Funa Maduka worked at Participant Media, developing and managing campaigns for film and television projects. She has held leadership and strategic positions at McKinsey & Company, Obama for America, the Clinton Global Initiative, on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, and at the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, where she served four years as the inaugural Dean of Students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy. Funa Maduka holds a BA in History from Cornell University and a Masters in Business Administration from the Harvard Business School, where she served on the Board of Trustees and as President of the Student Body, respectively. She is an awarded filmmaker, credited with producing and directing the first Nigerian film to world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. She remains active in girls’ education advocacy and water-access initiatives.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival, where she was a member of the Feature Competition Jury.
How did you get into film from your previous studies that have nothing to do with it?
Funa Maduka: That’s a good question! I’ve always loved film, but it was a film that I saw when I was working in non-profit in the Caribbean. There was one video store on the small island of Nevis where I was stationed and I just walked in and picked up something. It was Deepa Mehta’s Water and, for me, it was so incredibly powerful. I watched it really late that night on my laptop and found myself weeping by the end. Film is an incredibly powerful medium and there is so much that you can express – whether in twenty minutes or three hours. It was her film that really pushed me into understanding the impact a film can have. After I watched it, I was googling her and trying to figure out who she was. Her film changed my path in a sense. I did other things before I officially settled into film – and that’s another story – but her film blew open this door I didn’t know existed, the possibility of a career, and something I always wanted to explore further.
How have your studies actually helped you in your film work?
F.M.: I studied History with a focus on foreign policy. I studied how different cultures interact with one another and History, of course, as we know is based on stories. Studying the stories of the world provided me with a very strong foundation and fed a natural curiosity to always dig a bit deeper than the surface. As for my business degree, it gave me a different way of looking at the world. At Harvard, they use the case study method, which is pretty much a business problem framed within a story. By the time you’ve graduated, you’ve read hundreds of stories where the CEO is facing bankruptcy or there’s been a terrible event at a factory. It was interesting because in each of those scenarios, the professor would say: “OK, you’re the CEO. What would you do to solve this?” So in a sense, I’d have to finish the story and then defend why my solution was the right one. It helped me to activate another part of my brain. Having both degrees helped me become a better rounded person and see the world in a diverse way, which I think is very important for film. Within our industry, there is the art side and there is the business side and I’m privileged with being able to grasp both.
At Netflix, what was the original content you helped develop? What project are most proud of?
F.M.: My proudest film is a film by Eléonore Pourriat, Je ne suis pas un home facile (I Am Not an Easy Man). I was on YouTube one night and came across her short, which in a couple lines, is the story of a young, chauvinist man who, one day, bumps his head and wakes up in this alternate universe where the world is completely run by women. Eléonore is very good at zeroing on details and so it was the sum of all these brilliant parts that made it a very compelling short. No surprise, it had millions of views. I found her, emailed her and asked her: “Have you done anything? Are you going to do a feature? Because this needs to be a feature!” and she said: “You know, I’ve gone to all the studios and companies in France and everyone has said ‘no’” and on the other side of the line, I said: “Well, I’m your yes! We’re making your first feature.” That was the beginning of a really amazing ride with Eléonore and her team, Eléonore and Édouard. We launched it last year and it did really great on the service and we were happy with its performance. Without planning, it hit at the time of #MeToo, and ended up being a welcome addition to a growing global conversation – from #BalanceTonPorc in France to movements in Korea and Brazil. That’s because it did it in a such a clever way, it was not hitting you over the head with “This has to be this way…” I posted it on my personal social media and I got letters from mostly my male friends saying “Thank you! This was the first time I’ve watched a film and realized – Oh!” This all goes back to the power of cinema. A lot of times when we think about how to change minds, education is definitely one way, but there is a more subversive way. For better or worse, entertainment – specifically visual media – is at the center of how people spend their leisure time. With film, you can express a message and make it so funny or scary or dramatic that audiences don’t really realize anything until the credits start rolling. It may even take a few days or weeks. But I believe it stays with them; it stays within their psyche, their being, in the way they move about life…
What makes a good project, according to you? What did Netflix specifically look for? What do you, on the other hand, look for?
F.M.: Well, the challenge in my work in particular was that when you’re dealing with international films, you’re dealing with a film that is spoken in a language germain to a country or that section of the country. There is this sort of apprehension that when people see subtitles, they are just going to shut it off and run for the hills. So when I watched films or read scripts, I always tried to find the projects that could transcend, and by “transcend” I mean that they often hold some sort of universal affectation. It was about finding that story that really connected to the human experience. We all love; we all get angry; we all get sad… And I asked myself if that filmmaker has, through the script – or if I was watching the completed work, through their film – tapped into something that I believe that audiences are going to recognize within their own world view. The fact of the matter is that I found a lot of those; I found a lot of those films that really were strong in tapping into that core of humanity, whether it was a schlocky horror film or an action film. I have this personal metric, I call the “emotional threshold.” There’s no real mathematical number, but I would ask if it surpasses the emotional threshold. That means that if it goes past the emotional threshold, the audience is going to stay; the audience is actually going to forget that they’re watching a movie in another language. They’re going to forget that they’re reading words at the bottom of the screen. They’re so wrapped up in it that it just works!
You also played a big part in Netflix’s expansion to Africa in terms of series. Can you talk about that?
F.M.: Yes, it was really fantastic to play a role in helping create a space for Africa at Netflix. It’s one of my proudest achievements. For some time, there was this general misconception in Hollywood, wondering “Do these films work? Is there value here?” and what we found is that there was an audience. So when Netflix went fully global in 2016, there was even more reason for Netflix, especially since it was now available in Africa, to ensure that its African subscribers had content from the continent to watch. Africa has such incredibly rich stories and comes from a strong storytelling tradition. As a Nigerian myself, I grew up listening to the stories at the knee of my grandmother. We launched Nollywood, we put films from East Africa, West Africa, South Africa…We’ve supported really great filmmakers who are now making films and series. The work will continue.
There has been so much talk about women in film for the past almost two years? Where do you see yourself in this discussion? What do you make of it?
F.M.: While I was at Netflix, I wanted to ensure that filmmakers had opportunity, particularly women filmmakers. And it’s not so much that I am putting in my head a quota or anything like that, but I am aware of it. I think that’s very important. Being aware of which projects are being green-lit and being pushed to the front. I think that it’s important for all executives, particularly in the streaming, to be proactive in their work. I know it’s intensive, but to really make the effort. I don’t think it’s about a lack of women filmmakers. I think it’s about a lack of access. What I found is that when you have a system where women and people of color have been shut out for a really long time, there’s a huge gap in their network, that relationship. They may not have their father’s golfing buddy to get them in the door. As a result, I have to make the extra effort to be in those spaces so that they can hear me and they can talk with me about their ideas. I think that was the biggest thing that I would do – as tired as I was, I tried to say yes to as many invitations as possible. It was important to be an enabler in those situations and make the extra effort. What has been really fantastic about this new wave – and I hope it’s not a wave – is that you’re just seeing more diversity in the rooms and people just being aware, even men being aware. The step beyond awareness though, is action.
Can you talk about your filmmaking and your short film Waiting for Hassana that was the first Nigerian film to have premiered at Sundance?
F.M.: Yes, that was quite the experience! It’s another angle on your question about being a woman in film. I came onto that project as a producer. I was going to help bring the project to the forefront and help it get funding. The film centered on the Chibok girls who were the subject of the #BringBackOurGirls movement in 2014. Well, we were maybe two weeks out of having to fly to Northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s major cells are, and interview the young women, and our biggest investor calls and says: “We’re backing out, we’re not doing this anymore.” Because the Nigerian Government was going to cut off access to the North mid-January, this was the only period we had to film this without going through crazy security checks. It was a very short window, so I’m just thinking: “What am I going to do? What is happening?” and then, my friend said: “You’ve always wanted to direct, why don’t you become the director?” We didn’t have the budget to fly a director over and put a director up, so I stepped into the director’s chair. From that point on, and for a really long time, I always assumed that at some point we would get a “real” director. So even when I was on set, directing the interviews and working with the crew, in the back of my head, I never really accepted I’m the one actually doing this. We went into the edit, and as we got through the first few cuts, I was always like: “Once we get more money, we’re going to get a real director here and the real director is going to come and fix this.” It wasn’t until after we got the call from Sundance that we were accepted, that I fully accepted: “I am the director of this film!” I think sometimes, as women, we always feel that we need to be so prepared. My idea of a director of a film was that they’ve gone to film school and I just projected so much onto that image. I think it is a trait that we have to over-prepare and want to be perfect. I was really happy that I put myself in that space. I’m looking forward to hopefully doing more.
Do you have a female filmmaker that inspires you? And a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
F.M.: I have to name Agnès Varda. She was a huge inspiration and I am so happy that I got to spend time with her and got to know her before she passed. Alice Rohrwacher is another one. I got to know her and I consider her a friend. Her films are so magical and unique and there’s a poetry to them that I really aspire to and I am also inspired by. I also feel that having gotten to know her, she is protective of her work and she’s a purist when it comes to her work. My hope is that the industry will support spirits like that. She creates these really beautiful works of art and I hope that we will continue to have the space for voices like that because it would terrible if we didn’t have that. Ildikó Enyedi has become a mentor and she also maintains such a resolute center, she’s like this reservoir that runs a million miles below the surface. It reflects in her work. And film… Well, it all comes back to Deepa Mehta’s Water. I met her a couple years ago and embarrassed myself. I don’t think I spoke coherently. I need a do-over!
What’s next for you?
F.M.: To be announced very soon!
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Sarajevo Film Festival.