The Art of Representation

Iquo B. Essien has made several short films and received a 2009 Hedgebrook Writing Fellowship to complete her debut novel. A former dancer and singer, she attended NYU Grad Film and holds a biology degree from Stanford University.

What inspires you to tell the type of stories you do?

I’m inspired a lot by life, my own personal experiences, by the news and current events. In the case of Aissa’s Story it was the case of Dominique-Strauss Kahn when he was accused of assaulting an immigrant maid. I like to use a lot of life experiences because I think there’s often no better drama than real life. I believe and I’m committed to telling stories about women, Africa and immigrants. I’m also very much interested in exploring mother-daughter relationships.

I think particularly living in the States I’m always looking at stories about immigrants because these stories remain largely unrepresented in the mass media. We have a lot of stories with white-centred white characters, male characters. So being able to put black women in the centre of a film, particularly black immigrant women, or Africans, is really important to me because I feel these stories aren’t being explored as much as they could be. It’s very much an untapped reserve of rich stories and cultures to be told.

Are there certain types of stories you think African filmmakers (whether in Africa or the Diaspora) should be telling at this point in time?

I would kind of shy away from saying that, I think we should be telling as many and as diverse stories as we can. I’m a student of African films and I’m very much aware that independent African filmmakers often felt charged with the goal of kind of taking control of representation of the continent; promoting positive images of the continent, telling our own stories.

I think all of these are excellent, but at a certain point we’re filmmakers and we’re allowed to just be artists and tell whatever stories come to us. No one single person can right every single wrong with their film. So I’m less of this mindset that there are certain kinds of stories we should or should not be telling.

We should be able to tell love stories, we should be able to have musicals, to be able to have our dramas and our comedies, there isn’t one story to tell, there isn’t one way to tell it and I think because we sometimes feel like we’re the only ones doing this we always feel this heavy burden and obligation to have a particular kind of message.

As a storyteller that uses different mediums (images, novel, film) how does the story differ when you use these different mediums and which works best for you?

I use the medium that seems appropriate for the story I’m trying to tell. Somethings occur to me as images, sometimes it occurs as prose so I’ll write it down, but some are film.

I’m very much interested in film adaptations of books. So I would say that I started really as a writer, filmmaking is something that I learned, almost like a trade.

I use photography to help improve myself as a filmmaker because where you place the camera, what is in the frame, what part of the world we are seeing is critical. Where you put the camera is half of your job as a director. With photography I’m really trying to explore frame, composition, lighting, and creating life in the camera, life through my lens.

All the mediums feed into each other because a film begins with the written word, but the trick is in knowing how and when to employ them to tell the story the best way that it needs to be told.

A still from Aissa’s Story

In what ways do you think the stories you tell are affected by your gender, ethnicity and nationality?

I would say because I’m a female I tend to be biased and tell stories that have women characters at the centre. I want to see women in places of leadership, power and potential in the world. I see my art as an opportunity to give women leading roles, speaking roles, central character roles.

As far as ethnicity goes, I do tend to make films where my central characters are people of colour, whether they’re women or men of colour. That’s because that’s the life I lead, many of the people I love are people of colour; Nigerians or Africans in general. So those are the people that are often in my films.

I also see it as it as a proactive way to create other opportunities for people like me to be a part of the industry; to have their work out there, to have their faces and names out there.

Do you think it will become easier to raise funds by crowd funding for filmmakers, especially those that can be considered ‘minority ‘?

No, it has not become easier, sadly. It has become more accessible and more possible but it has not become any easier so to speak. I have also seen online campaigns that have simply languished. The person either doesn’t have a social media presence or they were not reaching out to friends and family, they were not putting notices up on their Facebook wall or they simply don’t have the networks to support the amount that they’re raising. So there are still barriers.

Spike Lee used crowd funding to raise $1 million for his film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus on Kickstarter. This is a person who is supposed to be able to go to a studio and get money. Crowdfunding is democratised enough to allow the really wealthy have access. It’s a competitive sphere, there are thousands of other projects so I’ll say there are pros and cons. It’s a balancing act.

What do you enjoy most in the process of making a movie?

Working with the actors, because there’s a lot about making a film which has nothing to do with the art of making a film. Like the logistics you have to do, you have to get the food and organise schedules but filmmaking is about unlocking truth and being able to find something that resonates with people on set and on screen. I feel that actors are really beautiful people, they are giving, caring. They completely make themselves vulnerable to anything you might ask them to do and that is a scary thing. In the fact that they show up every day to do that, again and again, I think it’s beautiful. With Aissa’s Story I started working with ​Jennifer Tchiakpe several months before we even made the film and built a relationship with her.

I just love being able to work with an actor and help make the truth believable.

Aissa’s Story is a short film about an African immigrant maid moving on with her life after the case against her assaulter is dismissed. Written and directed by Iquo B. Essien; produced by Emeka Obi, Belynda Hardin, and Sue-Ellen Chitunya; starring Jennifer Tchiakpe, Hadiza Adam, and Ebbe Bassey.