I've known animator, editor, director – and ultimately, artist – Ng'endo Mukii since our high school days, over a decade ago. I'm so proud and inspired, witnessing her achievements and the path that she is paving for other young, female, animators, filmmakers and artists, who are finding interesting ways to tell important stories.
Ng'endo's animation portfolio spans advertising campaigns, music videos, children's animated stories and experimental work. However, it is her short film, Yellow Fever, that has really prompted the world to stand up and take notice of her unique expression. Along with screenings around the world and several nominations, Yellow Fever has won awards at the Kenya International Film Festival, Africa Magic Viewer's Choice Awards and the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. In the remaining months of 2013 alone, there are screenings lined up in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the US and France.
In this interview Ng'endo talks about how she settled on her current medium of choice; social responsibility as an artist; the importance of having a caring network to provide you with productive critique and; surrendering to (and preparing for) the path that fate has set out for you.
What's your passion?
I love telling stories! It’s been a habit that has gotten me into and out of trouble growing up! At least I’ve found a way to put it to good use. The way we relate as people is fascinating, and I enjoy finding different ways to explore and describe these relationships. I write stories a lot, and often try to bring these into a visual format. Filmmaking seems to be a pretty apt medium through which to translate this interest.
What inspired you to go into your unique type of expression using different media? What drives your creations, the medium or the stories you want to tell?
It’s taken quite a bit of experimentation to come to this point, and I think my particular way of expression can always be improved upon and developed. I come from a painting and drawing background, and when I first went to art school I always thought I would become an illustrator or painter. However I came across film and animation and suddenly I was counting frames and changing f-stops and it was brilliant. I think my work reflects this path of progression in a sense. I use film, video, and animation, I paint and draw in (and on) my work, and within my film pieces I tend to instinctively employ the medium I feel works best for the content being explored.
Do you feel a responsibility to use your craft to tackle particular issues? What themes appear in your work, and why?
Mostly, I feel passionate about something, and that ‘something’ becomes the focus of my film. If it happens to be a social issue that I am concerned about, then yes, my work will reflect that. I do sometimes feel that there is an expectation that, as an African director, I must focus on certain social issues deemed as ‘African’, and that other content beyond this scope is seen as not ‘African enough’. I can understand why this pressure would exist, but I feel it limits our creativity and even our own understanding of ourselves as citizens in this urbanizing and multifaceted context we call Africa.
Chimamanda Adichie spoke about the dangers of the singular story, and how our voices as Africans were not being heard. I feel we now have more and more opportunities to tell our own stories, the only issue is the factors determining how our voices should sound, and what stories they should tell. This in itself can still breed a flat understanding of the African and the African experience. Binyavanga Wainaina unapologetically confronts this idea head-on, and shows how certain ideals of Africanism undercut the very thing they are trying to celebrate [How to Write About Africa].
On this note, my film Yellow Fever explores the effect of media-created ideals on African women and their perception of beauty. Our media is saturated (as is everyone’s) with beauty ideals that are hard to attain, often unhealthy and more often than not, harp towards a classic European/Western concept of beauty; fair skin and long flowing soft silky hair.
As you know, most Africans do not fit into this ideal. While growing up, I would come across women who practiced skin bleaching (‘lightening’, ‘brightening’), and often had a condescending internal reaction to them. Now, I realise they are only products of our society. Since our media perpetuates this singular ideal to our girls and women, and we consume this information continuously from a young age, how can we fault anyone who is susceptible to these ideals (men included), without challenging the people that are creating it? I strongly believe that it’s important, to have a wholesome alternative to these ideals.
What has been your greatest achievement?
Well…. I am hoping that the things I would write here will soon be superseded…. so maybe ask me again in a couple years. I am pretty happy that Yellow Fever, my graduation project, has been received so well. At the same time, I have learnt a lot of lessons this year, so I would hope for better.
What has been your greatest obstacle/challenge?
Greatest challenge is always yourself; self-doubt, fear of failure, not reaching high enough, not thinking long-term enough. If you do not decide what you want in life, other people will make that decision for you, and only you can control that.
How have you dealt with/overcome it?
I feel quite lucky to have the support of my family – they often see potential in me when I am coming to my wits end. My friends have been great, and enjoy giving me a good shakedown when I stall or come to a wall with projects. It’s always good to have people you trust who see things from a different perspective and are honest with you. Productive critique is one of your strongest tools, and if you can get that from people who care about you, you should count yourself lucky. You’ll always have disappointments in life, and they can be challenging to overcome. Eventually, you’ll get over it.
Where will you be in 10 years?
Who knows? Last year I was bemoaning not having been selected for a job in London which would have brought me a good salary and some great opportunities. This year, I have travelled to 6 countries promoting my student film, meeting filmmakers whose work I have loved for years, and attending incredible workshops. Perhaps (definitely) I would be decrying all these lost opportunities if I was currently sitting in an office. You make a plan, and sometimes life does not follow it. Fate has other plans for you. My intention is to make myself as prepared as possible to handle what I receive in life. Whether plans specifically come to fruition or if I follow a different path, I need to know that I tried, and that I did my best. That being said, I want to have directed a number of short films and a couple of features by then, so, fingers crossed and moving forwards.
How does Africa inspire you?
I think the best part about living abroad for a while, is that when you come back home, you experience everything anew. All your senses are reborn. Everything is so saturated, and gritty, and calm and smooth and painful and beautiful. Every step has its own beat, and people, traffic, birds, animals sway around and into each other in their own individual rhythms. Children screech with laughter and play dibs in the street, the neighbour’s dog promises to tear you to shreds ‘if you come a single step closer to my gate!!’ and sweat prickles your armpits. Maize kernels pop over a charcoal roadside barbeque, while deep tangy masala tea pours into yawning ivory-white china. ‘R’s roll where ‘L’s should stand, laughter, clicks, thuds and the ruffle of a mitumba shirt licks the neck of the makanga hanging out the City Hoppa, with his chest pointing west towards Ngong Hills. I don’t know… how can it not inspire you?
Anything we should look out for in the coming weeks/months/year?
Seeing as I am an animator, let’s use the longest duration provided here. There are a couple of ideas I am working with right now; the first film is a documentary animation in a similar vein to the Yellow Fever mix of media and the second is a dialogue-driven piece, exploring using animation in a very abstract and symbolic way.
Find out more about Ng'endo and her work on her website. Check out her Facebook and Vimeo pages too.
Images courtesy of Ng'endo Mukii.
You may also enjoy:
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- Screening Perception: Limiting Expectations for African Cinema
- The 2012 Film Africa Festival: Let's Talk About Sex!
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