes it feels like the government is a little too far, like we can’t reach them and we need a middle man to communicate, but I think it’s all about remaining positive and communicating in your own way.
I-BEMSI is saying no matter the broken promises I thought your policies were going to provide for me, I have found something that keeps me alive while I wait for a better tomorrow. And it shows the importance of being happy while leading your fight. But the reality is that people need change. I.C.U. and I-BEMSI are the cries of about 18 million Cameroonians.
KK: I liked that the films were a call to action rather than an outright condemnation, leaving the situations open for dialogue instead of being accusatory and dismissive. In I-BEMSI, faith is also addressed explicitly through religion. Can you tell me about religion in Cameroonian society, and the choice to bring attention to it in the film?
ECA: The majority of the country is Christian, but when it comes to religion, more or less everybody has their freedom. We don’t have the religious wars that some surrounding countries face.
AB: Religion is an important symbol in the movie, because people believe that faith is never going to let them down. Prayer is used as a way of expressing yourself to the unknown. Somehow knowing you are connected to something larger than yourself becomes an inspiration and keeps you going. Cameroonians are very glued to religion, and they pay attention to it.
ECA: But you also have a lot of charlatans who take advantage of that devotion. Because of our situation, it’s a struggle, and people are seeking ‘miracles’. We are not fighting any wars, but people are suffering mentally. I think that institutionalized religion is blinding too many people; spirituality is what I focus on.
It took me at least 20 years to realize there was a lot more to faith. It’s about building a deeper connection and being secure in what you believe. When I set out to be an actress, my goal was to be the best, and this pushes me to my limits. Some people may settle for mediocrity, but I believe that you should strive for perfection – even if you fall short, you can achieve excellence. When you have that mindset, it guides the way you approach your work. Returning to faith, if you have a clear vision of your beliefs and why you are doing something, you can get anywhere.
KK: Your dedication to the craft shone through in Beleh, I thought your performance felt very genuine and nuanced. Of course, the short is a strong critique of gender roles; I’m curious how the film was received in Cameroon, which is portrayed as a male dominant society. What was the reaction when confronted with images like a pregnant man in a dress?
ECA: We actually haven’t released it in Cameroon yet. We’re looking forward to that, but with the lack of cinemas it’s going to be a bit difficult. For now the plan is to put it on local TV stations to get it out there. But we have a couple of friends who have watched it, and so far the response has been great. First of all they take in the humour, and they laugh about it, but then they reflect and say ‘actually that’s true’. I had a friend who watched it, and when it was over he said, “Wow, you’re right…” Then five minutes later, he said, “Oh my God, you’re right…” Then ten minutes later, he said, “You’re really right…” and I’m like, ok…what did you do to your wife? Go home and apologize!
KK: Humour is an effective device in the piece, it acts as a hook to reach people and draw them in. But after you reflect on it, like your friend did, the disparity across genders is really apparent.
AB: It’s one of those movies that you need to re-watch. A lot of people look at it and think it is all about comedy, but when you go back to it and it starts sinking in, you start piecing the issues together.
ECA: In Cameroon I think many women have a misconception about gender equality as well. They think it means assuming the man’s role, and this is something I tried to handle subtly in Beleh. Even though the protagonist didn’t treat his wife very well and didn’t sympathize with her, she didn’t abandon her responsibilities; she struggled and she got everything done. We are fighting for equality, but there are still things that we have to do. That’s why Beleh emphasized the role of empathy and sharing burdens in relationships.
KK: Another thing that drew a distinction between being exclusively comedic and something more serious was the soundtrack. Despite how funny some visuals were, the music could pull you out of that moment with a sinister or ominous tone. It gave the piece an eeriness that I enjoyed.
AB: We have an amazing friend who did the scoring for the movie, and the editing was about placing the right score at the right time.
ECA: We explained to him what we were trying to do with the film, and what we wanted the audience to feel and experience, and let him go ahead and do his thing. When we came back and listened, we were blown away. He did such an incredible job.
KK: Finally, I wanted to ask about the reaction you received here in Germany after last week’s premiere; are there any notable responses or questions you’d like to mention?
AB: The audience really loved it. One of the interesting questions posed was about the political state of the country, and if it’s risky to make such pieces. The government never made it easy – they shut down the few cinemas we had because according to them, they were meeting grounds for political rallies. The good thing is that they don’t take film seriously, they see it as a playground, so there is no censorship yet; only when they see the end result do they think perhaps we shouldn’t be doing this. But I’ve never had any trouble with government officials, although I have heard about suspected cases where it has happened.
My reaction to this question is that someone needs to tell our story. Video is the medium I want to use to empower society, provoke thoughts or see how people react to certain issues. I want to create something that can contribute to change. Our path is a little bit complicated, because people don’t want to highlight the negative parts of the country, but negativity is everywhere and we need to bring it to light. A lot of filmmakers run away from that. Eventually when we establish ourselves we can start experimenting with other things, but for now we should focus on our own situation and needs. For now, it is about giving people hope.
Read a version of the interview on the Akademie Schloss Solitude Blog here.