SPOTLIGHT ON KENYAN AND INTERNATIONAL DIRECTOR EKWA MSANGI
Ekwa grew up dreaming of a music career. She left nothing to chance as she took her music lessons in school and even joined the orchestra at St. Mary’s School, noteworthy for having brought out some of Kenya’s highly recognizable talent in the music scene including stars like Chris Adwar. However one of her family’s hobbies was going to the cinema (how nostalgic drive-ins are!). It was very obvious to Ekwa that the movies were not made for her. The characters were American or European and it was a rare jewel to come across a black actor (who had to die before the movie ended!) All she did was complain throughout the movie as her family tried hard to concentrate. During one cinema-night, her irritation incensed her father, who angrily questioned “Why don’t you make your own movies?” Ekwa took up the challenge and promised that she would.
She however continued with music since as far as she was concerned no East African had ventured into movie-making before. Imagine her surprise when she found out that her uncle, by virtue of being married to her auntie, was involved in film making! Her American uncle was an ex-Black Panther member who for undisclosed reasons had to leave America and moved to Tanzania. It turned out that while at Tanzania he worked for one of the premier production houses to be set-up in East Africa. They produced anti-apartheid campaign materials, educational pieces and radio plays. Her uncle later moved to Nairobi and Ekwa’s dad requested him to mentor her on the Art of Film. Of course, years later many actors (including myself) across East Africa, America and the Caribbean are glad she had protested while the rest of us were happily enjoying the drive-in cinema experience.
Ekwa Msangi directing actor Larry Asego on the set of Soko Sonko
I first met Ekwa when I went to audition for a production that had been rumored to be of high budget and that would be the first drama series produced by M-Net in East Africa. There is always one nerve that pumps harder during auditions even though you feel well-prepared. Ekwa operated the auditions very differently. She made me feel like I was not auditioning but rather I was experiencing a practical session. I tried two roles and even insisted that I would like to try another one. She called me for a second round of auditions which was just as engaging as the first one. I was then selected to play a role that was to change my life as far as my acting experience was concerned.
Ekwa is the only film director I worked with who ever called me to rehearse. Her sessions were more like therapy as she made me answer questions as the character I was going to play. She then threw a challenge that I thought was dreadful but that I’ve always used to this day. She asked me to choose a day in which I would spend the whole day as my character interacting with other people. So for the duration of that day I was Drogba, a matatu driver and the Street Kingpin who was dreaded in the whole of Eastlands. Even though this project flopped and only four or five episodes were aired, my performance was recommended everywhere with producers getting praises for my performance from fans outside East Africa. This was all thanks to Ekwa’s insistence on rehearsals and her directing skills on set.
So what made Ekwa such a great actor-director? After high school, Ekwa went to America to pursue a degree in film-making and TV production at the New York University. She did not quite enjoy the first years as she faced the same challenge she had as a young girl watching movies with her family- all the projects to study were occidental and she could not relate to them. It was only in her fourth year that she was introduced to African film makers. She was intrigued but also annoyed that she had to come all the way to America and wait for three years before learning about these great artistes. She decided to enroll for a Masters Degree in African Films. This would mark the beginning of her pursuit of high quality and meaningful films that would inspire and affect people back home. As life continued to unfold, she went from project to project in the USA which automatically became her third home. She is a Tanzanian who grew up in Kenya.
You can therefore only imagine Ekwa’s joy about five years ago when her script The Agency was picked by M-Net Africa as the first locally produced one hour long drama series in East Africa. The scope of the project was big and gave her an opportunity to learn the Kenyan film industry. She had a memorable experience working with the crew. To her great surprise, she was respected and her being a woman had no impact on her instructions. Unfortunately, this was also her lowest moment as the project which was produced by Sterling Quality Ltd could not stretch to the last episode of the first season due to production- related difficulties. However, through this experience, game changers like the great Dorothy Ghettuba emerged (yes, I just called Dorothy Great). Dorothy, the award winning producer, worked as a project manager in The Agency and later went on to form Spielworks Media after the flop. Ekwa, not being the kind to cry over spilt milk got over it and steadily built an illustrious career as an independent film maker.
With several award–winning films under her belt including her short film thriller Taharuki (Suspense), a 12-minute prequel to her feature film In development, was picked up for distribution by Shorts International Inc. and is currently in circulation in both North America and Europe. Weakness, a short film she produced, was nominated for a 2010 Kalasha Award and a 2011 African Movie Academy Award (AMAA). She is in the last leg of promoting Soko Sonko (The Market King) which was commissioned by Focus Features Africa First Program. She is currently co-writing and directing a highly engaging and artistic comical web series called All My Friends Are Married.
Ekwa’s approach is very much a reflection of her altruistic personality, as per the typical Tanzanian way. She focuses on getting the actor to be as natural as possible. She believes that actors are not only selected for their ability to act or for having the features the script has stated but that they also carry the personality that a director can best use if the actor is “himself”. She therefore engages the actor’s true nature in relation to the role being played.
Although Ekwa is based in New York, her commitment to East African film is very vivid and she is working on a project that will be shot in the region. She urges all industry players to take their work more seriously. She stresses that our value is not only in terms of how much we get but also by what people get. We inspire, make people cry and laugh and share memorable experiences with their loved ones. If actors realized that their bodies are the platform through which all this art is exhibited and emotions elicited, they would take care of it more by working out, eating right, avoiding drugs and getting spiritual nourishment. Worthy advice for the actors, don’t you agree?