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Award-winning filmmaker Idrissou Mora Kpai started his career in Germany, studying Directing at the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf. It was there that he made his first two short films FUGACE(1996) and FAKE SOLDIERS (1999). He went on to make more films about African migration and diasporas, including SI-GUERIKI, THE QUEEN MOTHER (2002), ARLIT: THE SECOND PARIS (2005), INDOCHINA TRACES OF A MOTHER (2011) and AMERICA STREET (2019), which have been screened at international festivals across the world. He is currently Professor of Media Arts at Ithaca College in New York, USA. Karina Griffith and Enoka Ayemba spoke with him via video conference about how he arrived in Europe and his experiences there, the making of Fake Soldiers and why he had to leave Germany.

Enoka Ayemba & Karina Griffith: You completed FAKE SOLDIERS while you were in the process of leaving the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf, close to Berlin. Can you tell us about growing up in Benin and how you ended up studying film in Germany? It’s an incredible story.

Idrissou Mora Kpai: It is indeed a long story. I was born in a small, rural place in the northern part of Benin. When I was 13, I went to live in Cotonou, the capital of Benin, to attend high school. Right after graduating from high school, I decided to leave my country. I didn't know exactly where I was going, but I knew that I didn't want to study in Benin for many reasons. I had a dream but I wasn't sure that I could fulfil that dream while staying there in Benin.

My family didn’t have the means to buy me a flight ticket to Europe and I knew I would never get a visa for France or any other country, so I decided to cross the Sahara to Algeria. I had to work to earn a living in Algeria, I was a construction worker. While in Algeria, the only thing I knew was that I was going North. Everything depended on where my passport could take me.

Many African migrants nowadays know this story. I’ve met many Africans who had the same difficulties or even greater ones on their way to Europe. If you look at the risks many Africans take today to reach Europe, you will see that things got worse. In Algeria I could work and buy a ticket to Italy because citizens of Benin didn't need visas at that time.

What happened in Italy?

IMK: In Rome, I had to find a job again, which was not easy. Then I met another African who gave me the hint to move to southern Italy, to the region of Caserta, where I worked in agriculture, picking fruits and vegetables. That’s the job I did until I could get enough money to take a train to Germany. The decision to travel to Germany was arbitrary. It all happened because I got to know a German student who I met while she was carrying out research in Benin.

She let me to stay with her at the beginning, until I was able to find my own place and a job. I then began the Studienkolleg so that I could finally apply for university. I started studying Mathematics at the Technische Universität Berlin, but I realised that it was not something I wanted to do.

I was interested the experience of Black people in Berlin.

How did you get into film school?

IMK: I moved to the Institute for North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, where I discovered the history of American cinema. This somehow triggered my interest in and ultimately passion for filmmaking.

I started making films, although those first attempts would be better described as “working with the camera.” At that time, the Freie Universität had a media centre, as did the city of Berlin. The city media centre used to offer short training sessions for a couple of days to anyone interested in learning to use a camera or editing. I was a regular at both media centres. I started making a kind of documentation in the city. I was interested in migration and the experience of Black people in Berlin. I started documenting every conference related to these topics in Berlin, I was there with my camera. We had an African organisation at the time that invited African writers to take part in conferences in Berlin. I filmed all these events.

How did you move on to making fiction films?

IMK: I met an Iranian filmmaker called Nader Ahmady, who offered me a position as assistant director, which is how I learnt about mise en scène, scriptwriting, and so on. Afterwards, I started making my own short films with African protagonists. At some point, I realised it would be better to study at film school. I applied for different schools and was lucky to be accepted at the Film University Babelsberg. That was the time when people like Raoul Peck were in the city. When I arrived in Berlin, Peck was finishing his training at the DFFB in Berlin.

I met a few other African film students, including Wanjiru Kinyanjui, Tsitsi Dangaremba (who is now living in Zimbabwe) and Auma Obama, who is the half-sister of Barack Obama and was also at the film school. Before I got into Babelsberg, she actually helped me to get access to the DFFB facilities to do some editing there.

It's very interesting that you mentioned Wanjiru Kinyanjui, as we’re also showing a film she made while she was a student in Berlin called BLACK IN THE WESTERN WORLD as part of the Fiktionsbescheinigung programme. There was obviously a kind of solidarity between you Black students, but did you also talk about your projects and maybe about the onscreen representation of Black people? Did you meet Raoul Peck during his time in Berlin?

IMK: Strangely enough, we never actually managed to meet while I was in Berlin. We only met after I’d left, in France. But I used to meet with other Black film students living in Berlin. I met Wanjiru Kinyanjui many times. We talked about our problems but also about our films – she was already known with her work at the time. I wanted to find out more about her experience. As a young, naïve and impatient student not yet in film school, I had no idea how difficult the situation could be. I just wanted to tell more stories. After some years, I understood exactly how difficult it is to be an artist, a filmmaker belonging to a minority, in a country like Germany, in a city like Berlin where your history, your stories, your perspective do not have any intrinsic value for people.

Which is a loss for Germany!

IMK: When I look at Germany today, I can see that the population has become more diverse and many people who left Germany could have made a huge contribution to the country by bringing it certain perspectives that are still missing today. You see Raoul Peck is working internationally, Tsitsi Dangaremba is a renowned writer, Wanjiru Kinyanjui has made a good career for herself and so on. All these people who are now outside Germany could have been so important for the country.

Back then I felt misunderstood. I had the feeling that the right representation was completely missing. Black people were missing. We didn't exist. They live in the city, you see them everywhere, on the U-Bahn, on the streets, in cafés, but they are absent from the media. Black people are falsely represented in the media. The consequences of this are dangerous because mainstream society then easily falls prey to the fake pictures painted of us. This is something that needs to be changed.

We have to create other types of stories, a greater diversity within fiction...

IMK: People in Germany often wonder why German film seems so provincial. You don't see many German films in the USA or internationally, one of the reasons for that is that their topics are backwards; they don't represent contemporary Germany at all! In the US, where I live now, you can't make a film with a completely white cast anymore. You have to start there.

Did you talk about such topics as not being white or the role of diversity at film school?

IMK: No. That was simply not a topic of discussion for Germans at the time and I did not have tools to address that back then.

I wanted to use this synergy among Black people to claim that we too exist.

Was it hard to find Black actors?

IMK: I was concerned about representation and it was not easy to find a Black cast in a country like Germany. Putting together a Black cast for my films was a challenge. Black professional actors were all too rare. Black acting students were also absent from acting schools. If you want change, you need to change everything, every single aspect of education in Germany. 

So I often worked with people without much acting experience. But my main concern was that I was one of the few Black people at Babelsberg, which was a mostlywhite film school. It is still the case today, I don't think there has been any big change. When I arrived at the school, Alida Babel was there too, studying Editing. There was also Guillermo, a student from Peru. So the three of us were the only Blackstudents at the entire school. How can you really have your voice heard in such a state of minority. That was my big concern. I made my first exercise at school with only white actors. At some point I realised that's not me. I am not able to make a film with a 100% white cast. I believe in diversity and I don't exclude whitepeople per se, but at some point, when you are forced to work only with whitepeople, it's just not your story anymore. I decided to write stories myself. I even tried to get actors from France but this proved difficult, mainly because of the language.

Through my own research, I managed to meet John Daley, a performer and dancer at the Theater des Westens who later introduced me to Sheri Hagen. They worked in my films with enthusiasm, without being paid. I will always be grateful for their solidarity. That's how we succeeded in making my first narrative short film Fugace. After this experience, I decided that this was something I wanted to continue in Germany.

I wanted to use this synergy among Black people to claim that we too exist, that we are also interested in art, film art and film production, and that we want to do those things right. But it wasn’t easy.

My first bad experience to this end was after finishing Fake Soldiers. I wanted to make an international version of the film with English subtitles but was told by the school that there was no need for that. I was disappointed. I realised that a story with Black people was not of  sufficient value for additional money to be spent to make it available internationally.

It felt like a slap in the face for me. After finishing film school, I wrote several scenarios set in Berlin, Germany and no one took them seriously. I tried to get a producer, but never succeeded and never got the funding I needed and it was just too hard. I came to realise that my career would suffer if I stayed in Germany. I told myself that I needed to find a way to get out of that country. I knew that if I wanted to be successful as a filmmaker, Germany was not the right place for me.

In the opening scene of FAKE SOLDIERS, we don't really know where we are. We know we’re on a basketball court, there's an American car, we can hear hip hop music playing. It’s easy to imagine that we might be somewhere in the United States. It's only later, if you really listen, that you notice that it’s German hip hop that’s actually playing.

IMK: Yes, that is the global world I was trying to convey. I wanted viewers to understand how good life could be in Berlin, also because life is like that in reality. Yet this kind of life hasn't been supported by those who have the power to decide on what is being conveyed.

That's what’s sad. Because the people in the film are still there. Right? All the Black people you see in the film aren’t from anywhere else. They're from Berlin and that was their lifestyle. Right? So you cannot ignore this.

We really love the humour in the film. We were speaking earlier about Wanjuri Kinyanjui's film Black in The Western World, which we’re also showing in the Fiktionsbescheinigung programme. She made it in 1992, seven years before FAKE SOLDIERS. It's a documentary that talks about racism. Can you discuss the topic of love and belonging in your film and how that relates to your choice to not talk about racism directly?

IMK: That’s true, but racism is subtly addressed. Why are Africans trying to be American? It's because the country refuses to recognise them, to respect them as full human beings, right? And Black Americans, because they are Americans, are able to escape this stereotype somewhat. That's what‘s underneath the story. My character’s decision to pretend to be an American is because he won't be accepted by this society as an African, because of the disdain felt towards Africans, because of the colonial heritage Germany still carries in its representation of Africans.

In the beginning I imagined the story as a feature. I could have done a 120-minute film on that topic, but because of a lack of funding I decided to condense the story into a short film.

I don’t see any professional perspectives for me in Germany anymore, unfortunately.

Did that episode at the school contribute to your decision to leave the country? Because that was the last film you made in Germany. From there, you moved to Paris and started your international career. FAKE SOLDIERS is a German film. You said it yourself earlier – just imagine all these people who are making a career now – they all started out in Germany. It should have been possible for them to stay.

IMK: Definitely. But as I said already, my experiences after film school were probably even more decisive in my decision to leave Germany. But I still have a German passport. Most of us have German passports. I return to Germany every year. I spend my summer vacations in Germany. My daughter still lives in Germany, in Berlin. My kids who are with me here in the US are German citizens. So I'm still connected to Germany, very connected to Germany. But I don’t see any professional perspectives or opportunities for me in Germany anymore, unfortunately.

Going back to what you said about archiving: the early films that you made in Germany have not received a wide audience. Were they able to travel at all on the film festival circuit? Did you receive any support to have your films seen at the time or later on?

IMK:  The only festival where the film was screened was in Burkina Faso (FESPACO). Can you imagine making a film in German and having it screened in Africa without subtitles? That's what happened. When I applied for funding, I said that this film festival was important for African people and people of African descent, but the school didn’t consider FESPACO an important film festival. I sent the film to FESPACO without subtitles. You can imagine how many people stayed until the end (laughs)! That was a big problem.

[1] Aïcha Diallo & Idrissou Mora-Kpai. “I Walk With My Imaginary Border.” In The Space Between Us, 282–90. Berlin: Kerber Verlag. 2013.

Even if you get funding in Germany, there is still a fight about what stories people will allow you to tell.I

n an interview you conducted with Aïcha Diallo in 2013, you said that there is a feeling in Germany that Black main characters aren’t saleable. [1] Can you tell us what it’s like trying to get funding in Germany?

IMK: When I was already living in France, I tried to get German co-productions off the ground, just for my documentaries, from ZDF and so on, but I never had any real chance. My only German co-production was SI-GUERIKI, LA REINE-MÈRE, for which we obtained a small amount of funding from Filmbüro NRW. But the film was mostly funded in France. The project was part of the Eurodoc selection, that allowed it to be discovered internationally. A producer from Germany had decided to enter into a co-production with us with his own version of the film in his mind. At some point I refused to recognise that version. So he decided to ignore the film and refused to promote it in Germany. He wanted to do an ethnographic version of my film with his own representation of Africa in mind and wanted to use my material to this end.  I said, “No, that's not the story I want to tell.” Even if you get funding in Germany, there is still a fight about what stories people will allow you to tell.

Let’s go back to the film festival question. Did the university support you in submitting your film to festivals within Germany, such as the Berlinale or Oberhausen, as a German film?

IMK: I don't know if they tried. There was an office for festivals at the time. This office sent the films to different film festivals. If you got selected, you would be informed. Neither of my two shorts were selected at any short film festivals in Germany. Even the festivals were not interested in this kind of story: Black stories.

You were at school in Potsdam in the former East Germany, but you were living in West Berlin. So you experienced the two different Germanys; this was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was the political situation evident to you? How important was it to you at that time?

IMK: Racism increased drastically in Germany at the beginning of the 90s. West Berlin was okay, but leaving Berlin was really scary as a Black man. My partner was always concerned if I had to work or to edit my film late at night and take the train from Potsdam to Berlin. Nothing really bad happened to me; I would meet skinheads in the train, just verbal exchanges, the N-word. You tried not to provoke them, to keep your mouth shut and then you would get home safely. That happened many, many times to me on the train. Not only at night. At that time, if you took a train to Potsdam in the day, people would make fun of you. That is a picture I still recall. It happened many times.

At the school itself, I never saw this type of racism toward me. Most of the students and professors were friendly and supportive. I mainly had a problem with the administration. It was not easy for an international student without a scholarship and having to constantly work to make ends meet. I had problems paying my insurance so many times. There was a particular woman in the administration office who didn't like me. She tried to expel me from school. If you are a student, you have to apply for insurance and if you miss your payments, it can endanger your enrolment. The problems I had at school were more material in nature. People there were completely ignorant of the struggles international students without scholarships from Third World countries were facing in Berlin at the time. Many of us really suffered. Many never finished university for this reason.

Often a comparison is made between Black German cinemas and Turkish German cinemas, but the experience of Black migrants to Germany is very different. People like you migrated to Germany on your own without your family; you had to build your own family here. Earlier you spoke about how you, Wanjuiri Kinyanjui, Tsitsi Dangaremba and other people were trying to create some semblance of family via your Black experiences, despite coming from completely different countries and not speaking the same languages.

IMK: The structural situation is indeed very different. We don’t come as a community. We come as individuals, from a different number of countries, with different languages and cultures, and often under very different circumstances. But in Germany, we are seen as a group. So we work on becoming a group, with a group solidarity that transcends our ethnic and national backgrounds. It’s important for our survival. Because we are more visible, more exposed and therefore more vulnerable.

You started studying American Studies and now you're living in the States. You’ve come full circle. You are teaching there and still making films. You said you went into filmmaking because you are concerned with social justice.

IMK:I actually went to the Freie Universität’s John F Kennedy Institute because I was interested in African-American studies. When I came to Berlin, there were so many American army bases and Black African-American soldiers and I got to know some of them. And as a migrant, I started to understand the meaning of diaspora. I read African-American literature: Richard Wright, the autobiography of Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin and so on. I’d never heard about these authors in my home country. At the JFK Institute, I also got to know African-American culture in general, including film. Spike Lee was starting his career at the time. It was interesting to see Black representation in the US. I thought that cinema was an interesting tool to tell our histories from our own perspectives and fight injustice. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”


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