Senay Berhe is a filmmaker who works with Stocktown Films, a Swedish creative collective and independent production company. With fellow creators Teddy Goitom and Benjamin Taft, Berhe has embarked on a huge project: Afripedia.
What exactly is Afripedia?
Afripedia [af-ri-pee-dee-uh] noun, plural
A platform and a visual guide to art, film, photography, fashion, design, music and contemporary culture from African creatives worldwide.
So far, they have created several 30-minute documentaries for television and numerous smaller online pieces. But in the long run, Berhe says he hopes to document as many places, art forms, and people as they can, all showcased online in their Afripedia.
I spoke with Berhe about the inspiration for the film series, what sort of artists Afripedia looks for, and his dreams for the Afripedia platform.
You can watch one episode of the project, Afripedia: Angola, at Washington University’s film festival on April 2 at 7 pm. The full festival runs from April 1-3 in Brown Hall 100. Its lineup includes a number of other films that range from short to animated to feature length stories, all of which have gained critical acclaim.
Question No. 1: So from what I’ve read, Afripedia: Angola focuses on artists of “kuduro,” which I’ve seen described as a “heavy electro” music style. Could you talk about what exactly kuduro is and what sort of work its artists do?
The Angola episode focuses on the music scene in Luanda. It follows Titica, who is a transsexual kuduro artist—one of the biggest ones in Angola. But also an artist who runs this collective. He’s a producer and a rap artist.
It’s basically two different artists doing the same genre. Kuduro is something that’s really been going the past few years. It’s Angola’s way of—they don’t really have any way of exporting this outside of the country. I don’t really know what to say about the music. I think it’s more interesting how the different artists in the series—their stories, how they produce and work with the music.
Especially Titica, being a transsexual artist in Angola. The challenge that she has as an artist but being accepted by everyone. Angola is very conservative.
Question No. 2: You worked with Teddy Goitom and Benjamin Taft, and the three of you all have pretty different backgrounds. What moved your creative team to make a film about artists in Africa?
Well, we run this production company called Stocktown Films. Both Teddy and me have East African backgrounds—I’m from Eritrea and Teddy is from Eritrea and Ethiopia. All of us grew up in Stockholm, Sweden. Over there, it was very difficult to find any non-artists within the creative team. The folks that we grew up with were also artists and family.
We knew that these were the type of stories that we really wanted to showcase and highlight. That’s why we tried to focus more on the creative scene—to show people that there are other things happening. This is about changing the narrative. We’re showing creative people doing what they love to do.
With the Afripedia series, we’ve shot so far in Angola, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, and South Africa. Angola especially focuses on music. But in Senegal we did a photographer; in Kenya we did a visual artist. … we wanted to see what other kind of genres were interesting, beside the first thing people associate with Africa. All of us are actually creators ourselves, so we wanted to find and portray like-minded people.
Question No. 3: How did you find and select the artists you feature? Do they all have some specific attribute—like a degree of popularity—in common?
We’re kinda interested in people that are challenging stereotypes and maybe doing something unexpected. People who are mixing cultures and taking inspiration from other parts of the world and creating new stuff with their own culture. That’s the sort of artist or talent that we are most of the time looking for.
It’s a little bit different in each place. Most of the time we do a lot of research online. It’s just getting easier and easier as we speak, through social media and blogs. That’s how we started. We had a Google document where people would just assemble links. Teddy had a video magazine called Stocktown.com where people curate different Youtube videos. Through that we got a lot of looks at stuff that was going on. We also have a big network of people that we contact and ask what’s going on.
Sometimes when we get down to certain countries, we try to do our research and do some Skype interviews. But when we actually come down, it can be that it doesn’t really work out. So we might ask around within our network. It could even be that the artist introduces us to somebody else that we feel would work much better.
Because we have such a restricted budget, we have to work kinda fast. So it’s very important that we click with whoever we are documenting.
Question No. 4: What is your dream for the series?
The dream would be to go to all countries in Africa, but also, with the diaspora… We just came back from Jamaica. I was visiting a friend’s film exhibition, but then we had time to do a screening there and really connected with the creatives. There’s a big African disapora that would also be interesting to capture in Brazil, for instance, in the Caribbean, even in New York, where we’re based for the moment.
But it’s so time-consuming and expensive. At this moment, we’re based in a contemporary art museum called the New Museum in New York City, and we’re part of their incubator program called New Ink. We moved here in September, we’re here for a year. We’re building an extension out of these films. A lot of times we get these questions like you asked me like, “Where do you find this talent?”
For the past two years we are starting to develop—how can we do this online? How can we create a place where creators can connect and showcase their works? Create a place where people can actually start to find African creators, both on the continent and the diaspora. That’s what we are doing right now.
But we do want to produce more content for this platform that we are building, which is called Afripedia. We actually have gotten a little bit of funding from the Swedish Film Institute to create more online content. But we are looking for more financing to produce more content.
It would mostly be for online. The epsidoes you saw were produced for television; that’s why we made them 30 minutes. But now we’re going for more individual portraits. We might put them together like episodes because they’ve been working pretty well showing at different festival. Some people just want to show an hour, two episodes; some people just want to show seven minutes.
Question No. 5: What do you hope people will experience when they watch Afripedia: Angola?
I hope that people get inspired by watching this, no matter who sees this. We’ve been screening this a lot, so that’s actually the feedback that we do receive. A lot of people do get inspired by it. In Jamaica, for instance, people didn’t know that this was happening in Ghana, or that the creative industry was growing in Ghana or Senegal. Even when we screened episodes in the Ghana, they had no clue that this was happening on the east coast. Or Senegal, they had no clue that their neighboring country was doing awesome stuff.
What I hope is that people of African descent in the diaspora or on the continent can see themselves in stories about human beings just passionate about what they’re doing, and that they will get inspired.