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When an Immigrant's Familial Bonds are as Foreign as the Land: Ekwa Msangi Discusses "Farewell Amor"

An interview with Ekwa Msangi about her feature debut and crafting a personal and in turn political film filled with imperfect characters.
Rooney Elmi
Ekwa Msangi's Farewell Amor is exclusively showing on MUBI in the UK and other countries starting on December 18, 2020 in the Debuts series.
Farewell Amor begins with a reunion.
The earnest feature debut of writer-director Ekwa Msangi commences at the JFK airport arrivals terminal with Walter (Ntare Mwine), an Angolan refugee who now makes his living as a NYC cab driver reuniting with this wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and teenage daughter Sylvia (played by newcomer Jayme Lawson) after more than 17 years apart.
Living together in a one-bedroom apartment, the trio give little acknowledgement to assimilating into the dominant culture and instead are each on their own individual quests to seek a semblance of connectivity.
America is foreign and so are the physical bonds to each other.
Msangi provides sincere equity in balancing the narratives of the three leads; each character is given their own respective perspective about their distant relationship(s) as the film utilizes non-chronological editing to highlight its central thesis.Walter is wrestling with the aftermath of a long-term affair and fragmented patriarchal identity, Esther has sought solace in her faith and delusion of familial bliss, while young Sylvia struggles to balance her love of dance with her parents' contradictory modes of parenting.  
Farewell Amor’s narrative genesis is inspired in part by Msangi’s own uncle and aunt who’ve been separated since the mid-nineties. Her curiosity as to what would happen if there was a sudden dissolve of red tape posed a conflict ripe for exploration in a feature film. According to her, the couple have yet to see the film and remain divided by the Atlantic.
The film gives little acknowledgement of the political and social makings of the civil unrest that resulted in Walter’s migration to America nor the cyclical violent bureaucracy of visa acquisition for Esther and Sylvia. Instead, Msangi discreetly refuses to politicize the ever-contentious immigration discourse in order to focus on the underpinnings of personal dilemmas resulting in distanced relationships and unceremonious reunions. Farewell Amor is in essence a multi-dimensional character study about a small family’s reconciliation behind the omnipresent precarity of citizenship.
In Farewell Amor, the personal is the political.
Its strengths lay in the simplicity of allowing the characters to be perfectly imperfect. This is a modestly subversive act, one solely invested in painting a particular portrait of an African family struggling to find the language to speak to each other, from a filmmaker who can inherently empathize with their sacrifices. 
As the resident educational instructor of the African Film Festival and screenwriting teacher at The New School and Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, Brooklyn College, the Tanzanian-born filmmaker, who grew up in Kenya and is currently based in Brooklyn, shares a transnational diasporic connection to the characters in Amor and is finally basking in the bliss of her debut, a critically acclaimed festival darling.
We spoke with the multi-hyphenate filmmaker about sacrifices, sisterhood, and salvation.

NOTEBOOK: Farewell Amor was originally a short film strictly from Walter’s perspective—I’m curious if you always wanted to adapt the short into a feature and if so, when did you decide to incorporate the wife and daughter’s perspective?
EKWA MSANGI: Yeah, I always wanted to. I started out with the idea of making the feature and I had spoken to my producing partner Huriyyah Muhammad who I've worked together on many projects before about this feature idea. We were both excited about it. And at that point, I mean, I hadn't made a feature before, so we had gotten a cash grant off of a different short film that we had done together which required us to make another short film that had a bit of a deadline to it.
And I decided, okay, let's use this to try and help us with the feature. Let’s make the smallest film that we could afford to make as beautifully as we can make it and use that possibly as a calling card, or proof of concept for the feature.And so, we made Farewell Meu Amor (2016), which is the moment before Walter goes to the airport to pick up his family. He's saying goodbye to his lover since things have changed and the time has finally come. And that did really, really well so I got started working on the feature and Walter's story was freshest in my mind because I had just completed the short, but I didn't want it just from his perspective.
I thought that was a little clichéd to do a story about a guy who has an affair. So, I thought maybe I'll do it from the daughter's perspective. But, you know, as a Black teen with a dance element to it, I know that was just going to get us thrown into the pile of Black dance films and I didn't want that for her cause it was so much more than that.
Then I decided to do both father and daughter and just see what would happen. A few months in, it was kind of clear that the mum's story was the linchpin to both Walter and Sylvia's story, and it didn't make sense not to have her story in it. And so, I added her story and that's how I got the triptych.
NOTEBOOK: Do you consider any of those perspectives the heart of the film or do you let viewers draw their own conclusions?
MSANGI: I can just tell you sort of the journey of creating it and where my mind was and what captured me. I practiced a lot of dance and at the time that I was thinking of working on this story, I was dancing a lot to the music [similar to what’s in the film] and Walter and this relationship as a dancer and with this woman was definitely a big part of my inspiration for writing the script initially.
It just completely took another form and it's actually a lot more interesting for me to hear from audiences how they really feel, it's been really fun to have the difference. They’ve made different teams, there's team Walter, team Sylvia team, then there’s team Esther and team Linda.
People are really invested in different aspects of the story and it's different for different people. I find there's some who really gravitate in one way versus the other, and it's like, I just let them duke it out!
I did think of them all as leads and I was trying very, very hard to make their stories as balanced as possible so that I show all my children equal love [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: The reason for the family’s separation is due to the Angolan Civil War, yet there were very few details on the war itself nor the politics of immigration. It’s incredibly subtle but very much a political and creative choice that you’ve made, how did you arrive at that decision?
MSANGI: Yeah, for sure and for a number of reasons. In terms of discussing the war and in terms of the storyline, it ended possibly before Sylvia was born. So it's been at least 20 years since the Civil War ended and [the film] is about the aftermath of the war anyways. As far as immigration policies and what would have led them to come here and have the issues that they had, I just feel like there's so many different things.
It's not determined on just one bill. When Walter came in, it was one particular administration then a few years later, another president came to change more laws. And so on and so forth, that becomes a whole other conversation.
And again, I also didn't want to get hung up on that because I'm not campaigning for the audience to like dismantle a particular law that's on the books right now.
There's a lot of different laws that affect immigrants in a lot of different ways based on where they're from and what time they're here and how long they're here and whether they're citizens or green card holders. I feel like that also takes away from focusing on the humanity of the people, as opposed to the politicians and what's behind these evil corporations that did XYZ.
But what is the effect on the people in question, what about the actual lives that are being affected and not necessarily because they're being hit over the head with these horrible things happening in the moment, but the long-term slow effect of being separated and families being separated for a really long time. What does that do to people?
One could argue that they're fine and living life but are they really, you know?
NOTEBOOK: There’s this pervasive narrative that arriving in the U.S symbolizes the end to the worst of their lived realities. 
MSANGI: Right. They're not dodging bullets right now or stepping on landmines, they’re living comfortable. How bad could it be?
I've said this before, I don't think in terms of this rhetoric around immigrants coming here to just ruin American lives for no reason. I don't think there is any immigrant from anywhere in the world, not just Africans, who would prefer to leave behind their people, their languages, food, communities, all to live in a foreign land where they're not welcome. Nobody wants to go through struggle. It's so cold. I just really wanted to focus on the characters and their stories.
NOTEBOOK: Let’s talk about movement! Both father and daughter share a deep love of dancing—which I also feel is like a metaphor for the tumultuous movement of their lives. Can you speak more about that?
MSANGI: As I mentioned before, I have a dance background. It's a great love of mine and Angolan dance styles and music that I fell in love with some years ago.
And I wanted to incorporate it in the film for a number of reasons. One being, people don't often think about the beautiful dances from Central Africa and wanting to showcase this is really elegant central dance choreography.
Secondly, the specific dances in question. Walter practices kizomba and semba, the former is a partner's dance unlike a lot of others like bachata or salsa, which have a more regular foot pattern.
Kizomba is based on whoever's leading the dance reacting to how they feel about the music and the partner in the dance has to be connected to the leader in order to know which way to go on the dance floor. If they're not connected, there is no dance and I just thought that was a really interesting metaphor for a relationship where you have this couple who used to be dance partners who used to be so connected and now they're not, and therefore they can't dance, they can't move. That's what their struggle is. Will they be able to find the steps again or the connection in order to lead or follow in this relationship?
For Sylvia, the style of dance that she practices is called kuduro, which is a younger, more gritty and high energy dance style also from Angola, which on the surface could look like any other hip dance style.
Young people actually use kuduro as a platform to speak about the things that they're concerned about, they discuss a lot of really deep issues like domestic violence, social inequalities, money, corruption. Many young people don’t have a space to talk about the things that bother them and so I thought for Sylvia as this young African girl who wouldn't have the permission to throw a tantrum or curse her parents out, perhaps it wouldn’t even occur to her to do that. [Kuduro] could express herself through dance and music and to soothe herself probably. It’s almost like wanting to give my characters a third language that helps us understand, sort of like what was happening just underneath the surface for them.
NOTEBOOK: I can’t help but think that the central theme of this film is sacrifices. The sacrifices made by Walter, Esther, and Sylvia as individuals and as a family unit but I’m curious what sacrifices you’ve had to make as a filmmaker (and as you directed Farewell Amor in particular)?
MSANGI:  Wow, that's a great question. I suppose it depends on who you ask. Some people might not think I've made any sacrifices [laughs].
It's not as though as a woman filmmaker, as a Black woman, as an African woman telling stories about African people, I haven't had a red carpet rolled out for me.
There haven't been a lot of people who've been very excited to support that kind of work or those kinds of stories. I graduated from film school decades ago. It's been a very long time and I've been working really diligently and really hard supporting myself as an independent artist in New York, which is a sacrifice in and of itself.
Even as I've seen classmates of mine, white male classmates of mine, zoom past and be on the fourth and fifth feature and all sorts of different projects and get the support and the backing that all artists need, I’ve had to wait a very long time and struggle a very long time, not only for my career to get to this point in general, but even for this film, to be able to develop my voice to a place where I'm able to convince investors to invest in my work and to be at a place where I'm telling a story and not explaining blackness to a room of non-Black people. Because there's always that danger too, where people are like, I don't understand, therefore it doesn't make sense and therefore it's never going to work. I spent a lot of time working on that aspect of “Maybe I shouldn’t be talking to you! I need to talk to people who do understand” and use that as a platform and a place to develop my voice and build my confidence and everything else and you’ll just catch up. It’s been a lot of work and struggle and prayer and it's been a lot of not taking vacations, not having regular income and those kinds of things. But I'm excited and really proud to have gotten to where I've gotten to and hopeful for the next steps going forward.
NOTEBOOK: There seems to be more Black women filmmakers gaining recognition for their work now than ever before both on the continent and across the diaspora. I’m curious how you see it and if there’s any sort of sisterhood you can tap into?
MSANGI: Absolutely, I'm so pleased and lucky! Even at Sundance [2020] there were how many Black women we had in competition? Channing Godfrey Peoples, Radha Blank—there were at least four or five of us, I think and last year Chinonye Chukwu won the Grand Jury Prize!
We call each other, we speak to each other, we connect with each other because it's important. Julie Dash came to my Sundance screening, which was magical. Someone whose work I love and revere so much. For me, I feel like I've struggled but for Dash or Kasi Lemmons or Gina Prince-Bythewood, any of these pioneering black women who started decades ago have made some amazing films and how long did it take for them to even get their second? So many of these women should have multiple films by now but there’s a bias that is faced by women and Black women in particular.
I don't have everybody's phone number yet, but of the ones that I do, they've been very generous and very loving and supporting. There definitely is a sisterhood that's out there because we understand what the struggle is and also trying to make space for the next generation to come too. 


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