Interview by Lina Maria Caicedo
The moment Kibwe Tavares uploaded his Robots of Brixton to the Internet; he opened the door to a world he had hardly had time to consider. His touching 5-minute film on the vicissitudes of inner-city London life reached half a million hits within weeks. Fast forward two years and Tavares finds himself in Park City, Utah, sitting at the screening of his first full-length short film at the world’s most significant independent film festival.
Sundance Film Festival is one of the largest independent film festivals in the United States, showcasing an eclectic selection of indie film from all over the world. It is a non-profit organisation creating a platform for new and up and coming filmmakers to showcase their work and build new connections in the industry. Sundance, founded by former actor and director Robert Redford, brings together filmmakers from 172 countries, and as ever, in its 2013 programme, it included a large selection of British films. I was very lucky to attend the festival and hangout with Tavares, as he showcased, his short film ‘Jonah’ which was shortlisted and premiered at this year’s festival.
Tavares, of Caribbean heritage, was born and bred in south London; he graduated from Leeds University in Engineering and has a Masters in Architecture from The Bartlett, UCL. During his final year at UCL, Kibwe decided to take a module in animation and it was here that he discovered a new interest, skill and talent, leading to his production of Robots of Brixton; a piece of work that altered his life forever. After graduating, he teamed up with two class mates from UCL, Jonathan Gales and Paul Nicholls, to co-found Factory Fifteen a company that works in film, animation and architectural representation. Very soon after its foundation, Kibwe was approached by Film4 to work on their first ever CGI short film.
While in Park City, prior to the premier of his new film, I had lunch with Kibwe to discuss his latest production, what it felt like to direct his first film and what future projects he has in mind.
Q1. Tell us a little bit about Jonah; what is the film about and where did the inspiration come from?
Jonah is a big fish story set in Zanzibar in the East African Ocean, it touches on the economic and environmental issues of how (an exaggerated) tourism will affect Zanzibar in the future, but this sits beneath a story of friendship and the worlds biggest jumping fish.
Inspiration came from a good friend telling me to read Hemmingway Old Man & the Sea, I thought the story was genius, simple and engaging. The problem was I had no connection with Cuba (where Old man and the sea is set) and I also wanted to tell a new story, so I drew upon my own experiences and travels. I had recently been on a three-month trip around Eastern Africa and spent time on the coast in small fishing villages, in Lamu, Pate Island and Zanzibar (All islands in the Indian Ocean). These places all seemed on the cusp of changing from the traditional industry of fishing to tourism which I found fascinating. In Lamu we looked after a group of ‘beach boys’, they operated as informal tour guides taking us on trips, Dhow boat racing, Donkey races, fishing out, drinking, that kind of thing. These guys were who I eventually based my main characters on.
Captain Bonefish – one of the guys who looked after Kibwe in LAMU
So I had my setting, then I began to work with screenwriter Jack Thorne on the story. We took reference from a whole load of other big fish Story’s: Moby Dick, Sharky and George, Jonah and the Whale (Hence the name), in the hope of creating a new contemporary tale.
The story follows Mbwana and his best friend Juma; two young men with big dreams. These dreams become reality when they photograph a gigantic fish leaping out of the sea and their small town blossoms into a tourist hot spot as a result. But for Mbwana, the reality isn’t what he dreamed – and when he meets the fish again, both of them forgotten, ruined and old, he decides only one of them can survive. Jonah is a big fish story about the old and the new, and the links and the distances between them. A visual feast, shot though with humour and warmth, it tells an old story in a completely new way.
Q2. There were over 8,000 short film entries, only 65 were selected to premier at the festival, yours being one of them – how did this make you feel?
Honestly at the risk of sounding obnoxious, this time round I felt more relieved than anything else. Although this was my first “proper” film, I felt a big pressure on making sure I delivered as chances like this in the film industry are few and far between, especially when you are starting out. Getting into Sundance against over 8000 entries proves on some level we delivered, its essentially someone really cool saying that your cool and the rest of the industry listens. Last year was a huge surprise and delight, but this year we set our targets on getting in and getting the film ready in time and honestly I think I would have been slightly disappointed if I didn’t make it as I really believed what we had was really strong and deserved to be up there.
Q3. This was your first time directing a film and essentially working and managing a whole film crew – a totally new experience for you. How did you manage everybody’s expectations together with your own?
For me this was difficult as naturally I’m more passive, and sometimes to get your point across efficiently you need to be aggressive; communicating a vision was tough, even though I knew exactly what I wanted. It is also difficult to manage and direct a large number of people’s slightly different agendas, making and forming something coherent without being too over bearing that you stifle your cast and crew.
One of the things that helped was that I created an ‘Animatic’ of the whole film (this is essentially a very crude animation or an animated story board), that allowed me to pick camera views, work out a rough edit, pace, and work out how I would shoot the dialogue. It was essentially a base to the film, so when I had difficulty explaining to the crew or actors what I wanted, I could physically show them.
Example of Animated Story Board
Q4. Your journey into film has been quite un-conventional; I mean, you didn’t go to film school, nor have any previous background in film. I find it fascinating that from engineering and architecture you have now directed your own movie. Did you ever imagine that this would be the direction your work would take?
I never imagined that this would be a route I’d take and even now I have insecurities and doubts about myself as a director, but I have some amazing people around me who really believe in me and are slowly but surely raising my confidence.
I actually believe that my background has lots of advantages: Firstly, stylistically it makes me stand out from the hundreds of film school graduates finishing every year. Secondly, I learnt to work a scale with huge teams of people when working on a building project. There are so many parallels that run between the two. When designing a building you have a core team of specialists around you that have very specific tasks, and as an architect, you’re in charge of the creative vision. This is the similar to the role of a director, and I made sense of it all by giving everyone equivalents. So for example, the Project Manger of a building project is the guy in charge of budget and the delivery of the project, which is the equivalent to the producer on a film set; or your structural engineer who is responsible for the structure or “bones” of your project is equivalent to your screenwriter and so on. It’s also much more common than you think though, with Fernando Meirelles (City of god, Constant Gardner) Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and more recently Joseph Kosinski (Tron, Oblivion) – these guys are all architecture graduates.
Q5. Do you feel that your previous design/technical background has helped influence, form and develop your ideas in film; essentially how you see the world and the stories you want to tell?
Design is a massive part of my films. As an architect, you’re taught to think in the future and ask questions about it. How is your building or design going to affect people in the future? What will it look like? What will its legacy be? How will it be perceived? These are some of the questions you are taught to ask yourself. So naturally when I think of a narrative I’m drawn to the future.
In JONAH, once we had decided that Zanzibar becomes famous for having the world’s biggest fish, we used this as the basis for our designs for the city and set out to essentially redesign Zanzibar.
I’m interested in the environment enriching the film and being part of the narrative almost like another character. In JONAH we see sequences where we see the “tourist boom’ and we actually see the town transform and grow, and then degrade into its final state. A lot of the story is designed into visually what we see.
Q6. What lies ahead? Are there any future film projects in the pipeline?
In the up and coming months I will be doing a TED talk on ‘Visual Story Telling’ at next months conference in Long beach, California. There are some small fixes we have to do to JONAH and will be doing our UK premier mid to late April. We are still finalising a date and venue.
I have some time to focus a bit more on developing new projects in house at Factory Fifteen http://factoryfifteen.tumblr.com/, we have a film we are developing with Unknown Fields shooting in India later this year.
I am in a fortunate position to have a feature film development deal with film 4 where they own my brain for a few months in the hope I can come out with some new good ideas. I’m working with a couple writers to develop a feature length script, but I don’t know what will stick or hit first, but its exciting times!
Kibwe will be holding a special screening of his short at the end of this month – Informed will keep you posted on the date! The film will also be screened at Sundance London between 25th – 28th April. Take a sneaky peak at the trailer below!