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How Israel Ekanem rolls

The multi-hyphenate filmmaker has four shorts screening online at this week's Emerging Lens Film Festival.

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Israel Ekanem has made over 13 short movies in just four years. He's getting ready to move to feature films soon. - MONICA BELL-EKANEM PHOTO
  • Monica Bell-Ekanem photo
  • Israel Ekanem has made over 13 short movies in just four years. He's getting ready to move to feature films soon.

Emerging Lens Film Festival 2020
June 10-14, 6:30-9pm
themerginglens.com

The edges of the word prolific aren’t enough of a border to contain Israel Ekanem’s volume of work. His is the sort of output that quickly overflows: He’s constantly making new short films; putting together a weekly radio show for CKDU FM; working on his podcast, Blackout Podcast—which was borne out of another of his longstanding projects, creating poetry by Sharpie-ing away chunks of existing text to form new meaning. When reached by phone one sunny June afternoon, he’s just finished writing yet another script, waiting for feedback from his friends on the first draft. (Called Kill Your Masters, Ekanem says the script for a new short was inspired by Killer Mike’s recent speech in Atlanta: “It touched me deep.”)

How—and why—does he create so much? “I’m greedy,” says the writer/director/producer with a light laugh. “I think the thing is, I am originally from Nigeria and I grew up with all these crazy ideas of things I wanted to do, but I grew up in a country where I didn’t have a lot of opportunities. Then I moved here, to Canada, and all of a sudden I have the ability and all these opportunities right in front of me and I don’t know how to say no.” 

Building worlds to explore and share was inevitable, he says, explaining that his grandmother instilled a love for storytelling early on. “Whenever you meet somebody, whenever you are starting a new relationship, starting a new job, whatever it is, you are either creating a new story or adding to the story you already have,” he explains. “So I believe that everything we do builds onto the story of our lives. So the story really starts when we are born, and ends when we die; the middle is everything we do in between.”

And, it’s quite clear Ekanem will do everything he sets out to in between. “I just love making people feel something,” he adds. 

At this week’s online edition of the annual Emerging Lens Film Festival, you’ll have a chance to see a different flick by Ekanem each day. The four shorts range in tone and messaging, from an ephemeral afternoon at the beach laced with dread (that’s Threnody, showing June 13) to a mini-documentary tracking the success of local rapper Alex Ross’s music career and streetwear line, Family Over Fame (showing June 11).

With a whopping 22 writing and directing credits on his IMDb page (nine of which sit between pre-production and post-production), it’s easy to forget that 

Ekanem has only been making movies since 2016. It becomes even easier to forget that when you see that he’s already gotten the hang of touring his work on the festival circuit: He’s shown films everywhere from the Atlantic International Film Fest to the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival, where the 2018 short he co-wrote and co-directed, Tale of a Man Who Whispers To Flowers, won gold.

“I usually hide my films or my message under layers of ‘oh look at this cool thing’ because I want people to sit down and watch it one or two times or even three times, trying to figure out what I was trying to get across,” says Ekanem, who counts Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay as his biggest directorial inspirations. 

When it comes to process, “I don’t start writing until I know the ending,” Ekanem says. Acting as writer, director and co-producer allows his singular vision to stand. (His wife, Monica Bell-Ekanem, is the primary producer on most of his films. “I start with a massive idea and she shrinks it to make sense,” he adds.)

“My message is we’re all human and we’re here to help each other and we all have a role to play. In my films, there’s always someone that needs help and someone who helps them—or someone that doesn't want to reach out to help. And it’s always by reaching out for help that things happen,” Ekanem adds. “Because I really believe as human beings that’s what we’re here to do: We’re here to make the world better by making people’s lives better.”

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