African Leadership Academy alumni Mohamed Echkouna is an aspirant film director. He identifies himself as simply an artist who recognises people as the answer to their own problems. He challenges Africans to start telling their own stories as a means to unite the continent as well as to make their individual mark in the history book of the world. It’s befitting then that what he identifies as his biggest resource for achieving this end is the people and their stories.
This young man from a small village in Mauritania has a big vision for the African film industry, and has recently accepted an internship at Oscar and BAFTA awarded visual effects studio, Framestore . It all began when television opened his eyes to the authority of media. What he observed piqued his interest and soon crystallised his film-making ambitions. The absence of a market in his hometown, Adrar, was a problem. . When an offer to complete his final two years of his high school in South Africa fell on his lap, he saw an opportunity to enter into a new world.
Contact with South Africa, a geographically and culturally far-removed but reconcilable landscape, honed his artistic acuity and his ideas about Africa . The change served as a way to disrupt recycled ideas and that fresh take has served his journey since. His passion for Africa grew. His upcoming project is the unsung story of Mansa Musa – ruler of the ancient Mali Empire, considered to be the richest man in all history. Like many African stories, this one is unknown to the world. He passionately endorses the credo of solutions for Africa, by Africans. “Our problem is we imitate what we see outside of the continent, which may not always be effective for our own problems,” he diagnoses.
“My hope is that we stay true to ourselves and our stories. Not try to twist them,” he says. He challenges the perception around Africa in the international market. Attributed in part to digital integration, the generalisation and misinformed, bleak depiction of war and disease-inflicted Africa is wearing thin. But a lot remains misunderstood. The knowledge gap this creates announces Africa’s time to start getting serious about framing an authentic, accurate narrative.
Creating Through People
Like a team, a network is a band of people who work in concert to advance a specific mission, even if that mission is as broad as to develop people. We therefore need not see it as a wide web of busy people with important-sounding titles, it could just as well be a small team of individuals working together to tell the remarkable, forgotten story of the wealthiest man to walk the earth. Mohamed is conscious of the fact that film is a culmination of different arts and technologies – the actors, directors, costume designers, community leaders, scriptwriters and the rest of the production crew are all architects of the film’s story.
While at university, he met professors who had worked on some of his favourite films. Today he maintains a good relationship with the biggest animation company in South Africa, Triggerfish, where he interned as a student. When given a minute with someone who can make a difference to your mission, you make it count. “It makes it easier for networks to work for you when you can make them look good for recommending for you.” It is a sane finding which underscores the gains of hard work. The world already has too many talented, smart beautiful people. There is no room for run-of-the-mill contributions. People invest where they see potential and determination, not merely where there is African youth. People back people for demonstrating their investment-worthiness, not for their circumstances. Networks are not a shortcut.
Mohamed’s way of setting himself apart is how his storytelling plans to empower, not exploit. At the hands of what is regularised in media, an audience’s concept of right and wrong is whittled. It’s as troubling as it is exhilarating. Like all education, film is a compelling alleviation vehicle. Mohamed explains, “You have somebody’s attention. You can guide their emotions. You can basically open up their brain without cutting it and tell them what and what not to think, and how to feel.” He is fascinated by the responsibility that accompanies such power. He is also heartened by the sheer idea his message could inspire a new thought or challenge a listener to pursue something they never dared to or see things from a different angle. “You can create heroes for people,” he ends. The beauty of visual engagement is that it becomes a refreshing alternative to information that might otherwise be presented in an obscure, scholastic manner that ordinary people cannot access.
Mohamed’s objectives are encouraging. The cynic in me carefully reminds him that film-making is an expensive and lengthy process without an assured return on investment, why not use another medium or contribute in a different field? But his resolve is strong and his determination to develop Africa unflagging. He tells me that before you sell the story to the investor, you need the community’s buy-in. After all, they are the first line consumer of the product, they are the proof that the effort will get back what is put in. His answer is a representation of his core belief – everything starts and ends with people. That they create the network that gives his dream currency.
This piece was a contribution made by Zazu Zungu, a young woman from Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. Zazu spent time at the Academy and worked with our alumni to produce a series about ALA graduates and the work they are doing in Africa and beyond. Zazu is now in Nanjing, China doing a course in Chinese Language Studies.