Femi Agbayewa captures the African Diaspora on Film
“By putting ideas out there you give them the chance to survive; they might not turn out exactly how you had envisioned them, but they’ll probably die if you don’t let them outside of your mind.” – Femi Agbayewa (2015)
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in your every day life, viewing the status quo qua holy grail; sometimes it’s easy to accept things as they are because they seem to have always been that way. And then, sometimes you meet someone like Femi Agyabewa who reminds you that success is achievable but also that success=hard work + belief in your vision + resilience.
Femi Agbayewa grew up in Canada, having moved there with his family from Nigeria as a very young child. They moved around a lot within the country as was typical for immigrants. He finished school and college in Canada and majored in Communications. When his brother moved to New York, Femi was still in Canada, working a regular day job but actually having realised and knowing that he wanted to make movies. He revealed, ‘I wanted to be a part of something bigger and larger: not just paying bills’. At this stage in his life he didn’t consider the typical, conventional way in to filmmaking, aware of his wanting to make Afrocentric movies – the kind that didn’t really exist in any mainstream way. From the beginning he was conscious that he would have to create something bigger than a picture: a platform.
Obsessed that I am with understanding the root causes of everything, I asked Femi why he was so intent on focussing on Africa as a filmmaker; you see a lot of filmmakers nowadays from minority groups who don’t focus on their heritage as themes for their work. He responded by explaining that Africa had always been at his core: ‘I’m very much Nigerian and Africa is my identity’. He revealed to me that father used to tell him bedtime stories about the colourful continent and he was very close to his family back home – in Nigeria. The way the country and the people were represented by Western media didn’t match up to the representation Femi had received first hand. He wanted to alter that misrepresentation. He wanted to tell the African story right. Hence, he needed to create a platform.
Femi didn’t arrive, get handed a camera and a free ticket into ‘Nollywood’; he arrived, made a movie, ran into Bill Clinton and gave him a copy… seriously!
Moving to New York was conducive to Femi’s filmmaking career: there was a collective spirit of hunger and determination. The idea there was ‘whatever your dream is, it’s achievable’ – such an atmosphere could rarely act as a hindrance to someone trying to pursue his or her vision. This environment however does not necessarily give way to an easier journey: ‘You hear a lot of “nos” but it’s about the “yeses”’. Femi didn’t arrive, get handed a camera and a free ticket into ‘Nollywood’; he arrived, made a movie, ran into Bill Clinton and gave him a copy…. Seriously he did, despite not filming ‘God’s Own Country’ in New York at all.
The way the country and the people were represented by Western media didn’t match up to the representation Femi had received first hand. He wanted to alter that misrepresentation. He wanted to tell the African story right
‘God’s Own country’ unveiled, in earnest, the journey of African immigrants moving to America. It was inspired by Femi’s time working in an immigration centre where he would meet people who had been doctors in their own countries and after moving to America did very menial tasks to earn a living comparatively. This is a situation that occurs often and Femi brought it home through ‘God’s Own Country’. His characters were still the people who had dreams and visions full of promise when they left their own countries and moved to the West despite, in some cases migrants perceived unhappiness and struggles. One of Femi’s phrases with regards to following one’s dream is ‘the world is small – if there’s an opportunity that exists elsewhere, chase it’. ‘God’s Own Country’ brought to life the inconceivable difficulty that is often not perceived by those in less developed countries when they leave their home in pursuit of a new life for themselves and their families.
When asked what made film so special Femi referred to two specific aspects of it: its accessibility and capacity to connect. In terms of accessibility, it doesn’t matter where you live in the world, if you have a DVD player or even 3G – or 4G – on your smartphone you can watch a film. Its reach is astounding and often all it takes is for someone to say, and I quote Femi, ‘There’s this subject that needs to get out there’ and for someone to support this statement with action. To quote Femi again, ‘You have to be open to the world in order to participate in it’. In terms of film’s capacity to connect, it’s really a no-brainer – a no-brainer that didn’t cross my mind – the medium of film as an art form has the ability to wholly connect the viewer with the image presented on screen thereby attaining the maximum level of shared emotion between the viewers and artists who created the film.
‘God’s Own Country’ brought to life the inconceivable difficulty that is often not perceived by migrants in less developed countries when they leave their home in pursuit of a new life for themselves and their families
As an artist it took Femi some time to accept that he was also an entrepreneur having initially been so pre-occupied and almost obsessed with getting the art right. Once he embraced the former position he began to think of new ways to disseminate his work. I suppose this embracing of the former position also might have inspired Femi’s current project ‘On The Rise’ which is a series of sit-down TV interviews with entrepreneurs across the African continent from Lagos to Johannesburg ‘engaging in an off the cuff roundtable discussion about their visions and journeys’. The creation runs the whole gambit of how these successful people got to where are they are, the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. Even in the trailer, one of the innovators, Maureen Erokwo, Founder of Vosmap, provides some words of wisdom underlining the importance of not taking anything personally in the world of business:
“You’re going to really take it personal at some point…is it me? Why don’t you want to talk to me? What am I doing wrong? It’s not really you. When you’re going after those accounts (those people) have a lot on their plates too, so you really cannot take anything personal.”
You can actually opt to share these stories and Femi’s production by screening the film – and finishing with an online interview with the director himself. Just follow the instructions at the bottom of this page! Current supporters include:
London School of Economics Africa Summit, The Harlem Business Alliance, Enodi (Entrepreneurs of the Diaspora) and African Metro NYC Fellowship Association.
‘You have to be open to the world in order to participate in it’. In terms of film’s capacity to connect … the medium, as an art form has the ability to wholly connect the viewer with the image presented on screen thereby attaining the maximum level of shared emotion between the viewers and artists who created the film
Impressed that I was at this stage I didn’t want to draw the interview to a close before picking Femi’s brain for some life advice, so I asked him straight up and he gave me a few ideas that stuck. First, as you get older you need people who are going to inspire you, you need to build a network of support, a team that’s going to be around over the long haul. Second, you have to give time to your grind mode: ‘Sometimes you lose it and it doesn’t come back. Respect your craft’. Third and finally, and a phrase from Femi: ‘Sometimes to get a better grip you have to let go’. This is related to most things: by putting ideas out there you give them the chance to survive; they might not turn out exactly how you had envisioned them, but they’ll probably die if you don’t let them outside of your mind. If you let them breathe you might be lucky enough to end up with a great team like Femi who share the same vision.
The conclusion I created from Femi’s story is that by being open you increase your chances of succeeding: open to chase the opportunity, open to share and open to let people in. Related to Africa, the need to let go and get started is no truer than ever. As shapers of the continent’s future, let us resist the temptation to let ideas slip away before we expose them to the scrutiny and nourishment of our communities, their feedback and investment.
If you’re interested in screening Femi Agbayewa’s film, On The Rise Africa, please contact Michael Rain at Michael@mjrain.com.
For more information about On The Rise Africa Visit: