Constance Ejuma and Nnegest Likké Discuss Indie Filmmaking & Their Latest Film ‘Ben and Ara’

Ben and Ara starring and produced by Constance Ejuma (Proof) and directed by Nnegest Likké (Phat Girlz) will be screened at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival & Lecture Series on Saturday, October 22 in Brooklyn, New York.  This highly anticipated film follows the unlikely romance between a couple, Ben and Ara (Joseph Baird and Constance Ejuma), who are from different worlds and forced to deal with differences in their core beliefs and lifestyle choices. Throughout the course of their relationship, they each discover that when two cultures touch each other, the consequences can be magical and tragic. Tickets for this film can be purchased HERE.

HBR Media had the pleasure of speaking with Likké and Ejuma about culture, identity, sisterhood, and their their latest film Ben and Ara.

HBR: In your words, what is Ben & Ara about?

Ejuma: It’s a love story about two students; one is an Agnostic white guy and the other is a Muslim African woman. Each are pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and they happen to run into each other, have a conversation and eventually fall in love. It’s really a love story about two people from opposite sides of the track, crossing interracial, intercultural and interreligious lines.

HBR: What was the inspiration behind this film?

Ejuma: It was written by a friend, Joseph Baird, who also produced and co-starred in the film with me. The inspiration for the film came about 5 years ago when he wrote a short about an Agnostic man and a Muslim woman who had a secret relationship, we co-starred in that as well. People saw it and encouraged him to write a feature script and a few years later, he did.

Likké: I actually don’t see it as a love story. Not that there’s anything bigger than love, but if there was, love was used as a vehicle. This is what I love about film. If the director thinks differently from the writer and producer, and they come together in this collaborative effort, it may start off with the writer and the actors having a different interpretation, and then the director gets to combine that with their interpretation. To me, [love] was a vehicle that drove a larger message about expanding beyond yourself and your little pond and shell.

HBR: That’s great! Nnegest, how did you come on board to direct this film?

Likké: I received a call from the president of an organization that knew both Constance and I. He said that two producers were looking for a director and he recommended me. We then met over coffee and… Constance, you can take it from here!

Ejuma: The organization is called the African Artists Association and the person who connected us is also my manager, Francis Onelum. We met up and Nnegest gave amazing notes on the script. We were very fortunate to have her on board to add some more color to the story.

HBR: Sounds like a classic story of how film collaborations come to be. I’ve heard some great things about this film and it was beautifully shot — what were some of the feelings you hoped to evoke through the cinematography?

Likké: We wanted to evoke an old school, ethereal feeling throughout the film. The cinematography style represents a classic love story as opposed to heated infatuation. The images represent outer-worldly feelings and the spiritual realm, and we use water as a major theme in the film , and impart what water means to Africa.

HBR: What was the most challenging aspect about bringing this film to fruition?

Likké: One aspect that is generally the toughest ended up being the easiest, and that was finding the right location. Liberty County, Georgia gave our production perks that often times cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a director, the toughest thing for me was having the time to get the shots and angles that I really wanted creatively, so we had to stick to the basics.

Ejuma: For me, the challenge was balancing the responsibilities of a producer and actor.. Wearing both hats was especially challenging as a first time of producer, and I gained a new respect for producers who do that all the time.

Likké: Constance had to play both good and bad cop, and I just want to reiterate how monumental it was for an African woman producer to approach me for this project. We don’t see enough black writers, directors, producers, and by extension, an African producer– I couldn’t turn that opportunity down.

HBR: Representation certainly matters. You mentioned how amazing it was to produce a feature film with a “short film budget.” Did most of your funding come from Kickstarter? Were there any outside investors?

Ejuma: No, we didn’t have outside investors. We began with Kickstarter and were so surprised at the amount of money we raised. Our contributors were mostly family and friends, and the remaining funds were raised independently. It’s a TRUE independent film.

HBR: What was the most rewarding part of telling this story?

Ejuma: I was excited to be able to portray a character that disrupts the mainstream perception of what it means to be African and an immigrant. I feel it’s my responsibility to tell our story — it’s my responsibility to tell MY story — because no one else is going to do it for us. If I didn’t do this film I would not have been able to participate in events/panels/dialogue surrounding representation and inclusion. We may not have the same resources as other people, but given the advancement of technology, I don’t think there’s anything stopping us.

Likké: My father is Ethiopian and my mother is African-American, and while I grew up here, I was fully immersed in my African culture. My name does not assimilate to American culture and I was teased because of it. As such, I tried to hide my identity in order to fit in, and like Ara’s character, it was a tug of war between my African culture and western culture. You feel like a fish out of water, but there’s something to be said about coming back home and self-love– now, more than ever.

HBR: Nnegest, in what ways has film evolved for women of color since you directed Phat Girlz back in 2006?

Likké: Oh man, night and day! I directed Phat Girlz when digital was still in its baby stages. The digital platform has advanced so much since then, for example it took me two million dollars to make Phat Girlz and it’s not even as clean as film is today. You know what I could do with two million dollars today? I could make a three-hundred million dollar film! So, I’m really excited about the progress.

HBR: What would you each like the audience to take away from Ben & Ara?

Likké: That it’s okay to experiment, but always be authentic to yourself.

Ejuma: I like that! And that [love] is able to conquer ignorance and be a vehicle for opening up lives.

Likké: One thing we failed to mention about the subject matter is that neither of us are Muslim and that neither of us had prejudice against Islam. Terrorism doesn’t equal Islam. I think it’s a great teaching moment for those who fear Islam or don’t know much about it. Muslims are just like us and the hijab is nothing to fear.

HBR: That’s very important. So, what up and coming projects do you each currently have on the radar that we can look out for?

Ejuma: I have a passion project that I’ve been working on, a documentary about my family, that is still in development. I’ve been cast in a couple of short films that will be shooting soon and I’m very excited about it!

Likké: Constance was also recently featured in TNT’s Proof. She is great and we’re going to see a lot more of her! I have a film that you should be on the lookout for titled Everything But A Man, starring Monica Calhoun and Jimmy Jean-Louis.

HBR: Do you have any advice for young up and coming filmmakers?

Likké: I want to encourage anyone reading this, especially black women, to look at how far we’ve come and not how far we have to go. We have such a strong market for our stories and we believe that if we build it, our sisters will come. There are the writers, directors, actors, producers and then there is the audience. If we all come together, we can change this industry.

Ejuma: Just do it! I think there’s this idea that things have to be perfect to make the first move. I’ve been combatting that tendency of perfectionism in myself for the past few years and I’ve learned that it can hold you back. You only achieve perfection through practice. I recently read an article with a quote that said, “If you have $5, make a $5 film. If you have $10, make a $10 film and eventually you’ll be making a $10,000 film, and so on.”

Likké: I’ll add to Constance’s point of “starting small” by saying, be prepared for your journey.