Ekwa Msangi discusses her debut feature, Farewell Amor, a triptych about an family of Angolan immigrants who reunite in New York City.
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In Ekwa Msangi’s debut feature, Farewell Amor, the way that characters dance is a metaphor for how they “had a connection, were dance partners at one point, and have now literally fallen out of step, and are trying to come back.” Those characters are a trio of Angolan immigrants: Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), his wife, Esther (Zainab Jah), and his daughter, Sylvia (Jayme Lawson, in a memorable breakout role). Walter has been working as a cab driver in Brooklyn for 17 years, but only now have Esther and Sylvia gotten their visas approved to come and join him in the US. The film starts when they reunite at the airport and traces their first few weeks back together as a family, exploring whether it’s possible for them to recover from 17 years apart.
Msangi structures the film as a triptych, telling the story from each character’s perspective, revisiting some moments, and introducing them to the parts of their lives that they keep hidden from each other. Walter is hiding his ex, Linda (Nana Mensah), whom he’s struggling to let go of even after their breakup. In one scene, he escapes at night to a small bar and dances a slow, melancholy dance with Linda. Sylvia’s secrets are similar to her father’s: she’s also hiding her love of dance (she wants to enter a school competition) and a love interest (a boy at her school, DJ, played by Marcus Schribner). And Linda finds companionship away from her family with a kind and welcoming neighbour, Nzingha (Joie Lee), in whom she’s able to confide in a way she can’t with her family. Ultimately, the trio is only able to resolve their loneliness when they open up to each other and start living an honest life together as a family.
I spoke with Ekwa Msangi over Zoom about crafting her lovely, sensitive debut, Farewell Amor, how she crafted a visual language for each of the three chapters, and her love of sound design.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Farewell Amor?
Ekwa Msangi: It was inspired by the relationship of an aunt and uncle of mine, who were married in Tanzania in the mid-90s. My uncle got a student visa, soon after their wedding, to come to the USA. He came with every intention of bringing my aunt and their five-month old right behind him, and to this day, they’ve been in an endless cycle of applications and rejections with their visas. Just watching how it’s affected them as individuals, and the family at large, I decided to write the “What if?” story. What if the visa was no longer the issue? Where would they begin?
7R: Have they seen the film?
Ekwa Msangi: They have not. The film is releasing in the US on Friday, so my uncle would probably see it after that, and it’s releasing in Africa on the 17th, on Netflix. I know my auntie knows I’ve made a film inspired by her, but they’re not really cinemagoers so I don’t expect them to watch it.
7R: At what point did you decide to structure Farewell Amor by replaying the story three times from each of the family member’s perspectives?
Ekwa Msangi: As part of planning for this film, my producing partner Huriyyah Muhammad and I decided to make a short prequel called Farewell Meu Amor. It’s the moment before Walter goes to the airport to collect his family. I shot that in 2016 and put it out in 2017, and had been touring at festivals and doing different things with it.
When I started writing the feature, Walter’s story was the most prominent, but it felt a little cliche to tell a story about a man having an affair. I considered doing it from the daughter’s point of view, but Black girls dancing automatically just becomes a teenage dance movie, and I didn’t want it to be categorised that way. So I decided to do it from both perspectives, the father and daughter. Then it became pretty clear not too long after that that the mom’s story was really the lynchpin for both of them. It didn’t make sense not to have Esther’s story in there. So it turned into a triptych.
7R: Can you talk about casting the film? All three lead actors are so amazing.
Ekwa Msangi: We got so lucky. Ntare, who plays Walter, is an old friend of mine. He’s a wonderful filmmaker, and we’ve had films travel at festivals together. We met many years ago, and he’s also from East Africa. He’s from Uganda, and my family’s from Tanzania. We had always wanted to find a project that we could work on together. I asked him to do the short; he wasn’t able to. When the feature came up, we were really excited to do that. He really went out of his way to make that possible.
Both Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson came through casting. I had known of Zainab’s work through the theatre scene as she’s very big in the theatre scene in New York, and has done some really amazing on- and off-Broadway shows. She’s just a powerful actress. She came in and just decimated the audition. There wasn’t anybody else really in comparison.
Jayme had a very rigorous audition process. We needed someone who could do the accent, who could act, and who could dance. We just loved her from casting. I’m so, so pleased that we have the three of them and all the other actors involved. Everyone really brought their full selves to the project.
7R: What kind of preparation did you do with the actors before shooting?
Ekwa Msangi: I had about two weeks of prep. A lot of it was dialect work. They were working with a dialect coach every single day for about two hours a day. They had about two hours a day with the choreographer for two weeks. Then, they’d have time with me and wardrobe.
I decided that I didn’t want us to work on the script itself. I wanted the script to be as fresh and awkward as possible. We did a lot of improv work to establish their relationships before. So improvising scenes of the first trip the visa got rejected, or the first time Sylvia didn’t come home on time because she was at a dance party, or when Walter had to tell Linda that his family was going to show up.
7R: When did dancing come into Farewell Amor?
Ekwa Msangi: Dancing was always kind of there for me. I have been a lover and practitioner of dance for a very long time and had been practicing Angolan dance for several years as I was getting ready to write this project.
The style of dance that Walter practices is called Kizomba, which is a very beautiful, sensual couple’s dance from Angola. What’s unique about Kizomba, unlike other couple’s dance, is it doesn’t have a regular foot pattern. Your feet aren’t doing the same thing over and over. The leader of the dance is just responding to the music, and the other person in the dance has to be connected to the leader in order to know where to go. If there is no connection, then there is no dance. I thought that was such an interesting metaphor for a relationship: these people had a connection, were dance partners at one point, and have now literally fallen out of step, and are trying to come back.
For Sylvia, the style that she practices is Kuduro, a very high energy, young dance also from Angola. On the surface, even though it just seems like any other hip hop style, the young people actually use Kuduro to address a lot of really important social issues and things they’re upset about. For a young African girl, who wouldn’t have the permission to have a tantrum or talk back to her parents, this would be one way she could comfortably express herself and show who she is and what she cares about. I wanted to use dance to create another language for these characters so that we get a glimpse of what’s happening underneath.
7R: How did you work out how to shoot those dances?
Ekwa Msangi: It was a lot of planning. I had a wonderful collaborator in my director of photography, Bruce Francis Cole. We talked about the importance of dance. We watched a number of dance films, just trying to figure out how to capture it in a way that was beautiful but also moved the story forward.
We’re telling a story with dance. We also had a wonderful choreographer, Manuel Kanza. He’s a beautiful Angolan choreographer who I’ve been stalking for many years. It turns out that he was going to be in New York for the summer, and he agreed to work with us. He choreographed all the dancing in the film. We worked together to figure out certain moves that we really wanted. Bruce and I went to the dance studio to watch them [the actors] practicing and figure out how to shoot it.
With Sylvia, in general, for her chapter, we decided to shoot all handheld. We wanted it to be active and fluid and have a lot of energy, so the dance was also all handheld. That was just Bruce playing and trying different things and seeing how it felt. For Walter, all of his scenes were actually on tripod, so even though there was a lot of fluidity in that dance, we had it on a track, and we did a lot of circulating. It was really just the differences in how we wanted to capture each character to tell their story and to give insight into what their emotional state was at that point.
7R: How did you approach shooting the third story, which is Esther’s story?
Ekwa Msangi: For Esther, she spends a lot of time observing and paying a lot of attention to details, almost investigating in some ways. We wanted a lot of close shots, so we changed the lenses and got a lot closer to things where we were able to really push in and see the things she’s seeing and noticing. It was also still on a tripod but just a lot closer shots.
Walter, for example, has a lot of wider shots, although with the size of a lot of the locations, and specifically that apartment, some of those locations dictated how we were going to be able to shoot things.
7R: Could you tell me a bit more about collaborating with your DoP, Bruce Francis Cole, to devise the film’s aesthetic?
Ekwa Msangi: We had a lot of conversations about influences, what sort of cinematic influences we wanted to use for each chapter. For Walter’s chapter, it was a lot of slow cinema, really observing Walter from afar and watching him in this space: a lot of wider shots where he’s kind of stuck between two hard surfaces, like a window or a doorframe, because he is kind of stuck between two hard places.
For Sylvia, it was a lot of handheld, tracking shots, high energy. Some of it was almost too much so we had to bring it down. We looked at a lot of references for that. Andrew Dosunmu’s film, Mother of George, was a wonderful reference for us. Andrew is a master when it comes to cinematography, specifically when it comes to capturing images of Black people and making them look beautiful and royal.
We were very specific about how we wanted to capture their skin, really highlighting their melanin and the colours in the scene. It wasn’t necessarily that everything needed to be super hyper colourful, but we were being very particular about how we capture them, and wanting to be really special about it. It’s not that often that we get these kinds of films, so we might as well go all out
7R: The clothes the characters wear are so important, and there are even scenes where they discuss or worry over their choice of clothing. How did you create their wardrobes?
Ekwa Msangi: I brought in a lot of my own wardrobe for some of Esther’s pieces and the neighbour’s pieces. We talked a lot about the importance of certain types of jewelry, wearing headscarfs versus not wearing headscarfs, and their hair. For example, Sylvia’s hair and makeup did a whole transformation, from something a lot more simple to trying different colours as she’s expanding and blooming.
For Esther, we chose demure or polite outfits, but she does have a sense of style and flair to her, as well. We wanted to contrast her with the neighbour who’s a lot more sensual and free with her body, with a low cleavage line and things like that. These are two women of about the same age, and one is very religious and super demure, and the other one is also religious but not very demure.
Walter is a taxi driver, but we see him expand a little when he goes to the dance club. We see a different side of him when he takes out his special dance shoes and dance hat and he’s sort of ready to go; he has a change of wardrobe in his taxi right away.
7R: The neighbour character, Nzingha (Joie Lee), is such a great character in the film. Why did you decide to write her into the story?
Ekwa Msangi: New York City, but Brooklyn, in particular, is very much a character in this film. For this story, we’re looking at immigrants that live in Brooklyn, but you can’t talk about Brooklyn without talking about some of the other characters who live in Brooklyn, like Nzingha. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for many years, and I know several people who are exactly like that: who take very seriously their African religious practice, the clothes, the beads, the oils, and the incense. I wanted to have that representation.
Right from the beginning, I knew there was going to be somebody like that. When I was writing Esther’s character, I wanted her to have her secret pal in the film. It made sense to have a character about the same age and equally as religious. You have this African woman who’s so intent on practicing this western religion and being very obedient with it, and you have this western, African American woman who’s very intent on not practicing this African religion. At the same time, they’re able to meet each other halfway and not judge each other, but to be really wonderful support and pals to each other.
7R: And how did you end up casting Joie Lee?
Ekwa Msangi: She came through our casting director. Initially, we had a lot of younger women come to audition for that role, and it felt a little cliche. My casting director suggested maybe we need someone a little older and more mature, who would be a peer for Esther, who Esther might listen to and trust but still be a little bit suspicious of.
She thought of Joie, and I was just so excited, Joie comes from Brooklyn royalty. She’s been in so many films set in Brooklyn, and of course, her brother [Spike Lee] being who he is as a filmmaker and in the film world, I’ve seen so much of her work and was just so in awe of her. She knows that character so well. It was a great honour to have her play that character.
7R: Walter’s apartment is such an important space in the film, because it tells us about Walter’s history, and it’s also a space that starts changing once two new people move into it. How did you design that space?
Ekwa Msangi: We talked a lot about that with the production design team: the evolution of the space, being very specific about what shows up at what point. When they move in, how bare is it? It’s not quite a man cave. It’s a man cave, but there was a woman’s influence at some point. It wasn’t rats running free. It wasn’t terrible; it was liveable. It just wasn’t very homey or beautiful. And maybe it had been.
I don’t know how much we actually get to see [in the finished film], but when we were location scouting, there were places that had this wonderful, delicious [nark on the wall] where you could see that there had been a photo or a picture frame, but now the picture was gone. It needed to be a little run down. We were able to find somewhere that really worked, and had this really awkward layout, as well.
When Esther comes in, she starts adding her little things and flairs. Walter begins to notice things are changing, but it also becomes a little uncomfortable for him.
7R: How did you approach the sound design in the film?
Ekwa Msangi: Oh my God, I love sound design so much! I actually have a background in location sound, post-production sound, and music, as a young person, so that was the point that I was just dying to get to. I had a wonderful sound designer, Arjun [G. Sheth]. We started working with him before we finished the edit, just talking about how to use the sound design as a whole other character, to give it space.
That apartment had these really skinny walls, and you could hear everything. So constantly having the neighbours or the sirens or the kids or the footsteps [audible in the sound mix]. That gives it a whole other environment to it.
And even with the music, the scene where Walter’s dancing with Linda, we wanted to really put us in their shoes and experience, so we gave the music a little bit of a reverb. It has a dreamy effect to it, so it feels like we’re swirling around with them as they’re dancing.
We also got to invite friends to come in and do background sounds here and there for crowds and churches. That was definitely one of the highlights of working on the film.
7R: Were there different sound approaches for the three sections of the film?
Ekwa Msangi: Not in the same way that we did visually. It was more of a general approach, but there were certain scenes we were very specific about. With Sylvia’s climactic dance scene, we thought about how to make it as big and climactic as possible, while also being inside of her experience. There’s parts where the sound isn’t as present as others. We’re in her mind where she’s taking it all in. There’s parts where she’s in the room. It goes back and forth. Just a lot of crowd sounds, trying to make it as big and overwhelming as possible. It’s not that she’s drowning in it, but she’s definitely having to make an effort to stay afloat.
There’s a point where I think Walter tells a lie, and there’s a dog that barks in the background, or a siren somewhere. Little things that were funny and playful to us. When the neighbour’s arguing on the phone, we had to create a whole other thing of the boyfriend’s voice [on the other line] and what he’s saying, which nobody really gets to hear, but it was so fun for us to do that. It helped to lift the story just a little bit.
7R: What are you working on next?
Ekwa Msangi: It’s not a project that I can talk about quite yet, but I do have a project I’m lined up to work on. It’s a much bigger project, and it’s taking a little bit more time to prepare for. It’s set here in the US, and it’s a period piece.
Farewell Amor is now available on Mubi in the UK and in virtual cinemas in the US.
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