The director of eye-popping short Rebirth is Necessary discusses her thoughts on sound, vision and blackness.
Jenn Nkiru: 'For me, Moonlight represents the potential of black cinema'
What’s your connection to the British Council? Any future collaborations in the pipeline?
My current connection is through the Short Film Travel Grant Fund, which has been of incredible assistance as it allowed me to travel to International Film Festival Rotterdam where my film Rebirth is Necessary screened. Future collaborations – hopefully!
What are you working on right now?
I've recently completed new work for a brilliant jazz musician by the name of Kamasi Washington which I'm really excited about. Watch Fists of Fury and Space Travelers Lullaby.
What/who originally turned you onto film?
I've always been obsessed with the relationship between sound and vision so that was how it began for me. Then I went to film school in America for three years where I got my MFA in film directing and I was opened up to so much: African film, Italian film, Korean film, French film, Cuban film, early Soviet film etc. It all completely blew my whole world open and took my creative curiosity to new heights. In my films, sound, vision and music have equal importance with sound and music often taking on character roles.
What has been your career high so far?
Making my film Rebirth is Necessary has been the biggest highlight of my career so far – I love that film so much as it's my most honest piece of work to date. It's straight from my mind's eye and represents, on a micro level, everything I want to do in film, story-, form- and style-wise.
To see how beautifully people have been engaging with it globally has been one of the most humbling feelings. It was released in September 2017 and since then I have received at least one email, text, message, tweet etc per day from someone letting me know how it affected them – I just got another message whilst writing this.
What was your first job in the film industry?
I started as a runner/PA on TV shows and films when I was 15. I've worked in every department. My first proper job in the industry came when I was 20, working as a commissioning assistant at Channel 4 where I got an opportunity to work for Film 4 also.
What's a key piece of advice you’d give to someone starting off in filmmaking?
I would say never hesitate to go for what you truly want to do. Just keep going, keep pushing. If you're at the place where it seems super hard and/or it's just not going your way DO NOT STOP, keep on and go even harder – this point is the testing point, the tipping point of your evolution. It's the point at which your greatest breakthroughs and development will happen, if you keep on, but it's also the point at which you will come undone if you choose to stop. It's all your choice, never forget that.
Rebirth is Necessary
What is your favourite British film?
Definitely Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold. Brilliant, brilliant filmmaking. It's substance over style yet so stylistically confident.
If you could have directed/been involved with any film ever made, which one would it be?
I'm yet to see a film I would have made, which is why filmmaking is so necessary for me. However a contemporary film I admire is Moonlight by Barry Jenkins. This film for me represents the potential of black cinema (cinema not film, as there is a difference) when given the space to be free and tell our stories, in all their layers. For me, Moonlight represents possibility within cinema: to be black, to be layered, to be indie, to be arthouse, to critique gender and masculinity, particularly black masculinity – and for all this to be universal.
I'm very interested in the concept of black universality – a centring of blackness from which others can also empathise and assign an aspect of themselves. I'm very interested in this conversation and for me, Moonlight does a great job of contributing to this.
Rebirth is Necessary
What’s the first film you remember seeing? What was so memorable about it?
I am a huge admirer of, and will forever be an admirer of, three filmmakers: Maya Deren, Oscar Michaux and Akira Kurosawa – seeing their films opened me up to the potential of film and what it it means to be an auteur, which as a filmmaker is the pocket I want to be in.
What’s your favourite scene from a film?
I adore the opening shot of Soy Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov – what a feat, especially at that time! What he did with the frame was just so wonderful.
Who’s your favourite screen hero or villain?
I don't have favourites but most recently, watching Black Panther, I really enjoyed Erik Killmonger's character. Normally super-villains don't tend to have a depth or clarity to their motivations but I found Killmonger as an antagonist to be quite profound as his frustrations so directly linked to real frustrations of many globally, only his have manifested dangerously in extremist ways. This makes for a really interesting and layered exchange between hero and antihero in this context. It really stuck out to me.
Who would play you in the film about your life?
Ha! This is something I've never thought about but I think it would have to be an unknown actor – someone fresh who I could mould!