15th BFI FUTURE FILM FESTIVAL 2022
Section: In Someone Else’s Shoes
An exploration into the mental and emotional impact of racial micro-aggressions.
Hey Adekemi, thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
I’ve been okay if that is something you can even say about the past couple years. It’s been hectic, between managing being sick and a career out of uni. It feels very much like the longest and shortest period of my life at once. I had a lot of milestones which just passed by over the pandemic, like moving, turning 21 (then 22), graduating, having my first film festival run, but I’m excited to be taking steps back into the world and reconnecting after a very disconnected two years.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
It has, during the first lockdown I finished my grad film, Fragments, which went to a few festivals and gave me a trial run of doing panels, meeting people virtually and the whole festival experience online. Not long after that I was accepted onto the BBC New Creatives Scheme where I made Exhale with the help of Resource Productions and Screen South; then the BFI Short Film Development Lab in the southeast and the Black Producers Mentorship with SOUL Fest and Screenskills. Also, because I never seem to give myself a break and always want to give back to the community, I did a few talks and workshops about writing and filmmaking with the Barbican and Idea Space with the Royal Court Theatre.
What does it mean to be screening Exhale at the 15th BFI Future Film Festival?
It’s amazing! It’s always such a pleasant feeling knowing that someone has watched your film and decided that it is worthy to be given a platform for others to see. Especially being such a self-critical filmmaker, it helps to have other people’s reactions to my work to gauge how well I’ve been able to convey the concepts and ideas in my mind on screen or just how people interpret my work. But I am incredibly excited, it’s the first time I’ll be able to attend a festival where a film I made is screening at in person!
Exhale is going to be in the In Someone Else’s Shoes Section of the festival, are there any nerves ahead of the festival?
Oh absolutely, I wish I was someone who wouldn’t get anxious or nervous sharing my work. It's just how I am, I can’t help it. Sharing films, especially when they come from a personal place it’s always nerve-racking because I constantly think what if they don’t get it? What if they don’t like it? Can people relate to it? Or is it even good enough to be against these other films? This is more to do with my own thoughts on my work, the crew and cast were amazing! I’m learning over time that I have no control on how others view my work but all I can hope is they like it and if they don’t that’s fine.
Can you tell me a little bit how Exhale came about, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
It was during the weekend following George Floyd’s death and I saw the videos circulating online, I wasn’t going to watch but I ended up on the video and I felt the raw pain in my stomach to the point where I felt sick, my eyes burned but I couldn’t cry, and my breath just caught in my chest. I wanted to have such an intense reaction to a crime that had happened hundreds of miles away because it felt like it had happened right in front of me. At that time during the pandemic, I was able to become more in touch with my family and during that time I really began to notice moments where I saw them react with that same pain I felt for other reasons, misunderstanding, anger, fear. Each of the characters is inspired from a real element of my family or myself that I feel is at least unique but relevant to real life experience that are relatable.
The whole idea around Exhale is to replicate that choke hold you put yourself in when you want to scream but have to take a deep breath and move on because of the fear of how you’ll be viewed because of the stereotypes about the way you look or where you come from.
When working on a short film like this how close where you able to keep to your script once you started shooting, did you allow yourself much flexibility?
I wanted to be as collaborative with the crew and the cast as possible, I constantly asked for feedback and worked on changing elements that felt authentic to the cast, as I wanted them to channel their own feelings behind their actions. I did have to edit myself though, as at one point this script could have easily been an hour! There are so many instances I wanted to cover that I cut in the end as I wanted to include a broad range of age and gender that could cover enough in just 5 minutes, which really isn’t long!
What has been the biggest challenge you've faced bringing Exhale to life?
The biggest challenge was trying to be as honest as possible without portraying black aggression or violence because it’s easy to go down the route of playing each scene as it happens in the real world. But that isn’t what I wanted to contribute to the conversation, I really wanted to focus on the individual and where they go mentally during these moments. Focusing on their words, their breaths and using camera to really bring you through these moments where they feel caged in and want to react but have learned over time that their reactions cause more damage.
Since making Exhale what has been the most valuable lesson you have taken from making this film?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to listen to myself, know where my limits are and to take breaks rather than try to keep forcing myself through. Like I said before, collaboration is something I welcome in but at the same time after a while, as a writer, getting lots of notes can becoming confusing and alter the direction of a project. I need to make sure I am still making a film that at its core is what I want to make and is as strong as I could possibly make it. So, if that meant taking a break or waiting before pushing a film straight from concept into production then I will take that break. I’ve been doing with my current projects, I’m giving them air and space to grow and develop, a bit like when you want bread to rise. You don’t just add yeast and bake, it wouldn’t taste nice! At the moment my ideas are in the proving drawer, some are further through development than others, but I will just wait and see what project feels like the best next step.
Where did you passion for filmmaking come from?
I always enjoyed storytelling as a kid, but the idea of filmmaking always felt so inaccessible because of where I grew up. It wasn’t something I considered properly until my mid-teens and met people who were in the industry at the BFI Film Academies in Manchester and at the NFTS, where I was given a new awareness to the film industry in the UK and access to independent cinema history which was so new and exciting for me. I remember two films which really moved me and pushed me towards wanting to be a filmmaker was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Moonlight, these films encapsulated what I love about the mediums of intimate storytelling. They hit an emotional chord with me and allowed me for the first time to really lose myself in the visuals, the sounds, the characters, and their worlds. They helped me fall in love with the idea that a story can be so much more than words on a page – it’s the music you choose, the style of the cinematography down to the slight smirk in a reaction. It made stories feel so much bigger, but still so intimate and I wanted to tell my own stories in that way and make others feel the same. Most recently, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You was a huge influence for me to release my own work, I felt inspired not only by her personal story in the show but the way as a black woman she stood her ground and fought for her own project to be made by herself on her terms. It made me feel like I could and want to do the same.
"Slowly you’ll start working things out and don’t let rejections or negatives put you off, because I did, and it hindered my work to a point where I stopped everything because I became too obsessed with what someone would say."
How important is it for you to use your platform to be able to tell minority stories that explore diversity, social realism, social injustice & sexuality?
I’ve always been an activist for minorities, being a queer disabled woman of colour from a working-class background, I know how hard it is dealing with these barriers and I’ve always wanted my work to reflect my core beliefs. Whether it’s in something as little as a music choice or a thematic reference; I like to focus on complex characters who don’t fit in and create cinema to reflect the people and places I grew up surrounded by who you don’t see much of. In any way I can I want to represent the world that exists in some form, which you might not see much of or if you do it may be distorted, and as a filmmaker I want to be a representation that people like me do exist and we can go out and do amazing things. Not despite our differences but because of them. I want to give my siblings the films that would have inspired or made me feel less alone when I was younger.
Do you think filmmakers should continue to push the boundaries of the stories they want to tell?
I always think if you have a story you want to tell and you feel incredibly strongly about it, just go for it. Write it, make a spider diagram, print it out and chop it up if you have to. No one will tell your story like you will, the same way someone couldn’t tell my stories from my perspective. It keeps it interesting to develop new ideas and keep moving with a changing industry because what is the in thing now may not be in 2, 3 or even 5 years.
For anyone out there thinking about making their first film do you have any tips or advice you would offer them?
Just do it and get it out of the way! If you’re anxious like me just go and irritate your family to be actors and direct them. Throughout uni and even now my grandparents, my best friend and even my partner have been voice actors, actors, or models in my work. Slowly you’ll start working things out and don’t let rejections or negatives put you off, because I did, and it hindered my work to a point where I stopped everything because I became too obsessed with what someone would say. If you’re a writer just take time with your project and if you need help, ask someone a friend or a peer, to sit with you and bounce your thoughts off them. There’s no right formula other than to just go for it (which is not very helpful). At the end of the day, we’re making art and if you’re passionate about something and you care about it no one can take that from you. You are the only one capable of getting up and making something, no matter how well made or written it is. Have fun with it and don’t share it if you don’t want to. Figure out what went well and what didn’t, then move onto the next project.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Exhale?
I hope that Exhale bring around some understanding and accountability of the way everyday words and actions that may not be physically violent, it can still be just as damaging and traumatic to someone. For those who relate, I hope that it can ease the weight a little because it’s a shared feeling and that it offers the opportunity for a conversation in some way or another by putting you in their shoes for just a moment that we deal with for a lifetime.