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Interview with the writer of BELLE – Misan Sagay

written by Leslie Pitt
10/06/14

 

 

Leslie Pitt went to Kenwood House in Hampstead, London and spoke with screenwriter Misan Sagay about her upcoming feature; Belle, which will be theatrically released on June 13th.

Belle was inspired by a painting in St Andrew’s university, do you often find yourself inspired by art?
dido paintingNot really, oddly enough. I tend to be much more inspired by stories told by people. As you probably know; I’m a doctor when I’m not doing this, so I hear many stories every day, so I’m not usually inspired by art. Therefore looking at the painting and finding it so inspiring was an unusual thing. There are times when something really strikes a chord. Walking into that bedroom, seeing the painting and noticing that she wasn’t named, that was a seminal moment for me.

You were a medical student at the time, now an Award winning writer as well.  I must ask, what inspired the leap into writing?
As a Black women, I never saw myself on screen. I went to the cinema constantly as I love movies yet I never saw myself. I became increasingly frustrated. I said to myself: This is the narrative art form of our times! I wanted to watch my stories. So I began to write and the first thing I wrote was made! So it was a rather usually way into filmmaking.

Despite the advent of online, with the web being so important to us now, especially in the way of telling stories, do you still find that Black orientated stories are struggling  to break into the mainstream?
I don’t think they’re struggling to break through. I think people underestimate that our stories are more universal than often believed. When you look throughout history, we’ve been there. So we’ve had our stories, they just haven’t been told. I think part of the human experience is wanting to hear these stories. These stories aren’t just for us. They echo throughout so many different paths. So I think, we don’t make enough of them. I think we’d be surprised on just how huge the audience is when they’re made. Look at (the US TV series) Scandal.

The film itself has a very mannered feel of a Jane Austin story, yet the film has a really warm, modern approach to it. Was it hard to merge this combination of old and new?
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It was. I think for me, going into this and wanting to write a love story was exactly the sort of ordinary humanity (I wanted to bring). We witness the day to day life of Belle, her loves, the things that matter to her. We’re with her at very intimate moments. I also think it was important for her to have a love story that wasn’t a thwarted one. People have asked me why I had a happy ending, because part of the cinematic convention is as Black people, we don’t (get happy endings). So come hell and high water Belle was going to have a happy ending in this film, she was going to get it all. Because that feeling of watching her struggle to find herself, demanding love and respect for what she was and getting it, I think is a great story. I certainly experienced that as warmth.

Screenplays get edited to a certain degree. They have to be quite tight before they can go on the screen. Was there anything that you would have liked to have seen expressed, which got left out?
No. In a way this wasn’t like that. There were different ways this story could go. One of the things I was asked a lot at the press junket in America was why didn’t we see the slaves (of the Zong slave ship)?  Whenever there’s a screenplay like this there’s always a lot (of material) and while we learn so much about Belle and the Zong, at some stage it has to be streamlined. You have to take the best of the elements. You must have these aspects of the story distilled. I think much of the story is distilled in the character of Belle herself. When it’s all said and done when the story is centred on her, you can’t go wrong.

Misan Sagay

The writer of Belle – Misan Sagay

You’ve mentioned in a piece for the Huffington Post: “From the start I avoided all the clichés, like the Black character who earns the acceptance of the white characters through superhuman feats of generosity and saint like goodness.” Is this something you still find stifling in modern storytelling?

I do. The pressure to do that (writing cliché) can be quite intense. You look around and you realise none of the white characters have to be virtually Francis of Assisi. It’s one of the cinematic clichés I most loathe. I don’t use that word lightly. I loathe having to sit there and watch a Black character begging for acceptance.

For me this was a film about agency. I didn’t want the film to be about Belle being freed or her earning her way. I wanted her to come in and say this no longer my moment of asking but a demand of her rights, respect and love. On her terms. It’s about a Black women saying ‘I am what I am and I like what I am’.

Apart from avoiding common cliches and “Wilberforcing” (rousing speeches by white characters to “save” the Black characters) what else did you do to keep Belle’s independence within the story?
By making it always about Belle and what she wants. I made sure Belle is the centre of the story, however much she was surrounded by people, whose stories are more familiar. I wanted to show Belle’s agency in the story and that she was a positive force.
When you look at what happened with the slavery story we have to ask what was taken? It wasn’t just our bodies or our spirits, but what almost didn’t survive was our stories. The ability to tell our own stories, craft our own narrative and tell the stories we wanted to tell. Now this is the moment that we’re able to do that. We’re telling our stories our way. In having a story with a character like Belle, her point in the story is to demand respect and not have to beg for it.

 

Leslie Pitt

Belle is released in cinemas on June 13th.
Watch the trailer here
Read our review here 

Film Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

       Two views of the movie from our writers Samira Sawlani and Leslie Pitt

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To make a film based on a book is often a poisoned chalice for filmmakers. Not only do they face the usual challenge of creating a piece of entertainment which will please an audience, but they have the added pressure of doing justice to the story upon which it is based and managing the expectations of its readers. So spare a thought for playwright, novelist, screenplay writer and now film director Biyi Bandele who took on the mammoth task of bringing to the big screen ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, the award winning novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The book stands as powerful literary piece which, through the eyes of four characters, tells the heart-wrenching story of the rarely discussed Nigerian civil war which took place between 1967 and 1970.
Before filming began, there was much controversy over bi-racial actress Thandie Newton being chosen to play the leading role of Olanna, a Nigerian woman hailing from the Igbo tribe. To give credit where it is due, Newton manages to delivers some powerful scenes. However, the question of whether a Nigerian actress such as Genevieve Nnaji (who has a small guest role in the film) should have been cast as Olanna is an issue worthy of discussion.

The film begins with excellent real life footage of the Queen visiting Nigeria, indeed the continuous usage of historical documentation as the plot develops gives the film context and an added authenticity.

The opening scenes show Olanna (Newton) and non-identical twin sister Kainene (played by the astounding Anika Noni Rose) as girls from a wealthy Lagos family dressed in the latest fashions and speaking in posh accents at Nigerian Independence Day celebrations.

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Unlike in the book, where the sisters are a major part of a greater plot filled with a complexity of characters, the film is built around the relationship between the siblings and how it reflects the turmoil facing a country as it descends into war.

Slowly we see the introduction of other characters such as Olanna’s lover Odenigbo, the academic armchair revolutionary played by the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor, Richard, the white English writer who falls in love with Kainene, and Ugwu (played by John Boyega), Odenigbo’s observant yet silent houseboy, a character so central in the book, yet underused in the film.
Much focus is put upon Olanna’s relationship with Odenigbo, its many upheavals ranging from infidelity to disapproval from his mother (a show stealing performance by Onyeka Onwenu) who describes Olanna as a ‘witch’.  We see Olanna leaving behind her lavish Lagos lifestyle to join her lover in Nsukka and ultimately it is this decision which sees her living in Biafra and then being plunged into relative poverty, and her betrayal of Kainene which ultimately tears apart the relationship between the sisters. In the background we see the coming of war, subtle references to strikes and tribal tensions take place in the dialogue between characters, while simultaneously we are drawn into the everyday realities which they face.
By keeping focus on Olanna and Kainene, the director misses out on the opportunity to have created a masterpiece which would have done justice to the reality of post-colonial Nigeria and the Biafra war. But for all its weaknesses, there are many aspects of the film which deserve praise and are enough reason to go see it.

BombsBlow_HOAYSForemost is the chilling and raw depiction of the war, certain scenes of violence and chaos leave the viewer in shock at just how easily forgotten the conflict was despite its horrific impact. Some of the more emotionally ridden scenes have an atmosphere which is palpable.

The parts of the film which were filmed on location in Nigeria do full justice to the lush greenery and beauty of a country which is all too often associated with more negative matters, indeed one cannot help but relish in the aesthetics of some of the scenery.
The attention to detail and authenticity in terms of decor, furniture, costumes and the atmosphere in every scene is superb. The clothing worn by the female characters not only ooze accuracy in terms of history and fashion, but are likely to impress any follower of fashion.  Similarly the music transports one back to the era of Miriam Makeba and Eartha Kitt and draws in the viewer as every song or piece of music perfectly complements the scene it accompanies.

It is likely that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s success in 12 Years A Slave will draw in the crowds and although his fans will not be disappointed, the highlights really are the scene stealing performances by Anika Noni Rose, Onyeka Onwenu and John Boyega, all of whom are sadly not used enough.
Overall Half of a Yellow Sun delivers a few scenes of poignancy and raw emotion which would leave any viewer speechless.

By Samira Sawlani

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Half a Yellow Sun is an interesting yet flawed piece that employs its high quality cast to help bypass its flustering narrative. Through one can’t fault the films ambition; as an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed novel, the film’s structure and screenplay doesn’t measure up to the detail that is clearly set in the book.

Set against the Nigerian-Biafran civil war of the sixties; the film tells the tale of two well educated, politically opposed sisters whose personal decisions to stay in Africa, not only shock their family but set in motion a series of events and conflicts that dramatically shape their lives.

It’s clear from the very beginning that Half a Yellow Sun has a vast scope. The film tries to encompass three years of war and a variety of family dynamics as well as trying to showcase Nigeria and its varied cultural and political landscapes. We delve head-first into traditional versus modern family tensions, household, gender and wider politics and perspective on class with little time to breathe. However the screenplay is far too light to juggle the pins and first-time director Biyi Bandele doesn’t have enough of an assured grip with everything as characters, timelines and viewpoints skip and jump with only a small amount of rhythm. Certain characters feel more important than they appear, while others seem to disappear for far too long. There’s a sense that much of the film has been pared down to not only include as much as possible, but to keep an element of structure. Yet the film’s abruptly anti-climatic final third sits awkwardly with the viewer as the credits roll. There simply should be more to it.

half-of-a-yellow-sun-movieHalf a Yellow Sun’s strongest points land with the films well picked cast. Already on a roll with an Academy Awards nomination for 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a weighted amount of complexity to the ‘revolutionary left wing professor’ Odenigbo, while Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls, Princess and the Frog) provides strong opposition as capitalist sister Kainene. John Boyega shows his range in his slightly neglected role of Ugwu, and Thandie Newton, takes all of the plaudits in one of her strongest performances to date. In a display of intelligence and quiet dignity, Newton expresses the type of measured performance that makes you stand up and take notice of just how long the actress has been missing from Hollywood’s narrow gaze.

Half a Yellow Sun firmly places Nigeria in the forefront and does well to help demystify a country which has been clouded by reductive email scam memes and ungainly impressions by people who believe they’re Felix Dexter. There’s a clear desire to highlight the richness of a country with such a complicated history, while the melodramatic nature of the scenes will perhaps find an audience. Unfortunately Half a Yellow Sun does not weigh up to the sum of its parts and as opposed to a landmark piece, it may only weigh up as a footnote.

 by Leslie Pitt

 for a full list of the cast, click here