The Afronauts

by Adwoa Afful

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Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo’s beautifully shot short film, Afronauts, tells an alternative history of the nineteen sixties Zambian space program, the brainchild of Edward Makuka Nkoloso. A World War II veteran and school teacher, Nkoloso founded the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy and conscripted twelve astronauts into the country’s race to the moon, including Matha Mwambwa, a seventeen-year-old girl who eventually become the program’s lead cadet. Released in 2014, Bodomo is currently working on adapting Afronauts into a full-length feature, and we talked a couple of times over the last few months about her experiences as an African filmmaker in America, gender, migration, science fiction, and the narrative space between history and myth.

How would you describe yourself and what you do? What attracted you to filmmaking?

Who am I? I’m just a person that’s learning a lot or changing a lot right now. I’m going through a really transformative moment. Like earlier on, I really felt like I had a lot to explain. I wanted to explain to a wider audience — to everybody who misunderstood me let’s say. And now I’m learning that I would like to be in dialogue with people who are asking me to express rather than explain myself.

How did you get into sci-fi? Who are your influences?

I’m a long-time sci-fi fan who is really into Octavia Butler and Phillip K. Dick and has seen every version of Blade Runner that exists. I became obsessed with films in which the world and production design tell the story, adding multiple layers of subtext to the plot/dialogue. When I heard the Afronauts story, it felt like one that was inherently cinematic: It had to be shown rather than told.

Afronauts is definitely part of a wider lo-fi sci-fi trend happening in African cinema and I love everything I’ve seen, Pumzi especially; I’m excited to see the Ethiopian film, Crumbs.

There seems to be growing interest in sci-fi across the continent, but lately East Africa, specifically Ethiopia and Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa has been dominating the landscape. Why do you think that is? Where do you see your work fitting in?

You mentioned just about all of sub-saharan Africa! I do think it’s a cross-continental phenomenon. It’s the logical result of a generation of image-makers who come from the goal of “changing the view/stereotypes of the continent.” A lot of us started with that goal. In my experience, that goal got boring. I was constantly trying to validate the continent, which necessitated it be monolithic. It got boring, and it didn’t feel true. We’re seeing sci-fi “dominate” because it’s more fun, playful, and truthful to imagine/explore/express. It’s more discursive, more radical, to look at your creative peers and say, “What if?” We create something new that way, not from explaining ourselves, but expressing ourselves.

Sci-fi, especially now, is often about nostalgia, but nostalgia can sometimes leave its storytellers and audiences with certain expectations when it comes to the type of stories that can be told and who the protagonists should be. For instance, when it was revealed that one of the lead character’s, Finn, in the new Star Wars film would be played by British-Nigerian actor John Boyega, there was some backlash from Star Wars fans about that decision. How do you think films like yours, and maybe African sci-fi more generally, can help upend those expectations? Is that even a goal of yours?

I don’t agree that sci-fi is inherently about nostalgia. Period pieces are more inherently nostalgic. That Star Wars fans lashed out against Boyega’s casting to me isn’t nostalgic — simply racist. It needs to stay was because the world used to be like this, is simply a thinly veiled excuse for racism. They don’t want to see a black face in a world that previously reflected their whitewashed reality.

I don’t really feel the need to upend this sort of expectation. I’m telling a story and I hope to tell it truthfully. If a person goes in with racist expectations and those are upended, good! If a person comes out feeling like they’ve never seen themselves on the screen like this, even better!

Afronauts was screened at Sundance in 2014, but the people who might most be able to appreciate the experiences portrayed in the film, specifically people of Zambian and perhaps recent African descent — they might not be able to see it, right? Is there potential for wider distribution?

Short answer, yes, there will hopefully be wider distribution, simply because distribution for shorts is not really a big thing. But, by the way, the film has played in: Congo, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana. You bring up a good point about audience and space, but I think it’s a big assumption to say, “people who appreciate the experiences portrayed.” I’m not planning to shy away from the film being about Zambians and Zambians specifically, but I should hope the film speaks to a wider audience. I want to tell stories in which people grapple with themselves. Not ones in which people simply see themselves and appreciate it and feel good. Representation matters only if it’s engaging, challenging, complex. Not simply because it’s present. We see the fault of this sort of thinking time and time again: Finn was in Star Wars but what did he really do? So many strong female superheroes doing nothing. Another way of saying this is: I’ve seen myself in white male stories my whole life. It’s time for them to experience seeing themselves in my story, which takes a lot of translation-free, authentic storytelling.

Right now you’re on a research trip for the feature version of Afronauts. As part of your trip you’re visiting several countries, including Zambia. What can we expect from the feature that will be different from the short film?

Many things! This one is going to be an essay so I decline to answer :P

In a recent piece for the New Yorker, writer Alexis Okeowo wrote about how a lot of films that focus on Africa, in order to appeal to an international (read Western) audience, have to be “message films,” in that the films have to focus on a “cause” that needs immediate attention. Your film does not fit that criteria at all. Are you concerned about how the film will be received by audiences outside Africa because of that, especially since the themes in your film are ambiguous and irreducible to any one “message” or cause? Do you think working within sci-fi exempts you from that burden as a filmmaker?

Short answer: I don’t care.

Basically, as an artist, this is not how I go about choosing how to tell my stories. A filmmaker friend once told me, when I was worried about future audiences not “getting” a film I was trying to make, that I was “assuming a lot.” He said, “you’re assuming those people are even coming to see your film.” That meant a lot to me. Look, film is a business & I know my audience. But there’s not world in which I get to tell this story the way I want to tell it and appeal to “everybody.” In film, “everybody” is Eurocentric and necessitates me shifting my process from creative to plotting/planning. I’m a filmmaker, not a strategist. I’ve tried to be “smart” and “strategic” and it has always led to a painful void & loss of desire to make films. I focus elsewhere now.

What I find remarkable about African sci-fi is the sheer diversity of the stories being told about various African societies, especially in literature (i.e., Nnedi Okorafor, Diriye Osman, Lauren Beukes). And yet, for many people, at least in the diaspora and the West, the face of African sci-fi in film is still South African filmmaker, Neil Blomkamp, with his film, District 9. Do you feel that awareness of films and a more diverse set of filmmakers from other parts of the continent and the diaspora is catching up to their literary counterparts?

We’re so early with all this stuff, let’s let it grow. Yes, people go immediately for District 9…that’s a budget thing. But imagine Kibwe Tavares’ JONAH is made into a feature! I’m sure if we give audiences more to talk about, they’ll talk. That takes time. I’m down to not overthink it. See what happens. Maybe we get more big-budget sci-fi films from the African continent. Or maybe we get something that is as of yet unimaginable! Even better!

You were born in Ghana, spent some time in Norway, moved to California when you were young and now you are based in New York. Some of the recurring themes in Afronauts have to do with family, home, and migration even though it’s in the larger contexts of the Zambian space program and decolonization. Did your background inform the narrative you tell in Afronauts? If so, to what extend and how?

I think that based on my background, home becomes this sort of impossible place. Finding home could be the purpose of life, but to me, home — because of my background — that question is like the search for the impossible. For me, you hear about the Afronauts, you hear about people trying to go to the moon, and there are so many reasons why they won’t. There’s something about that premise, because a lot people hear that and they’re like, “Why would they even try? We know that they’re not gonna make it.”

But to me it’s sort of like you hear this story and you’re with them, you’re with that desire, you’re with being up against all odds, you’re with their underdog narrative, and that’s a ride I want to take people on. Because I think when you grow up an outsider there are so many things that seem unreasonable. When you’re talking about this sort of global nomad, this childhood, you see a lot of unreasonable things, a lot of instances where reason has failed people. I mean you don’t grow up with a universal norm that is then broken, you grow up with a norm that’s always in flux. And so it’s an awesome thing to take people along for that ride. We know that Neil Armstrong was the first person to land his foot on the moon; we know that the rocket that they’re in doesn’t look like it’s going to make it to the moon, but I’m along for this ride. In the feature film, I hope that after you take that ride when that rocket comes crashing down, you’re as sad as the people in the movie.

One of the things that kind of struck me about that film is that it was almost nostalgic in a way. The moon landing represents the height of US ingenuity and potential and there is this sense that the comedown from that moment was hard. Now it takes on this new more ambivalent historical importance. Was that something you were thinking of when you were making the film?

It’s interesting. It’s not something that came to me, but it’s been brought up a lot by Americans. One of my grant givers said that it’s interesting that you set it up like here is a triumphant moments for the Americans, but it was a sadder moment for your characters. I guess he was like when Americans see rockets going up and landing on the moon now it’s like they remember Voyager and all of the crashes that happened, the moments after 1969. That image for Americans right now is a very ambivalent image, you know? Americans aren’t even sending people up to the moon anymore or into space. Now it’s like these robots.

I do think that the historical moment of this movie is really important, and in 2015 these are things we can talk about. but 1965, 1969, was a triumphant moment. That was the narrative the characters are reckoning with. You know that’s what enables the movie to work. In 2015, Afronauts is another kind of story, the important thing is that America has not won yet in that era where anybody can try.

The real Edward Nkoloso was very interested in creating this program as a kind of nation-building project in Zambia, and so it’s kind of like the character in the movie is recreating that first moment of contact between Zambians and their colonizers. He’s recreating that history of colonization, but in a way that wasn’t as it actually happened.

Yeah, I hear that. I’m turning this into a feature film, so you’re hitting on a big, big theme, that’s in the feature, which is that these people and this guy starts really wanting to validate himself under what I’m going to call a Western gaze. The idea that to define your new nation you have to join the space race is one way of saying that we’re going to become valid in your gaze and that’s a dynamic that can only recreate violence. That’s played out in the idea that Matha is actually going to have to go on a suicide mission — that violence is being created in what is being expected from Matha. And so the shift that has to happen is not saying we want regard from the West to validate our new nation, but we’re already awesome.

A question people ask when you become a new nation is how can you rebuild a new nation when nobody that’s alive saw a pre-colonial Zambia, you know? Like in 1964 when Zambia became independent, even the oldest people in the country were born under colonized Zambia, and it’s like what are we rebuilding at this point. That’s a really hard question to ask; that’s a very hard thing to deal with. Because even if people remembered, we’re then reckoning with varied ideas of what a pre- British rule Zambia was. It’s a very painful thing to realize that you’ve lost a certain history, and I think that, because of that, people go into these neo-colonial missions — re-creating a certain violence. I thought that as it plays out in Matha’s character, that cycle is going to be broken in the film. I’m still writing, so I don’t know yet.

I noticed that these two women fit into these two different archetypes. The Nkoloso character calls Matha his “space girl,” she’s kind of loses more of her agency the more she participates in this program, whereas the other woman is kind of the mother-ish figure who helps bring Matha closer to the vision that she and Nkoloso are trying to realize. Was that a contrast that you had intentionally put in the film and how does that fit in with its bigger themes?

I think with the men in the film they really bigged her up to this myth — this mother of the exiles and that becomes quite fetishistic almost. My immediate assumption was that the aunty character gets who [Matha] is and was actually scared for her blood and bones. She’s not with it to put this girl in a rocket to prove to the West that they’re worthy. But, to me, the emotional thing that happens there is that she airs her grievances and Matha says she still wants to go, and so she just has to step back and watch it happen, which is a painful thing to do, but that’s the thing that you do when you respect somebody’s agency. Even though it’s a really sad thing to stand by and watch her enter that rocket, she is the only person here that treats Matha like a person with agency, worthy of deciding what she wants for herself, which is a hard thing to do.

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I want to switch gears now and talk to you about where the short was filmed. You had mentioned in other interviews that you would have liked to have shot the film in Zambia, but it would have been too expensive. You ended up filming in New Jersey instead, but one of the more remarkable things about that space is that it really does look like what you would imagine the surface of the moon to look like. How did having to shoot there help you explore different ways for telling your story or exploring the themes you wanted to explore?

It’s something I’m thinking a lot about, because Zambia’s landscape isn’t really arid desert; it’s not really desolate. And this where the sci-fi comes into it, because you can take liberties and telling an alternative history comes into to it. You know it’s wonderful that they’re already on this landscape that already feels like the moon, that already feels like they’re already where they’re going. That feels like the message at the end of the film, that they’re already where they always wanted to be. The loneliness and the pain and the self-negation that exists here is what it’s going to be up there. The trials and tribulations here are going to be up there. Visually, they’re already in their dream space. I guess it’s me being cynical about having dreams.

That’s really interesting to me, because I’m of Ghanaian descent as well, and one of my experiences growing up — and maybe for you as well — was that the US got romanticised in a lot of ways within Ghanaian immigrant communities. And with sci-fi, this idea of space as the new frontier can also serve as an analogy for that aspect of that migrant experience. This idea that things are not going great here, but there’s this other place that we can realize our dreams and hopes and you get there and it’s like, oh, it’s not exactly that. So I was wondering if in your film if you saw space travel as a way of explaining that transient migrant experience?

Yeah. My first film was about the migrant experience, and with this film it’s the same migrant story, but on a super-planetary level. Ultimately, my film isn’t about the immigrant experience, but any sort of migrant experience. The story is about the shift from being aspirational to being self-worthy. There is a lot of the fetishization — a lot of immigrants travel with this idea of upward movement. That is why you emigrate, you believe your life with be better over there. But to me, the beginning should be “I’m worthy.” I’m rambling here, but I would like to see that typical immigrant narrative shift from one of aspiration to being seated in your own self-worth.

You have talked about navigating the film industry as an African and female filmmaker. You have suggested that perhaps being African has meant that you navigate the industry differently than if you were seen as just a woman filmmaker. Could you talk to that a bit more?

You can’t win basically, either way, but when it comes to African filmmakers, African diaspora filmmakers specifically, I think that in the film festival circuit there are just so many women making movies. It’s a majority women that you see in these spaces.

Really?

Oh yeah, there’s Akosua Adoma Owusu and Shirley Frimpong-Manso. You can be successful like how Ava Duvernay’s successful to a certain extent, but the movies I want to make aren’t civil rights period pieces where MLK is an upstanding man. It’s wonderful that she was able to tell a movie where he’s humanized, but at the same time, I’m more interested in seeing somebody that’s not necessarily perfect and having to work with that. I’m not interested in telling a civil rights or a slave movie; it’s not a narrative I interact with necessarily.

You’re African-American, but of recent African decent, a distinction that implies a unique set of experiences. So how do you plan to tell stories with that kind of nuance?

The nuance for me is a loss of home, the nuance for me is an African in America who’s looking back to Africa with love. And that is the emotional space that I want to explore. Exploring the loss of home, that you can’t go home again, a sort of impossible search. I do see what you’re saying, this sort of cachet — it’s very common right now that Africans, especially British Africans, are getting the big roles. It’s like the Steve McQueens and the Chiwetal Ejiafors, these people seem to be getting more access within Hollywood than African-Americans, you know what I mean? Though I technically fit into that, I definitely read more as an African-American. When I walk into a room and they hear my accent, nobody thinks of me as African and so it’s something I have to state and call out. This idea that you’ve been robbed from your home, and this looking to your home in a paradise sense and having that be complicated.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Images from Afronauts courtesy Powder Room Films