Learning to Forgive: Conversation with “Jungle” Filmmaker Asantewaa Prempeh
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The following is a guest post from Occidental College Media Arts and Culture student Dana Stopler.
Making a living is difficult, but moreso if you’re a Senegalese street vendor on the streets of New York City. In Jungle, which screened at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the relationship between two of these men is a gateway to exploring transformative dynamics like loyalty, betrayal, and forgiveness. Filmmaker Asantewaa Prempeh shares her insights on her sobering exploration of kinship in her film.
Jungle will also screen as part of Shorts Program 4 at the 2016 LA Film Festival on June 8 at ArcLight Cinemas in Culver City.
What sparked your interest in film?
I majored in graphic design at college, where I started taking some classes in animation and I loved it. I wasn’t sure why I did then, but I think I was interested in it at the time because I could create this world — form characters and say something to an audience (that kind of thing). I was torn between animation and live action until Keli, a good friend of mine, got me a gig as a director’s assistant on a film set in Ghana. It was my first time. Very chaotic. The shoot didn’t start until about five or six hours after call time, the costume designer was late, it rained, stuff like that.
Production and filmmaking, for that matter, is all unpredictable and you have to push through it because you want to tell a story, and that’s how I was drawn to filmmaking. The unexpected. That which you embrace on set. Of course I’m not saying don’t plan and show up. Sidney Lumet puts it this way: “All we can do is prepare the groundwork that allows for the ‘lucky accidents’ and that’s exciting!”
What inspired you to begin work on Jungle and how have you molded or refined your initial idea?
My creative process varies depending on the project. For this particular project, it began in a documentary class. I found a subject for the class who I was intrigued by: a Senegalese man on 5th Avenue who sells purses. We bonded easily, mainly because we were both away from home (West Africa). He would tell me about his life in New York and time away from his family back in Senegal. I was intrigued with what I learnt about him and I had more questions each time I saw him. It made me want to share his story. But he turned me down because he didn’t want to appear on camera, something I could understand being a first-generation child.
By now a whole new world had opened before my eyes, something I and probably every New Yorker have overlooked. I had been working on the theme of betrayal and forgiveness for a feature project set in Ghana, and I decided to work that theme into this world.
The opening sequence of the looming skyscrapers, before the title appears, is particularly mesmerizing and markedly different from the grounded shots of the rest of the film. How did you film the sequence and what did you want to accomplish by starting the film in such a way?
Sheldon Chau, my cinematographer, and I shot this about five months after production on New York tour buses, because we were on a budget. It was not meant to be the opening shot. Film, I’m convinced now more than ever, is purely emotional. There was a long dialogue scene in the middle of the film and it went on and on and on and although touching, mainly because of the amazing actors, it wasn’t emotionally satisfying to me. So one day during the holidays, because I shot this film right before I went home, that image just came to mind almost as if it said, “This is what the dialogue feels like.” I can’t explain it. It’s the supernatural element to this natural world. Upon looking at the cut and discussing it with my “brain trust,” I decided to make that the opening sequence, another thing that just felt right. And then after locking picture I began to understand why it felt right: It’s almost like an introduction and calmness to this kingdom. How this lifeless setting can have so much influence on a man’s heart. And then we just jump into the craziness of this jungle.
It taught me something and hopefully people can look at it and it’ll show them something too, something that relates to what they’re going through not necessarily what it means to me.
What was your experience working on set in New York City?
This wasn’t my first time working on location in New York City, but it was definitely a good experience giving that the hand warmers were working and it didn’t rain! But the production was pretty tough. These vendors are usually huddled at one spot in Chinatown. Prior to shooting I had gone to speak to them with the help of a Senegalese friend, since I don’t speak French or Wolof, to ask for their permission or blessing, which I guess is an African thing. They had told me it was OK to shoot there as long as none of them appeared on camera. So I found another place in Chinatown close to them but in a safe zone. Little did I know that it was another group’s turf. Mind you it’s Christmas time.
Midway through Day 1 these guys came threatening us. With the help of my actor we were able to come to an understanding, but the next day it was a different group of people that threatened us. Apparently we were drawing too much attention with our equipment to their turf, and attention means being raided by the police. Being raided by the police meant no food on their table for their family, and these guys don’t care if you have a permit or not, they’d do anything to make sure you did not get in the way of their livelihood. Sheldon almost had his camera damaged and one guy came right up to my face screaming at me to leave by noon or else. This is essentially what the film is about, you know? The extent to which one will go to make it. It’s a little sad. So we had to end the day and scout for a new location, and by doing so I compromised some shots.
Loyalty, betrayal, and forgiveness are poignantly conveyed throughout your story in a manner that is both personable and transcendent. What intrigued you about such interpersonal dynamics and what do they mean to you?
There was a feud in my family that lasted more than five years. Just recently the members decided to bury the hatchet and I found myself wondering, why now after so many years? Was it because they grew up learning that such an act is the right thing to do? Perhaps they did it because they realized their kids didn’t know each other well enough and the disconnection between them was seeping into the next generation. I was curious and that curiosity led me to explore the betrayal of trust between people and how people deal and recover from such betrayal.
I’m fascinated at how strong of a connection trust can be that the smallest most insignificant thing can throw off years of trust, and what may cause the parties involved to decide to forgive. I became more intrigued with what forgiveness means to people after the North Carolina shootings. Is it something you do because society says so or your beliefs say so? If one can forgive but then find it hard to forget the wrong, is it still forgiveness if the memory is still there? Or maybe they intend to forgive but don’t mean it and in the process of apologizing they truly end up forgiving.
In exploring this theme, I realized that forgiving means it never really exists to you anymore. Forgiving means to love, and like love, it is a choice we have to make.
Tell us what’s coming next! How has your work on Jungle informed or influenced prospective projects?
Next is the bigger sibling to Jungle. The one that was there all along, a feature film that takes place in Ghana about a man who tries to build a house with his friend. There is betrayal and a possible forgiveness or understanding, but we see how far these men will go to get what they want in the society they live in. I co-wrote another feature film that I plan on shooting in a couple of months. I shot Jungle on a very small budget, mainly because it was unexpected (from a possible doc to now a fictional short), and I feel like it’s the same with this “unexpected” feature we’ll be shooting soon.
What advice do you have for prospective filmmakers?
Do not be smart. I remember in college, my first day of visual art class or something like that my professor told us, “You need to unlearn,”and then she gave us a super weird exercise. But the point is unlearn. Sometimes I find myself getting lost in definitions like structure and outline and plot points and so forth and I stop and make a conscious effort to forget about it.
I read about all these things before I came to film school, but once I stepped into Tisch, I threw it away because there was a reason I was in film school: to learn and not to show people what I already know. You may or may not go to film school, but I think it’s very important to not be smart. Just let go. Don’t try too hard, don’t force it. The difference between you and the other hundreds of people who read how-to books on writing is that you will stand out as a person with a voice instead of the book standing out.
Did you feel as though NYU was the right fit for you? What do you think was missing from your experience in film school?
NYU was the right fit for me at that time. If I came to NYU a year earlier or later, I don’t think it would have helped me the way it has now. Of course, now I can come up with a list of things I feel was missing from my experience. But the real question is: How would I know that if it weren’t for NYU?
I came to the school empty and ready to learn and it filled me up with exactly what I was looking for. And even if I brought out that list of things that were missing, I would always cancel it out because nothing can compare to the people you meet, your classmates and faculty. I could write pages and pages on the people there. They show you who you are on the inside and out and I’m grateful for them.
What was one unforeseen takeaway from film school that you did not expect, but consider an invaluable resource?
Learning to trust yourself. In both the negative and positive of film school, it always shined through, and it’s something I didn’t really think about until then. As an artist that’s all you have, this ability to trust your inner man, the real you, the spirit that dwells within you.
Asantewaa Prempeh is Ghanian-American filmmaker currently enrolled in the MFA program at NYU. She has made numerous short films including A Sweet Song which played at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival and won the Accra Francophone Film Festival.
Jungle screens during the Shorts Program 4 at the 2016 LA Film Festival on June 8 at ArcLight Cinemas in Culver City.
Dana Stopler’s guest post is part of our ongoing series of film school students interviewing aspiring filmmakers.
Dana Stopler is pursuing a BA in Media Arts and Culture, with an emphasis in Critical Media, at Occidental College in Los Angeles. A rising senior, she is working on her comprehensive project for the upcoming academic year.