Frances Bodomo discusses her films Boneshaker and Afronauts, how she found a Zambian desert in New Jersey, and mythologizing "home."
Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo was inspired to make Boneshaker by a generation of kids with nowhere to call home. The thirteen-minute short follows a Ghanaian family as they travel across Louisiana in an attempt to cast a demon from their daughter, Blessing, played by young Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.
Bodomo grew up on four continents—in Ghana, Norway, California, and Hong Kong—before moving to New York to attend Columbia University as a Kluge Scholar. After receiving her B.A. in English Literature and Film Studies she became a MFA Candidate and Dean’s Fellow at NYU ’s Graduate Film Program. In her own words her work features “doppelgangers, imaginary friends, ventriloquist dummies, and the un-institutionalized crazies who constantly break society’s view of itself.”
We spoke at her apartment in Bushwick for about an hour before she had to rush to the editing studio at NYU. She’s in the middle of editing her new film Afronauts, and trying to keep up with Boneshaker’s busy festival run. Afronauts is an alternative history of the 1960s Space Race, based on the true story of Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Astronomical Research, and his team’s attempts to be the first to send a rocket to the moon.
Boneshaker had its world premiere at Sundance last January, and has recently exhibited at the Maryland Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival. It will be at Rooftop Films on July 12th.
Katie Bradshaw You shot Boneshaker on Super 16. What format do you prefer, film or digital?
Frances Bodomo I knew I wanted to shoot Boneshaker on 16 mm because this movie is about not having a land, not having a place to call home. I started thinking about memory a lot, very early on, which had to be the feel of the movie. It had to be film, sort of grainy, intensely colored. . . it couldn’t be digital, it couldn’t be sterile. In that sense I much prefer working on film, because of the quality of the image. That’s telling the story as much as the writing or acting is. Ultimately I prefer film because I tend to want to tell stories that are nostalgic, stories sort of reckoning with who we are or who we were or who we’re supposed to be.
But I recently shot Afronauts on the Alexa, on video, and what that did was just open up the chance to keep shooting and shooting. It changed the pace. But when you’re on set with film it’s more structured, you know why you’re rolling the camera. Yes, it feels like freedom when you can just roll and roll and get as much as you can on video, but it’s so haphazard and sometimes you’re not getting to the point of what you’re really trying to film in that moment.
KB Boneshaker was shot in Louisiana, two hours outside of New Orleans in Morgan City. I’m curious why you chose to shoot in Louisiana, and how the setting was tied to the story you wanted to tell?
FB I originally wanted to shoot in Ghana, and I wanted it to be a return story. I was really going to rely on the feelings attached to Accra and southern Ghana to dictate how I shot this movie and the mood of the movie. Very quickly I realized I wasn’t going to be able to raise the money to fly a crew and actors over, so I started looking for a place in America that could provide that same feeling. Louisiana is special. After only a week there I was already having a huge emotional attachment to the place, through my interactions with the people and the landscape, and just the feeling of being down there. It was an easy choice. Visually—the swamp, the bayou, Spanish moss—it’s the heavy stuff of memory. It enters you, and it’s a part of you, in a weird way. That made it easy for a girl from Ghana to go there for a month, feel it and want to tell her story through that.
KB How was it trying to find actors for the film? Was Quvenzhané the only professional actor you worked with?
FB She was. Boneshaker tells the story of Africans that are lost in a part of America in which there are no Africans. Having had the experience of looking for African actors in Louisiana was helpful to the writing, because it was almost impossible. Casting the young sister was easy. I went to a bike shop called Rubarb, and there was this young girl Playshena; she was just a character. That was easy. But for the parents who had to be specifically African, my original idea was to go to the braiding salons because those are usually African owned, and say, “Here I am, I’m from Ghana. You’re probably from West Africa, let’s be friends!” (laughter) But everybody would suddenly shut down and say, “I don’t hang out with Africans here. I don’t hang out with Africans…”
KB Did you feel like you ended up finding people who could relate to their roles in the film?
FB Definitely. There was this Rastafarian store, The Church of: I Am That I Am, and I went there really desperate. I was put in contact with Caroline Idakula, and she really connected to the piece. Her daughter had married an American man. They’re both black and her daughter had grown up here, but just the differences in their experiences were just so painful, and it had really articulated for her the difference between what it was to be African American versus African. That made Caroline really connect to this piece, because for her, her daughter’s experience was also about how distant you feel from home once you leave and how you can’t really connect to it. She was perfect and wonderful. I was so blessed to find her.
Casting the father was much more straightforward. He was a vendor who sold African soap at the French market. He just said, “If you pay me, I’ll come!”
KB It’s also a story about an exorcism or deliverance. Can you talk a little bit about why this subject interested you? What you were trying to communicate in the deliverance scene? To me, it didn’t feel critical of this tradition or necessarily in support of it either.
FB Yeah! I’m really glad you picked up on that. That was really important to me. The story was loosely autobiographical. When I was much younger I lived in Norway, and one day my parents decided they would finish their PhDs and send me to live with my aunt in Ghana. It was exciting. It was a wonderful time, from when I was 7 to about 11 years old. But she was deeply, deeply, evangelically religious. So I was pushed from going to church occasionally, maybe on Christmas Day, to about 4 hours of church services a day, 2 hours of prayer before bedtime, deliverances… and there would be times I would suddenly see my aunt on the floor, screaming, frothing at the mouth, screaming about a spirit inside of her. So, that has always stuck in my mind. The confusion and the fear stuck in my mind, rather than the question of whether it’s real or not. I think that in the moment, it’s not a question of whether it’s real or not, but about how raw these people are in public. That feeling is so powerful. It’s not about, “Oh, really, you have a spirit inside of you?” When you’re there, no matter what you believe, that’s not what you’re thinking. And that’s what I wanted to sort of get at with the church scene in this movie.
KB You’ve mentioned before that you wanted to tell “the end of the story” in Boneshaker. We see just this piece in the characters’ lives.
FB I like telling just a moment of a story, the crisis of a story, the intense part of a story. Because I feel like in that moment you can tell everything that came before or after it. Every time I write a short script, I hear, “This should be a feature!” Everyone assumes that I’m about to make the Boneshaker feature. But to me that’s a little uninteresting. Because what would that be? I enjoy that Boneshaker is just the last ten minutes of a feature. Instead of the everyday, it becomes more abstract, it becomes the feeling, it becomes the mood of going through this life as an outsider or someone caught between communities. I guess I’m not interested in articulating the everyday in a way that it becomes, “this is racism” or “this is xenophobia,” in a way that it becomes these sort of intellectual terms, these nouns, these “-isms.”
KB I did a year-long film school program in undergrad and I felt restricted by the formula or their tract. They said, here are some tips you’ll need to get work in New York or LA. And I went in being really excited about experimental film, and making scratched up things! Content-wise they weren’t open. I was just curious, as far as like storyline structure, how free has it been at NYU?
FB Very restrictive. I mean they do say, and I knew this going in, that they’re very narrative-oriented. And I went in so interested in experimental film. But I knew that, for me—especially because I consider myself in many ways an African filmmaker—I wanted to find a way to tell new stories with new structures, to show new things, but still communicate through a narrative so that it could be seen by a lot of people. I feel like every young African artist of my generation still wants to fight the deception of Africa, still wants to say: Africa is not the pot-bellied kids, or the famine, that are the direct response the Ethiopian hunger crisis in the ’80s…
KB So tell me about Afronauts, your new film. You’ve just finished shooting and you’re editing now?
FB I’m syncing the footage right now!
KB How did you replicate a Zambian desert?
FB Once again we didn’t have the money to go to Africa. So my producers went on an epic location scout, they went all up and down the shoreline of Long Island and New Jersey and they found this place Sea Bright, NJ. Because of Hurricane Sandy the beach has been decimated, so all this sand has been gathered and heaped up in hills on the beach, they’re getting ready to flatten it down to beach again. But in that in-between moment, if you framed it right, it looked like hills of sand in a desert.
KB What inspired this story?
FB It’s one of those things that I feel like I just heard people in my family talking about, those Zambians, trying to get to the moon, and I just looked it up. It’s true! The year is 1964, Zambia has just gained independence, and a schoolteacher decided his country had to join the space race. He thought this was the way Zambia could be seen as a cutting edge country that was taken seriously. And nobody took him seriously. He moved all these people out to a farmhouse seven miles outside of Lusaka, and he trained them by rolling them down hills in barrels (to stimulate weightlessness). He was going to send them to the moon! He applied for a grant from UNESCO, £7,000,000, it never came through. . . and we don’t really know anything else. Only about four documents exist on them. He wanted to send a space girl, Matha Mwambwa and a couple cats to the moon. There’s a rumor that she got pregnant and taken away by her parents.
KB And who were these people? Were they his students?
FB What is so interesting about taking on this project to me, because as much research as I did and have been continuously doing, there is not much surviving about these people. So for me I think that’s for us to imagine.
KB I’m curious how you chose to tell this story. I looked at Cristina De Middel’s photographs, who self-published a photo book called The Afronauts, depicting this story in photos.
FB Beautiful photographs, very inspirational to this project!
KB Did you adopt a similar tone, a similar look?
FB No, not at all, because her big goal was to show another side of Africa, so she chose these sort of candy-colored, sweet pop-images; she created this sort of wonderland to tell the story. Which I love, actually. We were thinking more about the alternative history aspect of it. We shot in black and white, it’s grainy, and we really follow Matha the space-girl. It actually took place in 1964, but Afronauts takes place in 1969 on the day of the Apollo launch. America’s sending Apollo 11 up to the moon, and we’re in Zambia, in the desert. These people are rushing, they’re doing this obstacle course, they’re preparing her, rushing their process to get her in the rocket, and she’s sort of deciding. By looking at the rocket you can tell it’s not getting to the moon! So Matha has to decide if she wants to get in that rocket, blast off, most likely die but die for the myth of her people and die for everything they’ve always believed in, to keep them from despair. Or not go and be exiled. I’m really interested in myths, myths that we create and their use. It’s not about, is the myth real? Is that rocket going to go or not? That’s not the question of the movie. It’s more about what it feels like to become a myth. Or to destroy the myths that have kept your people alive.
KB De Middel says, “I was going to create images of Africa and tell a positive story coming from that continent.” You’ve mentioned in an earlier interview at Herfilm.com, that you wrote your thesis about “the power of Africans creating images for themselves, rather than relying on the Bob Geldofs and Bonos and Blood Diamonds and Hotel Rwandas that use Africa as a device to really reflect on Europe or America, to put it politely.” I love that.
FB Going back to what Cristina De Middel was saying, it is true that because of something that happened 30 years ago, we still to this day generally have this image of Africa that is meaningless. It’s just poverty, darkness, malaria, political corruption. I’m never trying to say that these things are not there, but America can have corruption and not have that define the country forever. I’m just interested in finding stories about Africa or Africans that aren’t looking away from the troubles—the movies that I make are never simply happy and wonderful—but are also trying to create narratives that are complicated. They open questions and they make you interact within the story. And make you feel like a person going through something as opposed to somebody outside making a moral or ethical judgment on it. That is my goal now, I guess, to tell stories in a way that they ask questions and incite interaction.
Some people say their goal in making movies about Africa or anything about unseen cultures is so that the housewife in the Midwest can watch it and connect to it! But what they’re really saying there is more that she can watch it and feel sorry that hardship happens to those people and feel pity. But that’s white savior-complex pity. I think the success story is rather, yeah, I know that’s not my life, but I was in there, feeling the tension, and the suspense, the happiness, and the pitfalls, just going in there. You know how you watch a movie and you’re just in it? You read a book and you’re just in it? After that you just do not feel disconnected from people that you’ve never come across.
KB You continue to return to this theme of displacement, homelessness. You’ve mentioned before about filming in the delta, “specks of land, submerged in water, there is no land.” As far as a wider question about your films and your work, do you feel like you’re looking for the land or “home” in your films? Or are you trying to talk about how this land is a myth?
FB Definitely the latter. I think the land is a myth. I moved around a lot, and I feel like if there is an answer, it’s that our previous visions of home are completely constructed. Our right to land is completely constructed. For me, it can be sort of beautiful to have had to question my sense of home, or to be without land, accept that fact, and still see many reasons for living. So that’s what interests me. Telling stories about people without home, putting them in situations where it’s not ever going to happen, and seeing what comes after.
KB Are you writing a script for a feature?
FB Yeah, like I said, I like telling stories at the end and it’s hard to do that in 90 minutes! But I want to do an Afronauts feature. It will be very small in terms of narrative and will follow Matha on the day of the rocket launch, her world and her interior life, and what she has to go through before deciding whether or not to go up in the rocket.
I also want to write a feature in the world of the Sapeurs of Brazzaville. They are Congolese dandies that go to funerals and weddings and basically bring class. I want to write sort of a Nollywood heist movie within the world of the dandy Sapeurs! I also want to write a movie set in the slave castles on Cape Coast, like a cross between like a Harmony Korine film and a Nollywood film.
KB How do you feel your work is getting a response from a global and American film market or film festival circuit?
FB Well, as a woman trying to make movies, you’re immediately hit full-face by the fact that women still have so many issues doing this in this industry for some weird reason! But what is exciting is that, in terms of African filmmakers there is a very high concentration of women African filmmakers, like Julie Apea, Shirley Frimpong-Manso, Sam Kessie, Akosua Adoma Owusu, doing cutting-edge stuff. They are respected for that, and not just seen as “female filmmakers.” So that’s always been a huge inspiration.
Katie Bradshaw is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, writer and programmer at Spectacle Theater.