“Nobody can tell a story the same way that you do.” Because my early film years had so much invalidation around who has permission to tell a story, who does it the right way, and who gets to define cinema in the first place, I spent a lot of time trying to mimic everyone else instead of developing my own voice and investigating what I thought. It’s fine to know how other people approach their work and see the world, but the way that I think is unique to me, even if it’s a story as common as Cinderella, and I wish that had been validated for me much earlier.
As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ekwa Msangi.
Ekwa Msangi is a Tanzanian American filmmaker who has written and directed for television and film, including her feature directorial debut, Farewell Amor. Msangi has also written and directed several drama series for mainstream broadcasters in Kenya and South Africa, including The Agency, MNET’s first-ever original hour-long Kenyan drama series. Along her journey Msangi has been awarded the Jerome Foundation Grant, a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship, and Tribeca Institute and Sundance Institute fellowships.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure being here! I grew up as a child of many worlds: my family is from Tanzania, East Africa and moved to Kenya in the 60s during the first East African union where my father taught Art and Graphic Design at University of Nairobi (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania shared their universities and the art school was in Kenya.) Then in the 70s my father got a Fulbright scholarship in the USA so he moved the family to the Bay Area, California which is where I was born several years later while both my parents were students there. When I was five, they moved back to Kenya having finished their studies, and I spent all my formative years in Kenya until I was ready to go to college in the late 90s and thus came back to the US to go to film school. I’m the last born of three and the only girl, so I was thoroughly loved and doted on by everyone in my family. At the time when my mother was pregnant with me, my father was exploring the world of psychics and they went to Sylvia Brown to ask about me and she told them I’d be a dancer or an artist who would represent our country, so from the minute I was born, I was encouraged towards art because both my parents believed that was my destiny. As a youngster, I did all the arts that I could get my hands on, and it was just…a way of life. I’m grateful because where most of my peers, many of whom were VERY talented in the arts, were discouraged by their parents from pursuing any of it seriously, I was cheered on wholeheartedly and that has clearly had an effect on where I am today.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
At the time that I grew up in Kenya, we didn’t have any local films and very little local programming beyond news and a few sketch-comedies. I had spent years listening to my parents and relatives telling tall and colorful tales about everything under the sun, and it made no sense to me that those aspects of our lives were never reflected anywhere in society other than family storytelling. Our schools at the time were big on British musicals, and if you were really going in there was Shakespeare, and then movies, television and music was all British Top-of-the-Pops and BBC soapies. Nothing that even remotely resembled my life and all the incredible characters that I heard about around the kitchen table or met on a daily basis. So after watching the umpteenth Rambo-knockoff movie and endless complaining on my part, my father dared me to “make [my] own damn films!” and in stubborn defiance, I said I would! I, of course, had no idea what that even meant or what it entailed, just that I was going to do it. Some years later there was a late-night screening of Spike Lee’s “School Daze” on TV, and although a lot of the intricacies of the film were lost to me, what stayed with me was that a) the film had a fabulous-looking, all-Black cast, and b) the director was Black. That’s all I needed to know. I studied everything I could about him, learned that he’d gone to NYU, and so I decided I was going to NYU and I’d just do the same thing that he did! That was how it all began.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There was a time that I was shooting a scene during a film development workshop and was assigned a crew for the project. One of my mentors, a tall British-Jamaican man, was acting as my AD to help facilitate the shoot. The stories of how the day went down and all the false starts are endless, but the bottom line is that the DP had clearly never worked with a female director before, and literally couldn’t understand the words coming out of my mouth. Not because I had an accent that was foreign to him (because he could understand my British-Jamaican AD without any trouble at all, and that wasn’t native to him!) but it seemed that he literally couldn’t compute what I was trying to say, nor believe that I knew anything about what I was instructing him to do. The three of us would be standing together, I’d tell the DP what I wanted directly, and he’d give me the Homer Simpson stare. I’d turn to my AD and tell him what I wanted, he would turn to the DP and say the exact same thing, and suddenly the DP knew what I was talking about. And so that is how the day went in order to get the scene done and it taught me an important lesson about not taking for granted that everyone can meet you where you are regardless of how talented they are or how much experience they’ve had, and that working with a female director isn’t necessarily a small adjustment. For some, taking direction from a female actually challenges beliefs that go deeper than one might think.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Hmmm…well at the time it was far from funny, but in retrospect the situation was just so ridiculous it probably could’ve made a very popular reality TV show.
I had an opportunity to showrun my own television show for a new company that was opening up in East Africa, but I needed to have a local production company co-sign the project and so I went with some “old school friends” who talked a good talk, but ended up being outrageously incompetent and narcissistic. I went in with reservations about working with them, but was eager to see my show come to fruition and thought that as long as we got the greenlight from the studio, “how bad could it be?” Huge mistake!
For whatever reason, they would get really angry anytime anyone on the set asked me a question instead of asking them, and would have huge tantrums around anything that I asked for, so my team and I came up with elaborate strategies in order to get the resources that we needed to make our days. I realize that probably doesn’t seem funny in the least, but the point is that I learned how much time and energy is drained when you are working with people who are competing with you, who aren’t on the same page as you, and who may have feelings about whatever dreams they’ve had to defer while they watch you pursuing and achieving yours. I’ve learned to take a lot more time, do a lot of due diligence, ask all the questions, trust my instincts and never accept a bad job out of desperation in the hopes that ‘things will get better later.’ Not that it’s impossible for things to get better, they most certainly can, but the toll that it might take on your health and creative energy may not be worth that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are a number of people responsible for my success thus far: my parents and my siblings being major players in that arena, but the person who comes to mind immediately is a programmer named Aaron Ingram whom I met at a screening where I showed my thesis film from college. My years in film school had been tumultuous to say the least: no one seemed to understand my work given that images and stories about Africans were rarely seen at that time (pre-digital media, pre-Nollywood, etc.) and so I consistently got the message from my teachers and peers that my work wasn’t really film…that it wasn’t cinematic enough, or interesting enough… that no one would ‘get it.’ I had a screening of my thesis film but was feeling completely dejected and hopeless about it and had been slinking out of the theatre in avoidance of any questions about my film, when Aaron ran up and stopped me to ask me about my work. He affirmed me and convinced me to let him screen the film at a small screening he was having somewhere in downtown Brooklyn. I agreed reluctantly, and a few weeks later he held the screening in a lounge of sorts — not the sexy indie cinema, surround-sound set up that film school had insisted was THE ONLY WAY for a ‘proper’ artist to show their work — but a lounge with some cushy seats and a few flat screens on the walls. I was mortified and terrified, but the audience was so warm and appreciative and he told me afterwards that it was about finding the right audience for my work, and that there were people out there who wanted to see what I had to say. I had come out of film school feeling completely invalidated and that I had no future as a filmmaker because my expression didn’t fit into whatever parameters had been set up or deemed important by that community, and Aaron was hugely instrumental in validating me and my work, and showing me that there was space for other voices, even if Sundance didn’t accept you!
This year my feature film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in competition: the first acceptance to a major film festival that I’ve received after dozens of rejections over the years. Since that screening at Aaron’s lounge, I’ve continued to develop my voice, make my art, and screen it for mostly Black and African audiences who have nurtured and celebrated me, and kept me excited about being a filmmaker, knowing that they understood my work even if no one else did, and I have Aaron to thank for that. He passed away in 2012 sadly, but I still carry him with me in spirit, and now my work has opened up to a whole new audience, but they get to meet me where I am as opposed to me trying to fit into someone else’s mold and understanding.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Unfortunately, we live in a world that pushes the idea that unless you win an Oscar or have your film premiere at a major film festival to overwhelming awards, then you’ve failed and your work isn’t worthy. That idea probably eliminates thousands of beautiful stories and ideas from seeing the light of day, and puts ridiculous pressure on others who’ve had some modicum of “success” to play it safe for fear of not being deemed a ‘genius’ again. It’s a set-up! There’s also a myth that ‘genius art’ just magically springs forth effortlessly for a chosen few, and so if you’re struggling then maybe you aren’t really the genius that you should be in order to call yourself a filmmaker. That’s also false. Filmmaking is incredibly hard work, akin to construction work and psychological counseling all at once. Every artist has had to face mountains of rejection and discouragement on a daily basis, and probably will continue to do so throughout their career, so my advice is to build a tribe for yourself — even if it’s a tribe of one — to keep you encouraged and working towards your goals. The tribe is a person or people who can remind you of the truth about yourself (that you’re wonderful!) and that making art is one of the highest forms of service to mankind that can be made. Also, know that filmmaking is an extraordinary amount of work! The red carpets and awards ceremonies are fun, but be prepared to be pushed to the very edge of your comfort and safety zones several times over before you get there, and if you don’t love the work, you might be really miserable working in this industry. Failure — or what some deem as failure — is inevitable in this business, even when you’ve already had some success. The funding may fall through, your dream actor might not perform as you’d wanted, the audience might not love your work. But it’s all a building block and a journey so…get used to it. Embrace failure, learn from failure. In fact, PLAN to fail, and fail big and early if you can. And then keep going and use what you’ve learned from your failure to inform your art.
What drives you to get up everyday and be a filmmaker? What change do you want to see in the world going forward?
I come from a very large and colorful family with stories for days! Anytime I talk to people: friends, relatives, etc. and they tell me random things that happen in their lives, I’m always so excited at the idea of seeing those stories on the screen. I think that white people and the Western world has underestimated the power of the normalization of their story: of seeing their culture, their neighborhoods, hearing their languages and having their heroes honored on a regular basis. Where it just feels normal that people should know all about Western histories, struggles and triumphs…most people of color don’t have anything even close to that experience and that makes a huge impact on one’s life. To constantly see your life experiences through the eyes of someone else’s culture is harmful. To NEVER be centered in story unless it has to do with strife and suffering…that’s harmful to a person’s psyche. So that’s what keeps me going: Just knowing how rich, vast and incredible my people are, and that there are whole libraries of films that are in need of creating keeps me going.
You have such impressive and inspirational films. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
Of late I’ve been considering a lot of biopics about heroes and sheroes of mine that I admire and can’t wait to honor in the ways that they deserve, finally putting their names on the map! I don’t have a particular genre or style that I stick to, so really, I just want to play with as much as I can and find different and interesting ways of telling stories. I find black expression to be so unique and interesting: we communicate with our bodies, with our facial expressions, hands, dance, music…and even the ways in which we use language is very specific. So those are things that I want to play with in my storytelling, while telling stories about African heritage people mainly…and stories from my particular point of view and experience in the world. How interesting and different would it be to see something like a James Bond told from the perspective of an African woman? So, to answer the question, I see myself heading everywhere from here!
We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?
I often tell friends to imagine their favorite shows growing up, the shows that taught them about life, that made them excited about becoming teenagers and then adults, that made them laugh or cry or understand [what was presented as] the real world. And now, imagine if all those shows were cast with people from an entirely different culture and even language, and that was your only life reference. Imagine if “the Brady Bunch” or “Beverly Hills 90210” or “The Goonies” was all Indian or Chinese or Norwegian people. And that’s ALL you ever saw in your youth. What would your understanding of your life be? That’s what it’s been like for most people of color in the world. Lack of representation hurts everyone. We know less true things about each other, and also about ourselves and that creates problems when it comes to actually interacting with people whose only reference is as a stereotype. In the same way that you can’t claim to “know” American culture by only watching one channel of television, or listening to one genre of music, or eating food from one restaurant. You’ll know SOMETHING, but you’ll be missing so much more, and it’s the so much more that makes up the beauty of what we know of American culture. The same is true for everyone else in the world. No one is one thing, there are so many sides to everyone’s story. So, while having had an overwhelming representation of what the world looks like through the eyes of white men has been…interesting…it’s also been very one-note, and now we’ve pretty much seen it all. There’s so much more to be said. Let’s pass the mic and see what everyone else has to say!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- “Nobody can tell a story the same way that you do.” Because my early film years had so much invalidation around who has permission to tell a story, who does it the right way, and who gets to define cinema in the first place, I spent a lot of time trying to mimic everyone else instead of developing my own voice and investigating what I thought. It’s fine to know how other people approach their work and see the world, but the way that I think is unique to me, even if it’s a story as common as Cinderella, and I wish that had been validated for me much earlier.
- “Your experience and point of view is valid.” Again, my particular experiences in life inform my point of view, and even if that’s not the popular opinion in any given room, that doesn’t mean its not valid. It just means there are plenty of people who don’t know what my journey has been like, and now they get to learn something new!
- “Your journey as a filmmaker won’t look like anyone else’s and that’s just fine. You get to walk your own funky path!” As a woman of the society and background that I come from, its unusual that I would pick a career like “art” over having a family and supporting a husband’s career while making my work during my ‘spare time.’ While I come from a family of artists, none of them were filmmakers and none of them were female either, so there are many challenges that I’ve had to overcome without having an example of what it would be like on the other side. A dear friend and colleague said those words to me during my first big film gig when things were falling apart and many people in my community felt strongly that I should stop “playing around with this art thing and settle down like a respectable woman” and it really stuck with me.
- “Just because someone is ‘older’ or has been in the industry longer, or is white and/or male doesn’t mean that their point of view is better.” Some of this has to do with the colonial legacy, and some with adultism, but the short is that the subconscious idea that other people have better thinking than I do is something that I’ve had to work on for years, and surprisingly the notion keeps cropping up in different ways, so I have to remain vigilant!
- “Take your time, strengthen your voice and LIVE. Your life will inform your art as your art will inform your life.” An uncle told me those words when I was going through a really difficult time in my personal life and questioning whether the naysayers were right. They weren’t. Uncle was right!
Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.
In the same way that performers use their bodies as “vessels” to channel their characters and be in shape for their roles, I believe a writer/director needs to do the same. Although I’m not performing in front of the camera, I require the same — and probably more — stamina, vitality and flexibility in order to be at my sharpest throughout the pre, production, post and distribution stages. I believe it important to have an open heart and open mind so I’m very strict about what I eat, about exercise (yoga, stretching), about surrounding myself with calm and positivity. When shooting “Farewell Amor” which was shot on a shoestring budget in 5 minutes’ worth of time, I relied very heavily on my intuition when it came to sensing people’s energy and how they felt around me. If they felt like they were sucking up my energy or were too bundled in stress, I asked to have those people stay clear of the set! I had my assistant create a music playlist to play great music in between set ups, we had people’s favorite treats on set, I had a personal playlist and headphones that I’d listen to in between set ups to keep my own energy up. And I believe in hugs! I’m not sure how those will work during this COVID time, but a good and generous hug can heal a lot!
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’m a strong believer that love and empathy for one another as humans is our natural state when we come into the world as babies, and thus there is hope that we all have the capability of showing and practicing those values with each other. In the same way that abused people tend to abuse people, so is it true that loved people tend to have the capacity and attention to love others as well. Unfortunately, we have too many abused people with unhealed hurts running our governments, raising children, leading our communities and creating havoc amongst many. So…perhaps it would be a revolution of deep healing? I’m not yet sure what it would look like, but I can say that it would definitely involve healing from our childhood hurts, and learning love and empathy for other humans.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Yikes! That’s a really tough call: I’m torn between Dave Chapelle and Trevor Noah. Both brilliant and insightful men who seem to have kind hearts and a deep love of and faith in humanity, and use humor so deftly! Both men have saved my life on several occasions: when I’ve felt hopeless about humanity, about the state of the country, and that things might get better. I’d love to hang out and have chai and laughs with either (or both!) of them.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
Indeed, I am! I’m on FB, IG and Twitter as ekwapics, and my website is ekwapics.com
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!