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Farewell Amor: A Q&A With Ekwa Msangi & John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah and Ekwa Msangi discuss the African experience in New York, Angolan dance, and more in a wide-ranging conversation.
For the streaming premiere of Farewell Amor, director Ekwa Msangi and artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah held a filmed conversation discussing her film debut. Below is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation. Farewell Amor is exclusively showing on MUBI in the UK and other countries starting on December 18, 2020 in the Debuts series.
JOHN AKOMFRAH: I'm very, very lucky to have next to me Ekwa Msangi, who is both a director—the director—and an ally. Am I okay to say "director and ally"?
EKWA MSANGI: Yeah, I should hopefully say so!
AKOMFRAH: When we met [ten years ago], one of the things I was convinced about, from literally our first conversation, was that you wanted to make projects about the African experience in New York, where you were at the time.
MSANGI: Yeah, so Farewell Amor is a project that's been sort of stewing in my mind for a long time, because it's a family story, it's inspired by an aunt and an uncle who were married in the mid-90s, in Tanzania. My uncle got a student visa to come to the US and had every intention of bringing Auntie and cousins right behind him. And to date, they've still been stuck in these applications: Visa rejection, visa application, visa rejections for decades. watching their struggle for so many years. I wanted to make the “what if?” story. I had this image in my mind of my uncle, you know. What if Auntie finally got her visa, that's no longer the issue. They're coming. They're coming. It's a done deal. You know, and so Uncle is at the airport, at the arrivals gate. And he's... like what is he thinking? What is he feeling? Would he recognize them? What is the first thing to say? And so, you know, for me, New York is a place that has all sorts of people like that—not just African immigrants, you know, everybody is that, and including a lot of the white immigrants that came to New York through Ellis Island, way back when, who left behind everything in Ireland and Scotland and wherever else they came from, to start this new place.
AKOMFRAH: You know why it sort of reminded me the name looks a little bit like the Jean-Luc Godard film? I think that was called Forever Amor.
MSANGI: Forever Amor is a wonderful title! I probably should have chosen that. Thank you! [laughs]
AKOMFRAH: You know, there are two things that I wanted to talk to you about. One was autobiographical, in a way, and the other is more about films about the African experience in New York. As you may be aware, I'm a child of one of those exiles in the film. And it is very much in the context of your unfolding story that I arrived here, you know. Except that I came with one parent, and one who couldn't join, because they died in a coup, basically. And I was really struck by how different that the story that you have here is from the other New York Africa stories. Was that a conscious attempt to try and avoid the other ones? Do you know what I mean? There's a very... there's a way in which stories are made about Africans in New York, and this doesn't feel like one of them.
MSANGI: Like Africans selling oils on Canal Street and that kind of thing? Or the Africans stealing all the oil or whatever, from their countries and trying to sell it on Wall Street? [laughs]
AKOMFRAH: Carry on! Any more?
MSANGI: Oh, we can go down the list, I’m sure. You know, it's interesting, because I live in a North African community in Brooklyn. And, you know, and then you meet, like, the taxi drivers—it's always the taxi drivers, which is why I wanted Walter to be a taxi driver—you sort of are just like, oh, you're the taxi driver. But these people have full-blown lives, most of them. And a lot of them actually do go back and forth. They have their papers, unlike Walter. And so they work for six months, and then they go back to their countries for six months. And they have families and children back there. And, you know, maybe they have girlfriends in New York, or whatever the case is. Most of the films that at least I've seen, or that tend to be popularized, certainly funded through a Hollywood-type system tend to be about either the most exceptional African ever, or the most sort of destitute, struggling African ever... you know, there’s kind of like those two baskets. And, yes, it's a story of immigrants, they happen to be immigrants. But I didn't... I wasn't very much interested in talking about the political aspects of their immigration, which tends to be the other type of story—sort of like, the cause, the issue-driven, you know... what happens when they got to the border, and then the racist cop said, blah, blah, blah... and then the racist immigration laws or anti-immigration laws made them do XYZ, you know? I mean, that is a story and it certainly happens and it's very serious, but I really wanted an opportunity to depoliticize “the immigrant.” You know, first of all, not giving them the titles as “an immigrant” but actually names. We actually know them as people. And I feel like the way to know them as people is to know they're sort of like their heart problems. By heart problems, I don't mean medical, but, you know, like what's going on on the inside. As opposed to just their legal issues and their political issues. But, you know… those all lend to what's going on with them as people, so that we can relate to them as people. It's a lot easier to sort of hold people at arm's length if you're just dealing with their political, social-political issues like, oh... you know, I mean, it's harder for people to relate if it's just about a very specific political issue that I may never have experienced, and it’s like, oh, what a terrible thing is happening to them. But we've all experienced heartbreak, you know, we've all experienced longing, we've all experienced, you know, being new in an environment that we're unfamiliar with. Those kinds of things. So those are the things that I was interested in. I don't know if I answered your question!
AKOMFRAH: No, no, absolutely. Absolutely. It was, it was more a kind of a sense of how you arrived at it, you know. And I just wanted to know that. The second, as I said, is slightly less autobiographical, in a way but is equally germane to this film, which is to do with casting.
AKOMFRAH: Because I was involved with a feature set in New York, about the “coming to America” scenario. And so I know the importance of casting. And I think, in many ways, partly why mine didn't go to the final hurdle was because I didn't quite get the casting right. So tell me something about your cast, because it's a fabulous one. 
MSANGI: Yeah, we… man, we got really lucky. I was very clear what I needed them to do. I needed people who had danceability, at least for Walter and Sylvia's characters. I needed people who could be taught an Angolan accent, not an “African accent,” because there is no such thing. [laughs] But specifically, an Angolan accent, which is a very difficult one. And it's not one that we have in our ear readily. You know... most people—unless you're from that part of the world—don't know that sound very well. And then I just wanted them to actually look like they could be a family. So we started with Sylvia. We started casting Sylvia first because she needed to be able to do the dancing and the acting. And she came through our casting director, and was just, you know—there's something about Jayme that is so striking. I mean, she's beautiful, yes, but just like... even her intensity and her personality was just so striking from the minute you meet her. So we did two sessions of auditions for that character, where we had the acting, the actability parts, and we had them come in with at least their version of the accent. We sent them some audio clips to work on. And then we had a second round where we had them meet with a choreographer and do some dance so that we could see their danceability.
For the other two, for Walter and Esther: I know Ntare [Guma Mbaho Mwine] because he's also a filmmaker, a wonderful experimental filmmaker. Our short films have traveled together in some festivals. And we've been threatening to work together for several years. And so, you know, I reached out to him because I know he can do it, he's an incredible actor, and I know he can do accents as well. And he's, you know, he did more than anything I could have even imagined. Similar to Zainab [Jah], she... I had never worked with her. She's very big in theater. In New York, and I've seen her work on stage and run into her at some African film parties here and there. And she came in through casting and there wasn't even a question about it. It was just like: of course, of course she is. And so once we had those three, then everything else was a lot easier. So I really, really lucked out. There literally isn't a single person on our cast who was sort of like a fly by night—like, you know, last-minute call. Everybody was very deliberate. And they did such amazing work. I'm really grateful.
AKOMFRAH: The second is to do with music, I suppose: In general, but specifically about what Jayme brings. The score is, again, unusually very un-”African movie.” So I want you to talk a bit about that.
MSANGI: So my reason for wanting these characters to be from Angola, as opposed to East Africa, which is where I'm from, is specifically because of the music, and the dance that goes with the music, which I love, and I'm a practitioner of... Kizomba, which is the style that Walter practices and Kuduro, which is the style that Sylvia practices. And Kizomba is very beautiful, sensual couples dance from Angola, which, you know... most people don't think a beautiful, sensual couples-dance is from Africa, period. You know... most African dance is characterized by drumming, and the fertility dance, or the rain dance, or you know, something like that… which is great, we have those too. But we also have these, and they’re lots of fun. And the thing about Kizomba which makes it very unique for me—versus any other couples-dance, salsa, bachata, whatever—is that there’s not a regular foot pattern to the dance. With Kizomba, the leader is dancing to the music and to how they feel about the music, and your job as the follower is to be connected to them, so that you can follow, because they can change at any moment. And so there is a level of connection that's required. It’s a very close. It looks like a really... a lot of people get very intimidated because it looks super sexy. And it is, but you actually have to concentrate quite a bit. [laughs] Because you really do need to have some sort of connection with your partner in order to perform. And I just thought it was a really interesting metaphor for a relationship of these two people who were in sync, literally were in step, and because of distance and because of time, have fallen out of step and are therefore not able to dance together. Kuduro is a much more sort of recent style, that is also out of Angola. It's kind of harsh and from the streets and from the youth… for young people it's their way of expressing the things that they can't say to their elders, you know... their frustrations with the economic situation, or coming out of a 30 year civil war, and what that's done to the country and to people, and domestic violence, and all these different topics that people, you know, have feelings about it but don't have a place to express it, other than through their dance and their music. And so for Sylvia as a young African girl, who is not raised to speak back to her parents and tell them off—you know, that would never happen... this would be the only way that she would be able to express herself.
AKOMFRAH: I loved one other quality about the music, as Walter says at one point in the film, it's the vehicle of freedom. In dancing to music, you set yourself free. But it's also the way in which a very Portuguese effect comes into the film—you know, all the music carries this saudade, right?  This kind of... not melancholy, but a sadness.
MSANGI: A longing.
AKOMFRAH: A longing, and a nostalgia for things which cannot and have not been, if you will. It made it a very unique “African film,” in a way, because he had this pan-continental feel, you know... it could easily have been made in Brazil.
I was born in the US, my parents were students at the time. So this was the way that parents told their children about where we're from. And in my research about Angolans in exile, that was one of the things that came up... the connection, how music, Kizomba and Samba music in particular were so important in terms of the remembering of home, but also the transferring of information to youth about what we'd left behind, because many of them had never seen Angola.
AKOMFRAH: There's also a really unique quality about the film, and that I can only describe as a diasporic quality. And Afro-diasporic, specifically... because, in a sense in both, let's say, Angola and Mozambique, had this film been made there would have been the need to put on it a kind of triumphalist veneer. We beat the Portuguese and we’re free and the sun shines brightly every day, and we go into the sunset! And nothing can stop our future being bright. Yay! You know? [laughs] And now, put through the New York prism, the story takes on a slightly different bittersweet quality. You know? Because of course, Angola is free, but the cost of that freedom is what the film then starts to explore. I thought that was a really interesting take on “the liberation film.” Can you talk a little bit about that, do you think?
MSANGI: Yeah. It’s a big question. Coming out of the last four years in particular, and just even before that, the ways in which immigrants are discussed, as takers, as people who are here to take our resources and do all of these different things, you know: they're rapists, they're thieves, they're thugs, they're blah—you know all of those kinds of things. And I just, I really wanted to... those are not the people that I know, myself included, you know, because I do consider myself an immigrant, even though I was born in the States, but I didn't grow up there. I don't think that there's anybody in the world who would prefer to live away from their home, their loved ones, the food, the culture that they know and love, because they would just prefer to live out in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere—nobody prefers that. People do that because of necessity, because war, because of a lot of issues that the Western world tends to cause in the first place. You know, there's a lot of political things I could go into, but… I wanted to show what you just said, the cost. You know, what are people giving up? What are these people giving up in order to be here? And what are they bringing? What are the gifts and the skills and all of the energy that they're bringing to our culture as well. And so that was very deliberate on my part in terms of having that conversation. And of course the first scene is the hurrah. You know: we did it, we're here. And it's supposed to be sort of like the triumph, and now we're going to skip into the sunset together. But, of course, that's not realistic, because you're different people. And so we get to see sort of the reality of: I showed up with my crutches that got me here. Yay. And now these crutches don't work because this is New York. You know, the sidewalks are different. And so watching them sort of giving up their crutches in order to actually have a relationship, saying goodbye to the love that they thought they knew, the people that they thought they knew in order to actually be together for real.
AKOMFRAH: Naipaul called it “the enigma of arrival.” I thought you caught that enigmatic arrival so well with the structure. It starts with the opening, because of course, it's an arrival, but the arrival is enigmatic in the sense that it's bifurcated. It’s split along all sorts of affective biographical lines. I was so taken by that. Can we talk just a tiny bit about that, the enigmatic arrival?
MSANGI: I mentioned that we had shot a prequel, a short prequel to this film. We'd gotten this cash award from another short film, I told my producing partner that I had this film in mind, we decided to make a short as a proof of concept, to get the ball rolling. It was a very tiny amount of money, so it had to be a very tiny film. And so it was the moment before he goes to the airport, where he's saying goodbye to Linda and getting the keys back. And so, therefore, coming out of that, Walter’s story was in my mind, and he was the easiest to write. So I was able to get that out quickly, because I've been thinking about him for a while already. But it felt a little “has been” to do a movie about a guy who had an affair, and he doesn't know what to do. Even though it was kind of unique, because he is trying to be with his wife, and he's not trying to be shady, but it wasn't really quite where I wanted to go. And I was like: well, maybe I could do it from the daughter's perspective. And so initially, I wrote from both of their perspectives. I couldn't make a choice, I decided to just do both of them and see how that goes. Father and daughter. I got about six or eight months into the writing process, and it became abundantly clear that the linchpin of both of their stories was Esther's story, and it wouldn't make sense to not have her story in it as well. So I decided to include that. And the thing that was exciting about it for me was that, even though they're all experiencing the same event—yay! we arrived, mission accomplished—each of them have such unique experiences of the same event. You know, they're, each living their own lives of the same event. And I just thought that was… and all of them seem very unique to me and things that I wanted to specifically look at. So… a little bit of indecision. And a little bit of just like: why not? [laughs]
AKOMFRAH: It works! And then the other really interesting thing about that, is that you can normally tell when those montage decisions—there’s never enough shots to make those things work [laughs]—whereas in this particular instance, it's clear that you had conceived of this as a possibility, so there was cover, there were multiple perspectives, and that was written into how the whole scene is staged. So it's brilliant! Indecision is fine as long, as we can show it. [laughs] Something wonderful, and pregnant with possibility. No, I really love that. Tell me what you want to do with it now? And where is it going now that it's had its big Sundance... or maybe we could talk about Sundance maybe?
MSANGI: Sundance was amazing. And we're so grateful that we had the experience of being able to show this film to a live audience, because, you know... the world is so different now. And for me, especially because my film career, making stories about African people in a way that's not your typical African story, that Hollywood tends to put out, or is normally seen on American screens, and that kind of thing… I've had a lot of Nos and a lot of like question marks, like: what are you doing? Who are these people? We don't quite understand? Are you sure you want... shouldn't have some more colorful clothes on? I don't quite understand what they're saying. [laughs] All of those kinds of… Too many subtitles! Not enough subtitles! Et cetera.
AKOMFRAH: Why are they speaking English? [laughs] Or: they should all speak English!
MSANGI: Exactly, exactly. And so... I had kind of developed a little bit of a skin, you know, around… I don't think anyone's gonna get this, but I'm gonna make it anyways. I'm not making it for you. Because I just don't think... my experience has been that most American people don't get the work that I make. And so to be able to show, to get into Sundance for one, in competition, and be able to show it to all of these audiences who were just completely floored, and the tears, and the gushing, it was just like: Wow! This is not what I expected at all! It was a really wonderful and beautiful experience. And the reviews and all the other things that you know, to see your work touching a chord is priceless. So I'm really glad that we were able to have that experience before we went into the year that it's been, which has been just online... and private DMs sometimes in my Twitter and Instagram, people telling me what they loved about it, which is great. And from here, you know... we're releasing in the US December 11th, we're releasing on MUBI December 18th. And we’re just...really excited to be able to share this work. I mean, feeling very encouraged by the feedback that we've gotten thus far. It's been really interesting to see the different reactions. You know... there's Team Walter, Team Esther and Team Sylvia. Team Linda also!
MSANGI: There have been a few Team Lindas. Yeah. [laughs] What happened to Linda? Justice for Linda!
AKOMFRAH: I can see why that might be the case. But—and I'm saying this not necessarily, although of course, it is also because I'm a man—Team Walter is a very, very big team. [laughs] Like if you could bet on any team in this film to win the Premier League, it would be very silly to avoid Team Water I think. [laughs] Because there's something about that stature you know, which is so unusual. And in a way it sort of taps into the same reservoir of African archetype that you find with Chadwick [Boseman] in Black Panther, you know? A welter of real confidence in one's stillness.
MSANGI: I'll say one last thing! Off of what you said. It was actually very important for me to have a... not a sympathetic Walter, because I don't want anyone coming away like: oh, poor Walter, poor thing. But a relatable Walter, you know? And especially the images of Black people in general, but Black men in particular, I think, have been just so misaligned, and so single storied, whether villains, or they're crooks, or they're this, or they’re that. And I've grown up knowing a lot of just like, beautiful: men who have feelings. Walter is really a man who has feelings. And that has been a big resonance for him. So, therefore, Team Walter is quite thick… as is Team Linda!
AKOMFRAH: Well, whatever happens, whichever team, people are going to root for, I just hope that they go to see it, because it is a fantastic film.
MSANGI: Thank you so much. Thank you.
AKOMFRAH: I'm so proud of you. I can't tell you how proud I am. When I found out you were in the London Film Festival, I went: yay! [laughs] Well done.
MSANGI: Thank you. Thank you for your guidance over the years, it definitely has helped to bring me here. And you, and the community at large because you know... I stand on many shoulders, in terms of being able to put this work forward and hopefully continuing to do so in the future.
AKOMFRAH: May the ancestors guide you always.


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