Interview with Branwen Okpako

AD: What do you want people to take out of your themes? And what experience do you want people to get?

BO: Okay, let me not be vain about it. I want people to leave Dirt for Dinner having learned something about the way German society functions and a little bit about the history of Germany from the time of socialism of the DDR or the GDR up-to-date. And with the use of this man’s life, Sam Meffire’s life, you basically get a kind of, a kind of personal and yet political historical overview of the last thirty years in German history: you know, socialism, reunification and post-reunification Germany, with this personal story of a black German man’s struggle to exist in this society. And it tells you a little bit about how the media works. I think that’s also a very important aspect of it, because you’re going to watch a film about someone’s life and the film is constantly telling you “Don’t believe everything you hear in the media. Don’t believe the way the media organizes information and organizes a story, gives you a message.” So you are basically being asked also to be slightly skeptical even about what I am saying in my film.

AD: And for you, being someone obviously not German and making the film in Germany, what’s that been like obviously, as an African woman making a film in Germany?

BO: As an African, one is always used to going into foreign societies and feeling one’s way and finding out the way things function, the way the system works and how to fit into it. So, because of the instinct that we Africans have, I am almost like equipped with the ability to be able to sense what’s going on in the society and I have had the opportunity to use my African eye to look at German society from the outside, obviously looking at people of African origin as well, so it is not completely nothing to do with me. I am looking at foreign society from an African point of view. I am doing that almost like an anthropological study. They came to Africa so often to come and analyze us and study our societies and our culture and all that. I’m flipping it over and doing it the other way around. I am an African coming to anthropologically study their societies. And they accepted me actually, I have been lucky enough that they accept my point of view as valuable to them.

AD: For Dirt for Dinner, how do German audiences react to what you show them — what’s their reaction?

BO: It was very successful when it came out. It won lots of prizes and it was shown several times. It was very, very, well received which made me immediately very suspicious of my own film because I like “If they like it, what’s wrong with it.” And as I was saying to you earlier, there are elements in that film that white society loves to hold on to and they feel comfortable in. One of them is a black man in jail. And the idea that you go into the detail of getting to the bottom of why this man ended up in jail? What elements led to that? And we find out that politicians were involved in pumping him up as the symbol of this and that, in a multicultural society and everything and when push came to shove, they dropped him. And he was somebody who had to cope with racism and isolation throughout it all. So you had awhole social analysis from a foreign black point of view, but there was always this comforting aspect with the fact that he’s a big, black man, but he’s in jail- so you don’t have to worry about it. And at the end of the film, happy end: he stays in jail. And I’m beginning to see it that way too, that that might be part of the reason why they liked the film. It’s dealing with important issues for white society. It is important for them to realize that racism is actually not even in their interest, because what they are doing is making people so isolated from society that they turn on society and they become dangerous to society. So it’s that as well, but at the end of the day, the reassuring aspect of it is “we got him and he can’t get us.”

AD: Interesting. He’s not in any more, he’s out?

BO: Yeah, he’s out.

AD: As a filmmaker, what sort of things influence you, what cinema languages influence- what inspires you as a filmmaker, visually and subject matters as well?

BO: At the moment, I am writing a film about the poet Christopher Okigbo and that to me is…

AD: Could you elaborate on that for the benefit of those who don’t know who that is?

BO: Christopher Okigbo was a poet who lived between 1935 and 1967, and he died during the Biafran war as a soldier on the Baifran side, an Ibo poet, a Nigerian poet. He was not very prolific, he wrote quite a slim volume of poems but he’s recognized all over the world as being one of the greatest African poets to ever write in the English language and his poetry is amazing. I am telling his story because it does not fall into any of those stereotypical boxes for a start. He is not an African the way we have seen Africans before. He is an intellectual, he is a poet, a very cool guy, a real ”awon” boy. He’s everything you don’t see. He is modern Africa- he’s an exciting, modern African. And his life, again like the life of Sam, traces a very important historical period, this time in the case of Nigeria: from colonial to post-colonial times. Actually those are parallels (Sam is also a poet actually). And it’s good — somebody’s life that actually encompasses a very important changing moment in history, the birth of Nigeria and then of course its demise into the civil war — a kind of exciting story.

And what’s inspiring me at the moment is poetry and music, and not filmmakers anymore. I am kind of out of filmmaking and filmmakers and images. I am tired of it. Nowadays, we are bombarded with these bloody pictures all the time, and we are being told “Seeing is believing,” but of course I can’t believe what I see. Just because I see an astronaut bouncing around on some TV channel doesn’t mean that somebody went to the Moon. I am beginning to disbelieve images and image making is my business, so I am trying to win my faith back actually with this project.

AD: Fantasic. That’s a very good point — you are trying to, in effect, get influenced by yourself, organically. Would you like to make films in Africa one day, being an African woman? Most of your films are set here (in the West) — is that something you would like to do?

BO: Yes, another very important thing about this Christopher Okigbo film is that it’s going to be my first time making a film back home in Nigeria. It’s dealing with the issues that are very alive in Nigeria today — the civil war, and the conflicts between so-called different nationalities within Nigerian boarders. These are conflicts that started in 1960 and have not yet been resolved. This is a very profound and important topic for Nigeria and I’m trying to have the guts now to face it. It’s really scary obviously. People always used to ask me, “Why don’t you go to Africa and make films?” And I’m like, “One day, when I know how to make films, I will dare to go and make films in Africa“. Because you don’t want to put a bad movie out there about Africa. There are enough of those. Not by African filmmakers — there are fantastic films by African filmmakers, but, you know, from that outside point of view. Of course, I want to make films in Africa. That’s my aim. Even you and I are planning to work together as well.

AD: Inch’Allah

BO: That’s something I am very much looking forward to because I think that that’s also the feature of this medium — it’s no longer one ego, and no longer one pair of eyes but it is being more African about it in the sense of making art together as a group, and collaborating. I am looking forward to working with you, and getting some of your style. And we can also look out for each other, in terms of how real are we being, how influenced are we being. We can back each other up as well, looking for the genuine image.

AD: Completely. I guess this is kind of your process of how you work. You get this story and — can you elaborate more on that? Your creative process — do you write a story, do you have people in mind, or ideas in mind that you would want to work on and take time to work on — through the financial part of it as well?

BO: Well so far, if I can see a pattern, because you know, every project has its own life and every project has its own process, a pattern starts with the idea and with writing, and with where you are yourself, and your own personal development.

AD: What I meant was do you often have ideas that you sit in and you go “I really want to make this?” And you go out and look for the finance. Or often, which way does it really work? Or does somebody come up to you with an idea and you think, “Okay, let me go this way?”

BO: Well, it’s a combination of both. With my first film somebody came to me with a newspaper cutting about Sam and said, “Look, this is important, this is a black man, he’s one of us, he’s gone off the rails. Find out why and make a film about it.” Someone really demanded that of me. That “You’re a filmmaker, do something useful for us.” So that was the impulse that sent me off researching that story. With the next story, it organically happened that while I was researching the documentary, I felt the need to develop a fiction story so that I could keep the creativity going and keep my imagination alive, and not put too much imagination into the documentary — it had to kind of make itself. So I started writing the other one. And now with Christopher Okigbo, somebody saw my film in New York and came up to me and said ”Look, I’d like you to make a documentary about Christopher Okigbo with my production company.” And that started Christopher Okigbo. Now it’s developing not into a documentary but more like a fiction film. So you know, its very organic.

Things are born out of each other. I came to New York to show one film, I met you, we started talking about another thing, we wanted to work together, then I got back to Germany and started writing about what we could do together, and then a story came up that fit into the idea of you and I working together in New York and Lagos and stuff like that. So it’s organic, its life — art presents itself to you as you just continue your life and then you keep on trying to write. I’m writing like three stories at the moment. And then at one point somebody bites one you know, somebody with money, or somebody with inspiration, or somebody with motivation bites on to one and says “Okay lets do this,“ and then you continue that …

AD: I guess that is everything I wanted to ask. Is there anything you’d like to end this with?

BO: I would like you to say something

AD: (Laughs) You would like me to say something? No, I’m listening! (More laughing). You know, that’s the whole point, you know? I’m listening — you know absorbing everything.

BO: Yeah but you have been watching my films. You know my films, you know my whole process and everything about me. So, what would you say, do you think that I’ve got one thing that I’m really trying to say or do you think I’m just drifting?

AD: No, I think you’ve got lots you’ve got to say. And that’s what, I admire about your work very much — that conscience about it — but its not about me is it? Hello? Are you there?

BO: Yeah. Thank you for saying that.

AD: What did you say?

BO: Thank you for saying that and thank you for the great honor to be interviewed by you.

About the Director

Andrew Dosunmu

Andrew Dosunmu is an up-and-coming multimedia artist. Dosunmu, who calls Nigeria home, too, is London-born with a passion for black-and-white film. In addition to his outrageous documentary on the art and industry of African American hair-styling, Hot Irons (1991) – an NYAFF selction — his photography and styling have appeared in magazines such as Paper and iD, and he has directed music videos for Aaron Neville, Isaac Hayes, Maxwell, Angie Stone, and Guru, among many others.