Interview with Filmmaker Greg Osei (SEARCHING FOR WONDER)

SEARCHING FOR WONDER was the winner of BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY at the July 2020 Experimental Film Festival.

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?

Greg Osei: I had several experiences in 2016 that really inspired me to make this film. Two of the biggest inspirations were Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Both pieces really demonstrated how we can use art and our imaginations to rewrite narratives, replace lost or forgotten ones, and create new ones. I believe that process gives us the power to literally transform our reality. So many other things that year inspired me including Solange’s A Seat at the Table, my exploration of Celia Cruz’s life, and the devastation I felt during the election season. But Beyoncé and Taylor Mac were the biggest influences. I felt compelled to use my own creativity as a way to create new narratives where I felt my story and my history were missing or misrepresented.

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

It was quite a process. I wrote the song back in 2013 as part of an interdisciplinary performance piece I created. I had the idea to make a video with the song in late 2016 and began talking to my friend Abdiel Jacobsen (the dancer in the video) about the idea in early 2017. I got in the studio and recorded the song that year, and then began the process of getting the video made. We finally shot the video in summer 2018 and it was complete by the fall. From the video idea to completion it was about two years.

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

Radical (Re)Imagination

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

Honestly, the biggest obstacle looking back was deciding to direct it myself. I had a clear and specific vision for what I wanted to achieve, but I felt stuck because I thought I needed to find a director that was willing and able to bring that vision to life and was having a lot of trouble finding that person. My blessing came in the form of a director that read the treatment that I’d written and said, “You wrote this treatment like a director. I believe only you can realize this vision and you need to direct this.” I’d directed film before, but I had been afraid to direct this piece because I was also performing in it and it was so near and dear to my heart, but her words helped me find my courage. After almost a year of searching and feeling stuck, that conversation totally jumpstarted things, and within three months I shot it!

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

I was so filled with gratitude. I was really amazed by the detail in some of the feedback. It was really encouraging to hear that the audience was catching some of the nuances that went into the video. When I shared the feedback with my good friend Abdiel, who is the lead dancer in the video, he said “They got it! They totally got it!…You accomplished the message that you wanted to send out, and it’s so reassuring and affirming to hear that from viewers. That’s amazing!” That really expresses how I felt.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

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

Shortly after the presidential election in 2016, I found myself (a Ghanaian-American) in conversation with my good friend Abdiel Jacobsen (who is a native of the Ivory Coast) and another close friend who is an African-American descendant of enslaved people about the ways in which slavery, history, colonialism, racism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression have left many of us feeling disconnected and lost despite our different backgrounds. I had been inspired by the ways in which artists like Beyoncé, Taylor Mac, and Solange were using art to claim the transformative power to write their own narratives about their experiences as marginalized people. At the same time, I was experiencing a sort of revelation around the idea that we carry our histories and our ancestors in our bodies. In particular, I’d been thinking about the ways in which Celia Cruz was a symbol of how across centuries, thousands of miles, and endless experiences of oppression, people of African descent have managed to preserve so much of where and whom they come from, often without realizing it. I was inspired to create a piece of art that spoke to that idea and took it a step further by proposing that we tap into that actively in order to wield the power and the history of our ancestors as we face the realities of today.

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

I’ve literally seen Lemonade at least 50 times! I’m actually big on watching movies I like repeatedly so there are lots of films that I’ve seen a lot. Films like Amelie, Brokeback Mountain, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Waiting to Exhale, Y Tu Mamá También, Memento, Rabioso Sol, Rabioso Cielo. It really runs the gamut as you can see. I’ve also seen the Avatar: The Last Airbender series many times, which I contend is one of the greatest instances of storytelling, worldbuilding, character development, and fictional exploration of timely issues in recent history, all in a children’s show!

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

FilmFreeway made searching for festivals that would align with my work and submitting to them very easy!

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

I’m a musician and a big lover of music, so that’s hard. I’ll say I’ve probably listened to Brandy’s “He Is” and Aretha Franklin’s “Mary Don’t You Weep” more than most things.

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

I’m currently in the process of recording a studio album. Once that’s done, I am planning to produce more films in conjunction with my music as well as interdisciplinary live performance pieces! I’m really excited about the things I’m creating now, and I can’t wait to share them with you all!

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