An Interview With Akuol de Mabior
The winner of this year’s £80,000 Film & TV Funding Award is Akuol de Mabior. Akuol’s winning film proposal No Simple Way Home (previously called Nyandeng), is a powerful and intimate story about her mother, one of five Vice Presidents of the world’s newest country, South Sudan.
We asked her a few questions about her journey thus far and what it means to share such a unique and personal story with the world.
Akuol, you used to be a globe-trotting, high-fashion top model, always in front of the camera. What made you step back behind the lens and become a filmmaker?
I was at the end of my rope, living in a tiny apartment that I couldn’t afford in New York, chatting with a good friend about some half-baked idea I had. She said, “that sounds like a film, you should make films.” It was like she had cast a spell on me because so many scattered, broken things in me seemed to come together, and I knew instantly that filmmaking was precisely what I needed to do. But how does one even begin? I decided to go back to school.
Tell us about your film and why you feel that it is an important story to tell.
The film is about my mother’s mission to safeguard the vision she shared with my father for a New Sudan, and to build a country in which her children can lead meaningful lives at home. She’s up against a lot, not least of all being my doubts about whether or not I can call South Sudan home. Linked to this is another central question for my mother and her generation of freedom fighters: are they the right people to build African nations into places that can nourish my dislocated generations dreams? I believe the film will resonate with young Africans and alienated dreamers everywhere.
The film was named after your mother. What was her reaction to you applying to The Whickers and your stellar result?
I wish I had recorded her reaction! I called her on the night of the award ceremony, and she just sounded so genuinely proud, excited, moved and happy. I had told her that I had applied for The Whickers, and she knew how much time work and effort went into the whole process. I could hear in her voice that the news really blew her away.
Sharing such a personal story with the world is always scary. What are your biggest fears and hopes for the film moving forward?
I truly believe that we have something potentially ground-breaking with this film, and so my biggest hope is that the work we’re putting in will unleash that potential. My fears are mingled in with this hope. Every big expectation comes with the possibility of disappointment. Potential is scary.
You had a real ‘break-through moment’ as you were preparing your pitch. Can you share with us what happened and what you learnt from the experience?
I seriously struggled at the start. I was trying to check the ‘great pitch’ boxes, and there was a clear disconnect. After a couple of sessions with Paul Pauwels and a conversation with a close friend, it clicked that whatever I delivered had to first be from the heart. It sounds trite, and I suspect that that’s why it took some time to click meaningfully. I wrote two paragraphs that I felt reflected who I am and what I’m trying to do and then recorded them. I think we call these break-throughs because they break you a little. It was tough but rewarding because it felt like I was telling the truth. Then I started thinking about checking boxes, and structure, and unique selling points.
How do you feel being the winner of our £80,000 Film & TV Funding Award, now the news has sunk in?
I feel humbled and grateful but also that I now have an even bigger responsibility. I hope that the win inspires confidence in other young, ambitious women to go for something big.
You are being supported by the amazing non-profit organisation, STEPS. Can you tell us a little bit about who they are and what their mission is?
Nyandeng is part of a STEPS initiative called Generation Africa, which among other things, aims to put forward a new narrative about migration. I think it’s a massively important initiative and it resonates for me because it speaks directly of our dreams as Africans. I feel that our film fits right in because it moves away from a narrative that focuses on the reasons we are forced to leave or escape, to a narrative that asks questions around how we can come home. Through our relationship with STEPS, we have been able to tap into a community of documentary filmmakers from across Africa with diverse backgrounds and levels of experience. The scope of the work that STEPS is doing is awe-inspiring, and the connections that they are making are invaluable.
Your filmmaking crew (apart from your fab producer Sam Soko) is 100% female. Was that a deliberate choice? If so, tell us why.
It was a deliberate choice. One very practical reason for having an all-woman crew is how much more comfortable and at ease my mother is with having us around her all the time. It’s like we’re all her daughters. Then, of course, I know that women are still embarrassingly underrepresented in filmmaking. We’ve all shared and heard stories of being passed up or overlooked, and the default regard being one of low expectations. This is another reason that the win means so much – it’s an incredible vote of confidence.
Do you have any advice for other filmmakers struggling to get their stories heard?
Right from my trite break-through moment: whatever you’re doing, make sure that first, it is from the heart.
Where do you aim to see your finished film? Visualise your dream scenario.
Oli Harbottle, one of the judges, said something during another Q&A that stuck with me about their subject being timely and timeless. I would love for the film to resonate with audiences today and for decades to come. The dream scenario is for the film to be local and global, relevant and enduring.
The Virtual Pitch and Awards Ceremony are now available to watch on catch-up for anyone with a Sheffield Doc/Fest digital industry pass. If you don’t have one, you can purchase one here.
You can find out more about our winning projects and our finalists here.