Thursday, December 8, 2022

Reclaiming destiny in Israel Ekanem’s Kill Your Masters

The Halifax filmmaker's short, about two Black girls who take destiny into their own hands, screens as part of this year's Halifax Black Film Festival.

Back online again this year due to pandemic gathering restrictions, the 2022 Halifax Black Film Festival (HBFF) features a program of 73 films from 15 countries over its four days.

One of those films is Halifax filmmaker Israel Ekanem’s narrative short, Kill Your Masters, in which two Black girls take destiny into their own hands, liberating themselves from the shackles of their white slave master.

“The way they do take their master’s hands off them is by literally killing him,” explains Ekanem.

"Because of the subject of the film, I knew many festivals wouldn't show it, and I was fine with that. So I have to say that I'm super excited that the Halifax Black Film Festival have the balls to show it." - Israel Ekanem
“Because of the subject of the film, I knew many festivals wouldn’t show it, and I was fine with that. So I have to say that I’m super excited that the Halifax Black Film Festival have the balls to show it.” – filmmaker Israel Ekanem.

Initially writing the script to help him deal with the 2020 murder of George Floyd, the title came from a t-shirt worn by Atlanta-based rapper and activist Michael “Killer Mike” Render while delivering a speech calling for calm following Floyd’s murder.

The rapper’s “Kill Your Masters” t-shirt also referenced a 2016 song of the same name as part of his ongoing collaboration with Brooklyn-based rapper and producer Jaime “El-P” Meline as Run the Jewels.

“[It was] a super powerful and poignant speech that was really touching and moved me,” says Ekanem.

Ekanem also took inspiration from a story of a gun hidden by Nelson Mandela on a farm outside Johannesburg during the anti-apartheid leader’s clandestine return to South Africa in 1962.

“I read this story and thought, what if at this farm he met these two ladies and gave them the gun to do something about themselves,” says Ekanem.

Given the connection to the Mandela story, Ekanem initially thought he would set his film in 1960’s South Africa but decided to leave time and place up to audiences to decide for themselves.

“I set it whatever time the viewer wants as a commentary about what happened in 2020 and what still happens,” he says.

But while Kill Your Masters began life as a writing exercise for Ekanem to help process Floyd’s murder, he knew it was a story that deserved to be seen.

“It started as a script, but I couldn’t just leave it on the page,” he says. “I reached out to friends and they helped me bring it to life.”

Initially turned down for grants to shoot the film, another grant helped with editing and other post-production work once principal photography was complete.

Ekanem’s next step was to start applying to festivals. Given the potential controversy over the film’s subject matter, he knew it might be a tough sell.

“It’s okay to show Black people getting killed, but it’s not okay for the reverse,” he says. “Because of the subject of the film, I knew many festivals wouldn’t show it, and I was fine with that. So I have to say that I’m super excited that the Halifax Black Film Festival have the balls to show it.”

A self-described storyteller, Ekanem was first introduced to the art of storytelling by his grandmother. “I grew up with this amazing woman who showed me how powerful stories can be,” he says.

Ekanem’s transition to telling stories on film came after moving to Canada.

“I grew up in Nigeria, and I didn’t have much of an opportunity to tell the stories the way I wanted to,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to make films, but in Nigeria, I couldn’t.”

A move to Canada and a win at a local film festival for his first film would allow Ekanem to follow his passion, leading to more accolades for his films, a media company, a podcast and the opportunity to work with the next generation of storytellers.

“One of the things I’m doing right now is running a podcast storytelling course through the Mac Centre For Creative Learning,” he says. “And I’m having a wonderful time because the things I learned years ago from this amazing woman I’m now sharing with these wonderful teenagers, and they’re just soaking it up.”

Ekanem is also busy working on his next project, a film based on the book Afraid of the Dark by Dartmouth-based writer and spoken word artist Guyleigh Johnson.

“I tend to make films that are personal to me, and I was blown away because I could see myself in the character of Kahlua, who feels super uncomfortable in her skin and sees herself held back from accomplishig things,” he says.

While movie-goers will wait a while more before Afraid of the Dark is finished, Ekanem hopes that audiences will tune in to watch Kill Your Masters at this year’s Halifax Black Film Festival.

Black Lives Matter came, and it was all the hype in 2020, but people are not really talking about it now,” he says. “But Black people as a whole and people of colour are still experiencing things, so I hope the film jerks the audience’s mind a bit and gives them something to think about.”

Kill Your Masters screens as part of the 2022 Halifax Black Film Festival’s Narrative Short 3 program. Visit halifaxblackfilm.com for tickets and information.

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