As the 30th edition of the Cascade Festival of African Films winds down, the annual celebration of art from the world’s second-most populous continent is spending its final days showcasing female filmmakers. On deck for the last three days of the festival are recent films from Algerian director Mounia Meddour, Naziha Arebi from Libya, and Ethiopian journalist and filmmaker Salome Mulugeta.
But it’s the film that is closing out the CFAF this year that is perhaps the festival’s most fascinating. Written and directed by Eritrean filmmaker Sephora Woldu, Life Is Fare is a delightful and trippy bit of magical realism that looks at a rarely discussed element of the African diaspora: how these emigres deal with staying connected to their home countries while trying to make their way in a new town. In Woldu’s vision, that is the struggle of a lonely cab driver from Eritrea who starts to experience visual and auditory hallucinations, calling back to places he used to know. While that sounds like the makings of a gritty thriller, Woldu keeps things light, with plenty of joyous music, an upbeat tone, and charming conversations with her real-life mom about the changing face of Eritrea.
In advance of the two screenings of Life Is Fare—happening Thursday February 27 at PCC Cascade and at the CFAF’s closing night event on Saturday February 29 at the Hollywood Theater—Woldu answered questions via email about the inspiration behind the film and the important issues it raises about the African diaspora in the US.
PORTLAND MERCURY: What can you tell me about how this project began?
SEPHORA WOLDU: This project is ultimately about understanding how the diaspora can fit into—and contribute towards—the cultures we come from. I was raised to be very conscious and proud of Eritrea and understood my parents and the people that raised me as being authentically traditional, complete embodiments of this place. But now as an adult, I’m learning about how they had to constantly adapt the way they practiced being Eritrean away from Eritrea. Based on life circumstances, based on resources, they were absolutely winging it! What I experienced wasn’t exactly what they’d experienced growing up, but tradition was still passed on. Realizing this made me less scared of things getting lost in translation, and more confident in being what I think it means to be Eritrean with intention and respect. This film (and my entire film career so far) began when I stopped thinking about my heritage as something fragile to preserve and not touch. Instead I try to leave my best impression.
One of the themes I took away from the film was that of the internal struggle so many immigrants deal with—wanting to assimilate to American culture while feeling homesick or feeling the pull of one’s roots in another nation. Is that something that you experienced in your family, or was it a community wide concern?
I can only speak for myself and what I observe, but, in my experience, there is an abundance of internal struggle towards identity. I believe the deeper and more accessible challenge is to first address a lack of communication surrounding the issue. When you don’t have answers, you can at least ask questions, so I try to ask as many questions in my films as possible. Sometimes it’s in the literal dialogue of character, other times it’s a scene that has an open ending. And when I think I have reached an answer or a more informed state on something, I include that too.
I was really taken by a conversation in the film where one character talks about how a friend’s family was going to be upset because the friend was marrying a Black person. Is there a divide among the Eritrean or African diaspora/community in their self-identifying as Black? Do they view Black-ness or being called Black as a typically American conceit?
I think identifying as Black is something more felt and accepted in the diaspora than in the generations that raised us. And while I think older generations may not as commonly accept a Black identity, I believe they’ve felt the racial dynamics of being Black in places like the US, which used to make me quite sad growing up. It’s hard to see someone older than you affected in their everyday life for being something that they don’t even think that they are. I understood it as the need to protect the identities they’d had their entire lives, and there must have been some self-preservation involved to not associate with Blackness and avoid some grief in America. With that said, addressing these biases in the film has been received well, so far, in Eritrean audiences, and my friends in the diaspora and I chip away at whatever stigmas still exist whenever we remind others that we see ourselves as Black too.
There's also a moment where your mother balks at the idea of a trans character in the film appearing in traditional Eritrean dress. As this takes place in the Bay Area, where there's both a large LGBTQ+ community and a large Eritrean community, is there friction between the two?
The inclusion of a transgender woman in the film was intended to show how dramatically different our protagonist’s life in San Francisco has changed since he left Eritrea. Not only is he surrounded all day by people in a big city who live in many different ways, but he is starting to see these strangers in his hallucinations as well. The only relative commentary on Eritrean culture and queerness from the film is that, like many other topics that challenge one’s perceptions on what is wrong and right, there is unspoken denial instead of nuance.
All of the characters in the film are played by non-actors. Were these all friends and family members? What were you looking for by casting them?
Essentially the person in each role either had a connection with the character they played or they believed in the story enough to bring it to life. Almost everyone was someone that I knew before writing the script, and I am eternally grateful for the time they gave to the project. I am also in awe of how natural everyone was on camera and I hope they all become famous. My mom (who plays my mom in the film), especially.
This film plays very differently today in the wake of the President’s expanding travel ban, including Eritrea, and his administration’s push against legal immigration. What are you hearing within the community about these policies?
The current administration’s policies and public sentiments frequently resist plurality. There’s more than one way to be one thing. Some people don’t like that truth. There are so many ways to be American, and this plurality in patriotism is a natural byproduct of freedom. The restrictions on legal immigration and the very existence of a travel ban list was terrible to witness, even before Eritrea was added. It hits closer to home now, but it was already a diaspora issue when Sudan, Somalia, and the other five nations in the first executive order were banned. Filmmaking from an Eritrean-American perspective is my interest irrespective of political climate, but in times like this I’m making bigger, deeper, more beautiful and informative films.
What comes next for you after your visit to Portland? What are you working on these days?
I am currently in development for my next feature film, Aliens in Eritrea. It’s a prequel to Life is Fare set in the 1990s, and it follows a family in the Bay Area preparing to move back to Eritrea after the UN referendum for independence in 1993. After Portland I’ll be heading to Winston-Salem, NC to serve as a juror for the 2020 RiverRun International Film Festival. Life is Fare won their Special Jury Prize in Bold Innovation last year, so it’s going to be wonderful to go back and select films for this year’s honors.