Exploring the Roots of the African Imaginary: “African Folktales Reimagined” through the Lens of Korede Azeez

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“African Folktales Reimagined” poster, imagine taken from https://about.netflix.com/en/news/african-folktales-reimagined-short-films-launch-date-announced 23/05/24, 14:30

In the vast cinematic landscape, few works have the power to transport the viewer into enchanted worlds steeped in culture and tradition as the short films in the “African Folktales Reimagined” series. These short cinematic gems stand as a bridge between the past and the present, between the richness of ancient African stories and contemporary visual aesthetics.

With a keen eye and a masterful touch, the filmmakers of this series take us on a journey through the depths of African fairy tales and legends, reinterpreting them in surprising and engaging ways. Each short film is a narrative treasure that immerses us in fantastic worlds, populated by mythical creatures, brave heroes and life lessons woven with ancestral wisdom.

This article aspires to convince our readers to explore the fascination and relevance of the “African Folktales Reimagined” short films, and discover a behind-the-scenes look at one of their fascinating chapters thanks to the kind availability of one of the directors of the series, Korede Azeez, who shot the incredible short film “Halima’s Choice”. 

The Genesis of “African Folktales Reimagined”

The “African Folktales Reimagined” project originated from a partnership between Netflix and UNESCO, aimed at launching a short film competition targeting sub-Saharan Africa. This joint initiative was conceived to offer young African filmmakers an unprecedented opportunity to express their creativity and share their interpretations of ancient African folktales and legends. The competition was opened on 14 October 2021 and closed just one month later, on 14 November 2021 and after a selection process, several promising projects were chosen. The winners were awarded a financial prize to realize their projects and received guidance and mentorship directly from industry professionals. 

Thanks to this collaboration, “African Folktales Reimagined” has become not only a vehicle for innovative cinematic storytelling but also a means to promote cultural diversity and support the development of African film industries. The six winning directors, Korede Azeez from Nigeria, Voline Ogutu from Kenya, Loukman Ali from Uganda, Walt Mzengi Corey from Tanzania, Mohamed Echkouna from Mauritania, and Gcobisa Yako from South Africa could see their short films on Netflix from 29 March 2024. 

I recently had the privilege of conversing with one of the talented directors of this series, Korede Azeez, whose short film captured the attention and hearts of many viewers. Through our discussion, I had the opportunity to peer beyond the veil of filmmaking, exploring the creative motivations, challenges encountered and the importance of giving voice to African traditions in the global landscape of cinema.

“I hope Netflix or other organizations do projects like this more often from now on – says Korede Azeez about the project –  I feel like we haven’t even started to scratch the surface of the stories we have in Africa”. After seeing the reaction of the judges to the pitch in South Africa she realized immediately that she had a chance of winning, but the subsequent news that she had been shortlisted as a winner made it all the more real and exciting. After the win, Azeez was joined by filmmaker, photographer and writer Jenna Cato Bass. They have created an instant rapport both personally and professionally, a maieutic relationship of which the director has extremely positive and satisfying memories. Added to this, there was the collaboration with Netflix: the opportunity to speak to an audience as large as that of the famous streaming platform was stimulating in itself but, as Korede Azeez reveals, the efficient communication between the various teams gave the project linearity and seriousness in terms of organization and production.

“Halima’s choice” poster, imagine taken from https://www.instagram.com/p/Cqa0qA9oVxy/?igsh=MnBsMDMycnZkMXBz 23/05/24, 14:40

What Are the Limits of a Limitless World?

Imagine living in a dystopian world where only 1% of the population has decided to remain living on earth as we know it. The remaining population has moved to a virtual dimension, reachable only by technological devices thanks to artificial intelligence. In this other dimension, everything is better: the atmosphere is bright and warm, the trees are full of flowers and delicious fruit, the children play peacefully in the green meadows and the people are extremely happy and serene. Those who live there call it “Janna”, a word for paradise in the Islamic religion. In this world, it is our will that commands: we can choose the taste of the fruit and suddenly change our clothing for the better. There are no limits in an artificial world built by us and for us. 

The only problem is that it is not real. Halima, the protagonist of Kodera Azeez’s short film played by the magnificent Habiba Ummi Mohammed, is part of a small community that still resists this worldwide trend by refusing to be controlled by AI. Her parents want her to marry a man much older against her will but who would guarantee her a comfortable life. One day she meets Umar, played by Adam Garba, a young man who has decided to refuse and escape from Napata, the enchanted city in the other dimension, and return to the real world. In the days following his return, Umar gives Halima a chance to get to know and access that world, but she is not convinced by the illusion, despite the fact that she would trade anything to escape her reality. Upon meeting Umar, Halima’s opinion of Napata does not change but the young man’s kindness convinces her to ask him for help in escaping the village and the arranged marriage. Only at this moment Halima discovers that Umar has returned only to acquire data for Napata, because, as he reveals, the only way to create a realistic world for them is to confront the physical world. Feeling betrayed by the one person she thought was a friend, Halima initially decides to accept her matrimonial fate. Later, however, she decides not to let fear stop her like the rest of the people, whom she does not hesitate to call “sick”. She chooses not to surrender to a future not decided by her, nor to Napata, a despicable substitute for the real world, and bravely flees, facing an unknown future by herself.

Director Korede Azeez during the premiere of “African Folktales Reimagined”, imagine taken from https://www.instagram.com/p/Cqa0qA9oVxy/?igsh=MnBsMDMycnZkMXBz 23/05/24, 14:40

“Halima’s Choice”: A Reinterpretation of Traditional Nigerian Folktales in The Modern Context

When she heard about the “African Folktales Reimagined” project, Korede Azeez started looking for a traditional legend to inspire her proposal. After doing a bit of research, she came across a story that she remembered hearing as a child, maybe from an English book from primary school. The story is about a girl who repeatedly rejects the suitors her parents proposed to her because she wanted to marry a young, handsome man. One day at the market she meets the man of her dreams and they marry. However, once she arrives at the man’s house, she discovers that the man is a spirit whose skull was actually all that existed, and she had ended up in a land where everyone wanted to eat her. The girl manages to return home and agrees to marry whoever her parents wanted. Most likely this story was invented by exactly those parents who wanted their daughter to marry whomever they chose. The film represents traditional culture, reformulating this tale originally from Southern Nigeria, but integrating it into themes close to the director: in Northern Nigeria, where Azeez currently lives, girls marry very young and this is something that will continue to happen despite modernisation. Moreover, as she has always been interested in technology, science and sci-fi, she added the topic of artificial intelligence to the story: “it’s such a big topic right now and we still don’t know it exactly, especially about how it’s going to affect us in the long term”.

“Halima’s Choice” is a layered tale from which different people can derive different messages. Certainly the first message the director wanted to send is addressed to parents, and it is about not forcing their child to do something they do not want to do, because they will probably regret it. In a more general framework, the film is about the importance of choice, the importance for girls to make their own choices, to be put in a position where they can make them, or ultimately the fact that if girls do not have the opportunity to make their own choices, they will find a way to make them. The film thus fits into feminist narratives that propose female characters who become protagonists of their lives and act for themselves.

Crafting Halima and her Path

“Building the character of Halima was difficult – Korede Azeez reveals – in a way, however, I knew that the character would be at least a little like me, because there is always something of me in the characters I write”. A key issue for Azeez is the representation of Muslim women on screen: “I grew up watching a lot of movies and I never saw, not once ever, a Muslim girl on screen that I could relate with. It’s ridiculous because if we just look at the Nigerian film industry half of the Nigerian Society is Muslim. Obviously zooming out at mainstream media worldwide it’s pretty much the same thing”. Korede Azeez was born and raised in a predominantly Catholic city in southern Nigeria.  Even at school she was a minority: there were no other Muslim children and she felt that it wasn’t easy to build deep connections: “Maybe that’s why I’m obsessed with putting women like me on screen – she says laughing – because I want to represent characters that are relatable”.

The director also wanted to give her protagonist a sort of silent strength that she believes that many African women have, a kind of resilience that she inherited from her mother. At the end of the film, Halima decides not to give up either her future marriage or Napata. The significance of “Halima’s Choice” for Azeez is not to portray a strong character who decides to escape by rejecting her fear but to give us a character who despite her fear is able to escape and choose for herself. Halima retains her values, which is exactly why she refuses to live in Napata when her mother proposes it. “Halima’s Choice” is therefore also a generational tale, to show that it is not true that young people have no values. 

The process of writing a film is a very intense and complicated moment for a director and Korede Azeez does not deny it: “Writing is tough, I had several existential moments while doing it (…) I’m glad I had Jenna, who always helped me through what I needed to work on without telling me the answers. She gave me the tools and let me figure it out on my own”. In the writing process Azeez always starts by honing in on what he wants to communicate: “I try my best to be really clear about the message, but it’s hard because I always want to say so many things”.

The filming process lasted eight days, but not without mishaps: Azeez revealed that at one point, during the filming in the caves, they got their equipment stolen. Furthermore, during the last days of filming, they were forced to shoot very fast due to the weather forecast predicting heavy rain, which would prevent the normal completion of filming. “I had never shot that fast in my entire life – says Azeez laughing – I can laugh now but it wasn’t funny then”.

At the moment, Korede Azeez has just finished the post-production of her second feature film whose title will be “With difficulty comes ease”, inspired by a verse from the Koran, and it will be released this year. Azeez claims that she wrote this film for women like herself: it’s the story of a young Muslim woman who loses her husband and has to deal not only with grief but also with the more practical matters that no one talks about on these occasions, such as financial and administrative problems and the rapport with the family in laws. Having loved “Halima’s Choice” so much, we can do no more than await the release of this new film by the director.

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