Today we’re chatting with Aimiende Negbenebor Sela, the writer and director of TMFF’s latest Film of the Month winning entry, Utopia.
JL: Aimiende, many congratulations on winning our biggest prize of the month – we thoroughly enjoyed Utopia and the work which was put into it!
ANS: Thank you so much for the honor. It feels great to have Utopia acknowledged with such an award. Creating Utopia was deifinitely a labor of love. The cast and crew gave so much of themselves; it’s amazing to have all that work validated.
JL: When have you started submitting the film to festival, and how has it performed so far, relative to your expectations?
ANS: I started submitting as soon as I was able to step back from the final edit and say to myself “stop before you ruin it, Aimi!” That was around the first week of May. TMFF was actually one of the three festivals I submitted Utopia to first. So far, the reception has been great! I am so pleased and humbled. Within the last month, Utopia has made it into festivals from the U.S. to Canada, Isreal, Belgium, the U.K… I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Utopia travels the globe 🙂
JL: Tell us a bit about yourself – where did your love for films stem from, and how did you get to writing and directing movies?
ANS: Where do I begin!? Well, I’m Nigerian and adopted into a Jewish Israeli family from the Bronx, New York. There’s a ton to unpack there, I know 🙂 I lived in Nigeria, then New York/New Jersey and finally made my way to Los Angeles. I think my love for films stems from a need for escape that I remember having from when I was very young… Films give you a place to go. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to see people who look like you there and you’re encouraged. Other times, you don’t but you’re entertained; your horizon is expanded a little bit more, and you’re given the space to feel things and think things you may not feel you are allowed to think or feel within the world in which you currently exist. “Sound of Music” is a film I remember watching over and over again, and daydreaming about it of course! And, “The Never Ending Story” — that was another one! Anyway, that kid grew up and I believe my taste in films now reflects that 🙂 I started writing to put my view of the world down on paper. That grew into wanting to put my view of the world up on the big screen. I didn’t study filmmkaing. I have a B.A. in Literature and a B.E. in Computer Engineering. So, to make a long story short, I found my way out of the I.T. industry and into that of filmmaking via acting. I was a theatre actor in New York and my theatre director, also a friend of mine (he co-directed my first short film with me: Asa, A Beautiful Girl) Michel Chahade, encouraged me to write a short based on a portion of my life and he worked with me to create it. It was a first for both of us and definitely a huge learning experience. I’d call that one production my film school. The school of Asa, A Beautiful Girl! lol! It won the Best Short Film Award at the Oscar Qualifying Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival in New York. That was in 2013. I’ve been writing and directing since.
JL: What would you say is your defining characteristic as a filmmaker?
ANS: Hm. I think that’ll be the way I see the world. I recall of friend of mine telling me, a few years ago, that he felt I was a filmmaker with an eye for humanism and I agree with him. The human experience is at the heart of all my stories as well as bringing groups of people that most might consider “the other” into the norm; because they ARE the norm, period. I love playing with words, colors, sounds, but most of all, I love telling real stories, albeit in imagined circumstances. So, yeah, my defining characteristic is my world view.
JL: How did you get the idea on which Utopia rests? Was it a gradual process or more of a sudden bout of inspiration?
ANS: I was sitting in the audience of an open house at AFI for their AFI Directing Women’s Workshop and as the panel spoke and answered questions, a thought popped into my head. It can be a bit frustrating when inspiration strikes at a time that’s “not so convinient” but if you miss it, you’ll regret it… So, I think I missed most of what was said for the next 15mins and then caught right up after that! LOL! But, yeah, the idea first came to me then: of a woman wishing she was someone else. Then it got clearer — a black woman wishing she was someone else. Then clearer still — a traumatized black woman wishing she was someone else and living somewhere else, because then her life would be grand (i.e. she would have the freedom to simply be.) I wrote the first draft within a couple weeks, got feedback, rewrote it, and so on, but it didn’t make the cut for the AFI DWW program. Long story short, after I got some feedback on what most people felt was missing for them as an anchor to their own reality, I rewrote it and decided to go ahead and make it. I, then, wrote the feature length version of Utopia (after the short was made) and I’m currently workshopping it. So, I’d say that Utopia began as a sudden bout of inspiration and grew into what it became through a gradual process. I recall the first image that popped into my head. It was the imagine that inspired the idea upon which Utopia rests — a newspaper clipping I found years ago. There was a beautiful blond woman standing in a crowd during a protest in the sixties, she was holding up a sign. It read: “you wish you were white.”
JL: Is there any particular reason why you chose Uganda as one of the settings?
ANS: I had originally chosen South Sudan as one of the settings because I wanted to push that idea of colorism (the Sudanese have the most beautiful, almost purpe black dark skin, and I wanted that.) But, again, I had to consider what’s more well known to the majority of the audience who will watch this film? Homophobia in South Sudan or homophobia in Uganda? Uganda won out after a few worshops. I needed to provide my audience that anchor to thier own reality.
JL: Your film reminded me of The Twilight Zone to some extent, but also of a personal favourite of mine – Mulholland Drive by David Lynch, mostly thanks to its dreamlike, aspirational nature and the entanglement of two different realities. What works inspired you for the project?
ANS: Oh my goodness, I love The Twilight Zone, and who doesn’t marvel at the shear audacity of Mulholland Drive!? I love that film. Mulholland Drive was definitely on the back of my mind, if I must confess, but a few other films shared that space too: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, The Orphanage (more in the sound design, a couple specific images, and the way the film teetered on the edge of horror), Inception… ofcourse; that whole question of what’s real and what’s not. I even had In The Mood For Love and Tsoti in there. And yeah, if you took a look at these last two films, it may not make sense to you what the connection is; but there’s a theme, and a tone, and a tantalizing color pallette and composition used to tell their stories and to convey this yearning to escape and just be. It’s all over these films. I think that may be why they imbedded themselves in my psyche, so that when I began mapping out Utopia they surfaced. Another film that inspired me is Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (I’m a big fan of his) — the way he used the black and white pallette to deceive… Telling you everything is normal, everything is as it should be, when in fact it’s far from it. And again, really, I love everything David Lynch so… 🙂
JL: How would you describe Angel, the main character of both halves of your film, in a couple of words?
ANS: I’d describe Angel as honest and tenancious.
JL: Do you have any upcoming projects planned, or are you currently completely focused on marketing Utopia?
ANS: I’m tapping into my womanhood and multi-tasking! Yes, I am focusing on marketing Utopia (both the short film and the feature length script). But, I am also wrapping up development on a new short film titled Mein Kampf. It’s about a troubled teenage boy who tired of feeling oppressed decides enough is enough.
JL: Thanks for chatting with us, Aimiende, it’s been a pleasure. We here at TMFF are very much looking forward to seeing more of your work!
ANS: Thank you! I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for both the opportunity TMFF affords filmmakers like myself to share their work, and the acknowledgment. Thank you. I certainly look forward sharing more of my work with you!