A Conversation with Nikyatu Jusu
Sierra Leonean-American filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu talks about her hybrid identity, American cinema, New Media, and the issues that inform her films.
Her latest film Suicide By Sunlight: a project funded by THROUGH HER LENS and sponsored by the Tribeca Film Institute and Chanel, made its debut at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is currently finishing a prolific festival run.
Nikyatu made her TV Directing debut with an episode of the original scripted horror anthology: Two Sentence Horror Stories, which premiered on CW Sept 2019.
Her feature script, NANNY, was selected for the 2019 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Labs & Summit, the 2020 Sundance Screenwriter's Lab and the 2019 IFP Project Forum.
Most recently, NANNY, was one of 35 projects selected for the 2020 Creative Capital Awards.
Nikyatu is a tenure track Assistant Professor in the Film & Video department at George Mason University where she teaches Screenwriting and Directing and is currently in development on her first feature film.
A growing number of filmmakers are emerging from the New African Diaspora. A Diaspora which reflects the multiple identities, histories and experiences of those born in the United States and other western countries but who also embrace the Africa of their parents. Could you give some reflections on your experiences?
I grew up in what, for a very long time, felt like a cultural vacuum in which my sense of normalcy was revived every time I stepped foot in my home. There was always the smell of African food, my mother often wore African garb and both my parents spoke their native languages sprinkled with English.
School was another matter, in which I would often shed any association with Sierra Leone, because at the time I simply wanted to “fit in” and not draw undue attention to myself. I think the taunts from fellow minority children really confused me for some time and yet I came to the realization that many of these kids were hiding from their own immigrant lineage in their attempt to attain this nebulous “normalcy” our young minds idealized.
Now, as an adult, I understand that my dual hybridized identity is one to celebrate and embrace. As anyone can see, African-ness is permeating much of popular culture: primarily fashion and film, so of course it’s easier now to embrace something that is being lauded.
The provocatively titled, African Booty Scratcher (2008), recounts the story of Isatu, a young Sierra Leonean American, at the intersection of two cultures—or perhaps three, her mother’s culture, American culture and US high school culture: the expectations of friends and the desire to fit in. Are you exploring your own experiences and/or that of your Sierra Leonean American peers? Please talk about the film, and the title.
Yes, this film is a semi autobiography of my experiences. I was racking my brain as to what to write for my 2nd year NYU Graduate Film Exercise and I had a lightbulb moment. I never ever wanted to be associated with traditional garb during high school and absolutely NOT during middle school! The repercussions from my evil peers were much too grave (kids are mean to each other: this is nothing new).
African Booty Scratcher is a familiar taunt for many kids raised in the 80’s and 90’s. I later learned that John Singleton even has a character say it in Boyz N The Hood, which was very funny to me. I’m still surprised at how much this short film resonated with so many different people. I received so much thanks via email, Facebook, and other social outlets.
There is an ongoing debate regarding the experiences of African Americans versus those of Africans in the US, the former encompassing those who have ancestors who experienced U.S. slavery while the latter have largely migrated to the United States post-African independence and constitute a “Neo-Diaspora”. What are your thoughts on this debate especially as it relates to your past, present and future work?
It’s funny because I would think we would use the opportunity to share and enlighten one another, and yet we continue to harbor sentiments that force us to create a hierarchy: "I’m better than you because…"
The debate is silly. The taunts are silly. The divisiveness is ridiculous.
I think what’s important is mutual understanding of just how significant we are to each other’s image, success, development as a “race”. We should have embraced ourselves as a monolith decades ago so that we could forge a stronger whole.
Much of my work deals with displaced women, immigrant women in the context of the United States and so I gravitate to that sort of content.
In African Booty Scratcher you touch on the tensions of the two groups. However, I do wonder why you focused on the stereotypes regarding African-American attitudes towards Africans, rather than those who embrace Africa and are very afro-centric in their dress, attitude and behavior.
This is a good question and one that I wish I would have had the time to address in my short film.
The short format is very limited in scope in regards to filmmaking and so one has to pick and choose what she deems necessary to her theme/story.
I did touch on the irony that white people are often quick to embrace Africa: often fetishizing and glamorizing it as is illustrated by the white woman in the restaurant scene.
Say Grace Before Drowning, also an eye-catching title, focuses on a woman’s psychologically devastating experiences as a victim of rape in the war-ravaged Sierra Leone, and its effects on her daughter. This film and others relay experiences from the perspective of women of Sierra Leonean descent. Could you talk about these works and your focusing your lens toward Sierra Leone?
My family is from Sierra Leone and early in one’s filmmaking career it’s smart to “write what you know”. Though, in both Say Grace and ABS [African Booty Scratcher] I never specify a country: the assumption is that these people are from some West African country and audiences can project the country of their choice into the story—whatever resonates with them.
I notice a common thread in your films, an interest in exploring the internal feelings and conflicts of your black female characters. I am fascinated with this aspect, especially through the lens of a black woman.
Yes, I’m glad you see this because this is intentionally my focus. I don’t think that prevailing media portrays black women as the multifaceted beings we are in reality. We’ve been done an injustice with the same old tired stereotype: but I hope to present a different and much more titillating picture.
Sierra Leone is not known for a film culture, is there an emerging presence? What is your relationship to Sierra Leone and the Sierra Leonean Diaspora?
My family is Sierra Leonean and no, the country is not known for a film culture just yet: however actions are being taken gradually to remedy this. As you know, we were thrust into a devastating decade-long civil war that ended in 2001 so we’re of course still picking up the pieces.
I know about a few film schools that are popping up, namely “Nah We Own” TV, which is a nonprofit that empowers Sierra Leoneans to create their own short documentary and narrative pieces.
I hope to shoot a narrative short and eventual feature film in Sierra Leone soon.
You were born and raised in the United States and studied filmmaking there, what is your relationship with American and/or African American film culture?
Honestly, I’ve only recently begun to watch a lot of American films. I’m a “foreign film whore” and a friend of mine recently pointed out to me that I needed to diversify my palate with more films from the US.
Even though I’m just as much American as I am African, I guess the reason I haven’t really taken to Black American Cinema (whatever this term means) is because most of the waves are currently being made. Of course, I’d be remiss to ignore the pioneers such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Charles Burnett, etc—I absolutely acknowledge them. What I mean is that, I’m seeing my black filmmaking peers, those slightly older than me, actively creating feature films that redefine Black American Cinema and more importantly expand it!
So, I’m very hopeful about what’s to come in the next few years. But as far as the contemporary jumble of chitlin films masquerading as black cinema goes, I’m not a fan.
It appears that your screen identity, your presence on the Internet is an integral part of the promotion of your work and sharing it with others. You have a website/blog, you do Skype interviews, you have Youtube and Vimeo channels, and a presence on Facebook. What role does “New Media” play in your experiences as filmmaker?
I’m a young filmmaker and all of these social outlets have been an integral part of how I maneuver the world, digest information, spread information, etc. I remember when Facebook originated, I was in undergraduate school at Duke and at the time only a handful of colleges had access. It was all about elitism and exclusivity: if you weren’t attending one of the “top” colleges, you couldn’t create an account.
Now Facebook is accessible to everyone and rightfully so. The fact that now I have a concrete reason to play with these very accessible marketing tools will only enhance my usage of them as a filmmaker.
“New Media” is the future of filmmaking marketing and distribution, though viral outreach alone won’t get butts in seats: it certainly is an expeditious way to reach a wider and perhaps less-reached demographic.
Most of my audience are not avid film festival goers, so what better way to keep them abreast of my work than the Internet?
Most importantly, I think that New Media gives an intangible audience the opportunity to interact with the filmmaker: create a dialogue in which they feel like an integral part of the creation process. Audiences are becoming much more savvy. They know what experiences they want to take away from a movie-going experience and when these expectations are not met, they quickly move onto the next product.
The New Media structure gives us filmmakers an ability to tap into what our audiences want.