This year on my way from the Port Harcourt airport to Yenagoa to the Africa Movie Academy Awards, I was lucky enough to get to sit beside thoughtful Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume, whose film Precipice (2010) had been nominated for best Diaspora Short. He ended up winning the award.
On 12 November 2011, Weekly Trust published as a feature my email interview with Julius. Because of word limits for publication, we had to edit down a few of his responses, but because I don’t have word limits on my blog, I will include a slightly fuller (though still edited down) version of the interview here. After the interview, you can read my review of Amedume’s four short films made while in film school: “Mary and John” (2009), “Lorraine” (2009), “Mr. Graham” (2010), and “The Precipice” (2010). I have also included the short films within this post, but if you are on a slow internet connection (as I am), please wait for the entire video to download before attempting to watch it, as the jumpy start and stop of the download process will destroy your enjoyment of the film.
First, if you want to get a taste of Amedume’s work, watch his 2010 showreel here:
Second, the interview. If you want to read it as published by the Weekly Trust, click on this link or on the photos of the hard copy below. If you want to read the slightly longer version, which includes descriptions of his short films, read on below:
Julius Amedume is a Ghanaian-British filmmaker based in the U.K.. He has over eleven films to his credit and a production company, Amedume Films. He won this year’s Africa Movie Academy Award for best Diaspora short for his film Precipice, Best Feature award at last year’s Pan African Film Festival for his film A Goat’s Tail and other awards at festivals around the world.
Could you tell us about your background?
My parents originated from Ghana but I was born in London, England and grew up Balham, south west London. I am the youngest of four children. Even though we were all raised in England, my parents being first generation Africans, always made it a priority to install western values as well as a strong sense of African values. This has been fundamental to making me into who I am today.
Tell me about your journey to become a filmmaker.
I first became engrossed in films when I was around four or five. I didn’t start school until I was seven because of health problems. My mum would work days and my dad would work nights. My dad would come home from work and teach me maths and English until he fell asleep at about 11am. I would be left in front of the TV watching westerns, musicals, war films, black and white movies and film noirs until my mum or my siblings came home in the evening..
My parents, especially my dad, kept abreast of technology and we were lucky to have a Betamax, VHS and even a Laserdisc player. I used to watch anything that came out, from art house movies to B movies. Throughout childhood and my early teens I would watch a film almost every day.
On leaving school at the age of 16, I enrolled into Saint Francis of Xavier College in Clapham and made my first short film as part of a media studies course. I ended up writing, producing, editing and directing it. I was originally working with a group of people, but as the amount of work involved dawned on them, they slowly dropped out, leaving me to finish the film.
The film was about the controversial subject of safe sex: three couples who meet in club and what happens later that evening when they have sex, either with a condom or without. The film then jumps to a year later. One of the couple is still together in a settled, stable relationship. The second couple has broken up and the male has a multitude of baby mothers. The last couple has also broken up, but the man learns he has caught AIDS. There was a big AIDS epidemic at the time scaring the nation and as I started to understand the facts, it made me start to think of different scenarios which people could or might find themselves in within the community. This is what gave me the idea for the film.
This was my first attempt at a making a short film, it also set up the tone and types of films I would be compelled to make along my career path. Looking at the film now, it’s still entertaining , it still has narrative, but the production values make it seem like a low budget mess.
I played around for a year with a camera on a Youth Training Scheme which taught me the basics of different areas along the production route. I went on to do A-level media studies which gave me another opportunity to mess around with video. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in film. I just knew I wanted to be around it.
When I hit 19, I needed enough money to go to university, so I took a year out which turned into three. I worked in two sports shops and then spent two years as assistant manager in a shop called PROHIBITIO. We sold high end designer clothes to celebrities and other characters who walked through the door. There were two things that helped me most on my journey to film when I worked there. The first was when American actor Jack Nicolson walked by and I enticed him into the shop. He came in and hung around for fifteen minutes whilst waiting for a lady friend. I was at a transitional stage when I really wanted to study film but my parents wanted me to follow a different path. Jack told me because he loved acting, it didn’t seem like work and he could put in as many hours as god sends. He told me you shouldn’t do any job that seems like work because it’s not making you happy. If you do a job that makes you happy then it doesn’t seem like work. Those words were what I was looking for.
The second thing was the experience dealing with the different types of customers. Because I constantly interacted with people and had only seconds to try to sell them something, I found the tips, tricks and senses gained later helped me in my career when I approached actors, tried to understand them, and bring out the best of their talent.
When I went to university, I did an intensive BSC Hons degree in Communication and Technology at a broadcasting university called Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication. Their Film/TV module was a calculated plus, but the other courses taught me things which I would later utilize, like webpage design, DVD authoring, marketing, psychology, electronics, engineering, broadcasting, satellite distribution signals, etc. It also gave me a safety net. If film failed, I could get a job as engineer, which gave my parents peace of mind.
Upon graduating I immediately went back to doing what I love. By now I had worked out that I really wanted to direct. It incorporated all the other disciplines whilst overseeing the overall project. I got an unpaid runners position at a commercials company. I had been advised this was the easiest way to work your way up to being a director. I started on a Monday and the company went bankrupt on a Friday. I was back to square one but I read it as a sign. Never being someone to wait around, I threw caution to the wind and remembered ‘WE CREATE OUR OWN DESTINIES AND CALL IT FATE’. I decided to open up a production company. The birth of AMEDUME FILMS came in 2002, though a production company had been in my mind since 1999. I didn’t really have any money, but I also knew I had good contacts and good line of credit from working full time. I used this line of credit to gap fund projects whilst I sought investors.
Through my production company, I made three short films, THE MEETING, THE PHONE CALL and THE VIDEOTAPE. The Meeting, about an intimate conversation between a baker and teacher as they wait for a train, won a best actor and a cinematography award at the Kent Film Festival in 2002. The Phone Call explores the repercussions when a young man receives a phone call from an old school friend asking for a favor. It was nominated for five awards at the 5th BFM international film festival 2002 and won the Best Screenplay award. It was also nominated for the best short film award at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. As well as taking it to schools and prisons it also screened on various Satellite television channels and MTV Base. The Videotape was my first fully corporate funded short film.
The Meeting trailer
The Phone Call trailer
The Video Tape trailer
Tell me about your feature film A Goat’s Tail. How was making a feature film different from making shorts? Were there any major challenges in shooting a film across two continents?
Making a leap from shorts to feature films is a different kettle of fish. The pressures of the production can be catastrophic, especially if you intend to make a film, shot in two continents, on a micro budget.
I had gone to Ghana for three months with my parents so I could chill out and write a script. When I arrived I suffered from writers block. Nothing managed to make it onto the page. To take my mind off the block, I started to relax and enjoy Ghana. Taking taxis everywhere, my face, body language and attire signaled to the taxi drivers that I was a foreigner. The majority of them tried to exploit me, by trying to double or sometimes triple the fares, but I showed them I wasn’t a “Johnny just come.” Taxi drivers are like your local newspapers, they know everything and have strong views. In our many conversations, they told me they would love to travel to England. The shared consensus was that that coming from there you must be rich. I tried to tell the cab drivers that compared to cost of living, prices were more or less the same. Living in Ghana actually has more benefits like constant sunshine and fresh food. My information fell on deaf ears, but this turned out to be the key that I was looking for to unlock my writer block. The idea for A Goat’s Tailwas born. I spent the rest of my time in Ghana writing out a treatment. The film was about Kojo, a Ghanian taxi driver, who is hired by a beautiful young British actress, Cynthia, to show her around for the day. The day ends with a sexual encounter and a reluctant promise from Cynthia to invite Kojo to England. Arriving on Cynthia’s doorstep four months later, Kojo soon realizes that the grass might not be greener in England and people are not what they seem.
I wrote the script when I arrived back in London. I gave myself a time limit of two years to make this film. My business plan was based on a lot of high calculated risks. In my passion to make the film, I knew nothing could go wrong, but it did, in more ways than one. First, I never managed to raise all the money I needed, and I decided to gap finance the film on about 10 credit cards, which I had amassed with 0% interest over a year from my good credit. This failed me by the end of the film, leaving me vastly over budget and with huge debts. I also decided that renting equipment would be too expensive so I decided to buy all my own equipment from ebay and then sell it after the shoot, so I could reinvest the money into the post production schedule. When the shoot got delayed, the depreciating costs of the equipment came back to haunt me. I decided to cast a Ghanaian non-professional actor for the lead role. He had never left Ghana before—talk about life mimicking art! Having flown to Ghana with my crew and equipment to shoot the first part of the film, I had scheduled to return back to England with the actor to shoot the last part, but his visa was denied, not once, not twice, but three times. I fought to exercise his right to come to England especially since all the required paper work was in order. I even had a letter from the Ghana High Commission endorsing the film. I took the decision to an appeals court and got the case transferred to London. This delayed my film for just over a year but I did feel victorious when I defended myself in the UK case hearing and won.
I am only really touching the surface of the problems I faced and experienced making that film. It’s true when they say everything that could go wrong will go wrong. Physically, it was the hardest film I have made to date. I spent over three years of my life on it. In the darkest hours of wanting to quit, I realized how much I wanted my career and what I was prepared to do to make it happen. Making this film, I would say, was my film school and I grew more confident and learned how to tell stories better. I also understood the different types of problems I could face in the future on any given production. Having shot, written, produced and directed the film, it confirmed to me I wanted to be writer-director but also gave me a understanding of the other disciplines. The film went on to be nominated for six awards, and it won best feature at the Pan African film festival.
A Goat’s Tail clip
Tell me about your Masters in Directing Fiction at the National Film and TV School. What were the benefits to going back to school when you were already making films and had a production company?
I was accepted into a scheme called Compass Point, with the National Film School and B3 media. Paul Moody, the organizer of the course, and Nik Powell, a visiting guest speaker, both encouraged me to apply to the film school. I had tried before and was unsuccessful, so I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do. I had some successes independently and had set up a production company which I had been running for 5 years. But one day I sat back and asked myself –if being a director is something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, if I was to apply and got in, wouldn’t it be like taking two steps back to go three steps forward? With that attitude I applied and beat 450 other applicants to one of the eight places available on the Directing Fiction masters program. I had never been to film school before. I had done a few technical courses in and around film, but instantly I knew this was it. The National Film and Television School is the best film school in Europe. I felt I had been touched by an angel to have the opportunity to go there. I was still financially hindered from A Goat’s Tail and wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the fees. But I was blessed and received a full scholarship from Toledo Productions.
Just being in an environment surrounded by like-minded individuals who share your passion and knowledge for film was enough. But to be lectured and have master classes by some of the greats like Stephen Frears, Pawel Pawlikowski, Roger Michell, Ken Loach, Udayan Prasad, Danny Boyle and Mike Leigh, I felt like a child in a sweet shop. What I also found confidence building was realizing that some of what I was learning from these directors I already knew and had picked up through making my films. Understanding why I did something instinctively made me stronger in assessing my own strengths and weaknesses and more precise at what I wanted from the course.
The films I made during my course of study each had specific learning objectives. With Mary and John, I wanted the experience of working with old people. With Lorraine, how do I direct up to seven people at the same time and within limited time create believable group dynamics? With Mr Graham, how do I tell a story honestly when the subject matter is something I feel strongly against, and how do I make the audience care about and understand someone who society tells us not to. In Precipice, how do I make a genre piece on a micro-budget, without having the audience dismiss it if it doesn’t live up to the higher budget aesthetics they are used to? If A Goat’s Tail was my film school, then the National Film School was the polishing and prepping I needed for a life long career. The film school really did change me as a person and as a director.
Tell me more about your film Precipice, which won this year’s AMAA award for best short film from the Diaspora.
Precipice had been with me for a while. I grew up watching film noirs and thrillers, and in terms of subject matter, I was first inspired by the case about the scandals surrounding the American company ENRON in 2001/2002 , and the American stockbroker Bernie Madoff . But ultimately with the lack of ethnic action heroes on screen, I wanted to create a character that would fill that void whilst being able to tell an entertaining commercial, universal story. My ideas were originally a lot bigger than the short film could handle, but I took one or two strands and streamlined it into a short film. Working with the actor Jimmy Jean-Louis was the essential key to the short film. He is the person I always envisaged and was best suited to fill this void in mainstream cinema.
What was it like winning the AMAA? How far have your plans gone for remaking Precipice into a a full-length feature?
Winning the AMMA award was extremely invigorating and truly amazing. It’s something I will remember forever and tell my children about. I honestly never expected to win anything that night and I was just thankful I was nominated. I have a saying that “As a director my job is to serve, to serve the audience.” I believe as along as my audience are engaged, inspired, educated, challenged, entertained and happy with my work, my job is done. Audiences keep you going, Nominations are a great pat on the back, and winning awards is a surreal added bonus. I did enjoy winning. I was grinning from ear to ear. It felt great to be embraced by Africa. The film also won the Pan African Film Festival Board of Directors award.
I have developed the ideas around Precipice into the feature length script. Some of the script takes place in Africa. Roman’s character has been developed to give insight into how he became who he is and where he is going. The ideas, the scenarios, the characters’ motivation, wants and needs can stretch into a franchise of three films. I want Jimmy Jean-Louis to stay as the lead, and a there are parts for a number of integral supporting characters from the different international territories the film is based in. The script has all the original entertaining set pieces an action thriller should have, but it also has a strong emotional core and social message which, like all my work, will create topics for debate. I have had a lot of interest in the project, pitched as a Black Jason Bourne. We know this film is going to profitable, but Jimmy and I want to make the film the way we want to make it and with the right people. So building the right team and attracting the right investors is key.
What is your creative process like?
When I was growing up my mother used to tell me to be seen and not heard. That stuck with me and I got used to sitting back and just watching people, watching the world, whilst trying to interpret and understand it. I have a very selective memory, and I tend to only remember stuff that I feel is important to me. For example, I might meet you and instantly forget your name, but if you make an impression, I will remember when we met, what we spoke about, and even what you were wearing. Instead of your name, I remember your spirit or your energy. If a story, a person or a situation stays with me, I think about it to the point I become obsessive and need to understand every angle of it, every side. Once I understand, then I can let go. My brain goes through this process with every film I make. But mostly, I have to find something challenging, mentally or physically, or I won’t do it. I have written and directed most of my films. I am a slow writer and always write at night. But I feel I am more of a director than a writer. Ultimately I would love to direct something I have written every five to six years and direct other people’s work in between. At the moment I am working with a handful of different writers on different projects and reading scripts my agents send through.
What is your philosophy of directing actors? How do you get such profound performances?
I put actors through a process. They might not even know it at the time, but I build them up in layers. I do a lot of research and make it available to them so they can see where my mind is. I am quite a deep thinker and it comes across in my conservations with them, which ultimately reflects in their acting. Acting is about what you think. Everything else is secondary to me. When I do casting sessions I actually hate when actors come with monologues. Most of the time in castings, I never even make them act or read. I just have a nice chat with them and then make my decision. I have worked with professional and non professional actors, and I always find the right person for the right role.
What are your thoughts on Nollywood and Ghallywood and the popular African film industries?
The Nollywood and Ghallywood market is saturated. There are too many films that have flooded the market making these African movies lack high production values, because producers want to make quick money on as small financial outlay as possible. But now the film industry has reached a stage where films with better quality acting, better storylines and higher production values will rise from the rest and will open the doors for bigger investment in movies and the industry so they can compete on an international level. The African market is the second largest film producing market in the world after Bollywood. It has taken a while but they are getting there. My only experience of working in the African film industry was when I shot A Goat’s Tail. I am interested in working in Africa, but it depends on the story.
What projects do you have on your plate right now? What are your hopes for the future?
I am working on five or six projects at the moment but I would like to see PRECIPICE get made and make films that change how we think or view the world.
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Stop talking about making a movie and go and make one.
Third, here is my review of his four short films made while he was at the National Film and Television school. The review was first published in Weekly Trust on 29 October 2011:
Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 29 October 2011 05:00
The DVD that he sent me included the short films “Mary and John,” “Lorraine,” “Mr Graham,” and “Precipice” all of which are set in the U.K. but deal with human emotions and failures that resonate with almost any culture. After watching the first film “Mary and John,”I sat back and breathed out. I realized I had been holding my breath for much of the film. Rather than proceeding on to the next one, I turned it back and played it again. I ended up re-watching all four of the films that way. Watching it once holding my breath in suspense and then watching it again to savour the details. In the first film in the collection, “Mary and John” (2009, 6 mins) are an old British couple, apparently played by a married couple in real life (Marlene and Eddie Price). In the absence of any other obvious loved ones, the couple seems to be waiting to die. John sits motionless and expressionless, mouth half open watching TV (staring into the camera so his audience becomes the TV he watches), while Mary vacuums the carpet in front of him. The cord of the vacuum machine tugs around his leg, but it is as if he is made of wood. He doesn’t seem to notice. Mary’s life is taken over with taking care of her husband. She feeds him, bathes him, dresses him. Her life is marked by the clicking open of the pill box which is divided into dosages for each day of the week. Other than a powerful flashback with a texture and sound that makes it the emotional centre of the film, each day is the same. The faces of the old couple are mostly still and emotionless, making the heartbreak on Mary’s face and the expression in John’s eyes in the moments where he lifts his face to her and opens his mouth like a child so that she can feed him, all the more devastating. Yet what initially seems to be a short quiet film about old age, has room in it for an unexpected twist. There are powerful understated performances here as well as a thoughtful use of sound.
In the second film, “Lorraine,” (2009, 14 mins) the protagonist after whom the film is named is a new girl at school who desperately wants to be accepted. But the story quickly gets much darker than the typical high school movie about teenage angst. There are moments that feel like William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies here, school girls in uniforms capable of stunning cruelties. This is the film that perhaps stuck with me the most. The actress who plays Lorraine(Lisa Diveney) acts with depth and passion, emotions playing over her face as she contemplates the violence she is complicit in. The other girls, too, reveal more about themselves in their expressions and glances than they do in their words.
“Mr Graham” (2010, 14 mins) is the slowest and most brooding of the films but contains perhaps the most hair-raising twist of any of them. Mr Graham (Alexis Rodney) remembers the legacy left by his father who “died when I was too old to forget.” As he travels home at night watching a train slither over the tracks and into the darkness, his father’s spirit blossoms and grows in him. The next day as he goes about his daily duties, he struggles with a secret obsession that threatens the life he had hoped to build.
The award winning “Precipice” (2010, 25 mins) is the most ambitious of the films in scope, telling the story of a corrupt London banker Jasper (Martin Turner), who has embezzled money and is on the verge of being discovered. Roman (Jimmy Jean-Louis, who also played in another AMAA award winning film Sinking Sands) is hired by Jasper’s partners to spirit him away. But, although this was supposed to be a simple job for Roman, it becomes complicated when Jasper asks him to make one stop on their way out of town. The two criminals, the embezzler and the hired gun, discover they have more in common than they could have imagined. This short film certainly has enough emotional punch and complexity to carry the full-length film, Amedume wants to make of it.
Although these four short films have great emotional power, they are anything but sentimental. Almost all of them have suspense and unexpected twists that lead to chilling discoveries. Amedume directs his actors extraordinarily well, in powerful understated performances. The dialogue here is on the surface, the real drama happens in the moments of silence, where the horrors lurking within even the most innocent looking characters slither into the open. Many of the short films I’ve seen are clever but without well-developed characters. Here, however, the expressions of the actors, the pacing, the framing, give you insights into character that make you feel like you have watched a feature-length film by the end.
Despite the maturity and polish of the films, there were occasional flaws. The sets sometimes seemed a bit too pristine, not lived in enough. In “Lorraine,” an abandoned house suddenly yields forth bounties of food from the fridge. In “Precipice” there are moments in the dark car scene where the cinematographer seems to have trouble pulling focus on Jasper’s face and, as in some Nigerian films that attempt to project great wealth without having access to it, Jasper’s office seems a little modest for a bank executive. But for me, what is best in a film is in its script and the power of performance, the kind of story that forces you to sit down and be pensive afterwards. Amedume’s films do that.
Read together these four films explore the depths of the human psyche in a way that reminds me of the W.B. Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming” from which Chinua Achebe took the title “Things fall apart.” The films that frame the collection, “Mary and John” and “Precipice” are bitter-sweet. These characters on the precipice of death think back on the moments and people in their lives most precious to them. The two films enclosed within this frame, “Lorraine” and “Mr. Graham” explore young characters, their lives stretching out before them, who struggle with passions, in some ways, more horrible than death. Lorraine’s simple search for friendship turns into betrayal, as “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” In ‘Mr. Graham,’ there is an ugliness welling within him that makes one wonder “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
If you are intrigued enough to want to check out these films, you are in luck. You don’t have to wait for a film festival or travel to the UK to hunt them down. Amedume told me he plans to upload the four films to his website by 1 November 2011. If you plan to watch them online, though, I beg of you to download them in full before you start watching. They are too good to be ruined by the jumpy start and stop of a slow internet connection. Enjoy.