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“In Bloom” Anthology Creators: In Conversation with the Changemakers Who Lend a Voice to Gender Equality

“In Bloom” Anthology Creators: In Conversation with the Changemakers Who Lend a Voice to Gender Equality

In Bloom interview with Folu Storms, Wame Jallow, and Voline Ogutu - Afrocritik

We know that five short films are not necessarily going to radically change the audience’s viewpoints or behaviour, but our hope is that these films help spur long-overdue conversations, [and] lead audiences to question the small, unconscious ways they may be contributing towards inequality.

By Helena Olori, Seyi Lasisi, & Victory Hayzard Solum

Recently, the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, Paramount Global, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partnered to produce In Bloom, a five-part short film anthology focusing on gender equality. Directed by female filmmakers from Nigeria, Kenya, India, the US, and Brazil, the anthology addresses a range of gender-based issues: period poverty, child marriage, gender-based violence, HIV self-stigma, family planning, and women’s economic empowerment. Propelled by the MTV Staying Alive Foundation’s mission of storytelling to change lives and Paramount’s “Content For Change” initiative, the anthology, which premiered on March 8 in commemoration of International Women’s Day, is made not to solely spotlight new voices but to enable conversations that dismantle systemic injustices in support of the UN’s gender equality goal.

The comedy-drama from the US, Period, is written and directed by Nicole Teeny to spotlight the struggles with young girls in underserved schools and access to menstrual products. In the Bengali-language drama, Alta, from India, written and directed by Priyanka Banerjee, a defiant teenager who refuses to come out of the bathroom. This compels her helpless father to seek help to reason with the girl, but things take a turn when their true relationship is revealed. Giuliana Monteiro’s written and directed social realist drama from Portugal follows the story of a mother on the edge of her sanity. Voline Ogutu‘s Kifungo is a sensitive story of self-acceptance after the lead (Brenda Wairimu) discovers that she is HIV positive.  Lastly, rendered in a seamless blend of Yoruba, Nigerian Pidgin, and English-language, Dolapo ‘LowlaDee’ Adeleke’s Aféfé, from Nigeria, follows the story of a beautician (Folu Storms) whose life takes a turn when her ailing mother-in-law moves in unexpectedly. 

Despite the seeming cultural differences in these films, their uniting point is the intimacy shared in their stories. The films take a forceful yet reserved tone, with each short revolving around a singular character and her immediate environment while bringing to the fore the political, social, and systematic challenges of women from across the world.

In this exclusive interview, Afrocritik had a trifecta conversation with Folu Storms, the lead actress in Afefe, Voline Ogutu, the writer and director of Kifungo, and Wame Jallow, Executive Director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation. While the conversation highlights the innovative storytelling and actors’ authentic portrayals, attention was primarily devoted to the women’s story and its societal impacts. 

                                       This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity

Congratulations on the global premiere of your compelling anthology. Why the title In Bloom for this anthology? 

Jallow: The title “In Bloom” was chosen by the writers early on in the process. Every main character in each of the films is facing a life-altering experience in some way, with some making life-changing decisions. The phrase “In Bloom” captures that each character is facing a period of growth and change and is moving on to the next chapters of their lives – they’re growing and essentially blooming. 

Why these specific themes — period poverty, child marriage, gender-based violence, HIV self-stigma, family planning, and women’s economic empowerment — explored in the anthology?

Jallow: We chose a variety of themes that reflect the issues women across the world have to deal with – such as HIV and gender-based violence – and it is important for us to depict these authentically and accurately. But we also wanted to explore topics that are not often depicted on screen but have a huge impact on the lives of women and girls globally, such as child marriage. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), one in every five girls is married before the age of 18, which is a staggering number, but our global audiences may not be aware of this. Period poverty is another example, over 500 million women and girls around the world lack access to menstrual products which is also a surprising statistic audiences may not be aware of. In all, we chose this mix of topics that are all connected, and this helps us reflect on screen that all our struggles as women are interconnected and by bringing attention to root causes of systemic inequalities, we can then take small steps towards equality for women.

Wame Jallow, Executive Director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation
Wame Jallow, Executive Director, MTV Staying Alive Foundation

Ms Storms, can you walk us through the journey of getting to work on the project as Afefe’s lead character?

Storms: It was a simple and unexpected story as stories of this nature tend to be. People often imagine that when big opportunities show up your way, it comes with noise and fanfare. But, in my experience, I find it contrary.  It’s just a seemingly innocuous act. And that innocuous act was Dolapo Adeleke, the director messaging me on IG about a project she is working on and the details. She asked for my availability and interest in auditioning. I had little idea of what the project was about, but as someone who enjoys work and respects the director for projects she has worked on, I was pleased.

After this, I auditioned.  I sent in some self–taped audition videos. I got a message from one of the producers who asked that I get on Afefe. It’s much to the director’s help.  It was also the work of the Staying Alive Foundation, in collaboration with Paramount with funding from Bill Gates Foundation that made it possible. When I found out all these details quite later working on the project, I was excited. 

How about you, Ms. Ogutu? How did you get linked up with the MTV Staying Alive Foundation for the production of the anthology?

 Ogutu: I got an email from the team with an invitation to apply. 

While the various themes explored in these short films are global issues, we understand that every region embraces these issues with varying degrees of importance. What influenced the selection process of the regions and the five female filmmakers spotlighted, and how their voices contribute to the narrative?

Jallow: We worked closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify geographical regions to focus on, as well as priority regions for us as a foundation and Paramount Global. We also wanted to ensure that the collection as a whole was a global one.

Ms Storms, Afefe, where you starred as the lead actress, is told from the POV of Simi, a beautician from a working-class family. Do you connect to Simi’s story, and in what way?

Storms: Simi’s story is told from the point of view of economic empowerment and it’s a story that connects to all women across societal strata. We tend to think of Simi’s story as exclusive to a working-class family.  However, it’s a systemic and global issue. I recognise who Simi is; she is our aunty, neighbour, and friend who is hard-working and has a dream of trying to make an income. For the average Nigerian, I seem quite removed from Simi’s reality due to how I speak and my body carriage. This is possible because of my parents who broke themselves to provide the best education for me. I come from a family of hand workers. My work ethic and who I am come from that lineage of hardworking parents. All these details made it easier to read a story about the character and understand what it’s like, to every day, fight and thrive. 

Regardless of their soci0-economic position, the story of Simi is what people can connect to. Afefe isn’t just to get men and women to recognise Simi. It is to get us to think about things taken for granted in our society such as unpaid labour. It’s to question how conversant people are with supposedly trivial matters that affect society. Afefe and other films in the anthology attempt to push conversations and drive us to action, which accelerates the rate at which women thrive. 

There is a gripping sense of familiarity you brought to the character of Simi. Your face embodies the interior conversation of the character.  How did you prepare for the role? 

Storms: I do tend to be intentional about how I embody a character. I might not have grown under a similar working-class environment as Simi, but I’m a deeply empathic person. As an actor, I take my craft seriously. There are acting texts I frequently refer to when I need to get into a role. Beyond that, I’m very curious and also very observant. There were certain women in my life who I worked with and grew up with that I picked out aspects of them to play Simi’s character.  What unifies a lot of women like Simi is that zeal and drive to work. There’s a lot of unstudied exuberance about them. Regardless of how hardworking they are, they often bring this childlike approach to working. As Nigerians, when we are relaxed, we present this laid-back manner to life. We have a zest for life, regardless of what is happening and life circumstances. It was all these characteristics of the average Nigerian that I put into Simi’s character.  

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Folu Storm Behind the scene

Folu Storms - In Bloom Anthology - Afrocritik

Kifungo meaning Box, tells a story about a girl who feels boxed in by her status as an HIV carrier. Ms. Ogutu, can you give us a hint about how that story came to you?

Ogutu: The story was inspired by the boxes we put ourselves in as people living in a world where social expectations can mould how we see and feel about ourselves. While HIV is the focus, the message goes beyond that. Everyone has something that makes them feel like they are not worthy or good enough. While the first box is society, the second box is our own minds. 

Kifungo is almost one unending loop of dreams as Amina has to deal with the surreal nature of her situation. Still, why the decision to go with dreams? One might take that to mean there is no longer any real-life stigma to the disease and it’s all in the character’s head. What would you say to that?

Ogutu: The stigma is very real. It is through seeing how people living with HIV are treated that one fears the same will happen to them when they learn they are HIV positive. Self-stigma doesn’t happen within a vacuum. Most stories tackling HIV take the perspective of the character’s external environment – the external stigma. Kifungo explores the internal environs of a character who imagines how horrible her life will be when people find out about her status. It’s because of the external stigma that one has to make peace within oneself first to be brave enough to face it. That is the message of the story. It goes back to the box within a box conversation where society is the first box. The box that inspires the mental boxes we create around ourselves whether consciously or subconsciously. It is in that mental box that Amina’s self-stigma plays out, where our own self-stigmas play out; whether it is about our weight, age, skin tone, etc.

You’ve really had quite an interesting career, Ms. Ogutu. When one goes through the list of your works – 40 Sticks, Ayango and the Ogre, and Kifungo – one finds that you have a tendency to lean towards horror a lot. This is especially remarkable considering that the last two deal with social activist messages affecting women. Are there any particular influences and inspirations?

Ogutu: I come from a background of oral narratives. My grandmother was a great storyteller. She told me a lot of interesting short horror stories about ghosts and night runners in our village, each more exciting than the last. And in the end, she always asked me what the meaning behind each story was. That’s what inspired my creative process as a filmmaker. I wanted to tell horror stories with underlying messages linked to social challenges in my community. And over the years my desire has grown. I want to tell stories from an African perspective; but with themes and key messages relatable to a global audience.

IWL Fellow -Voline Ogutu — International Writers' Lab
Voline Ogutu, Kenyan Filmmaker

Staying with Kifungo, from the referenced situation between Amina and the manager at the bakery, there is an undertone of sexual harassment in the story, but the film doesn’t lean too heavily on that. The story is more about Amina learning to live with the consequences, why that specific story choice?

Ogutu: In a lot of cultures in Kenya, the girl child is a reflection of the mother. When daughters excel in society’s eyes, they are called a father’s pride. But if they fall short of society’s expectations, then it becomes a tale of, “the mother did not teach her properly”. A lot of women contract HIV from employers in Kenya. But our culture has taught us to bear the responsibility for the crimes against our bodies. Even our mothers hold us accountable because they too will be held accountable. If you are killed or raped, it is your fault. You should have known better or dressed better. It is part of Amina’s stigma. She feels it was her fault she contracted HIV. Which is why her mother blames her.

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Behind the Scene: Brenda Wairimu plays Amina in Kifungo

Brenda Wairimu

Beyond addressing these “silent pandemics”, the films also add to the increased representation of women in leading roles across Paramount and MTV Staying Alive’s content. Has this intentional increase in representation impacted viewers’ perceptions of gender roles in society? What has been the progress made so far?

Jallow: From an MTV Staying Alive perspective, we have always ensured we prioritise having females in lead roles across our content, we have been fortunate enough to have A-list talent in some of our content such as Thuso Mbedu and Lupita Nyong’o. We have always prioritised representation on and off camera, it was really important in this project to ensure that our writers, directors, and producers were female. We prioritised female representation in non-conventional roles such as focus-pulling and camera work. Overall, 60% of the production team was made up of females. I hope to see more of this in the industry.

Ms. Storms, you were working on a female-focused story written and directed by a female filmmaker. Can you speak to the creative synergy between you and the director and how it impacted your interpretation of your role? 

Storms: From the start, we got along seamlessly. LowlaDee knew what she wanted for the project.  This made it easier to trust my own interpretation of who Simi was. The synergy was there from inception. She was holding my hands all through our time on set. We shot in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the weather presented a challenge. I was supposed to pretend I was in Lagos wearing an Ankara fabric. That was really challenging. Having a predominantly female-led production team on set created this sense of serenity and harmony for me. 

Ms Ogutu, there is some minimalism to the cast of Kifungo, perhaps owing to the character’s self-ostracism from society. Did that make deciding on the final actors any easier?

Ogutu: The minimalist approach was deliberate to portray the loneliness Amina was feeling. The loneliness one feels when they don’t have someone to talk to because of fear of being judged and ostracised. Which is how some living with HIV feel. This is also portrayed in Amina’s first encounter with her date.

The concern of female agency and women’s economic empowerment is an ever-relevant conversation. What do you think is the place of cinema in propelling this conversation? 

Storms: I believe that film is an important conversation starter. To stretch that, not just cinema but media as a whole is one of the most powerful tools we have. It moves us to emotions and actions.  We can’t understate the importance of cinema in that context. The MTV Staying Alive Project is a testament to that. They have created various content that had measurable societal impacts. We are influenced and somewhat compelled to change our worldview and perception based on what we watch and listen to. Sometimes, films act as a mirror forcing us to look at ourselves. I got into media and cinema because of its power. The role of films and media is central to our evolution as a society and as humans. 

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How do you think In Bloom will impact conversations and actions towards gender equality across these regions?

Jallow: We know that five short films are not necessarily going to radically change the audience’s viewpoints or behaviour but our hope is that these films help spur long-overdue conversations. We hope that these films lead to audiences questioning the small/unconscious ways they may be contributing towards inequality. For example, an audience member could watch Afefe and begin to question “Are the women in their households expected to take care of the family, and if so, why?” It is also important to point out that although these films are about women and by women. It is crucial to involve all genders in the conversation because achieving gender equality is everyone’s responsibility. 

Ogutu: A lot of the stories touch on elements people don’t often talk about. In Period for example, I was shocked to realise there were girls in a first world country like America who struggle with getting pads. I thought that was a problem only faced by 3rd world societies. And the message that pads should be free is something that actually makes a lot of sense. Afefe tackles financial empowerment in a way most people don’t see. The caregiver role most women, especially in Africa, are bestowed with, is both a blessing and an obstacle when it comes to their economic growth. Alta uses very powerful visual metaphors that speak of robbed childhoods that are still a problem faced across the globe in different ways. And Mare, like Kifungo, deals with the unseen, the inner battles that leave a lot of people, not just women, feeling lonely in the problems they face.

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Still from Period
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Still from Mare

In Bloom Anthology

There has been some outrage from some quarters about too much spotlight on women and girls, and less on boys and men, in the context of gender narratives. What are your thoughts on this?

Jallow: I think narratives that shed light on gender inequality are ultimately for the betterment of all of society, which is why, as I mentioned, it is so important for men and boys to be engaged in the conversation. From the MTV Staying Alive perspective, we have also worked towards ensuring that we depict how patriarchy negatively impacts men, with the SAFTA-award nominated What Makes a Man which delves into the societal pressures and expectations that men face which is also important to explore.

Ogutu: To be honest, equality for me is having both men and women as part of the gender conversation. I think the problem is that a lot of stories on female empowerment include male characters that are underdeveloped. A man doesn’t have to be weak for a woman to be strong. And the same goes for vice versa, otherwise, we end up with a story without balance. I completely support the focus on strong female characters. But I also believe that boys need strong male characters to look up to too. But of course, there are also other factors such as culture affecting gender practices beyond the world of storytelling. 

As a long-standing advocate for women’s and girls’ rights for over two decades, what would you say is the most daunting aspect of this cause?

Jallow: The most daunting aspect of achieving gender equality is that there is so much to cover. Within In Bloom, we covered five different topics in five different countries, in line with SDG 5. But we are just scratching the surface when it comes to issues of inequity faced by women. There is so much more to cover and so many more stories to tell. It is important as individuals and as organisations to focus on the small changes we can all make to contribute to a better world, to not become overwhelmed and to not lose hope. This may be daunting, but it just means our work must continue.

Let’s pick up where we left off with Afefe, and the anthology, in general. One thing we’re particularly curious about is how the average Nigerian audience gets access to these films. We know it is the work of the producers to fine-tune conversation around the distribution and exhibition of the films. But the film is yours as much as the producer’s. What are the plans in place for this? 

Storms: Distribution and exhibition plans laid out by MTV Staying Alive Foundation and Paramount Media are really great. Not only did the films premiere globally, it also premiered on the continent on BBC Africa. It is also available on YouTube across Africa and India.  Aside from that, there are various organisations planning screenings for these films. Another huge part of our distribution plan isn’t just the media but the audience who have seen these films and want others to watch. We encourage everybody to organise a watch party. It’s important that as many eyeballs watch these films. 

MTV’s Staying Alive has been on a mission to influence young people’s decisions for the better through entertainment/education. We have seen the success story of the MTV Shuga series which amongst others, has led to increased HIV awareness and testing among young people who have been exposed to this series. With this anthology focused on telling gender narratives, what has the reception been like since the film premiered?

Jallow: So far, the reception has been great. We have received so many comments on YouTube and from individuals in our networks highlighting the importance and the need for these films. On YouTube, for example, we have received a lot of comments from viewers identifying with the characters of Simi in Afefe and Fay in Period. So overall, the reception has been positive and we hope this will continue.

Ogutu: A lot of people who have watched it have sent a lot of positive feedback. 

In your communications leading to the anthology’s premiere, you stated that this is a new phase of storytelling on gender equality. What should we be expecting next from MTV Staying Alive? 

Jallow: We have numerous exciting projects coming up in Kenya and potentially in the US. We think In Bloom has tremendous potential and we hope to see it grow, we hope to cover more territories and more topics about gender equity.

Helena Olori is a talented multimedia journalist and content writer with a passion for storytelling. She has a keen interest in creative art, and enjoys staying abreast with the latest happenings in the film industry and exploring what makes the movie business tick. Email: helena.olori@afrocritik.com

Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian creative with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how they align with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: seyi.lasisi@afrocritik.com.

Victory Hayzard Solum is a freelance writer with an irrepressible passion for the cinematic arts. Here, he explores the sights, sounds, and magic of the shadow-making medium, and their enrichment of the human experience. A longstanding ghostwriter, he also may have authored the bestselling novel you last read.

 

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