Updated: Dec 14, 2020 3:28:53 PM
When an Angolan immigrant Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) reunites with his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) at JFK airport after 17 years, the encounter is embarrassing. In fact, each of them remembers this encounter differently. Farewell Amor, a feature film written and directed by Ekwa Msangi, offers a three-dimensional perspective of a family’s attempt to make a fresh start. Inspired by her uncle and aunt’s real-life struggle to build their life together in America, Msangi uses dance in remarkable ways to help the characters reconnect and rediscover their shared identity.
Farewell Amor, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of their reunion and struggles to overcome the emotional distance between them as they share a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. The film which will be shown on Mubi World for a month, starting December 18, received a lot of appreciation in the festival circuit and Msangi was hailed as a new talent. A Tanzanian-American filmmaker who grew up in Kenya and is based in New York City, Msangi is currently a resident instructor at the African Film Festival and teaches screenwriting at the New School and Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Brooklyn College. Excerpts from an email interview with Msangi:
Your first feature film, Farewell Amor, is based on the real life story of your uncle and aunt. How has their “story” stayed with you?
The story is inspired by the relationship of an aunt and uncle who got married in Tanzania in the mid-90s. Soon after, my uncle got a student visa to the United States and came to with the firm intention of bringing my aunt and cousin right behind him. Unfortunately, to date, they have been stuck in an endless cycle of visa applications and refusals, while still hoping that one day they will be reunited. Over the years, we have observed how this separation changed them, both individually and as a family, and how they had to transform into different people in order to keep hope. So I was inspired to write the story and if. What if the visa was no longer a problem and my aunt and cousin could join my uncle (in the US), where would they start at that point? I wanted to follow this trip.
You have multicultural and multi-continental exposure. How has this shaped your art and storytelling?
I have lived as a sort of immigrant all my life. It forced me to be very attentive to people and their surroundings. The ability to observe carefully to determine how others move and interact is key to the ability to survive an alien environment and has greatly shaped my love for character development with a lot of attention to detail. I have also seen, first hand, that no one is a monolith. African characters tend to be heavily painted by the issues they face and I am determined to create multidimensional African heritage characters in my stories.
The most fascinating aspect of your feature film for me was the three-dimensional portrait of a family reunion after 17 years. Have you tried to bring together different immigrant perspectives through this?
I was fascinated by the idea that even though the three characters were going through the same monumental event, the triumph of the reunion, they were each having such different and unique experiences. I loved the idea that we think we know or understand a situation when we see it from a point of view, but it can be so different when we look at it from someone else’s point of view.
Your actors have a lot of praise. What was the casting process like?
I was extremely lucky to have found the actors that I did. I had a wonderful casting director Rebecca Dealy who found most of the cast and got them to read the parts, including Zainab Jah who plays Esther and is a powerful actress who has been featured in many Broadway shows at New York, as well as Jayme Lawson, who plays Sylvia. Jayme graduated from her theater program at the Juilliard Acting School in New York City a week or two before she went to the audition. Zainab and Jayme were absolutely captivating and their game was undeniable. Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, who plays Walter, is a friend and film colleague. I met him a few years ago when our shorts were traveling together to festivals. We have always wanted to find a project to work on together.
What was your memory to your actors?
I worked with the actors for about two weeks in pre-production. Besides giving them a few movies to watch to understand the history of Angola and the civil war, I also had music playlists for each of them since music was such a big part of it. story and their characters. I also wanted their interactions on set to be as awkward and honest as possible, so we didn’t work on the script in pre-production. I wanted them to experience it like it was the first time for real. I had them do improvisation exercises to establish their life before, during the separation.
Dancing plays a major role in the film. Yet you don’t show a lot of dancing.
Dance was used for a particular purpose in the film: as a kind of third language for the characters to express their inner feelings and what they were experiencing. I love dancing and love its use in this film, but I am aware that dance films are seen in a less serious way, especially with teenagers who are dancing. It tends to fall into a less dramatic, less cinematic category. I didn’t want the story to be dismissed this way. The dance is just one tool used in the film.
In a world where many of us are migrants looking for a better job and a better life, what makes us feel at home? What makes you feel at home?
For me, home is the place where you feel safe, loved and supported. Personally, I have many places in the world that I consider to be home. I know a lot of people who feel this too. The world is so small now. There are neighborhoods in New York where people don’t even speak English but their native languages from other countries. There you can buy food, clothes, spices and products of the motherland so easily that you can create a home here. The definition has broadened over the years for many people.
You have worked to tell more stories related to and about Africa. What kept these stories from making it onto the big screen?
Coming from East Africa, where many Hollywood films have been shot, these films tend not to portray anyone, only animals and savannahs, then white people with a background of animals and savannas. For the few films that portray Africans, the stories Hollywood tends to fund have been either about the most exceptional Africans who have ever lived, or about the most miserable. Unless there was a cause behind the film – the elimination of war or famine, FGM or child soldiers – it was often believed that there was no market for the films. Africans. This is changing slowly and with the introduction of so many A-level African heritage actors now demanding to play serious roles. The climb was slow and the climb is not over yet. I believe as I build my career and my ally things will change, but Hollywood has never been quick to change, especially when it comes to diversity. So the struggle continues, and luckily we have the stamina.
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