By Lisa Stahl
With its glamorous ski resorts and frosted mountains, Park City, Utah is a picturesque frontier town. It’s also a frontier movie-making town. For more than four decades, the Sundance Film Festival has been a powerful force for independent cinema and a catalyst in the careers of many previously unknown. Founded by Robert Redford, Sundance supports emerging talent and filmmakers breaking boundaries.
For Ekwa Msangi, the journey to Sundance was relatively fast. While her TV and movie-making career was moving along, it was arguably easier to get a footing for some of her East African-inspired TV projects in Kenya and South Africa than in the U.S. But thanks to the generous support of difficult-to-get awards from the Tribeca Film Festival, IFP and others, her career as a filmmaker catapulted into action when Farewell Amor, Ekwa’s feature film directorial debut, screened in the 2020 Sundance Film Festival U.S. dramatic feature competition. The film got rave reviews and producer Huriyyah Muhammad received the Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Producers Award for Narrative Feature Producer.
Farewell Amor chronicles a family’s reunion after 17 years of separation following the Angolan war. Walter’s wife and teenage daughter have finally been granted visas to join him in New York, but the family soon realizes that years of separation have turned them into virtual strangers. The film’s all-star black cast includes notable actors from Showtime, HBO and Broadway, and the short film version of the project was screened at NYWIFT’s Women Filmmakers: Immigrant Stories series just a few years ago.
Although the depictions of New York City are bound to resonate with American audiences, Ekwa also strives to alter our images of African cultures and illuminate the challenges immigrants in this country face.
Ekwa – who was also featured on NYWIFT’s first-ever panel at Sundance, “Women on the Front Lines: Changing the Game” – talked to us about her experience at the 2020 festival.
Is this your first Sundance experience? How did you get selected and funded?
No. I participated in the January screenwriting lab last year at Sundance. I pitched the project and then received funding from Catalyst Forum. Through Catalyst I was introduced to potential investors, 20 different companies. Two were interested; one, very keen on the film, anchored the second and with momentum going, we secured the equity. Both the Sundance Screenwriter’s and Director’s Lab gave us lots of support and funding.
Tell me about your experience at the Sundance Film Festival this year. How was the film received?
Sundance is very supportive. They hold your hand quite a bit. The experience was really, really wonderful. The film had a standing ovation, incredible press reviews. It was for all of us a huge celebration.
What was your role in making this film?
As an independent producer, I’ve produced many of the films I’ve made. I originated the project, wrote and directed the script and was heavily involved in producing it – particularly at the front end.
What was your biggest challenge?
Rigorous deadlines in order to make the application deadline for Sundance. The film had to be finished fast! We finished just a week before the festival. Another challenge was coordinating filming around our actors’ schedules. Some of the actors were tied contractually to TV shows. We literally had to rent their time from the shows they work for.
Talk about your background, training, and mentors.
I was born in Oakland Berkeley [East Bay, California] – my Tanzanian parents were Fulbright scholars – but grew up in Kenya. My extended family lived in neighboring Tanzania. I have a very colorful and dramatic family…. who inspired me. Their favorite pastime was storytelling. We as black people have different – largely non-linear – ways of telling stories.
I decided early on I wanted to be a filmmaker. But I soon discovered there was virtually no African representation in film in east Africa. When I was accepted to NYU I learned the technical aspects of filmmaking but noted that African faces were absent from film. In my senior year, I took a course in African cinema which, while known in Europe, is much less known here. Taking that course gave me confirmation there was an audience for what I wanted to do
A huge influence on my artistic development was NY-based filmmaker [and NYWIFT member] Ela Thier. She taught me how to approach the work, how to keep yourself healthy as a writer, how to think about your audience and construct a story they want to hear. Susan Baier, a Danish filmmaker and cinematographer, was another role model, as was Shawn Peters, a cinematographer. He’s really good with lighting the skin and facial features of black actors. Ava DuVernay taught me to think about the collective, how important it is to find your tribe and … and be proactive in finding people that will support you. I’m a member of the Black TV and Film Collective which has helped me grow our community.
Do you believe mainstream commercial film is receptive to films like Farewell Amor?
The landscape has changed a lot since I was in college. It’s getting better.
What plans do you have for distributing the film and future projects?
I’m excited to say the distribution of the film…will be finalized very soon. The producer I work with and I have some new projects in development.
Learn more about Ekwa Msangi at www.ekwapics.com.
Read about all of the NYWIFT member films at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival at www.nywift.org/nywift-members-at-the-2020-sundance-film-festival.
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