The Eagle’s Nest is a funny and cynical take on the tired trope of African migration …
British-Cameroonian director Olivier Assoua’s feature debut The Eagle’s Nest follows the trials of a young sex worker, Paris in rural Cameroon, as she dreams of leaving the country. The murder of her entire family pushes Paris on a revenge journey which ultimately forces her to remain and confront the colonial and patriarchal currents shaping the world.
We spoke with Olivier Assoua about his daring film which is screening at this year’s Raindance Film Festival …
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Olivier Assoua, I am a Black British writer, director, producer, and editor. I was born in the Littoral region of Cameroon, in central Africa. From a middle-class family, my father was a taxman, and my mother an Agricultural Advisor. As a child growing up in Africa, we were not allowed to watch TV unless we did well at school. So, as a reward for good grades once in a while, my father would show us classical French films. 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) (1959) by François Truffaut, Vivre sa vie (1962) by Jean-Luc Godard, and much more. This was a novelty experience. I always looked forward to being immersed in these black-and-white stories of love, violence, social, and cultural change. I fell in love with movies and dreamed about making my own film one day.
When I moved to the UK, I enrolled in Film and Broadcast Production at London Metropolitan University. I went on to work in the industry for 11 years and still held on to the vision of making my own film. In 2018, the European migrant crisis compelled me to write The Eagles Nest. This was a breakthrough moment for me as I later embarked on a journey back to Cameroon to film a self-funded action-thriller feature on the issue of immigration and poverty in the continent.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now?
Multiculturalism. Having lived almost equally between Cameroon, France, and the UK; I can say I am a multicultural person; I am intellectually and emotionally comfortable in more than one country or culture. It’s reflected in my work as well as in my circle of friends.
The Eagle’s Nest’s lead actresses Claude S Mbida Nkou and Felicity Asseh both have an extraordinary presence on screen. How did you choose your cast?
I’ve written the script with the help of my little sister Adeline. We worked together for a year developing the characters. After that, she ran the casting sessions. Adeline sent me some YouTube links of Felicity Asseh playing different roles in mainstream movies. I really liked the fact that she is open and thinks outside of the box in her general approach. In Cameroon, I ran some workshops and shortlisted the casts. During the different sessions, Claude S Mbida Nkou was very curious and playful, she asked a lot of questions. Her curiosity amazed me, and I knew working with her would be delightful.
What was it about Claude and Felicity that stood out?
Felicity really wanted the role of Samantha, the antagonist. She outshined everyone else during the workshop sessions. I knew she would give me more than what I was hoping for. Claude had that penetrating look/eyes/gaze that was necessary for the role of Paris. It was hard not to notice her.
You mentioned in an interview with the BBC that the overall budget of the film was £5,000 ($6,400). The quality is impressive. How did you juggle such a low budget and what lessons did you learn from this process?
I wrote, produced, directed, edited, sounds, etc. the entire film project. Thus, the total above the line was just a return flight ticket to Cameroon. I used my own equipment (drone, digital camera, few lenses, slider, interview lighting kits, and some filters). I was able to bring people together, surround myself with a community that helped free of charge, and also brought a lot of enthusiasm. For some of the music tracks, I collaborated with Andy Payne, a British singer-songwriter, and Arthur and The Invincibles an exciting British band. I explained what the movie project was about, and they agreed to be part of the solution. I approached the film school, L’institut des Beaux-Arts de Nkongsamba, and secured the help of an Assistant Director and a team of four very talented young boys to work with the DOP and the Sound Engineer. My big brother, who is an accountant, was in charge of managing the budget. Most of it went to cast and crew daily rates as well as some admin.
Paris and Samantha’s duo remind me of the iconic postcolonial science fiction “Les Saignantes” by Jean-Pierre Bekolo. Was he a source of inspiration? What other films inspired you?
I know of Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s work through social media. I haven’t met him yet, but I hope to. I’ve never seen the movie “Les Saignantes”. Having studied here in the UK, my professional knowledge is very much Anglo Saxon. I spend hours looking at the work of Steve McQueen, or Christopher Nolan movies. My approach with this project was inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Following (1988). Using two narratives, flashbacks to fill in crucial backstory, and present narrative time-frame to move the story forward. I then added a third narrative, exploring the characters’ behaviours. I finally incorporated the creative influence of both Tarantino and The Coen Brothers.
There is a quite graphic rape scene in the movie, and in general, the film does not shy away from a raw portrayal of violence. What choices did you make when it came to representing violence on screen and why?
This really comes to why I made the movie. I just wanted to turn people’s gaze towards the issue of African migrants. At least 18,000 people have lost their lives in Mediterranean crossings since 2014, according to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration. Young black Africans are sold as slaves in Libya in 2020. Young women; many men and boys suffer rape and sexual trauma. This is unacceptable.
I wish I could have been less graphic but when people die, they are gone for good. Survivors of sexual assault always struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I just wanted to shout as loud as could.
With the Time’s Up movement and the introduction of intimacy coaches for more graphic / sexually violent scenes was this something you considered, or is this something you plan to do on future projects?
The movie explores the psychological distress of the characters as they descend towards an inevitable end. I needed to be as honest as possible using the visual medium of cinema, and present to the audience what happens when people are left behind, crushed by a system that is systematically flawed. If people can remember the rape scene and then ask what can be done? Then the movie would have served its purpose.
The cinematography of the movie is quite stunning, can you tell me more about collaborating with the director of photography Arsène Romuald Mvondo on that?
Arsène left the army and began to work as a gaffer on local film projects for many years, waiting for a chance to prove himself. The Eagle’s Nest was the opportunity he had been waiting for and he did an amazing job. He truly enjoyed the creative freedom and collaborative nature of the work and helped me create the mood and feel of the film.
The locations throughout the movie, from the labyrinthine streets of the town to the interiors, to the lush and green outdoors were stunning, almost becoming characters themselves … can you expand on your hopes for the visuals?
You are right, the location is a character in the movie. The city is surrounded by hills. It gives the impression that people are trapped and survive in the harshest environments, thus the title of the movie The Eagle’s Nest. My visual approach was to allow the audience to feel trapped, experience the same claustrophobia of the characters’ lives, be locked in a straitjacket: that of fatality weighing on their destiny.
What do you hope for audiences watching The Eagle’s Nest to take away with them?
My hope is that we force our elected officials to find a lasting solution to the European migrant crisis. Western governments have the tools to demand accountability from African leaders. Instead, they play the blame game, while Africans are sold as slaves by Libyans. Women and young boys are sexually assaulted. The truth is; this issue won’t miraculously disappear.
Getting to know you …
- A book you have to have in your collection – Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder.
- A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? – Paolo Nutini – Iron Sky “You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure … Let us use that power. Let us all unite!” That’s so true. To me anyway.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I will gladly say I am a huge LOTR fan! Tolkien was a true master at world-building.
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you? – The Lion King is magnificent. I took my niece to watch the play and ended up having more fun than her!
- What’s made you sad, mad, or glad this week? – People were shot dead during protests against police brutality in Nigeria. This is unacceptable. It drives me crazy! It comes back to what I said earlier. Western governments have the tool to make African leaders accountable. They must understand this is a different generation, we won’t be bullied, we will stand our ground and fight for changes, and we will succeed because we are not alone anymore. We have the support and compassion of the entire human race.
Eagle’s Nest is available to watch at Raindance Film Festival any time from 28 Oct to 7 Nov 2020. Find out more here.