Last month, SO showcased exclusive photos of film-maker Mykal Cushnie and his fellow documentarian Donisha Prendergast's spontaneous turns as models during their African sojourn. This week, we get up close and personal with Cushnie as he details his experiences traversing the African continent with Prendergast and singer Kelisa McDonald for their film project 50 Days In Afrika — sponsored by the CHASE Fund and Supreme Ventures.
SO: How would you encapsulate your documentary trip to Africa in four words?
Mykal Cushnie (MC): Exciting, inviting, inspiring and educating.
SO: What was the most revealing discovery you made during your trip?
MC: Africa has been perceived through the eyes of BBC and CNN as a tribal, poor, HIV-riddled continent that is in need of foreign aid. I can't say this is completely false, but this wasn't our experience in the countries there. Maybe the most revealing discovery we made was that Africa awaited its creators. There is an Ethiopian proverb, 'When spiders unite, they can tie up a lion', and post-colonisation, it seems a lot of these countries have embraced this. Africans are now telling their stories with the same tools used to paint this very negative image. As true pioneers in the field, they are now the second largest producers of films in the world, only surpassed by Bollywood in India. Their style of storytelling is not like what we have come to see as standard in Western cultures but it seems to work quite fine for them and it provides many jobs and contributes the continent's economic viability. I can't say I was very surprised by how talented and resourceful they were because as children of the continent we have also managed to excel not only in the arts, but in music and sports as well. What I truly appreciated was that culture was seen as a national initiative and everything from fashion to music was considered a viable career choice for young Africans.
SO: Which country impressed you the most?
MC: After spending a little over a week in Kenya, I was most impressed with their infrastructure. Economically, Kenya is one of the fastest growing countries in East Africa. Post-colonisation, the country's first president Jomo Kenyatta realised the importance of education and, as such, his government advocated for Kenyans to study abroad. Fifty years later, we see the return of these Kenyans, contributing to the development of the country through arts and commerce. I found a similar trend in Tanzania, Ghana and Ethiopia. Haile Selassie understood the power of film and media as a tool for not only entertainment but education, too. He was an avid lover of films and as such, Ethiopia was one of the first countries in Africa to have a cinema in 1920, after Azania in 1890 and Nairobi in 1912. I was surprised by Ghana and Kenya's overwhelming love for reggae music and Jamaican culture. Ghana probably has just as much Rastafarians as Jamaica. In Nairobi, there is a reggae club almost every night of the week. Lagos reminded me a lot of Las Vegas because you would find clubs, bars and lounges packed every day of the week after work. People avoid the bumper-to-bumper traffic by going to local pubs and restaurants. Their film industry is also the second highest employer, only to the government. It's common to see many movies and music videos being shot on a daily basis. Ghana is a very beautiful country, especially if you land in Accra. The black star flag adorns most shops and buildings and the Freedom Movement stands as a pillar for everyone to see while they enter and exit the town. I also loved the fashion and fabrics produced in all the countries I visited, whether it was the Shama in Ethiopia, the Maasai in Kenya or the Kente in Ghana, they are usually hand-made with the finest material and feel wonderful on your skin.
SO: You noted earlier that the media often associates negative stereotypes with Africa. Is it safe to say your stay shattered these negative labels?
MC: Africa, like Jamaica, has negative stereotypes perpetuated by the media. Even though I'm sure there is crime and poverty, HIV and AIDS, and corruption within political institutions, I never saw anything I didn't see visiting Europe or North America. Africans are by far the friendliest people I've ever come across and every time we met someone it was mandatory we have dinner as a family and 'reason' before an interview could begin. I was told in Nigeria there is no translation for uncle, aunt, niece or nephew. Everyone was a brother, sister, father or mother.
SO: Did you manage to score interviews with any popular African personalities for the documentary?
MC: We interviewed Femi Kuti (the son of Fela Kuti); soulstresses Nneka & Asa; singer-songwriter Tuface Idibia, all from Nigeria; Afro-pop band Sauti Sol from Kenya; and hip-hop artist Jozi in South Africa. The conversations we recorded on camera will speak for themselves in the documentary. I filmed a television pilot for Kenyan actress Lizz Njagah, who stars on the Nigerian soap opera Tinsel, and quickly learnt how easy it was to work with actors there because they could read their scripts hours before filming and not miss a beat.
SO: Your 50-day trip seems positively enlightening. Where, exactly, did your 50 Days in Africa journey take you?
MC: We went to six countries: Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania and Ethiopia. As a team, we had all been to these countries before, so we had prior experiences and knew that these places were perfect springboards to tell our stories. I felt as though we never chose these countries, but they chose us.
SO: As a film-maker, did you manage to forge any artistic linkages during your stay?
MC: We interviewed people in the film, fashion and music industries. We also spoke to a number of government officials in Nigeria and Ghana. Regarding the links that were made, that list is quite long and the fact that Kelissa was able to perform at 15 venues attests to that. Her performance at Felabration in October was a landmark as it was the first time a Jamaican had ever performed there.
SO: Did you note any business or artistic opportunities for Jamaicans in Africa?
MC: The main opportunities came through Spielworks Media where I shot television pilots for this production company. They are very interested in trading resources with skilled filmmakers in Jamaica. Reggae music is huge and so are opportunities for commerce. Africans are very interested in how people live in Jamaica — what we eat, where we go — and always ask if our beaches are as beautiful as magazines depict. It really is up to us in Jamaica to start packaging our culture, as we did with bananas and sugarcane, for export and look at Africa as a new market for trade.
SO: How would you frame expectations for someone wanting to visit Africa?
MC: I wouldn't. Africa the continent boasts 54 countries and within each of these countries are many tribes. The average person usually speaks more than four languages. The only way to better understand is to buy a ticket and go.