Interview with Filmmaker Aimiende Negbenebor Sela (UTOPIA)

UTOPIA was the winner of BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY at the January 2019 LGBT Feedback Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?

Aimiende Negbenebor Sela: I would say what motivated me to make Utopia was my own struggle with race, identity, and self-acceptance.

I am Nigerian (African American) and though I believe this is kind of a taboo subject, it does exist: the idea of the grass being greener on the other side.
Without diving deeply into a subject that cannot be discussed or analyzed in a short amount of time, there does exist that “thing” for a lack of a better word that makes one question, or wonder, if their lives would be better if they were the other…

I read an article a few years back about a civil rights march that several groups of Caucasians citizens were protesting. There was a photo accompanying this article, and in it was a woman holding up a sign that read” you wish you were white.” That’s a strong statement to make. It got me thinking hard about this: do we wish we were white and if we did, under what circumstances? And, it if was possible to be the other under the said circumstance, what would that be like, and so on and so forth. Those unanswerable questions lead to the short film Utopia and the feature-length screenplay that has since followed.

I really believe we all, everyone one of us live very similar lives. Really. We live the same lives, we are just colored differently. So, we should love ourselves and live our truths wholeheartedly. I think it’ll make it a tiny little bit easier to be tolerant when we can see ourselves in others, and love that same self in others because we love that same self in us. Hope that makes sense!

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

— From start to finish, Utopia took about two years to make.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

— thought-provoking and hopeful.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

— there were many obstacles that had to be overcome with making this film: from crewing up to getting through each shoot day, and finally completing post-production.

If I had to pick one item to highlight, I think it would be struggling to stay true, or at least as close as possible, to my vision for Utopia given the film’s budget and the fact that I was (still am) relatively new to the industry in Los Angeles. I hadn’t formed a base yet, which really limited my access to resources.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

— I was in the audience during the screening, so I got to experience/hear the audience reaction first hand, and also via the feedback video, and my initial reaction was “ok.”

Not sure if that’s really a reaction or an acknowledgment…, but it was really good to hear from the people who got what the film was about, as well as from those that didn’t get it and those in the middle.

I really appreciated the gentleman who was touched by the mom reciting The Lord’s Prayer in one of the scenes in the hospital. I was touched by his sharing how that scene was personal for me.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

— I asked the question: under what circumstance can someone live a life like the other they admire, wish they were instead or just imagined was living a better life (however, true or false that belief may be) and I thought a coma! I studied a few coma cases and drew inspiration from them. But, that all came second. The first was two ideas: a black woman wishing she was white, and the fact that loving someone could still get you killed in certain parts of the world (including where I am from, Nigeria) in today’s day and age. Homosexuality is a punishable crime in Uganda.

The story of this beautiful woman, who was attacked for her sexual orientation, ending up in a coma and making herself someone else; someone who in her mind was free to be themselves, living in a part of the world where they could be true to themselves and then waking up and having to make a choice just came to life.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

— oh, dear. I don’t know. How about I share four of my favorites (I have a ton): The Red Violin, Tsotsi, 12 Angry Men, Midnight in Paris

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

— I think it’s a good platform for filmmakers because you have a large array of film festivals to submit to, some you wouldn’t have known about otherwise, and you can submit projects easily. The downside is also that you have a large array of film festivals to submit to 🙂 Overall though, I am pleased with it.

9. What song have you listened to the most times in your life?

— Everything by Sade.

10. What is next for you? A new film?

— Yes, a new film called Hermit. It’s a short film about a man dealing with loss.

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