Interviews

Parsing the Real and Unreal Stories of the Zambian Space Academy

As Nuotama Frances Bodomo’s short film Afronauts debuts online, the director discusses de-centering hero narratives and the weaponizing of reality against African stories.

From Afronauts (2014), directed by Nuotama Bodomo (all images courtesy the filmmaker)

In 1964, amid the Cold War and on the eve of Zambia’s independence from Britain, schoolteacher and activist Edward Mukuka Nkoloso told an Associated Press reporter, “Some people think I’m crazy, but I’ll be laughing the day I plant Zambia’s flag on the moon.” Five years before the US would launch Apollo 11, Nkoloso was busy running Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. His goal: Land 16-year-old Matha Mwamba, an astronaut-in-training, on the moon.

For filmmaker Nuotama Frances Bodomo, the question of whether Matha would make it to the moon is almost irrelevant. While “based on true events,” her 2014 short Afronauts renders the story of the Zambian Space Program as a dreamlike work of speculative fiction, contemplating the larger ramifications of launching the Black body into space against the backdrop of the independence movements taking place across the African continent in the 1960s. Shot in luminous black and white, Afronauts debuted at Sundance and Berlin before making the rounds at numerous other film festivals and appearing in various exhibitions. 

Filmmaker Nuotama Bodomo

Since then, Bodomo’s writing and directorial credits have included the darkly comedic short Everybody Dies and episodes of HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness. Most recently, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, she partnered with Vernac Media and Boiler Room’s 4:3 to release Afronauts online, for free. But as Bodomo recounts below, the story was never meant to be confined to a short. She has spent the last few years conceptualizing, researching, and building relationships in preparation for shooting a feature-length version. Hyperallergic sat down with Bodomo to discuss the importance of de-centering hero narratives, the weaponizing of reality against African stories, and her process for adapting “the real and unreal stories” of the Zambian Space Academy into a feature.

This interview was conducted over the phone and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Hyperallergic: How did you first find your way to filmmaking?

Nuotama Bodomo: I found my way to filmmaking because of a language problem that came out of the way I grew up. I had a very migratory childhood. I was born in Ghana, raised there but also grew up in Norway and Hong Kong, and California for a very short time. I grew up in this cross-section of languages and cultures … but I almost felt I didn’t have a native language myself. I also didn’t grow up in a house where we watched a lot of movies. When I moved to America to go to college, it was just this very big opening of like, wow, people talk about movies here like I’ve learned to talk about literature.

… Another aspect is that [filmmaking] is such a specific and successful colonizing tool that’s been used against my people, you know? There’s this core work to do and undo at the same time, and I think that creates a very active love for this form and this medium.

H: You can’t see me right now, but I’ve been nodding my head very vigorously for the past couple of minutes. I couldn’t agree more about the use of film as a medium of oppression, especially when it comes to considering the various histories of ethnography …

NB: Yeah! I love that you’ve mentioned ethnography, because I used to be like ‘Fuck ethnography,’ and just completely against it … I resented the fact that so many of the earliest images, pictures, and videos of Africans are colonial images. In more recent years, I’ve actually come to see myself as an ethnographer, and I’m very interested in the realities of culture, especially [those] that are being erased under globalization.

… I bring that up to say that there are other power dynamics around the camera that are even yet to be explored, and are away from the maybe more traditional anthropological, ethnographic way of understanding power dynamics …

Diandra Forrest in Afronauts

H: Agreed. I think that filmmaking has always been this kind of battleground of who gets the right to which image and who gets to control the folks in those images. I want to also turn to Afronauts a little bit. It was your second film after Boneshaker — a short that meditates on belonging through the lens of a Ghanaian family in rural Louisiana. Could you talk briefly about what attracts you to your subjects, and how you first came across the Zambian space program?

NB: I got into this practice of re-blogging African media on Tumblr. This was a very different era, when a lot of the language around redefining the image of Africa was like ‘Let’s preach to them that we are not all pot-bellied kids.’ My Tumblr became a space to really create an online Africa. It was in that practice that I first came across newsreel video of the Afronauts. It was this British reporter who had gone to Zambia to report on [them], and he ends the video with this sardonic way, like, ‘To most Zambians, these people are a bunch of crackpots, and from what I’ve seen today, I agree.’

It was this African story that in its absurdity and just out-there-ness was completely bucking anything to do with proving ourselves for a Western gaze. It was completely out of it in a very affirming way that’s brought up a lot more questions than it’s answered … it so perfectly encapsulates a kind of everyday absurdity that’s part of African life … then on top of that, [it’s a story] that’s like a big ‘Fuck you’ to the respectability that often accompanies trying to tell bigger African stories. Five — no, eight years later, I’m still obsessively in this world.

H: That makes a lot of sense, and points back to what you said about trying to reshape the way certain stories are told. Something I’ve always appreciated about the short is the way that you point to this very brutal side of patriotism, by teasing out Matha’s awareness of the fact that putting her country’s space program on the map may very well cost her life. Can you talk to me about some of the concerns you were weighing when adapting elements of this story into fiction?

NB: I think with these big ideas, big dreams, big ideologies … there’s always that question of the foot soldier … the people whose blood, sweat, and tears, or labor, or even just safety, get put on the line in order to hold up these narratives. I wanted to immediately point to the fact that, as much as it’s great and fun and actually valuable to say ‘We’re going to the moon,’ there’s somebody who actually has to get on that rocket and get blown up, maybe.

From Afronauts

It’s very telling that not only was she a woman, but then, in my kind of artistic licensing of the story, a woman with albinism. I think for me, the albinism was kind of a twofold device … to me, the kind of person who would put their life on the line is somebody who is experiencing a lack of safety around belonging, a person who’s having to prove their worthiness to the group, a person who was still othered. Being so othered is an experience I’ve had as a Black person growing up in places like Norway or Hong Kong … it’s something that very quickly made sense within my brain … so that’s where that albinism angle came in, and it’s an angle that I’m not trying to keep metaphorical. The situation of people with albinism in Zambia is now really built into the [feature], in that we are going to address [the reality] of that as well. I do see a lot of people using people with albinism in visual work just because it looks cool, and I wanted to be very sensitive to not doing that.

H: While we’re on the topic of aesthetics and ideology, could you talk about your decision to shoot in black and white?

NB: I think making it in black and white became very important for many reasons, some of which [were] replicating 1960s African video or images of Africa that you usually see in black and white … [it was] an immediate way to transport us into that era … but then the film also questions the validity and the reality of newsreel. It’s almost like ‘It’s black and white, but is it real?’

In this era, a filmmaker shooting in black and white is most likely shooting in color and then desaturating, though. The question of whether it should it be in color did stick with us, even through part of editing. I ended up screening it for certain people in black and white, and in color just to ask what [the difference] evoked. And the interesting thing was, in color, a lot of factual questions came up. Like, ‘Who are these people? Why are they here? Why are they doing this? Why would they try this?’ And in black and white, I think the questions shifted to more express the otherworldliness of it, and the hypnotic aspect of it …

H: It’s almost as if by nodding to this previous era, which also relates to the trappings of ethnography, you can skirt some of those questions [about veracity].

NB: Right. I just think that that the space opened up is super playful, and enabled us to get at maybe what is more … Maybe the word isn’t ‘real’ but ‘authentic,’ let’s say … I’m always trying to move away from the questions about ‘Did they make it or not? What was their technology? Who funded it?’ These are questions that the movie will bring up and address, but ‘Did they make it or not?’ is so beside the point of this attempt. It’s a story that is so much more about the failure of it all …

 

From Afronauts

H: You’ve used the word ‘authentic’ a few different times in terms of how you tell stories. Let’s explore the tension between this idea of the authentic and what it means to create fictional narratives.

NB: I do think that there’s a way in which reality is weaponized against Africans … there is this tradition and legacy of the camera or documentation being [a tool] of scrutiny, examining, educating, teaching … like even the earliest Ghanian films that were made by the colonial authorities were these educational films, like ‘Mr. Mensa learns how to wash his hands.’

… This is generalizing, but I do think that more so than other places I’ve been, there’s an unreal layer in African life that I think needs to be pointed to, to truly tell African life … the liberty of fiction to sort of tell a story away from the balance of reality, or what we’re calling reality. I don’t want to call that ‘Western culture,’ that would be too much.

H: [laughs] That would be a little hotep, but that’s okay.

NB: [laughs] I think that we just need a space that is away from the rules … to truly be able to bend and break and truly tell stories in a new way, using new methodologies and new forms that bend and break cinematic language … fiction offers the space to be more playful, and therefore attempt to be more truthful about African stories.

H: I’m really curious about the different contexts the short has screened in. It debuted at Sundance, and then went to Berlin and other festivals before screening in numerous exhibitions. Could you talk about the experience of presenting it in both film and art contexts, and the receptions it’s had?

NB: I think if I’m being most honest, I went into art spaces with this defensiveness, like ‘It’s cool if you want to screen the film, but I’m a filmmaker’ … I come from a different tradition, or let’s say discipline, but also, maybe I fear that, if I’m being honest, my work can read as very “Hollywood” next to video art and art film. But very generally, I’ll say that the reception has been good. I’m very excited by the fact that the film has gotten to have two coinciding conversations around it. At once, it is speaking to the film canon or what because the shots themselves reference a movie like Joan of Arc; it’s speaking to silent cinema and the need back then to even create film language. On the other hand, in the art context, it’s playing in this era when people are really critiquing and breaking down what it means to even make a film, or what film language even is.

H: Let’s continue talking a little bit about the film’s reception. What has it been like on the continent, and in Zambia specifically?

NB: The film played in Zambia at the Lusaka Film Festival in 2015. I didn’t get to go there, and truthfully, I didn’t get any feedback from it. I’ve had people come up to me and be like ‘We loved it’ or ‘We enjoyed it,’ but nothing concrete that I could mention here. What I will say is that, especially this time around when it went online … feedback came back around albinism. That’s definitely something that people point to a lot more. It played in Rwanda a few years ago … there, too, the albinism came up … It hasn’t all been ‘Great, a person with albinism!’ I do get a lot of questions around, what are my motives? ‘Do you know that people with albinism deal with a lot in this country or that country?’ Those are questions where I take the time to search out the person and answer to them.

I think that for me, especially in Zambia, I do get very defensive, let’s say, about the short versus what the feature will be, just because the short was very much a fever dream production, shot in New Jersey and Brooklyn. I’m very much proud of that short, and I know that it was necessary in order to gather the resources to make this feature, but I do get scared about presenting it to Zambians who might be like, ‘This isn’t Zambia at all.’

From Afronauts

H: I think you point very astutely to the imposter syndrome we all feel when it comes to doing a project of this scale, particularly if it’s related to something that you don’t feel you have ‘ownership’ over, though the idea of ownership is so complicated.

NB: Yeah, I think it comes up a lot in response to certain global philanthropic narratives. A lot of people are turning to this idea that the local trumps everything. I think that the local becomes the preferred solution to the oppressive globalization that we’re living under. I get it, and I also think that a local ethos is really important, [but] I’m also somebody for whom it’s very hard to answer the question of where my local is. I’m only a Ghanaian citizen — that’s the only place I have citizenship in the world — but I live in America, and because of my childhood have been bouncing around a lot.

If we are to land on the local for everything, it can create a kind of an erasure of migrant lifestyles, which shouldn’t be [the case], especially as we talk about immigration in this country. For me, I’m thinking through how to foreground the collaborative aspects because it’s necessary, given that I’m not from Zambia. I think it would be necessary even if I were from Zambia, but my foreignness is highlighting and foregrounding the need to think collaboratively across every aspect of the filmmaking.

H: I think that what you’re saying about this larger sentiment of focusing on the local over the global brings up larger issues about whether that value system is always compatible with what it means to think about diaspora.

NB: Yeah, I think that the caricature of a person that’s used to critique the global is this high-powered, maybe like billionaire philanthropic jet-setter … I don’t deny that or erase that … but I think there’s a way in which we erase a certain diasporic and migrant experience if we focus too much on the local trumping everything to overcome cultural appropriation.

H: Agreed, I think you need an awareness of the global to have a sense of how you can ethically engage with what is local to you. I wanted to ask, what it’s been like to revisit the film, five years after its release, and to put it out into the world again, both for free and in full online?

NB: At the end of the day, I think I was just ready to put it online as a way of truly releasing it, in the sense that I’m on this path with the feature and I do not want to even have to follow the short in the way that I used to do anymore. Also, with the 50th anniversary [of Apollo 11], I just felt it was time.

Afronauts is a big and very strange story, and so there’s just so many ways into it. It was bringing together and situating so many different aspects of African life, Zambian life, but also the ways in which we conceptualize Africa and blackness in general. I think it’s always been bigger than the 14 minutes that the short was … I was always going to adapt it into a feature. All of this has been part of the feature filmmaking process and making the short was a way to understand the story … I think all these other paths I’ve been through, like making Collective: Unconscious or being part of Random Acts of Flyness, have all been a part of the feature filmmaking.

H: What are some of your hopes for the Afronauts feature once it’s finished?

NB: The thing I’ll point to is just really being very intentional about where it plays and how it’s playing for African audiences. I do think that Afronauts (the feature) will have a version of its life where it’s going to play internationally from Zambia and in whatever film festivals, or maybe even pick up distribution and have that life. I’m not against that, but I do think that when it comes to African film distribution, a lot of bigger companies don’t necessarily know how exactly film gets watched on the African continent … I just say this to say in addition to the more traditional ways of distributing a film, the film would be, to me, useless really, if it didn’t get screened in African countries in a way that Africans would watch it.

Afronauts is now streaming for free via Vernac Media.  

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