Masterclass with Newton Aduaka

Cannes Festival, May 2007
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Hosted by Jean-Pierre Garcia, director of the Amiens Film Festival.

You were born in 1966, in Eastern Nigeria, Biafra. Tell us about your childhood.
I’m quite a private person but I’ll do my best. I was born in 1966 in Eastern Nigeria, which very quickly became the Republic of Biafra. It lasted three years and disappeared. Nigeria became independent in 1960. However, it wasn’t a true independence. I was born in a very turbulent period. In 1966 started the Nigerian Revolution, which led on to the war. The first four years of my life were war. After, in 1970, all Biafrans had lost so much. A million Biafrans had died. It was like a genocide. My family and I moved to Lagos and started a new life. It wasn’t easy: a slogan by the federal government said « No victors, no vanquished ». It wasn’t true. For a young boy, it was very difficult to live in that atmosphere. Fear, anxiety and insecurity were part of my daily life.
You saw films for the first time in Lagos.
Yes. The first one was a Bollywood film, in 1974. It had a huge impact on me. Nigerian cinema was restarting. There were many Indian movies brought by the Lebanese merchants. Then I saw King Kong and Star Wars. It was the beginning of the big Hollywood blockbusters and I witnessed this transition to the ‘new cinema’ from Lagos.
You then went to London to study.
Yes, seven years later. I was eighteen years old but didn’t go there to study cinema. I was interested in music. In time, you will find how this fits into my work. At thirteen, I discovered music and was very passionate. We had a band and we even recorded an album. However, I was being trained to be an electronic engineer. I am called Newton because my father wanted me to be a physicist!
How did you come to study cinema?
One of my friends was passionate about cinema. We ended up in London at the same time. I went with him to an interview for a film school and suddenly, everything seemed clear. I was interested in engineering but didn’t want to work in an office. I wanted to be this mad scientist, inventing things. I quickly became disenchanted and found creativity in cinema. Moreover, this creativity was allowed: we had the possibility of using our imagination.
You then entered this film school.
Yes, and I stayed there for three years. My life changed. I became a completely different person. I caught the virus of cinema: it became an obsession. I wanted to know everything about it and realized that I was with people whose dream of making cinema went back to their childhood. They had a very broad knowledge of cinema: I knew I had a lot of catching-up to do. It was an international film school so there were filmmakers from all over the world. That opened me to all kinds of cinemas.
Before making your first film, you worked as a sound engineer on the set of Quartier Mozart by Jean-Pierre Bekolo.
Yes. I fell in love with sound. In film school, I directed three shorts which I had written. When I left school, I realized I didn’t have that luxury anymore. It was a great experience because it was like a big workshop. After your studies, you have to manage on your own and be very patient. It was a wake-up call. I wish that film schools would help their students with this transition from the studies to professional life. At that time, I just concentrated on writing. I was interested in sound because I came from a background where music was very important. I worked on various documentaries as a sound engineer while waiting to start as a producer. I started with Migrant Media, a small production company in London. It was interested in the plight of immigrants. I learnt to see cinema as a tool to give a voice to the minorities. A year and a half after film school, Jean-Pierre Bekolo called me and I met him in Paris. I’d read the script and thought it was very challenging, but I thrive on challenge. It makes me feel I am doing something new and fresh. The film was shot in Cameroon, in big cities that demanded a lot of imagination for sound recording. How do you get good, clean sounds in big cities? There was music and noise all over the place. Jean-Pierre Bekolo trusted me, which really helped me.
You then decided to make On the Edge, you first feature.
I left the school in 1990 and we shot Quartier Mozart in 1991. I half-finished two shorts when I was focusing on writing. I was afraid: writing became an excuse. It went on for six years. I then realized that if I believed in myself, I could find the means necessary to do my film. It was a very interesting time because things were happening in America: the Independence movement, championed by Sundance. I saw that talented filmmakers like John Akomfrah or Isaac Julien were not making films. In the United Kingdom, there was no interest for the true black point of view. Some filmmakers, like Spike Lee who had freed himself from the independence movement, became my models because they were not part of the official cinema narrative. In 1995, I went back to Nigeria for Christmas. When I came back, I knew I had to take my life into my own hands. I decided I would make my short, directly followed by a feature. I set up a company, Granite Filmworks, the beginning of everything.
In the credits of On the Edge, it is written « a scream by Newton Aduaka » instead of « a film by Newton Aduaka ». From which point of view do you film, as a filmmaker?
My point of view is that of an African filmmaker living in the Diaspora. It’s my reality. Rage and On the Edge were made in the United Kingdom, from the point of view of an ex-colonized country! I am a Black man seeing Black people, carrying the community’s internalized anger, still very much alive. It is a reflection of the society we live in. You will find it in many other countries, amongst the minorities. This violence is generated by the frustration. Therefore, my work became focused on how to deal with this internal violence that Arabs or Blacks feel. We are not acknowledged and this generates frustration. In the United Kingdom, the highest suicide rate is among Black men, as well as in America: it is not by chance. In America, prisons are full of young Black men. The youth is not allowed freedom of expression, but this is a human necessity. I speak from experience: after being stuck for six years after film school and not being able to express myself, I knew that violence. I tried to change it into something else. It is self-destructive. Everything starts from the education system: if your teachers think you can do something professional, everything goes well. Otherwise, you feel put down and frustrated.
You said to me: « If I am not careful, cinema will break my heart each time I make a film ».
And it will. I am a hopeless perfectionist. I always want the extra two weeks. I know I won’t get them. I also deal with subjects in a very analytical way. Very soon, because cinema is an emotional medium, it changes your initial plans. For example, dealing with troubled characters reveals new uncomfortable facets of your own self.
In On the Edge, we already find most of the elements of your work, in particular Africa’s memory and family traumas.
Memory is very complex, it plays tricks on you. It takes colors, light. Things might be remembered as negative at one period in your life and positively at another period. Memory of home is important in the film, the young girl says she would like to go back home to Nigeria and has the feeling she would be happy there. But it was 1997: Nigeria was still living through hard times. There is conscious irony in this scene. Even when you know there is a lot of suffering back home, you still want to go back because, after all, it is home. It is romanticized. Memory is the source of my creativity.
In On the Edge, the past is in colors and the present in black and white.
Yes, there was something about « the good old days » that I wanted to show. The memory of the past is selective: we choose to remember the good things. I decided to keep the present, which is very brutal in the lives of these people, in strong and clear black and white. The past, that is romantic, is in colors. However, there is much violence in these colors.
On the Edge deals a lot with religion. My grandfathers were preachers. I got to despise religion. I realized the purpose of religion, especially on the African continent. The history of slavery and colonialism are tied together with Christianity. In Rome, Luther discovered the Pope was living in wealth and the subjects in poverty. He went back to Germany and said: « We will found our own religion and manage it because we know its purpose ». It was another way of controlling, of saying what was good and bad. The film is about this kind of evil generated by this kind of maliciousness.
Between your very subtle use of camera movements and the static, close-up shots of the characters, how do you approach the image?
On the Edge is the template for everything I am doing. I am still struggling and working on it. My camera is tied to my characters’ emotions. It follows their movement. When it finds a sense of clarity and calmness, the camera stops. We all keep ourselves from dealing with reality by staying in motion. At some point, we must stop and confront ourselves. Also, I don’t work with storyboards. I don’t have shot lists. I have no idea how many shots will be used in a scene. My assistant directors and I only discuss the number of scenes we will shoot in a day. The rest of the work is done with my actors.
Tell us about the very serious and meticulous work you do with your actors, in particular with Ezra.
My work with actors is ultimate. I am very influenced by Italian neorealism. For me, it was the first time that cinema started showing a concern for the people, society and what matters to the masses. On Ezra and Rage, we spent two or three weeks rehearsing. Funeral is completely improvised- we rehearsed only two days! On On the Edge, it was a week. During rehearsals, we break the script down, bear our souls and try to find truth. I need to film truth. I work with very sensitive actors. If an actor cannot open up, you cannot get anything from the performance. But it is a two-way street: the director himself must also open up. Then, we transfer what we did in rehearsal onto the set. The shoot is not about technical aspects such as finding the right lighting. In my opinion, films noirs are too rigid. Hitchcock, for example, works in a very technical manner. I do the exact opposite.
Do the actors of Ezra agree with Newton?
Mariam Ndiaye: I completely agree. I met Newton in Cannes three years ago. We talked for only ten minutes and, when I was back in Paris, he called to ask me to be part of this project. He had never seen me play; I told him he was crazy to ask me to play such a deep character without knowing me. He said he trusted me entirely. We rehearsed for three weeks. Newton wanted us to understand how the characters came to feel such or such emotion, what had happened to them. He took us aside to ask us how we felt. We were entirely free. He won our trust and each of us found our own path to get closer to our characters. We were guided personally.
Emile Abossolo: One of the great advantages of working with Newton is we share the same approach to our professions. He spoke earlier of mental colonization: I find that we all live in other people’s nightmares. Other people tell us what to do and how to act. It is not just a question of black and white but it is a system. It brings us back to schoolteachers and parents. Some people say that actors play a part and are therefore lying. According to me, an actor is above all a person who finds a way of dreaming his world, of pushing aside all that he has been told in order to find his own truth. Newton doesn’t ask his actors to cheat. It is the least thing to do for the spectator who has come all the way to the cinema and has paid for his ticket. There mustn’t be any clichés. Some directors criticize their actors for not playing their part in an ‘African’ way. An actor acts and is not dictated to. He reflects one point of view, not a unique truth. He is anything but a politician or a manipulator. Funeral was true bliss because he trusted us. We weren’t afraid of being wrong or judged. In their interviews, great actors such as Robert De Niro or Samuel L.Jackson said they were extremely unhappy when directors didn’t give them the freedom to express themselves. When I was younger, I asked: « Why do you say f(x) and not v(x)? » and the teacher answered: « That’s the way things are ». It was very annoying.
Newton Aduaka: Basically, we tried to create a space where we try to find ourselves and the truth.
Tell us about your work with the soundtracks. There is a real fusion of sound and music. In Ezra, violence is very much suggested by the sound, rather than by the music.
Sound adds another dimension to images. Rage was full of hip-hop music. Each piece of music is carefully chosen and expresses something. It either counterpoints or illuminates something. I use music in a more abstract way, to create sensation. Ezra is 95% bass. The sound becomes a space in which all images exist. It does something to the spectator. I tend to counterpoint the violence on screen with music or sound that suggests the sadness of the situation. I never heighten violence, because I hate it. However, I can’t deny it because it is part of our world. The soundtrack gives the spectator the director’s point of view.
Tell us about the structure of Ezra, which is not linear but seems to be built on the interaction between the characters.
Once again, it is driven by the characters. The structure of the screenplay is never the same when on screen. Screenplays are very thought-out, meticulously analyzed. But when you walk on the set, you interpret the screenplay. It is only a guide for the rehearsals as we always progressively discover new things. Sometimes, we change a point of view in a scene. I try to bring in things from outside into the screenplay, such as real emotions. In the editing, we go back to rigorous analysis. If the script doesn’t work, we can create new scenes anytime on set. The character of Terminator and the young boy’s murder were created on set. It felt as if something was missing before we added those elements.

///Article N° : 6712

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