Cinema is a language which I continually strive to understand - Christa Eka Assam
Interview by Isedehi Aigbogun
Christa Eka Assam is a Cameroonian actress, writer and director, known for Alma, Beleh and Ninah's and started her filmmaking career as an actress in 2006. She made her first six-minute short film, Doormat, which was selected into the Durban Talent Campus in 2012. Beleh is her second short film and then the multiple awards winning Alma. The AFC blog engages her in this chat on the journey so far.
Isd: As a filmmaker, all your movie productions have been shorts. Although, this is a major evolvement from acting only, tell us why you haven't ventured into feature-length yet.
Christa Eka Assam: Experience. I started as an actress and I didn't have much of any knowledge and/or experience in the technical aspects of filmmaking. So when I decided I wanted to direct and I couldn't afford film school, I decided to start with shorts, alongside reading tutorials in order to gain some more knowledge and experience before venturing into a feature-length film.... After 3 shorts now, I am ready to make my first feature-length film.
Isd: From my knowledge and experience of film, shorts do not require as much skill as a feature length, for in a feature length, there are more characters, sub-plots and a firm kind of structure (maybe three act structure), how do you plan to handle all of that as opposed what you've been handling with your shorts?
Christa Eka Assam: Shorts are different from features in form and structure. Indeed, making a feature entails a whole lot more, in just about every aspect of the craft, but I think if I stay calm and apply the lessons I learnt in making the shorts, it would make it that much easier to handle. I have talked to some experienced filmmakers along the way, attended workshops and festivals, watched more films, and I keep reading. One thing I realize though, after all is put in place ... cast and crew, funding, equipment etc, preparation is key. There will always be obstacles. Your success in achieving the overall artistic vision of your project is directly related to your level of preparedness.
Isd: Would you like to tell us the challenges you experienced making your shorts, and what valuable and useable lessons you ultimately learnt experiencing them?
Christa Eka Assam: I would say I faced the general challenges most emerging independent filmmakers with limited budgets face; getting funding and equipment, securing locations, managing a moderate-sized cast and crew (most of whom are working for free), etc.
Despite all these, one of the biggest lessons I learned which I would like to share, goes back to what I mentioned above - being prepared.... There is a marked difference between my second and third shorts, especially in terms of directing. With Beleh (my 2nd short), I was doing a lot, even with my limited experience; acting, directing and producing, and as a director, I didn't quite prepare. I was working with a very experienced crew and I was a little bit intimidated. As a result, I failed to clearly communicate my artistic vision for the film to them beforehand, and unconsciously gave everyone free rein in carrying out their assigned tasks. Artistically, the film suffered for it. It didn't quite come to what I had originally envisioned.... With Alma (my 3rd short), I worked with the same crew, but I was better prepared and more confident. I spent a lot more time with them in pre-production, making sure they understood my vision for the film, taking into consideration their own ideas, and ensuring we were all on the same page and looking in the same direction. I was quite satisfied with the results.
I have to mention, it is important to PICK THE RIGHT TEAM!
Be calm. Pay attention to detail. Spend enough time in pre-production and the rest of the process would be a much smoother sail.
Isd: You, on many occasions, mentioned preparedness and related it to artistic preparedness. Are you also referring to the screenplay? If so, what are your beliefs about the elements of this preparedness/art.
Christa Eka Assam: As a writer/director, the artistic vision for my film starts to come together in the screenwriting phase. For me, the screenplay is King, as every other element stems from it. If I have a great script, I will make a great film. And even if I somehow fall short, I will at least make a good film.
However, as important as my screenplay is to me, it is still only a blueprint of the final product.... How I choose to apply the different techniques of mise-en-scene, cinematography, sound and editing, will eventually determine my style. This preparedness relates to all these, and every other aspect of the film – acting, production design, costumes, hair and make-up, etc.... As I plan, I start relating with my cast and crew members, getting their own ideas and merging them with mine, then the vision starts to take a more definite shape and is more clearly defined. As a director, it is my job to tap into the talents of my cast and crew and harness their contributions to fit in with the artistic whole. Cinema is a language which I continually strive to understand ... and speak.
Isd: I really enjoyed your response. And can't wait to see your eventually feature-length which is hoped to be produced based on your high level of preparedness. Speaking of preparedness, did you ever expect to win the award(s) that you were nominated for. How did you feel about the nomination?
Christa Eka Assam: It is always exciting to get a nomination for your work, and for each nomination I have been really glad, not just for me, but for my entire team, who sacrificed a lot for the project.... For every nomination, we have had high expectations of winning though we didn't always grab the trophy. At AFRIFF especially, the competition was really quite tough, what with Tolu Ajayi’s “The Encounter” and Clarence Peters’ “Hex”, which both got Special Jury Mentions. Winning the AFRIFF Best Short Film award felt great! ALMA has also won the Abuja International Film Festival, Mis me Binga International Women Film Festival, Ecrans Noirs, Art City International Short Film Festival, Tazama International Women Film Festival, and CAMIFF, including a Jury Mention at the Silicon Valley African Film Festival.
Isd: Pretty impressive! Apart from this upcoming feature-length, what other film related businesses are you currently into. You know how it is with this business, versatility is key.
Christa Eka Assam: Mostly acting. Even though I am directing and producing now, acting is still my first love.
Isd: Are there any movies you acted in that you feel didn't allow you showcase your acting skills in the best way possible? Maybe because the script or directing was bad? Any at all from the past or present?
Christa Eka Assam: No, not really. That is something I have tried to guard myself against by carefully selecting the movies I act in. If the script doesn't feel right to me, or if I don't trust the director, I'd rather not get involved.
Isd: Are there any acting tips that you contribute to the lives of upcoming actresses, or people new to the film business?
Christa Eka Assam: Yes, I mentor a few upcoming actors and actresses - those who come up to me. I share my experiences with them and give them tips. I have also been a facilitator at a few acting workshops.
Isd: It's a relief to know you give back to the community. It has been a refreshing experience with you. Do you have any extra information you'd like to contribute to this interview?
Christa Eka Assam: Yes, I would like to add something I didn't mention earlier, which I have learned from my challenges so far. Patience. The right amount of patience will give you that little extra, needed to make extraordinary.... I know filmmakers are always working hard to achieve their dreams, but I would say don't just work hard, work smart! Study your craft, then go all out!! Prayer is essential. Get God involved and you will have good success.... Thank you very much for giving me this platform to share some of what I have gained from my experiences so far.
Isd: It has been a pleasure.