Ayo Akingbade is a British Nigerian artist and filmmaker based in London. Her film “Tower XYZ” (2016) received a Special Mention Award at International Short Film Festival Oberhausen and won the inaugural Sonja Savić Award at the Alternative Film/Video Festival in Belgrade, Serbia. Akingbade has since produced two new films. “Street 66” (2018), which premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and “A is for Artist” (2018), that premiered in the Experimenta strand at the BFI London Film Festival. She is a recipient of the Sundance Ignite Fellowship and is included in Bloomberg New Contemporaries. She is a graduate of London College of Communication and is currently studying at Royal Academy Schools.
Tara Karajica caught up with Ayo Akingbade at this year’s Winterthur International Short Film Festival where she presented “Street 66” in the “Female Gaze” program within the framework of the festival’s special focus on Britain.
Can you talk about your short film Street 66 and how it came about?
Ayo Akingbade: I made Tower XYZ which is my first commissioned short and when it was first released, people in London weren’t paying attention to it. When I went to Oberhausen and won an award, people from all over the globe started to pay attention. I wanted to make something that explored the same issues, but was less experimental. The funny thing is, Street 66 came about because I was trying to shoot a film at Brockwell Park in Brixton and it failed really badly and I thought: “I can’t do narrative films at the moment, I don’t have the budget, the crew…” On my way home, I saw in the Evening Standard newspaper that a journalist went and lived in Angell Town for a certain period of time and he spoke in detail on how bad and run down the estate was, but that this woman did so much to change it, but her legacy is largely buried. So I googled her – Dora Boatemah – and there was nothing on her life, and I said: “This will be my next project.” When Tower XYZ was finished, everyone was like: “What are you doing next?” And I said: “I want to do this next!”. I was pursuing my undergraduate degree at the time and I pitched the idea initially as a proposal, but I got a bad grade, so that encouraged me to make it. Street 66, in terms of films I’ve directed so far, is a good follow on from Tower XYZ.
Street 66 showcases underrepresented voices and perspectives in urban spaces. Does that define your filmmaking style?
A.A.: That’s funny! I feel like that is fast becoming my aesthetic. I wish I could make a comedy. There is an urgency for me to document because change is happening at such a rapid pace in these urban landmarks. I have to make these films because I think they are very important. I believe this awareness is making me shoot these types of film.
Apart from that, Street 66 is also a touching tribute to the legacy of Dora Boatemah and not only is it informative, but it is also inspiring… Can you expand on that?
A.A.: Thank you. Dora is indeed largely forgotten and that is very sad. The underdogs are what I am always interested in – people who are underrepresented – because I think you can find a diamond in those stories. Because she was so courageous and got support from the government and the community alike – her stance did not make her an angel. Some people in power and apparently some in the local area did their best to suppress her. I think if people are largely aware of what she did, I don’t know if there would be an uprising but we would definitely have more people like her. But unfortunately, there is no one like Dora. I am happy that I was able to make this film.
In that sense, what role does History play in your work?
A.A.: A very important one. History helps your own understanding on why things are the way they are. I studied History for my GCSE and Cambridge Pre-U so I knew of its importance many years ago. I like knowing what happened before me, it helps my brain and my own likening on life. Archive video features a lot in my present work which structurally is elitist, and it is quite expensive to find and license.
How and why did you start working in film?
A.A.: I was into fashion as a child, I wanted to be a designer. I started interning at age thirteen and observed how crap and exploitative the business is. I was like: “If I go really hard in fashion, I’d be depressed or a drug addict by the time I’m twenty-six”. So, I decided against it. When I was younger, my Dad always gave me DVDs and stuff to watch and I was always fascinated by the screen. Growing up, I remember Donna Summer’s 1980s concert films on loop in the living room, courtesy of my Mom. Watching Inglorious Basterds in secondary school and thinking: “Wow! If I could do this!” was my Eureka moment.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
A.A.: There are so many! I really like Claire Denis, Maya Deren, Euzhan Palcy, Debbie Tucker Green, Safi Faye, Mati Diop, Chantal Akerman. The reason why I like them is because they’re low-key in the sense that they just focused on the art; you don’t know much about their personal lives. I want to make sure my art speaks true to everything; in my practice it is the front and center. I like real strong powerful females, so that is what I hopefully mimic. And films…that is tricky because I’m trying to figure out my favorite films. There is Mossane by Safi Faye; also News from Home by Chantal Akerman. When I first watched it, I was like: “Wow! I want to make something like this!” – That is usually my reaction to great work. All her films are amazing. What a powerhouse!
Women in film is a hot topic today. What are your thoughts on the situation? Are you a feminist?
A.A.: Yes, I am. Like any profession, it can get competitive; everyone wants to be at the top. The number one filmmaker, the one that gets all the commissions, the one that’s uh-so cool, the one that is featured in fashion magazines and blogs. I try to forget all that. But I think that in this day and age, everything has become all about hype and being viral, so if you don’t fit into that thing; where do you sit? A friend once said: “Ayo, you’re not going to fit in, you’re on your own wave,” which rejigged my thinking. Luckily, I’ve got a very small network of filmmakers – all emerging, not making features yet – and it is very nice. As long as I am a good, balanced individual and the work speaks true, that is the most important thing, really.
What are your next projects?
A.A: My next project is called Dear Babylon. I shot it in the last three days of September. It is basically the final film of the trilogy I am doing focused on social housing. Tower XYZ was the first, Street 66 the second, and this new one is the third and final.
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Winterthur International Short Film Festival.