In Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, filmmaker Mandla Dube chronicles the short but impactful life of a young South African anti-apartheid freedom fighter. The film had a screening at the NYC African Film Festival. Read my full review here.
This is an archived conversation with Andrew Dosunmu from 2014.
Andrew Dosunmu has been creating beautiful images and weaving wonderful narratives for many years. As an acclaimed photographer, music video and film director, you’ve most likely seen his work before. His stylistic rich visuals are a feast for the eyes.
I recently had a chat with him about his background and his film work, namely Restless City, Mother of George and the upcoming Fela movie.
Atane: For those that don’t know much about you, can you tell us where you’re from, where you grew up and where you’re based?
Andrew: I’m currently based in New York. I’ve been in New York for the last 20 years. I was raised in Nigeria, and I’m a filmmaker and photographer. I’ve been a photographer for quite a while. I eventually grew into filmmaking.
How did you get involved in filmmaking?
I guess it was just a natural progression really. It’s always been something I wanted to do. I’ve always loved images, so it was just a natural progression; the idea of elaborating with images and pushing the limits of it. Obviously photography and filmmaking comprises of all of that, the combination of sight and sound. My love for film started when I was in France during my teenage years, and in college. I had to learn French, so I used to go to cinemas a lot. My love for cinema started then, and obviously for me, I never felt these avenues reflected or portrayed people like me. That’s where the curiosity started.
Let’s talk about Restless City. When I first saw it, it reminded me of the scenes and people in NYC whose narratives are rarely told. Despite the fact that people like this are everywhere in the city, NYC depicted in film is centered on Wall Street, Midtown and Times Square most of the time. Even though I have never been in a situation where I needed to hustle to get by, I understood the story and it resonated with me. When you decided to shoot the movie, was the narrative of an African immigrant a conscious decision?
I wanted to tell a story that interested me. I wanted to focus on the dilemma of displacement and what that feels like. People go to New York, and they all go there because they believe that it’s the place to be. New York is the City, especially when you’re young. When you’re young and driven with ambition, it’s even more appealing. I didn’t want a film with a cliché immigrant. He’s (Djibril, the main character in Restless City) not someone that came from a war-torn place or anything like that. He came here because he had a dream. America and more specifically New York is a place where one can realize that dream. So I really wanted to focus on this young immigrant. Whether you’re an African, Latin American or Asian, when you’re young, you often come to New York because you have a dream. I wanted to portray that and to put a different face to the notion of an immigrant. This is a country (USA) that functions on immigrants. Immigrants make the city function. Even though they are the fabric of the society, we don’t often regard them that much. They all have stories. What happens to that taxi driver that picks you up, or the Latin American guy that works in a restaurant as a dishwasher or whatever else? They have dreams, and their dreams are much bigger than what they are doing.
With your latest film, Mother of George, I really saw a world as a Nigerian woven in front of me. There was a lot of attention to detail, down to the geles that were worn. How did you get the idea for this film?
The script was something I had been working on with my writer. She came to me with this idea and I really liked it. Again, it was an opportunity for me to paint what we never really see in cinema. America is a country whose history is based on immigration and immigrants, and often when the African immigrant is portrayed, they are portrayed in such a negative light. For me it was an opportunity to paint that culture, far from what we’re used to seeing in American cinema. It’s not often that an African immigrant is displayed with complexity in film. Cinema is always the same cliché. I really wanted to get far away from that and paint this blank wall with richness. Like any human being, they aspire to what we all need. Things like love and family. I really wanted to show that. It was a canvas for me to paint on really. I wanted to express their love and feelings, and what they go through. Just a different picture from what we’re used to because they embody way more than clichés.
Were there any challenges shooting Mother of George?
(laughs) Yeah! It’s a script that I’ve had for a while, and the challenges are always the same, which is funding. I really wanted to be truthful to the story. In order for me to be truthful, I needed to get the right people for the cast. That was really difficult because when trying to find funding, people want familiar faces. Your Hollywood faces, the faces we know. For me, I felt like those weren’t the right characters. They weren’t the right actors to play those characters, so if you want to be truthful to stories like this, that’s a challenge. People always want names they know, familiar Hollywood names. If I went that route, then I wouldn’t do justice to the characters. It would just be another actor putting on this character, playing this role that they aren’t even familiar with. It’s a cliché, like an African character on NYPD Blue putting on an accent, playing a character that they’ve seen played before. I know there is a lot more to it than that. There is an integrity and mannerism that characters should embody, and the only way to get it is by getting the right actors. Without the familiar names, it was a big challenge to raise the money. So financing for me was the major challenge.
Your next film will be the Fela Kuti biopic. What can you tell us about it?
So far, what I can tell you about it is that it’s not a biopic. (laughing)
Fela is a man that lived several lives, you know? I never believed in biopics because you cannot sum and condense people’s lives into a two hour movie. If anything, I can say the movie is about the spirit of the man, rather than a biopic. That’s really all I can elaborate on at the moment as it’s still a work in progress, and it’s still at the early stages.
Chris Abani wrote the screenplay, correct?
He’s working on the screenplay, yes. He’s one of the screenwriters and he’s an amazing writer.
Mother of George is set to be released on Blu-ray next month; will Restless City eventually get a Blu-ray release?
It’s on DVD at the moment, but I hope so. I never even actually thought about that, wow! It would be wonderful if it comes out on Blu-ray. It’s a conversation that I should definitely initiate. I haven’t thought about it for a minute since it’s been out on DVD and you can watch it on Netflix. As a filmmaker, I want my movies to reach a wider audience, especially for people who didn’t see the films in the theaters. So DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and Netflix or any avenue where people can view my films is great.
Absolutely. Was Mother of George released in Nigeria?
Not yet, but it will be. It will be released in other parts of the world.
Great. Thanks for your time Andrew.
Thank you very much.
To see more of Andrew Dosunmu’s work, please visit his website.
A few shots of Ghanaian singer Jojo Abot.
Some photos of Vector tha Viper in concert.
A few shots of Reekado Banks live in Houston, Texas.
A few shots of Nigerian singer/songwriter Praiz in concert.
A few shots of the torchbearers of afrobeat, brothers Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti on stage together.
A few shots of Timaya, the pride and joy of the Niger Delta.
Some shots of Seun Kuti onstage at One Africa Music Fest at the Barclays Center Arena in Brooklyn, NY.