Chinonye Chukwu Is The First Black Woman Filmmaker To Win The Biggest Prize at Sundance!
Nigerian-American filmmaker, Chinonye Chukwu is walking on sunshine after her stunning entry, Clemency, took home the banner award — the Grand Jury Prize — which makes her the first-ever Black woman to cinch that coveted honor.
This is a huge win for Chukwu!
It’s also going to be the pathway for burgeoning Black women filmmakers, who have stories to tell, and the astute ability to breathe life into these narratives in a gorgeously affecting way, but unfortunately when lack of funding and the overall exposure required, become imposing challenges — the trajectory for timely success can be overwhelmingly discouraging.
Sundance 2019 was an astounding year for women directors, and that was evident in the U.S. Dramatic Feature category, that was dominated by mostly women.
And according to the stats from IndieWire:
45 percent of all short and feature films at this year’s festival were directed by women.
This is an excitingly positive progression, and the hope is that the doors will systematically swing open for women in film, particularly Black women filmmakers, who can certainly claim Chinonye Chukwu’s victory lap, after years of consistent and diligent hard work — as their poet inspiration for what can be amassed when you’re passionately committed to your craft.
Clemency was a labor of love for Chukwu, who wrote and directed the award-winning film, that captures the jarring complexities that exist for a prison warden, played magnificently by Alfre Woodard, who struggles with the emotional turmoil of interacting with death row inmates.
Chukwu joins an illustrious club, that includes Black Panther’s, Ryan Coogler and a host of others, who were lucky to be anointed with the very cool and incredibly validating — Grand Jury Prize — and the signs for her imminent ascension have always been evident for those who paid attention to the early years.
Her 2012 offering, alaskaLand, caught some major buzz, and during the 2013 New York African Film Festival, I luckily discovered the undeniable talent of a fellow Nigerian-American, who showcased the skillset and refreshing graciousness, that makes her recent ground-breaking outing that much more gratifying.
Check out my 2013 interview with the award-winning director for alaskaLand:
The New York African Film Festival is currently underway and as always MyTrendyBuzz is on the scene to help highlight up and coming filmmakers who are on the verge of re-shaping the climate of African cinema.
Nigerian-American director Chinonye Chukwu is proving her authenticity with her dynamically complex entrée Alaskaland, a film that explores the themes of self-discovery and relationship intricacies in a way that is both refreshing and progressively inspiring.
The fact that Chukwu used Alaska as the backdrop for her film stems from the fact that she grew up there and when she was pondering the subject matter for her first major project, a colleague encouraged her to draw from the well that harbored her anomalous background.
It was the best advice she ever got and the result is evident in her much heralded finished product. The Alaskan raised screenwriter, producer and director is consistently garnering various forms of recognition, including the prestigious Princess Grace Award for her short The Dance Lesson, her other work Igbo Kwenu! received the PIFVA Subsidy Grant from the independent film community and won the “Best Motion Picture Award” and “Best Screenplay Award” at the 2009 Diamond Screen Festival in 2009.
Her latest offering will provide Chukwu the exposure most filmmakers crave and she will undoubtedly respond to her good fortune accordingly considering her bountiful talent and seamless work ethic.
We caught up with the burgeoning filmmaker to learn a little bit more about what drives her passion.
Check it out below!
MTB: Tell us a little bit about your background and how it encouraged your foray into filmmaking.
CC: I was born in Part Harcourt in Rivers State and I moved to the States when I was a baby. We went to Oklahoma but then when I was six or seven years old, we went to Alaska, both my parents are petroleum engineers and so I was there until I was 18. Then I went to undergrad at Indiana, at the Ball University. And I graduated early and I was crewing on a feature film production in Alaska and then moved to Harlem for like 2 seconds! LOL! And then moved to Philly for film school, for my MFA in Film. I wanted to be a filmmaker ever since I was 12 years old and I never really pursued it until my junior year in college because I honestly didn’t know how to do it and my parents, who I love so much are Nigerian immigrants and they wanted the best for their children, wanted them to survive and have the basics in life. Being engineers, when you bring up the arts, it confuses them and they don’t know what the plan is. With African families, 1 +1 = 2 and so there has to be strong foundation when it comes to career. They were concerned about my desire to be a filmmaker, they were worried about how I would be able to fend for myself and so when I was an undergrad I was telling people that I was going to be a filmmaker and people were surprised, they assumed I was going to be a lawyer or a doctor. I decided I needed to do it and so I graduated early and crewed at a film production and did a lot of grunt work, driving people around, getting coffee, etc and just observed how a professional set is run and learned so much during that process. Then I decided to make my own films and sucked a lot in the beginning because I had no idea what I was doing. But I still continued to do it. I made my first piece when I was in my senior year in college it was a documentary about being a black female in a predominately white college campus and I used four black women who were students as a focal part of the piece. But Before that I was always writing, when I was a junior in high school, I had a green journal that I would always carry around and I would write down all my script downs.
It was when I moved to Philadelphia that I went really hard and I was really committed to making a film a year while I was in film school. So, yeah I kept to it and graduated three years ago and I am still committed so things are good.
MTB: What inspired your concept for Alaskaland and what are the underlining issues you are hoping to highlight for the audience?
CC: Well its not autobiographical, Thank God! When you watch the movie, you’ll understand why I say that. I didn’t really think about the fact that I am this Nigerian born Alaska raised woman as anything unique because that’s my reality and so it’s normalized for me. So it wasn’t until my last semester in film school where a colleague of mine was asking about my background and he was fascinated by the fact that I grew up in Alaska, and he insisted that it would be the perfect catalyst for my first film. He was convinced that I had to do something revolving around Nigerians in Alaska. I thought about it and I realized that it was something of an anomaly and so I wanted to do a film that dealt with family and navigating through this cultural dichotomous space. You don’t have to be Alaskan or Nigerian to relate to the themes, it’s a film that examines sifting through the world, time and expectations. The film is a coming of age story that focuses on the main character Chukwuma, this young man, who is really trying to define for himself who he is, amid this really anomalous background and also tying to reconnect with his sister after years of estrangement, and Alaska provides the dramatic background. It definitely deals with issues of identity, issues of self-forgiveness, family, and connection. So yeah, it’s a coming of age story, as well as a journey of self-discovery.
MTB: How would you describe the landscape of cinema as a filmmaker of African descent and what is your hope for the future?
CC: I was actually discussing this with a student in my class because I am a film professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, so I was telling one of my students who is East African and interested in going into film and I told that now is the time. I think that African cinema has taken off in all different countries and people all over the world are watching and helping to fund these films. I tell my students that there are so many funding opportunities that you can take advantage of if you make a film in an African country or tell an original story about people based in African countries because we are hungry for it and want it, and there are so many amazing stories that are being told. That’s why I am so excited about the African Film Festival because they are highlighting some of the amazing African films that are out right now, so this is an excellent time to be an African filmmaker. Excellent time! And I also think there so much community support as well. I actually just had an interview with Mahen Bonetti, and she reiterated how the festival is very much like a family and a community and they literally help your projects grow and thrive through screenings. My film Alaskaland was largely funded by Nigerians who wanted to support and so this is definitely the time to be an African filmmaker. I am very excited and I feel very hopeful since I have been very blessed in terms of my career and being able to continuously make work and get funding and I get so much support from my fellow Africans that its overwhelming. Igbo spoken in my film and a lot of Nigerians have responded positively to that since its kind of rare to see that on screen. It proves that our people are hungry to see themselves portrayed on film and not in a stereotypical or degrading way but in a regular and relatable way.
MTB: Are they any other exciting projects in the pipeline?
CC: Yes, I recently completed a short film called Bottom that premiered in LA a few weeks ago and will screen again there this July. It’s very different from Alaskaland. I wrote Alaskaland three years ago and so I feel I have evolved artistically and so the work I am making now is quite different and I am very excited about that. Bottom is a very provocative and intense short that examines gender roles; it examines masculinity and femininity in a very provocative way and so we have just started the festival circuit with the film. I am also going to shoot another production this September most likely and it’s an adaption of short stories written by my former professor and I am so incredibly excited about it. It’s going to be my most ambitious project I have made so far. I have just started pre-production for that. In the interim I am just working hard on finalizing the script on my next feature film. I have a draft and I am working on getting it polished up and then of course the whole fundraising drive starts all over again. Hopefully I will be able to start shooting sooner rather than later.
To learn more about Chinonye Chukwu, visit her website: https://vimeo.com/chinonye