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Uprising: Will Niava Uses Cinema as a Sword for the Unheard



The Florence director on “DJing the vibe” on set, the vulnerability of writing and African storytellers reaching the world stage, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

Uprising: Will Niava Uses Cinema as a Sword for the Unheard

“I believe the fascination with film started before I could even speak.”

Always a quiet child, “more observant than talkative… quietly inquisitive if you will”, Will Niava developed an immediate interest in his family’s JVC camcorder and VHS home movies - somewhat of a rarity for an African household in the ‘90s, he explains. And although currently in Montreal, the young director traces his worldview and passion for filmmaking back to his childhood experiences on that very continent.

“I’m from two of the best West African countries, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The food, music, hilarious people and hot weather have definitely influenced me in the best of ways. I am also fully bilingual through this experience, French being my first language. Coming from this side of the world, I was subjected to so many realities that are unimaginable in the West and so this broadened my perspective on life on so many levels.”

The Florence director spent much of the pandemic back home in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where his whole family lives, and the ability to return to this haven during an internationally stressful and frightening period of time was an opportunity that Will says he is grateful for. “I found the most important thing was to be close to the ones I love during such a chaotic period. I was also lucky to be back home because the restrictions were not as bad as they were in the rest of the world.”

Like many children around the world, professional football was his boyhood dream, until he turned 14 and his interests changed - gradually replacing football with aspirations of a creative career, as he found his “voice and tribe” in the arts and his school’s theatre program. “I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker when I turned 15,” he says, recounting his nightly routine of watching a film, often French New Wave, before bed. At first, he thought he wanted to be an actor but quickly realised that the process of crafting stories was a much more natural fit.

“If I’m honest, what truly jumpstarted things was the fact that I had a six-year-old cousin who would create these amazing stop-motion videos with his dad’s camera, using his toys as characters. I was terribly jealous of this and told myself if he can do it, then what am I waiting for? I started shooting little videos with my friends and cousins just for fun and those became more serious as the months progressed.”

He continues, “By my high school graduation year, I had become an amateur at my new craft, but the passion was cemented in my heart. I fell in love with the process of filmmaking. This was it, I wanted nothing else but to learn more about it and become a master.”

Intent on earning his stripes, he decided to break into the scene independently - making plenty of mistakes, doing projects for free and discovering his own story-telling style along the way. “I convinced my African parents that I wanted to become an artist and I owe them everything for trusting me. For them, as long as I went to school for it and I was happy doing what I loved, they were fine with it. Their only concern was ‘how will you make money?!’ - I guess I’m still figuring that part out.”

The prospective filmmaker interned on a Ghanaian film set during his gap year, before applying to the Melhopenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University - and securing a place at the prestigious Canadian institution. Walking in the footsteps of successful directorial alumni such as Dennis Villeneuve, he notes that he faced some cultural isolation and adversity, being the only African - and in fact, “the only Black guy in the whole program, granted they only accepted 30 students each year…” 

Early on in his development at Melhopenheim, he learned a valuable lesson from a lecturer that has influenced his perception of telling stories and making films ever since. “Richard Kerr, my experimental film professor, once told us that, as a filmmaker, you should always expect compromise,” he says. “It comes at the most important times, to challenge you as an artist. It’s in the way we improvise around the compromise that we show what kind of storyteller we are.”

Where Will started to implement his learnings, in a way that would impact the trajectory of his blossoming career, was in the process of writing and directing his first short film ‘ZOO’ and collaborating with Oscar-nominated director Jeremy Comte on a feature film. Describing these projects as “the most influential experiences of my life”, he says, “We dedicated our time for over four years to getting the best story out of our shared experiences and that of those who inspired us. It was such a vulnerable task, to strip down all the layers of your mind and just express whatever comes to you, filled with so much emotion and rawness. From that experience, I went to write ‘ZOO’ - and from how that turned out, you can assume that I had learned so much from just being around Jeremy.”

Elaborating on his experience, he says, “ZOO changed my life forever. There are still people who write to me about it. People take the time to write huge letters just thanking me for making it. I am so moved by those responses. It ended up in the Criterion Collection which opened up so many doors for me. The proudest aspect of this whole project is that we did it with no help. Anthony Galati, Alleck Doxer, Adam Hodgins and I fully paid for the distribution of the film. We had no help from anyone else. Not by choice; when we reached out to people, they thought the film was not a realistic image of Quebec. A couple of days after George Floyd was murdered, all those companies reached back out to us in the hopes of capitalising on the opportunity. But it was too late, they had shown their real faces and already broken our trust. In the end, we kept all the rights and profits from the film.” 

“I’m proud of us for trusting the process even when all the doors closed on us. George Floyd didn’t die in vain, in fact, his death propelled the conversations about the social injustices that we face systemically every day, not just in the States, but around the world. ZOO came in at a time when these conversations had taken another spike and it added to it. I am infinitely grateful for the love and attention the film has received over the years. I can only hope that it impacted them in ways that will cause a change.”

Whilst working on projects à la ‘ZOO’, Will enjoys simply being on set after the craziness of pre-production; he is often found “DJing the vibe”, setting the tone to help a shared vision be realised. “I just love being there and trying things out. That’s where I get to fully express myself. But when I think of it, the editing process is right up there because that is where you really feel the magic come together. When a cut just fits perfectly into the flow and rhythm of a story, my heart just melts with joy.”

Recently, one of the director’s biggest stresses was alleviated; he has now earned “the privilege” of having a producer on set. As a filmmaker who has had to wear many hats during his come-up - writing, directing, editing and producing the majority of his projects thus far - a producer can relieve him of his least desirable obligations, freeing him up to focus on the creative process. “Once I was free of those duties, my mind felt so sharp creatively. It gave me so much appreciation for the work that producers do to take off so much weight from our shoulders.”

Taking the time to appreciate the creatives that have helped influence his path, he shares his admiration for the likes of Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, Ava Duvernay, Stanley Kubrick and, of course, Dennis Villeneuve - all of whom, he says, have created “compelling stories with depth beyond their years” that influences Will, his peers and generations to come. He hopes, one day, to echo this intergenerational influence with his own work and aspires to share some semblance of this talented selection’s originality and evocativeness. “I aspire to use this tool (cinema) as a sword. There are so many stories to tell, especially those coming from the African diaspora. I feel like it’s my duty to find those stories and recount them in various ways. I know that I've developed a certain style but I aspire to be even more versatile in my use of it. I want to be able to flow seamlessly between genres and forms.”

After being fortunate enough to expand his artistry during the pandemic, directing four episodes of an MTV SHUGA TV series in the Ivory Coast, Will has continued to add to his growing list of writing and directing credits. “I just wrote a short film with an amazing director named Kristelle Laroche,” he says, describing the experience as “a trip”. He continues, “I had the whole story in my head, I sought to challenge it by bringing another mind and spirit to the table. And not just any other person at that; Kelsey has a magic touch, and I witnessed it on a commercial pitch treatment that we partnered on together through Florence.” Despite the project being her first showing as a writer, Will was astounded at the perceived maturity and skill with which his writing partner worked.

“Writing is one of the most vulnerable things one could do, even alone. But we found a great level of trust in each other very quickly and came up with another crazy story that feels so real. I’m so happy to have this now. We are hoping to shoot it before the end of the summer. It will be my first short film under a Florence production.”

Also in the works is a film titled ‘Element’ - described by Will as “the product of my frustration after directing the series for MTV in Ivory Coast.” Without meaning any ill feelings towards the series itself, which he says was an “enriching experience” to be part of, Will says that the restrictions that “stunted” his creative expression while directing the show inspired ‘elements’ of the upcoming film. Alongside DP Harley Francis and another director friend, Latigone N’goma, the project aims to bring together the themes of: ‘Hoods’, ‘Woods’, ‘Water’ and ‘Fire’ to tell a “raw and compelling spiritual story about the struggle of making it out of the slums of Abidjan. Family love, friendship and betrayal.” Element is expected to be out in festivals by the end of the year. 

Outside of work, Will appreciates all forms of art, taking inspiration from artists such as Johann Johannsson, Burna Boy, James Blake, Kokoroko, John Coltraine and Solange. “My spirit is moved to create when those melodies hit my ears. I also adore the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The designs of Virgil Abloh. The architecture of David Adjeye. The acting talent of Daniel Kaluuya. The list goes on. Those are powerful people whose work I cherish.” Taking these inspirations and combining them with his drive to develop imaginative and previously unspoken stories, Will has only just begun his journey to raise the profile of African filmmakers on the world stage.

“I’m striving to be an influential force for my people. I am convinced that it is our time. Everyone else has had their turn to tell their stories and they’ve saturated the market for way too long now. Now it’s time for us to rise. I am calling out all African storytellers to round up and gather our forces to penetrate the market even deeper than we have been for the last five years. Netflix Africa is a great start, but we need to develop our skills internally. I hope to, one day, open film schools all across the continent, to build an army of amazing, unique filmmakers that will continue to uplift our beautiful voices and create new ways of seeing for the world to see.”

The director concludes, “My work is motivated by the voices of the unheard. I want to bring those voices to life. All the marginalised people in society interest me and I think that focusing on them and depicting them in their truest forms is so key to developing new and unheard stories.”

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Florence, Mon, 01 Aug 2022 16:37:00 GMT