The joy of running a blind read competition like we do at the Short Story Day Africa Prize is the mystery. We come to the story first and learn about other interesting facets of the writer's life only at the end. Umar Turaki is also an accomplished film maker and here he elaborates on the interplay between his visual pieces and his writing as well as his influences and plans for the future.
Migrations is available now in all good bookstores in South Africa. They will be happy to order it for you if they don't have it on the shelves. It is also currently available as an eBook. It will be published in the US and UK in September.
Right. We need to talk about your love of filmmaking. Apart from a multitude of short films, in 2013 you gave us Tolerance – the story of a young newlywed couple who slowly begin to peel each other’s layers away – finding out for the first time who they’ve really married, and last year you delivered Salt, which screened at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, the Zanzibar International Film Festival, the Durban International Film Festival and the African International Film Festival. Tell us about these short films.
UMAR: These short films have been largely exercises in honing my skill as a cinematic storyteller. With Tolerance, I wanted to work in a way I hadn’t before, which was to write a script that was specially tailored for two actors I had in mind, to workshop the script with them and allow that process to flow back into the script itself. I wanted to aim for a naturalism I was seeing in some of Scorsese’s work, and PTA’s work (ed. - P. T. Anderson), and even Fellini.
I also worked with natural light throughout and operated the camera personally. So I really exerted myself creatively on so many levels, and it was ultimately a rewarding experience. I embraced the technical limitations and even allowed them to become a part of the aesthetic. That window’s blown out? Well, too bad. The wall’s too bare? Well, sorry, but forget about it, focus on the story and the performances. I was putting those two things front and centre and saying to hell with everything else.
With Salt, which looks at the night of the Ebola salt baths in Nigeria, I wanted better production values, so we got lights and paid more attention to production design and just tried to use better equipment all around. But Salt was also a kind of sudden, urgent undertaking in the sense that I was responding to a current issue at the time and wanted to capture and preserve that moment in our history as distilled through my own personal experience, not to mention trying to exorcise my own demons. If the Ebola crisis hadn’t touched Nigeria in the way it did, I would have made a different film, something other than Salt. Both films share the virtue of having all the action unfold in one location, and it was a creative challenge I set myself, as well as a practical decision to make it easier to shoot.
I read somewhere that you missed all the film festival screenings of Salt and the plane to LA for the Pan African Film Festival. What happened there, and how did you handle the disappointment?
UMAR: Up until the Ake Festival in 2016, where Salt screened, I couldn’t attend any of the festival screenings in any of the different countries, chiefly for financial reasons, but my producer and I did try to make it to LA. She got denied a visa for reasons best known to the US embassy while there was an error with my visa appointment application document that wasn’t pointed out to me by the embassy until the morning of my interview, by which time I literally had less than 72 hours to get my visa and get on the plane. I had reached the door, ready for my appointment, and they told me I needed to reschedule because of said error, and the next available date was about a week away. I tried requesting an expedited appointed and was denied. Thank God the ticket hadn’t yet been bought.
In your own opinion, has your film-making career or your writing career been more fulfilling, or promising, and why do you think that is? What would you like to focus on more in the future?
UMAR: I think I’ve probably expended more energy in getting my film-making career off the ground, and that has taken its toll on things, one of them being that my writing aspirations have had to take a backseat. Beyond that it’s hard to say. If I were to think of specific moments of deep fulfillment as far as my work goes, it’s mostly related to my film work, and that’s probably because I’ve been doing it for longer and more intensely and against so many odds. As crazy as it sounds, I would like to keep both going concurrently. This year I want to take steps towards a feature film, while also continuing to work on my book and other stories. However, writing has always been what got me started on this path and it’s not inconceivable that a time may come when I “retire” from writing and directing films to focus on just writing books. But that’s still a long way off.
Tell us a little bit more about your current or upcoming film projects and what inspired them.
UMAR: I just completed a pilot episode for a limited series titled Deviant. I’m currently using that as a proof of concept to raise funding to shoot the remaining five episodes. Deviant is about a teenage orphan who’s also good at stealing things and she is approached by a mysterious stranger who promises her information about her real parents if she will carry out some tasks for him. I wanted to tell a compelling story that was episodic and had elements of suspense and mystery.
I’d also like to start putting groundwork in place for my first feature film, a drama that’s based on my short Tolerance. It’ll have portions that feature exquisite handmade animation, and maybe 2D elements. It feels weird talking about it, but I definitely want to do it.
You’ve mentioned that Paul Thomas Anderson is a great inspiration to you, particularly his film Magnolia. I love that guy. One quote and one quote alone springs to mind when I think of Magnolia… and I really, really wish it wouldn’t, haha. Tom Cruise, playing a self-help guru, stands up on stage at a sex seminar and recites his mantra:
“Respect the cock, and tame the cunt.”
Damn that Paul Thomas Anderson for getting away with shit like that. Genius. I forget my question now. Oh! Quick, off the top of your head, give us your favourite quote from a PTA film.
UMAR: Yes, PTA. He got away with a lot in that film, and that’s part of the wonder of it. That’s a tough question, but I’ll go with Punch Drunk Love when Adam Sandler says, “I’ve got a love in my life that makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” That’s such a great line.
My last question isn’t a question at all. We here at SSDA want you to adapt "Naming" into a short film, and we all want to star in it. I’ll be the rooster, I really don’t care. Congratulations once again, Umar, strike while the iron is hot and keep churning out the genius.
UMAR: Ha ha, that would be something. Thanks a lot.
Make sure not to miss the first part of Umar's interview which can be read here.