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Meet the British Nigerian director breaking barriers in film

BREAKING BARRIERS: Destiny Ekaragha

WHEN DIRECTOR Destiny Ekaragha set her sights on filmmaking, she had one clear goal.

“I just wanted to tell my truth, not everybody's perception of what my truth is,” she says.

Born to Nigerian parents in New Cross, south London, during the Eighties, Ekaragha's life was far removed from the picturesque life of the families she would often see depicted in film and TV.

The third of six children, Ekaragha grew up on a “gritty and grey” London estate, surrounded by young people, much like her, who were not defined by what the media would have them to believe was an deprived upbringing.
“It was colourful, funny and we cracked a lot of jokes,” she recalls.

“I wanted to draw on my experiences and put them on screen.”

Though she had initially hoped to become a television presenter to fulfil her schoolgirl ambition of interviewing Nineties R&B heartthrobs 3T, who she was “obsessed” with, her filmmaking ambitions kicked in during 2007 after watching a play by Nigerian playwright Bola Agbaje at London's Royal Court Theatre.

Gone Too Far!, which explored the numerous racial and cultural tensions and conflicts between Nigerian, British, West Indian, black, white, mixed-race and Asian youth on a south London estate, struck several chords with the 32-year-old who had never before seen her story brought to life on stage.

The play told the story of two brothers, one raised in Peckham and one in Nigeria, who meet each other for the first time in England, while exploring the uncomfortable racial prejudices running rife on London's streets in a humorous, though not flippant, way.

“My experience while watching the play was 'I can't believe my story is being told!' [Much like the lead character in Gone Too Far!], my brother Thomas grew up in Nigeria before coming to England at 25, so we didn't know him very well. Seeing that on stage, which I had never seen on stage or film, was amazing.

“There were so many points in the play that were a real part of my life that nobody talked about. I loved the play so when I saw elements of that still in the script when it was sent to me, I was like, 'I would love to tell this story'.”

Gone Too Far! went on to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliated theatre in 2008 and due to its success it was revived at a number of theatres including the Albany Theatre and Hackney Empire.

And though Ekaragha had a deep-seated love for Agbaje's work, she went on to direct and write her own short films, which included debut Tight Jeans, selected for the 52nd BFI London Film Festival in 2008, and 2009's The Park with producer Tamana Bleasdale.

But as fate would have it, at the beginning of 2012, she was sent the script for Gone Too Far!, which would become her first foray into feature films and her chance to add colour to the back catalogue of films produced by the UK film industry.

Because not only was it a film that featured a predominately black cast in a sea of films dominated by white faces, but it would put Ekaragha, according to International Film Magazine Sight & Sound, firmly in the history books as the third black woman to direct a feature-length film released theatrically in the UK, alongside
Amma Asante (Belle) and Debbie Tucker Green (Second Coming).

At this point, Ekaragha notes the work of two other black British female filmmakers, Ngozi Onwurah (Shoot The Messenger) and Campbell X (Stud Life), whose work has also paved the way.

“I found out [I had been named on that list] during an interview and I was like, 'that can't be right. That's in the history of cinema? How?

“One half of me was like, 'I made it, I made it into the top five.' And the other half was like 'that's a disgrace, what do you mean?’ We're definitely not going to play the game of black women don't want to make films or are not making films, I know that's untrue, so it's not a good statistic. It's not something to be proud of.

“But there's a shift in the tide,” she says gleefully. “People are seeing that filming equipment is accessible even though distribution isn't. It's really tough. I think I was the third [black woman] to get distribution actually. Getting distribution for any British filmmaker is very hard. It's incredibly difficult and for black women, as the statistics show you, it's a bit of a joke. It needs to change and I hope it will.”

Through the meeting of “like-minded people”, Gone Too Far! managed to secure funding from the BFI Film Fund and distribution through independent company Verve Pictures, a fact Ekaragha says both companies should be applauded for.

“I think a lot of the time [the British film industry] want to play it safe and black isn't safe most of the time and especially when it's women. The industry is predominantly white middle class men, so as a black woman, when you take a script to them, they're like, 'what story is this? We don't know this world.'

“The team behind this film weren't trying to look at me like I was an alien from another planet because I'm a black woman or the kids in the script we're aliens from another planet. They just thought it was funny.”

Armed with that level of expectation, was she daunted by the task ahead of her?

“I think I was too excited by it for it to be daunting,” she says. “I think making a first feature film was daunting.
You're so new to the game at first that you listen to everyone's opinions because you believe they know more than you do and it took a while before we were like, 'no, we grew up on these estates. I think we know the story we're trying to tell.'”

Using Spike Lee’s 1989 hit film, Do The Right Thing as a reference, which she says does a great job of “addressing social issues by drawing on his own experiences of what a summer in Brooklyn looked like for him,” the film went into production.

What's great about Gone Too Far!, other than it showcasing the talent of the UK's thriving film scene, is its ability to redeem London of some of its social ills through clever writing, explicit characters and approaching uncomfortable prejudices head on.

The film, which is released tomorrow (Oct 10), has already won the Best New British Comedy at the (LOCO) London Comedy Film Festival and was screened at both the London International Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. It also won Ekaragha a nomination for the Best Newcomer at the London International Film Festival.

“It's kind of surreal to be honest and it hasn't really sunk in yet,” she says. “Bola and I have our heads down working on other projects, which include the sequel to Gone Too Far!, which we are hoping to shoot in Nigeria, a web series called Hot Pepper and a number of other things. Every time we look up we get slightly overwhelmed, but it's great,” she says.

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