Interview: Behind the scenes of Netflix/UNESCO's African Folktales Reimagined

A promotion poster for the premier of African Folktales, Reimagined - short films by Netflix & UNESCO

A promotion poster for the premier of African Folktales, Reimagined – six short films by Netflix & UNESCO. Used with permission

A year ago, Netflix and UNESCO issued a call for submissions for an African Folktales competition. It would be the opportunity of a lifetime for emerging African filmmakers and storytellers to create and showcase their reimagined folktales to the world, in their own languages. Over 2,000 applications from 13 African countries were sent in. Only six were picked. The six storytellers were each provided with resources including a USD 100,000 budget and mentorship with established filmmakers to produce short films under the title “African Folktales Reimagined. 

On March 29, the films “Enmity Djinn” by Mohamed Echkouna from Mauritania; “Katope” by Walt Mzengi Corey from Tanzania; “Zabin Halima” (Halima’s Choice) by Korede Azeez from Nigeria;  “Anyango and the Ogre” by Voline Ogutu from Kenya; “Katera of the Punishment Island” by Loukman Ali from Uganda; and “MaMlambo” by Gcobisa Yako from South Africa will premiere globally on Netflix.

Global Voices spoke with Femi Odugbemi, one of the jurors and mentors, in an email interview about his role in this project, working with his mentee Mohamed Echkouna from Mauritania in producing Enmity Djinn and the significance of the project to Africa’s film industry. 

The Six Selected Films

Halima’s Choice: Set in Nigeria, this Sci-fi, fantasy film narrated in the Hausa Language centers on Halima — a young girl from a secluded Fulani village who inadvertently elopes with an AI to escape an arranged marriage.  It is set in the future and 99 percent of the world's population has been uploaded into virtual worlds.

Anyango and the Ogre: Told both in Kiswahili and English, Ogutu’s fantasy drama story is inspired by a childhood folktale, and tells the story of 13-year-old Otis who struggles to protect his younger siblings from a monster that lives inside their home. 

Katera of the Punishment Island: A thriller told both in Runyankole and English, the film is set on an abandoned island where a woman, grieving the loss of her baby, exacts revenge on the powerful man who put her there. 

Katope: A fantasy drama told in KiSwahili and ciGogo about a young child with magical origins who sets out on a journey to help end the drought that is devastating the community — even if it means risking their own life. 

Enmity Djinn: Drawing its name from its lead character Enmity Djinn, who finds himself in an unfamiliar city confronted by a familiar foe three generations after he was last summoned, the film is in the Fantasy/Drama genre. It is narrated both in Hassaniya Arabic and French. 

MaMlambo: A drama told in isiXhosa about the mystical river being, MaMlambo that watches over the sacred waters of discarded bodies. 

An Interview with Femi Odugbemi

Odugbemi is a writer, documentary filmmaker, television producer, and the founder/executive producer of Zuri24 Media, a content production company in Lagos, Nigeria.

Global Voices (GV):  What was it like being part of this project from the time you were approached to being a juror and mentor to now, just days away from a global premier?

Femi Odugbemi (FO): I was very excited to be invited to support this initiative because I recognized immediately the impact and possibilities of it to transform the narrative of African cinema, to bring authenticity to its imagery, to preserve the heroes and stories of heritage and to incite young emerging storytellers to reimagine history past in collision with Africa’s future. It has been quite an exciting journey to see the interpretative process and to see how that process has empowered these talented storytellers from different parts of our continent. Netflix and UNESCO are building a channel of global attention for the African story in due season. Storytelling and folktales are Africa’s true superpowers.

Today we live in a golden age of storytelling where there is an openness to the nuances of our history, our cultural experiences, our worldview and what constitutes an African story against a story from Africa. I hope these films prompt deeper conversations in the future, especially among young people, about cultural identity and narrative authenticity in how Africa is represented. 

GV: As a juror who had to choose from a list of over 2,000 submissions, what were you looking for and what is that one thread that weaves through the six shortlisted folktales?

FO: As jurors/mentors, we actually only had to review — via a highly competitive pitch forum — the finalist/shortlisted set of 12 films. That would indicate the high quality of the ideas that survived the initial cut. Our task was to pick 6 to 7 projects from the pitch session evaluating them on their cinematic strengths and the dimensionality of the story and its premise. The capacity and potential of the filmmaker were also vital to the selections as this initiative represented an important opportunity as well to build strong emerging filmmaker brands on the global platform that Netflix presents. 

Thankfully, I believe each of the final selected filmmakers had what I call the “X Factor:” that combination of passion, talent, and ambition necessary to take the best advantage of such a unique career-defining challenge.

The “X Factor” also meant that their story had the right depth and creative possibilities in its premise to produce a universally understood and appreciated film. I think the quality of the films produced proves that our jury indeed made the best choices. They are very exciting, and engaging and the audience will find them very entertaining too. 

GV: You mentored Mohamed Echkouna from Mauritania in producing “Enmity Djinn.” Talk to us about that experience. How was it for both of you?

FO: I am excited for Mohammed Echkouna because he is the classic profile of the talented, ambitious, hardworking young filmmaker that the Netflix/UNESCO Folktales Reimagined project was intended to empower. His film “Enmity Djinn” is a visually arresting, multilayered and entertaining filmic experience. 

He has created a provocative narrative of cultural superstitions, magical realities and modernity that is heartful and suspenseful. My task was really to provide a listening ear and guidance where needed. 

He did an amazing amount of work with important technical support from the Executive Producer Steven Markovitz and the Netflix team. Mohammed faced great odds in terms of the experienced crew/equipment available in Mauritania. And the harsh desert weather was also a great challenge. But he was determined to make the best use of the opportunity and that made the outcome such a wonderful delight. He earned every compliment he will receive for his beautiful film. 

GV: In what ways has being part of this project contributed to your growth and expertise as a documentary filmmaker and storyteller?

FO: Every mentoring opportunity of course is also a learning opportunity. Just the fact that these young filmmakers come from such diverse countries and backgrounds across the continent enriched my understanding of the capacities available to support filmmaking in Africa. I also learnt through the folktales shared that the heritage stories of the continent were as different as they were the same. Too many forgotten heroes. 

Such a huge treasure trove of stories lies untold. So if I have learned anything it is to dig into these traditional narrative holes and find gems with which we can define and enthral global audiences. Of course, as one with a deep interest in documentary cinema, I am delighted that these stories will necessarily deepen our research and engagement with history and historical figures. And that will incite more projects on a bigger scale to find that nexus where the past collides with our present to define our future. 

That is something that I think as an African filmmakers, we must constantly embrace as an objective approach to how we present our stories to the world. It underscores the vital importance of authenticity and representation and how we must use partner technology opportunities to empower and propel the African story.

GV: Could you comment on what this joint project between Netflix and UNESCO means for Africa's movie industry?

FO: The Netflix/UNESCO Folktales Reimagined project underscores the vital importance of heritage stories as a vital tool for preserving memory, preserving cultures and languages and reinforcing multiculturalism as a global necessity and asset. It is important because the greatest education anyone receives is to travel into the unknown worlds of history so we can grow the respect and understanding necessary to maintain and preserve mutual respect and peace in the world.

I truly believe that respect for cultures and the identity of the different peoples of the world is really the most vital diplomacy that would keep the peace. And culture travels and is sustained through stories. It is wonderful that a global platform like Netflix is creating room for that understanding and creating room for the heritage stories of Africa to travel. It signals that our history and our stories are valid and we can take pride in this amazing opportunity to bring our stories to the global exchange with much confidence.


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