Femi Agbayewa: Making Universal Films from an African Perspective

Headshot of Femi Agbayewa taken for Enodi series, in Midtown New York.

By Ayesha K Faines

The gates of Hollywood rarely budge for outsiders, but they are notoriously impenetrable for film makers of color. Of course, it’s always been this way, hence the reason most prolific Black filmmakers have possessed an uncanny combination of creativity and pluck.  From Oscar Micheaux to Spike Lee, 20th century film greats created a template  for Do-It-Yourself filmmaking before DIY was even “thing”.

Today, the path of marginalized filmmakers is a bit broader, thanks largely to social media which gives creatives alternative methods of circumnavigating Hollywood’s gatekeepers, and bootstrapping their own projects. Indie filmmaking is far from easy–Hollywood remains shockingly homogenous in spite of America’s shifting demographics. But as more “indie” films reach mainstream success, take Dear White People and Selma as recent examples, it is  evident that there is an ever-growing space for trailblazing storytellers of African descent.

Femi Agbayewa, founder and creative director of Real Livin’ Films is one of those trailblazers. The Nigerian-born, Canadian raised writer and filmmaker first received acclaim for God’s Own Country, short film that highlights the challenges facing African immigrants attempting to start a new life in North America. He followed up with Brooklyn Shakara,  a romantic comedy he wrote, directed, and screened at festivals around the world.

Femi recently spoke with ZNews Africa contributor Ayesha Faines about his entree into the world of film, what it takes to survive as a independent filmmaker, and his latest project, On The Rise Africa, a series profiling African entrepreneurs.

ZNews (Ayesha): How did you get your start in the film industry?

Femi: I was working in an immigration center that helped immigrants who recently left their country  to come to Canada and a lot of times I’d find that a lot of these immigrants were very educated in their country but then they’d come here and be forced to drive a cab. So for me, I was like wow, this is a story that I keep hearing and hearing.  I started writing a script. I went on the internet, learned, and asked my friends who are in the industry. I had a rough apprenticeship.

I wrote a script called God’s Own Country and that was the story of a young African immigrant. He was a lawyer back in Nigeria. He came over and when he arrived, he just couldn’t find work. He started falling in between the cracks. So we made that film and that was really what sparked things for me.

Ayesha: Your film Brooklyn Shakara also received ample acclaim. How did that come about?

Femi: After God’s Own Country was finished and the hoopla died down, I had to figure out what was next. I realized that I needed to have a team that was within the film world, and skilled. I started making sure that I was making the right connections.

That culminated in the film Brooklyn Shakara, which is probably one of the works I’m best known for. It is a romantic comedy. We had some amazing actors. The team on the production side was amazing. We went to festivals in London, we showed in Harlem and pretty much all over the world.

Gbenga Akinnagbe (HBO's The Wire, 24) and Esosa E. (An African City, Mother of George)
Esosa E. (An African City, Mother of George) and Gbenga Akinnagbe (HBO’s The Wire, 24) in a scene from “Brooklyn Shakara”

Ayesha: One of my primary interests as a journalist is the concept of “cutting out the middle man”. I think that’s what distinguishes our generation from those in the past. We are constantly finding ways to bypass gate keepers. What inspired you to chronicle entrepreneurship for your latest project, On The Rise Africa?

Femi: It took me a while to really recognize that I was an entrepreneur. I used to go to a lot of events  in New York City that were surrounding African business and what not, so I had the opportunity to really engage. One of the things I was walking away saying every time I’d come from these meetings and conferences is, “Wow, a lot of these guys and gals are doing some amazing things”. And that to me was inspirational, but the film maker inside of me is always looking for a story and I saw that common thread running through it. It was a thread of excitement, innovation, and progress.

From entrepreneurs, one thing I kept hearing is we don’t have a platform. In addition to that , as a community, we don’t always have opportunities to inform each other.

Once again, I wanted to cut out the middleman and become that platform and say hey look, here’s an opportunity for you to stand out among your peers. These individuals are at the tipping point. Within two to three years  you’re going to be reading and hearing a bout them on the mainstream level but I wanted to get to them before they reached that level . I felt it would have a trickle down effect. You’re that young kid that’s growing up in New York or Nairobi and you’re watching someone who looks just like you talk about all these great achievements and hurdles they’ve over come.

Femi Agbayewa on the set of Brooklyn Shakara
Femi Agbayewa on the set of Brooklyn Shakara

Ayesha: For most of us with an entrepreneurial vision, money seems like the greatest hurdle! How do you find money to finance your film projects and “keep the lights on” while you chase your dreams?

Femi: Access to funding or sponsorship is constantly changing. What may have worked in the past may not work today so you have to keep yourself aware. Apart of that is establishing relationships and contacts. When it’s all said and done, yes, [social media] is great, but this is still a people business.

The other side, keeping the lights on– I don’t think you’re ever comfortable. It’s one of those things where you work three of four jobs, what ever it takes to keep those lights on because you have the understanding that, no, we can’t live off a dream only. You’re living in a real world.

Ayesha: There seems to be a renaissance of Black independent filmmakers right now, aided perhaps by the advent of social media, and non-traditional methods of building a platform for your content. What are your feelings about this?

Femi: As filmmakers, we don’t have to wait to be chosen from the crowd like “You, you and you—You’re allowed in”.   We don’t even recognize there’s a door to walk through. We’re just walking. And that’s what excites me about some of the work I’m seeing.

And when you look at it, it’s global now. There’s a global market. A lot of times people just focus on one market, Hollywood, but then there’s Nollywood which is massive and  Bollywood, and all of these different film industries that are saying hey, we can survive without telling stories that are tied to [corporate interests] or anything else. We can tell stories we can tell that reflect our audience.

Myself, I want to take it one step further. I make universal films from an African perspective. I want to arrive at the  point where you don’t have to be African to watch my movies. I’m taking an African perspective of universal themes. So at the end of the day, you just have to be a human being enjoy the content I’m producing.

To learn more about Femi Agbayewa, visit FemiAgbayewa.com and follow him on Twitter @femiagbayewa.


Ayesha K Faines is a television journalist and writer who contemplates culture and millennial entrepreneurship. Follow her work at xoayesha.com and selfmademillennial.com.