Interviewed by Hannah Green
There seems to be a triangulation in a lot of your work between music, people and place. What draws you to this particular sort of project? Are you hoping to delve deeper in the future or move on to different pastures?
The difference in a place affects the people and in turn, this affects the culture and art that’s produced there. I think they’re all linked in some way, but the big draw for me is the people. I want to continue working on pieces that explore people and the cultures they contribute to, maybe not just through film. I think I’m still finding my voice as a storyteller, artist, director, or whatever you want to call me. Over time I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to keep up with what’s trending in terms of topics of discussion, now I’m settling into my own ideas so we’ll see what comes of those.
Your work has taken you quite literally all over the world. How do you find your feet in places as disparate as Cape Town and Glasgow to produce films that feel authentic? Do you feel like being an outsider helps you gain perspective, or do you do the work to feel like an insider?
As an outsider telling someone’s story, I find it a huge obligation to be as authentic as possible. When making documentaries, the first step is to acknowledge that I’m not telling my own story so I have to be willing to allow the story to change despite what ideas we may have come up with during pre-production. No amount of work will make me an insider, the best I can do is apply what’s happening during filming to my own experiences to gain some empathy and understanding when interviewing and piecing the film together in the edit. Before filming starts I try to spend as much time as I can soaking up the new culture, the new ideas, and opinions of the people involved on and off camera. Collaboration is key to me telling an authentic story, I value the opinions of everyone involved in the film from cast to crew. There’s an attention to detail that you have when you’re from a particular environment, so I often trust that people know what they’re talking about if they do have a suggestion.
Your Soul Skate documentary was fantastic - what was the process from the initial idea to the finished film?
Thank you! I’ve worked with the producer, Nyah Clarke, before, she approached me with the brief. Carharrt had been in conversation with the Soul Skate team for a while about working with the event, the Soul Skate team were concerned with the film having a genuine approach. My pitch, some examples of my previous work, and probably a good word from Nyah, made them confident that the story was going to be authentic. We spoke about the different contributors that we could interview and I tried to get an understanding of what the event and skating meant to everyone before arriving so that I could ask the right questions. We got to Detroit a day before the event and met up with the Soul Skate team. Their founder, Kenny Dixon Jr. gave me the once-over as we spoke about our schedule for the weekend. We filmed from morning till night across the entire weekend, during filming we kept meeting new people that we felt we just had to get on camera; people like T-Stacks Frank, a skating fanatic who attends many of the national skate events, and Mabel Maddison the 91-year-old lady who swears skating is keeping her alive. Going over the interview footage I was trying to find common threads between all contributors, asking myself “how does what she says connect to how he feels?”. Editing was a fun process for me, I got to visit a post-production house for a couple weeks and felt like a serious director. It was great working with an experienced editor like Nikolaj Belzer, being able to talk through complicated ideas and gain a better understanding of the editing process. There wasn’t the firm grip on the shoulder that you might expect from a branded project, Carharrt, Dazed and NTS were all very trusting in what we were delivering and only had a few bits of input, throughout the entire production, surprising because you’d think there would be a lot more red tape considering three well-known brands were involved.
For the Low Heat and True Music series typically you’ll focus on the many layers of people and personalities which make up smaller scenes. For Wizkid: Lagos to London, you focused for a longer period of time on one person. What are these different dynamics like to work with?
Films that involve multiple contributors are a lot more challenging, in terms of scheduling shoots for example. But when I’m trying to explore a scene, like is the case in many of the True Music films, although the contributors might be a part of one group, genre, or scene, people see things differently. Everyone’s unique opinions paint a bigger picture for me. With all the contradictions and agreements I’m able to see how complex certain issues are, and to me, those diversities make life clearer because nothing is ever just one way. When I’m telling the story of a single person, that person becomes a sort of hero in the film. You might get the chance to spend enough time with them that you become comfortable around one another, and then you capture more intimate moments on camera and maybe get a more open interview too.
Before filming starts I try to spend as much time as I can soaking up the new culture, the new ideas, and opinions of the people involved on and off camera.
With all the contradictions and agreements I’m able to see how complex certain issues are, and to me, those diversities make life clearer because nothing is ever just one way.
You’ve directed some great films with big names like Boiler Room and Dazed Digital - what has your experience working on collaborative projects been like? What are the pros and cons?
When working with brands I’m working to a brief, which might be a loose idea or a thought through concept that they want to be executed. The exciting thing about these projects is they can be on subjects I would never have thought of or have access to. A big plus with working with brands is the potential for a decent production budget. This means there’s room to get a crew involved, that takes a lot of the pressure off of me. Then I can put more focus on the narrative and creative elements of the film. The crew will bring their own perspectives and fresh ideas to the production too. Also, the budget might give us the chance to play with some fun bits of kit and step up the production value, it feels good working on ideas that might be too expensive to do on my own. Saying that though, my experiences have taught me a lot about control and compromise. You typically won’t have total creative control because the brand could have an image that they want to maintain or promote. This could mean that things can change at the last minute, it can be frustrating at times because I could already be so in love with the film structure they want to change or a particular shot they want to be removed, but I always get through it and end up with a film I’m happy with.
Many of us are graduating with lots of ambition but few connections - how have you managed to establish yourself as a filmmaker? How much success is owed to hard work and how much to simply being in the right place at the right time?
I’ve been making films professionally for about 6 years, I still consider myself to be establishing. I haven’t won many jobs since leaving a full-time position at Boiler Room in 2018 because of this I pinned a lot of my previous fortune on me having been in the right place at the right time or simply having known the right people. It impacted my self-esteem quite a bit. But after consideration I realised that although getting my foot in might have been a result of knowing the right people, being kept on and asked to do the work I’ve done was only my own doing. Being in the right place at the right time and securing a job is one thing, it’s only the beginning, it’s the actual work that people recognise after that. My one bit of unsolicited advice is to put focus into projects of your own that you connect to, above everything else, and over time you’ll develop your voice or your style. People will see the work you put into these projects, they’ll want to work with you because they’ll know what they’re gonna get and if they don’t come knocking at least you still have work out there that you’re proud of and can eventually approach people with.