Ekwa Msangi debuts with “Farewell Amor”

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen October 26, 2020
Ekwa Msangi

Farewell Amor is an immigrant story with a lot of heart. After nearly two decades apart, a husband and wife are reunited in Brooklyn, where he has made a life for himself. When the wife arrives from Angola with their teenage daughter, the family has to reconnect and rekindle the love they used to share for each other in a new world. This is not an easy task, but music and dance from their home country – the kizomba – help them step by step get closer to one another. Farewell Amor is Tanzanian-American Ekwa Msangi’s feature directorial debut and premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January. We spoke to her via phone from Kenya.

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in “Farewell Amor” (2020)

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in Farewell Amor (2020)

 

I assume that there are not many female directors in Africa – or more specifically Kenya where you live. Speak about why you decided to become a director?

I decided it at a time where there were absolutely no images that reflected my people, my culture and my circumstances. There were no stories and or anything around me that I thought was interesting. My father is an artist and I come from a family of artists and I always knew I would be an artist. Early on, I thought I was going to be a dancer and then a novelist but when I realized that I hated the imagery that I saw, I decided to be a filmmaker. It was a way to remedy that and it was not till recently that it even occurred to me that it is a feat to do that as a female. I went into it maybe a little naively. But I will say that for East Africa in particular, there actually are quite a few female directors who mostly end up working in documentaries because we do not have a lot of funding for this and the men tend to show up when there is more money. When the money shows up, the men show up. I would say 90 percent of the writers and producers in East Africa are actually women so it was not obscene or unheard of to be a female creative here.

Farewell Amor is your feature debut. How has the journey to get there been for you? And do you think your journey is tougher because you are a female director?

It certainly has had its challenges in terms of being able to get funding and being able to have people take me seriously. I have also had to navigate all the questions about marriage and children and all the things that women everywhere deal with in terms of being on sets with an all-men team and trying to direct people has its challenges

Do you think that female directors tell different stories from male directors?

Yes, I do. I think that our worldview is different. Just based on our experiences and how we experience the world and how the world experiences us is different. Therefore, what we are able to offer is different. Our perspective is automatically different. I am sure that there are men who would say it is not true, but from what it looks like from my perspective, it looks like there are different expectations that what they are doing is amazing, and the sacrifices that they make for their art is so valiant and heroic, whereas for women it is more: ‘what are you doing? You are ruining your life. Your whole family name depends on you.’ It seems to be a very different appreciation of experiencing the hardship and sacrifices that one has to make as an artist and then the glory of it when men soak in and are excited about the praise and it is just considered a natural thing. But for women, it seems that you should still be humble and thank everybody and mention that it was not just you. So there is a lot of social pressure that still applies.

What inspired you to tell the immigrant story you told in Farewell Amor?

That was inspired by a relationship between my uncle and aunt, who were married in the mid-'90s. My uncle got a visa to the US and came with the intention of bringing my aunt and their 5-month-old, at the time, right behind him. Today, they are still waiting and reapplying for visas and getting rejected but are still hopeful that one day it will happen. So having watched that over the decades and seeing how it has shaped them and their lives and the lives of their family at large, I was curious to make the ‘what if’ story. What would happen if the visa was not the issue and my aunt was able to come, where would the story go and what would they have to give up to make that relationship work?

You are from Tanzania and live in Kenya. Yet you told a story about immigrants from Angola, which is quite a different country. Why not make it closer to home?

My family is from Tanzania but I grew up in Kenya and that is where I am based now. I wanted to make the characters from Angola because of the element of music that I wanted to include in the film. I am a dancer as well, and I have practiced Angolan dance for many years – especially the kizomba dance that Walter dances in the film. Also being an immigrant in Kenya and being an immigrant in the US and growing up with immigrant parents and growing up with immigrants and their food and culture as a way of memory and a way of being connected to the homeland, reminding and keeping your children aware of who they are and where they are from was a very important element to the story. I am fictionalizing something based on something real and I like that particular style of dancing from Angola because of how it was used during the civil war and because of the connection that is required to dance the kizomba. It is not a regular dance foot pattern and you have to be very connected to your partner to know how to follow or lead the dance. I thought it was a very good metaphor for a relationship and for this couple that is literally out of step with each other and trying to find each other. That is why I chose Angola. I made it more challenging for myself because I have never been to Angola and I don’t speak Portuguese.

You decided to tell this story from the three main character’s perspectives: The father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), the mother Ester (Zainab Jah) and the daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). Why was this important to you?

It occurred to me that even though the three of them are in this very tiny space and they are experiencing the same event, they all have very different and very unique experiences of the same event. Also, I could not decide on whose experience I wanted to show. Initially, I had decided the father and the daughter might be the most interesting, but maybe the father’s story was more cliché. I also wanted it to be a dance movie. So I decided to have it be about both of them – and then as I was writing it, it became clear that the mother’s story was such a key part of the other two experiences. It is also a way of storytelling that feels very African. The way we tell our stories when we talk to one another tends to be very non-linear and experiential. People kind of relive stories in order to relay them. I wanted to try to bring that experience to the screen in some way and this is the way that I could figure out to do that.

I actually felt that Walter’s story was the heart of the film somehow – the male character – and I had a lot of sympathy for him. Is my observation correct?

I don’t know. Maybe it depends on who you ask. Everyone who has seen the film has different alliances. Some people feel completely connected to Walter and did not understand why they needed to watch everybody else’s story – they wanted him. There is team Walter, and team Silvia, and team Esther. It seems to be dependent on where you are and what you relate to. But it did start with him. I had worked on a short film, which focuses on the time before he goes to the airport, so maybe that is why.

Walter at some point says about the US: ‘This country is very different for Black people’ and Esther says: ‘I will not lose my child to this country.’ What has your experience been in the US?

Being in the US has a lot of highs and lows. It is definitely a culture shock even though I grew up in the city and I was actually born in the US and moved away as a child and we had a lot of American friends and watched a lot of American television. So, when I came to the US as a teenager, I felt very well-versed, and low and behold, I actually was not. There are a lot of big and small things that are just huge culture shocks. Everyone puts ice on the table and assumes that you want to drink everything with ice. You are like: ‘why? It is winter!’ There are race relations and politics and there are many things I love and like about America and American life; then there are things that are really hard and challenging about it as well. I live in New York and I have been in New York for over 20 years, and that is a micro-cosmos of the US because there are so many immigrants in New York and you get to really be specific. You can’t say: ‘Oh I am from Europe’. You could really get into the country and town and village where everybody comes from to be able to compare it to and contrast our colonial history and things of that nature and so there is a way that it does not feel as American as Kentucky might feel. It makes it a little easier to stay there and to create a community and that is another reason why I wanted to set the film in New York and in Brooklyn because it is its own country literally. It is its own republic because it almost has its own rules. Some of the things the characters have experienced – not only from Americans but from other immigrants. From the people at home who were left behind and have expectations of what your life in America might be like, and what they can expect from you, and the pressure of the acceptance they will have, and the gold bars you will bring home. That can all make life challenging sometimes.

What is the main thing that you would like the audience to take away from this film?       

It is really important for me to have a different narrative of immigrants and immigration. In the last four years there has been so much talk about immigrants and all the horrible things that they do, the horrible people that they are, that they are taking the resources and all that. But we never stop to think about the things that immigrants give up in order to be in the US. The gifts and the skills that they bring with them – not only as labor but in terms of food and culture and perspective. Nobody wants to go and live with strangers and leave behind people they know and love – there is a lot of hardship and hurt involved and that is true for everybody, not just African immigrants, but also Europeans. Aside from race relations, we would all be such a better community, country and citizens if we thought about this – even White people should think about their own immigration stories – because everybody there except for the Native Americans is all immigrants. If people would own that a little bit more, I think we would actually be a much better society. Think of the traumas and what people left behind in order to come to the US and make a life there in this big melting pot that we have. I want the audience to take away love. Just Black love – African people loving each other is important for me as well.