Pan-African passion project - an exclusive Interview with EAVE participant Mehret Mandefro

"I think a lot about training the next generation of storytellers and really thinking trough how to structure an industry, so that it can also serve national interests around job creation."

Mehret Mandefro, participant of EAVE Producers Workshop 2021 and group leader of Creative Producer Indaba (CPI), the initiative by the South African Realness Institute, in partnership with EAVE, International Film Festival Rotterdam’s IFFRPro and the Sundance Institute, about her Emmy nominated doc HOW IT FEELS TO BE FREE and her training initiatives for African film business.

EAVE: You were shooting in San Francisco until last week. For which film was that?  

Mehret Mandefro: I have a new feature documentary that I’m co-directing that hasn’t been announced yet. It will be announced next month, so I cannot tell you exactly what it is. Well, it’s a new documentary that is really timely about race in America that I’m very excited to be making. There will be an official announcement coming out in September.


That’s all you can tell me about it?

That’s all I can tell you. It’s a feature documentary that follows an amazing scientist who does incredibly cutting-edge work on racial bias in America. It’s in many ways a story about science. Can science solve racism? This is the central question in terms of the film. I consider myself a scientist in recovery. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I used to be a scientist. It’s a film that is bringing me back to my roots.


You have a doctor degree, don’t you?

I’m a Medical Doctor and I have a PhD – not only one doctorate, I have two. I used to be on an academic medicine pathway earlier in my life. I was a physician scientist. My PhD is in anthropology and through anthropology research I first started making documentaries. I came very much from observational cinema and anthropology, that’s how I started making films. And then my films became much more commercial, and I started also making fiction films. But my first fiction film was actually based on a true story, and very informed by real life in many ways, and I feel like truth is somewhere in the middle. I love doing both actually; I love doing docs and I love doing fiction. I think both strengthen me as a storyteller .


Both forms have their advantages.



Recently you were nominated for an Emmy with HOW IT FEELS TO BE FREE, a film about black American artists.

Yes, it’s based on an amazing book written by Ruth Feldstein and the film is directed by Yoruba Richen. It’s an amazing story that talks about trailblazing black female artists and the way they use art as a political force to change culture in America. It’s about Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Abbey Lincoln, and Pam Grier. We know these artists and we obviously know their work, which I think shifted our culture. But I don’t think that people realise, when you see the film, how trailblazing they were in their own careers in terms of really taking on Hollywood. Lena Horne in the 1940s and 50s was the first black actress to have a studio contract and at that time she told the studio: “I will not play a maid.” And she put it in her contract and refused to play a maid. If you think about it, considering the conversation of representation we’re having today, she was so ahead of her time. So, in many ways I look at this film as pre-history to all the issues that we are wrestling with right now. I find it so fascinating and that’s what I learned on this film; how in control these women were and how fearless they were. And sadly, they really had careers at the time they weren’t supposed to have any career. That’s what the film is about.


And these artists are all from different times: 50s, 60s, 70s, …

Yes, that’s what’s also really interesting about the film as it’s told thematically, and it crosses a huge time spectrum. The archive is very rich, and you really learn about these women from their own words. It takes us basically from the 40s to right now. Because the film ends with a kind of the revolution that is happening with women behind the camera, actually, in addition to women, people of all walks of lives. It covers a huge historical period, and it covers different mediums. They were performers: music, film, television, and so the film tells a story about all of entertainment writ large.


It’s an episode of the American Masters series?

We were the opening episode; the first episode of the American Masters season. And American Masters was the first funder of this film. They gave us the biggest development grant that they had ever given. The film was almost 6 years in making. It was a very hard film to get funded for a lot of different reasons. The film was very ambitious and many people were like: “Oh my God, they are covering so many time periods, so many women, so many genres, how are you gonna do this?” It took us a while to put the team together and the financing. But American Masters believed in it from the very beginning and we are proud to be representing the other filmmakers from this season as part of the nomination. I am very grateful American Masters submitted the film as the representative episode for the Emmy nomination. It’s a true honor.


Great! So, the American Masters has been a series for several years now?

Decades. It’s really a premiere non-fiction strand in America.


Are there many black artists that are being presented by the American Masters series?

They definitely covered other black artists. There are films on Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou, Marian Anderson, the opera singer. American Masters are about the masters who have really lifted culture in America. So, they have definitely covered other black artists before. What’s really interesting in this regard is, for example, when you look at our category: We are the only black producers in our category. What’s interesting is that the entire team on this, for the most part, are black women, including the director. So that you don’t see every day. And in our category we are going up against Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Gordon Quinn – the gods of film! I think it’s uncommon for  a team of black women to go toe to toe with giants of film. That, I think, is new.


Being so successful in America, is it possible to focus on development in Ethiopia also?

Of course, I live in Ethiopia. I have a film production company in America called Truth Aid as well with my producing partner. I live in both places, so I bounce back and forth as needed. I’m very much focused on a global part of our business. My business partner Lacey Schwartz Delgado focuses a lot on the American side and we kind of tag team. That’s why it’s possible to be in both places. I also think it’s important because media and emerging markets are exploding. It’s growing at an exponential rate. So, there are really huge opportunities in these markets.

What’s interesting in Ethiopia and in many parts of Africa is that these markets are very unstructured. It’s not like there are media schools or guilds and unions. I think especially when it comes to young people entering the profession, there’s a huge opportunity to position themselves in creative industries and certainly media, which seems to be ideally positioned to create jobs and meet the demands of young people. I’m very committed to that ide as a whole, partly because I used to be a teacher and a professor, and I think teaching is kind of what I am at my best, anyway. I think a lot about training the next generation of storytellers and really thinking trough how to structure an industry, so that it can also serve national interests around job creation which is very interesting to me. I’ve done a lot of work in Ethiopia in that regard.


You are doing it with the Realness Institute not only in Ethiopia.

I have a company in Ethiopia called A51 Pictures that is a part of Truth Aid, and all the training capacity work building I do in Ethiopia I do through that company. But for Africa wide the work is housed at Realness Institute, which is another passion project. I have co-founders in that, Elias Ribeiro and Cait Pansegrouw who are also EAVE alumni. We came together to found an institute that can really think through this idea of how you offer training to the continent at large and build local media ecosystems. We have 5 training programmers now, all pan-African. Everything I’m saying about the needs in Ethiopian market, you can multiply that by 54 countries: it’s the same problem all over Africa.


And what is the problem?

I don’t think there are enough training facilities and I think the market is completely unstructured. So if you are a creator, someone who has content, this idea of development, finding the producers... producers are a scarcity. Usually, Africans have to go to Europe to find a European co-producer, there are not enough local producers. There’s a huge scarcity of producers on the African continent, especially producers that can really handle international financing, the agreements, understand chain of titles, understand the profession, at least if you want the content to travel beyond your own market. I also think if you went just for local content, there’s a real scarcity of producers who know what they are doing regarding distribution.


You are also training producers?

Realness Institute has the Creative Producer Indaba programme, in partnership with EAVE, International Film Festival Rotterdam IFFR Pro and the Sundance Institute. It was really focused on this idea that there are not enough producers. Trying to train the next generation of producers  very much based on EAVE’s model, but also adapting it to our local needs, because the markets and industries are at such different places. So, we had 17 participants and some participants had projects and some didn’t, just like at EAVE. We also brought producers into it from the North, which were interested in finding African projects to work with. So that African producers can also grow their network, in terms of needing people who do have access to international financing.

I think, if you are a content creator in Africa, the most important thing is to have options and to be able to expand your basic production support. Sometimes that means working with private equity, and then also the amazing European soft money system, which is incredible if you can access it. In order to access it, you need to know what it is about and how that system works. What the Realness Institute is trying to do, especially with the Creative Producer Indaba, is help creators expand their support of production like expanding their base, so that they have as many options available to them as possible.


And you have a development lab also in partnership with Netflix, also?  

Yes, that was the third programme. So, the first Realness programme is the Realness African Screenwriters Residency. The Institute was formed to expand the programmatic offerings beyond just a single screenwriters programme, so the second programme was the Creative Producer Indaba programme, and the third was an Episodic Lab in partnership with Netflix. And that one, unlike other programmes, is focused on three countries, because Netflix is financing the Lab, and they have a saying in terms of strategic interest in three markets: Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. It’s been our longest one, in a sense that it runs for 12 weeks. We took on 6 projects in development and all of them will have a chance to pitch and Netflix will have its first right of refusal; they will either say yes or no, it’s a commission. It’s 2 story editors, 2 producers and 6 writers.

We also run a Development Executive Traineeship, which is our fourth programme, because the other hole in the eco-system in all of these local markets is really executives and the training of them, including the commissioning editors. We don’t have enough of those kinds of people, so alongside our 6 writers, we also have 6 development executives that are shepherding each other’s projects.  


So, you have the whole range of work in film together.

Yes, we are trying. And in September, we will run our fifth programme, which is the Southern African Locarno Industry Academy, and it is clearly looking at the sales, distribution, audience side, which in many ways is the most fragmented in Africa. That will be running in September for the first time. 


Locarno sounds like arthouse films?

They run an Industry Academy at Locarno. So, this is going to be the Southern African Locarno Industry Academy. The idea is to run their programme similar expect with the needs of Africa. So, it’s really focused on sales agents, curators, distributors, anyone doing audience engagement, because that’s the other side of making the content, and it obviously needs the distribution of it. It’s very much focused on the business side. It doesn’t matter if it’s arthouse or not, because this programme isn’t going to be for the makers, it’s going to be for the people who are actually involved in getting those amazing stories out there.

The Academy was launched by the Locarno Film Festival and they have already taken it around the world, too. They always wanted to come to the continent, so they are partnering with us to do the first one in Africa.


What about Indaba? You’re in the second edition of it?

The second workshop finished a month ago, but we have the market; we are supposed to go to Marrakech as the final workshop. And then we will open it up for the second year. We haven’t set the date yet because we want to do a bit of an evaluation. Covid really messed up everyone’s timeline obviously and our first cohort didn’t finish until much later, so we haven’t been able to do the evaluation and assess it. We want to make sure to complete that process before we put the second call out.


With doing all this you are trying to establish a structure, which doesn’t exist, except only in fragments, in the film business in Africa.

That’s right. Capacity building, helping structure the market, etc. In many ways the Realness Institute hopes to hold the same space as the Sundance Institute holds in America, which is really a place for artists and independent creators to get support to create. That’s exact the same thing we are trying to do in Africa. I think it’s interesting for Africa because the media landscape is changing rapidly and drastically. Unfortunately, because there are no unions or guilds or regulations in the same way they are in other markets, creators can really get taken advantage of. So, we are trying to hold space in a way, so that we can make sure people get good deals and that they get the support they need.  


So, it’s a bit like Wild West, so to say.

Absolutely. In many places the media landscape is obviously changing but in many other places there are actually experience, precedents, structures that can at least give you a bit of protection, when it comes to these things, and that doesn’t exist in Africa.

Page published 31 August 2021. Updated 27 April 2022.

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