#BLACKISKING - FINDING DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
On a journey from California to South Africa and a production that promoted Afrocentric culture in a thrilling artistic form, Christian Epps discovered talent and continued his life’s work in a special way.
Tell us about your journey to Nkangala?
In September of 2019 the African Technology Foundation hosted twenty South African Local Government Association (SALGA) Representatives in the Silicon Valley area in mid-September. After my presentation on Lights, Camera, Diaspora!’s skills development work, Municipal Manager Millicent Skosana, Nkangala District Municipality, looked me in the eye and said, in a very serious way, that she wanted her young people to work on Hollywood shows. I took note of how serious she was.
In early October I was in South Africa for Netflix’s Queen Sono filming. During that time, I connected with about four or five of the SALGA officials that had made known their interest during our meeting in San Francisco a couple of weeks before. Of course a meeting in Nkagala District with Municipal Manager Skosana was a must!
We met in her office with about six or seven of her colleagues and she did her part to prove that she was interested in accomplishing something big when the moment was right. Following the meeting, they arranged for me to go to the classroom where the media consultant, Limco, holds their training classes for young trainees.
It was a large room with approximately forty young people in there. There was a green screen studio a little smaller right next door. The studio didn’t have very much equipment. I talked to the students for about half an hour about what I do as a gaffer and how to have a career in film and television. They had some questions and I had some answers. There was a spark of creativity and intelligence that was obvious in some of them. I made a mental note about this program could be a valuable addition to future professional projects that I may have in the region.
You knew you would work with them even before the Beyonce project?
Well, yes. Like a lot of young people, they just needed an opportunity — and there are many young people just like them around the world. I find that most young people have great possibilities but just need the right amount of support. This group was interesting and they were serious about wanting to do something. I also found out about the structure of their current training program. It’s a year long. The first half of their year is in the classroom and the green screen studio environment. The second half of their year is on-the-job training where they work on professional films and television. Nkangala District pays for everything including accommodations, meals and transportation.
OK. So how did the project land at your desk?
After the October meetings in South Africa I went back home to Los Angeles. I got a call from Blitz Bazawule in early November. Blitz is a well known musician. He’s Ghanaian by birth and lives in the US. We had done a job together in Senegal about four years ago. During that time we had lots of great talks about our similar vision for Africa, the African Diaspora, and how to activate these visions. There are people who have similar ideas but most don’t necessarily act on it. We were not that.
There aren’t many people who work with A-List talent in Hollywood and have decades of experience in Africa — so my name tends to get thrown in the hat on certain projects. He called and told me about the production, the confidentiality of the client, and so we went to work.
How did the trainees get involved?
I had made a request from the producing team to get trainees involved well before we started shooting. However, it wasn’t in the budget so we said we’d wait until we get back to Joburg and consider it then.
While shooting in Kwa-Zulu Natal some of the original crew left the show so I saw that as my moment to strike! I hit up Akin Omotoso, who’s company, Rafifi Pictures, and said something like “Hey, We’re short handed and I’m looking for an opportunity for these young people.” He agreed and of course the energy of a fresh group of young people would do any production good. In this case it didn’t cost the production anything since the District was paying all their expenses. And just like that, a plan comes together!
The trainees joined us for the next week of shooting. I had some of them come to the hotel to meet Blitz since we didn’t really know each other well. I kind of wanted to look them in the eye and see how serious they were while getting a better understanding of what they’re bringing to it. They were sharp. Everybody felt good about it.
How was it working with them?
We went to work the next day and they each were assigned various departments. Some of them got to chose the departments they wanted to work in. By the second day everybody was kind of finding their footing. It was interesting to look around and see who was happy and who was participating instead of just standing on the sidelines. It was also interesting to see which of the professionals were talking to them and happy to be showing them things. Like any relationship, it’s give and take, right?
On a daily basis, the trainees had to find their way — just like in the freelance world. Like any other job, they had to show up, like really show up — personally and socially. They had to learn to deal with different personalities and all of that. We weren’t holding their hands. We weren’t going around and babysitting them. We put them in their respective departments and I would check in now and then. They all were happy to be there. Interesting thing is, they didn’t know who the project was for. The entire time we were there we couldn’t say who the artist was and that was fine. I think we did say “we’re not allowed to say”
That piece of the puzzle was really wonderful to me because I know if you say to somebody who’s young, you know, early 20s, ”we’re doing this for Beyonce” of course they’re likely to be excited and distracted and they’ll likely lose focus. They worked hard. They did a good job. They were present the whole time. It was really, really lovely.
Your IMDB page is a library of amazing projects, tell us about your journey in your own words.
I got into the business by accident because I could get out of class early — literally that’s the whole reason I had and all the reason I needed! When I was in high school. I was not a great student until I found the theatre. I had bad grades until 11th grade when I moved to Northside High School in Atlanta, Georgia. They happened to have a Performing Arts division. It was called Northside School Of The Arts, and while sitting in the office waiting to get registered, the only boy I knew in town told me that if I got into the program I could get out of class early. I was like, “sign me up!” At that time if I ccould have gotten out of class early I’d have signed up for almost anything. It turned out that I loved working on the lighting crew and it turned my whole life around. I actually became an A/B student and I was also Senior Class Co-President. That’s a lesson in following your spirit.
An interesting turnaround…
Yes. because I had found things I like. Then I tried to follow my sister to Georgetown but my grades weren’t good enough so I went to Howard University College Of Fine Arts and studied Technical Theatre. One of the best things that ever happened to me.
In the summer after my sophomore year, by no plan of my own, I got invited by a college buddy to come up to Massachusetts to do Summer Stock Theater at Berkshire Theatre Festival. An electrician had gotten sick and they needed a replacement immediately. I didn’t hesitate. I got there and found out there were big name actors and directors that hung out there. The likes of Christopher Reeves, who was staring in Superman, one of the biggest movies of that era. This theatre community had many of the people I grew up watching on TV all the time. Then there was me, a young black kid, just wandering into this by accident because they needed a replacement and I said yes.
There were three things I learned from that experience. Firstly, it planted in me the idea that “the world is actually available to me!” Secondly, it also taught me a lot about the existence of unforeseen pathways and opportunities that can help you fulfill the vision you have for yourself. Thirdly, it taught me to say “yes” to the things that move me on the inside.
“To see these young people working on this show…in my mind I know it’s going to mean a lot to them working on a project for Beyonce. It’s going to mean a lot PR wise and it’s going to be a lot for their community. For some of them, it may change their life completely. Hopefully it provides a spark that says “I can become that vision I have for myself. I am good enough to work on a Beyonce video right now, just as I am.” Most young people do not get a chance to hear that message and it’s mostly what they need.
What do you think it meant to them?
I’m super excited about it, and thinking about what it might mean to some of them two years later, and twenty years later. For some of them it can literally be a turning point in their lives, and we all know once you find a good path to follow, a thing to apply yourself, it can help you outrun all the challenges in life.
The challenges are still real, whatever is happening in people’s lives, but the journey of having something that you actually believe in for yourself puts into perspective all the other challenges that you might have in life. It puts those other things to the side because now you have this great burning vision for yourself that is being fortified. So I was thinking about all that stuff during the shoot. I was thinking “Oh wow, I can’t wait until they find out who it is for”. So now, as the film premieres around the world, I am thinking about what it might mean for them, like it did for me.
They sent you some short videos of appreciation. What did those mean to you?
It’s so interesting. It’s a range of videos. Some are more low key and the people are shy, and some are out there and really cool, really heart-felt and beautiful. I think some people are inhibited about speaking up publicly, particularly across the cultures on the continent compared to the US. In some instances, young people are encouraged to take a backseat to their elders in a way that I think does not allow them to speak out as much as they would like about what they might be thinking or feeling on the inside. I’ve noticed over many years of doing workshops, classes and professional shows, a lot of the younger people will remain absolutely silent for hours and sometimes days. Put them in a formal situation and they become very reserved, very quiet. There’s some of that in the videos. But it’s only a few. Then when you see them later on being loud and playful, like during lunch, or after hours they’re laughing and having fun with their friends.
One of the learners in particular Donald, who is just the most energetic and interesting guy. In his video he’s talking about many different things he learned and how he hopes to put those things to use. Sibusiso has a beautiful and thoughtful video. You just know this guy is thinking and processing his feelings, his creative ideas, his business ideas, and how he values himself. He’s happy to state his case and share his thoughts on the experience. When you see somebody like that, you know, he’s already got many opportunities ahead that he will be able to take advantage of. Then there are trainees who I know have a lot more going on inside, but the video is what they think it’s supposed to be. They try to keep the sentences short and they try to say the words that they might have heard people say on TV as presenters and you feel like ‘okay, that person is trying to do what they think is expected of them.” Some of them I’m watching and thinking “yeah, we just need a little bit more time with this person” because their personality is much more outgoing than their video. In a roundabout way, this is the purpose of art — to help societies and individuals to express themselves.
You had a balanced group in terms of gender. How did that work out?
There’s a special element to it for the women in the group. We all know South Africa has a lot of challenges these days in terms of women’s safety and well known cases of gender based violence. I am sensitive to that and I was glad we had women on the crew working in various departments. We never allowed any form of ill treatment or bad behavior. It was also interesting to see the women take the lead and teach the guys. Most people know that women are hard workers and carry some of the heaviest loads when it comes to keeping societies and families together. The film industry, because it’s freelance, extremely freeform from minute to minute, and is based on emotional intelligence, is a place where women are starting to thrive as managers and leaders.
What were some of your learnings from the project?
Too many to mention. Even though I have been to South Africa many times, everything I did for this project was educational.
We worked in 48° celsius (118° Fahrenheit) weather in Kwa-Zulu Natal and then bitter cold complete with hail on Monday in Joburg. I learned a lot about South African weather on this one!
Top of my list was working with Cinematographer Michael Fernandez, and Blitz. Blitz is the ultimate professional. He is literally a renaissance man — doing music, painting, filmmaking (with rave reviews in the New York Times) and he just finished writing a novel. He is incredible. His main effort is towards supporting Africans on the globe and we have perfect alignment with that. He takes little nothing moments and makes magic out of them. Watching Blitz and Michael work reminded me of my early days where I was absolutely focused on the creative part of my craft. The two of them together are one the most effective creative teams that I ‘ve worked with in my career.
With each interaction with Government I learn more and more about the process and their constituent’s needs. It’s very necessary because the government is often the most influential stakeholder in African communities.
We made sure not to get overwhelmed with the level of resources compared to the artistic vision. The core creative team, Blitz, Michael, Rika (Production Designer) and myself, stayed focused on the essence of the project with or without the bells and whistles. That set the tone and kept things moving in the right direction.
The possibilities in Africa for new locations and new stories for the world to see was made even more clear to me. I’ve known this for 15 years but it was made even more clear on this one.
If I could fix one thing with filmmaking across the continent and in the diaspora it would be the use of time and planning. The more efficiently we use our time the faster we could expand our opportunities across the continent and in the diaspora.
How was it working with Beyonce?
Professional! She has an amazing work ethic! Blitz, Michael and I did her shoot in Los Angeles. I had worked with her previously in 2006 for a concert in Lagos, Nigeria. I saw then why she is Beyonce! She’s professional and gets to work with no minutes wasted, no attitude, and always calm and kind. I recall we had a situation with a slightly complex set that required some extensive set up time. While a lot of other people stressed about the time, she asked me how much time I needed and adjusted her activities accordingly — no grandiose attitude or anything. She has so much experience — she knows exactly when to walk and when to run.
You have been training media professionals on the continent for a while. What drives your passion for teaching?
I grew up in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where life was pretty simple and fun — beaches, fishing, carnival, close-knit families, where life was enjoyable and where African culture is the norm. Northside School Of The Arts inspired me and taught me to love musicals, plays and the process of investigating our inner-selves. Howard University was, and is, a Mecca for Black education and loving one’s self. Right after graduating from Howard University Theatre Department I started teaching technical theatre classes at Duke Ellington School Of The Arts in Washington, D.C. It was the best job of my life. All of these things combined provided a foundation for expecting work to be enjoyable, to be fortifying, and most importantly, to be of service to other people. I luckily haven’t really had any jobs outside of the theatre, film and television industry. It does my soul good to contribute to the next generation, to make the world better than how you met it and to have fun while I do it.