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:
The German premiere of I.C.U., I-BEMSI and Beleh. Premiere pictures courtesy of Eka Christa Assam.
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.
Eka Christa Assam
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.