Humble. Peaceful. Welcoming. I literally have a tower of adjectives that could describe the beautiful nature of Sheila Na’imah Nortley but they probably wouldn’t do her justice. Award-winning film producer and writer, Sheila’s first success came in 2009 with her neo-noir short film, The Hydra which earned ‘Best Film’ at the BFM Awards at the British Film Institute that same year.
The accolades continued at home and internationally with award winning short and feature films including Zion; which won Best Film and Best Screenplay at the Spartan Lens Film Festival in Norfolk Virginia in April 2012; and, Illegal Activity an addiction story told from a different paradigm which received wide acclaim and won Best Film and Best Director at the prestigious ABBF in Miami in 2013.
Sheila herself has received recognition for her contribution to Black Youth Achievement and most recently won the Aviva Women of The Future Award 2016 for Arts & Culture. Sheila’s passion for the Arts has not been solely expressed behind the camera – she’s now comfortable in front of it having played Vanessa in the tangled story of love, sex and race Sable Fable and in upcoming feature film The Strangers. We talk to Sheila about her triumphs, the opportunities and challenges of working independently and potentially breaking Nollywood!
Have you always been a great Storyteller or was your entry into the industry accidental?
I’ve always been a storyteller. I’ve even been in denial about being a storyteller and for years if someone would ask me if I write, I’d say no. This is the case with many writers, we don’t realise we’re writers even though it’s glaringly obvious. So, I was certainly always a writer and always a storyteller, how great I was at it at various stages in my life is totally subjective. My entry into the industry therefore wasn’t accidental. It was an entry born in passion and creativity and purpose. I’m a filmmaker and therefore being in the film industry is quite a conscious and obvious thing. My entries, and even my exits, have been for some purpose or another. I like to think I know when I need to be involved and be visible and when I need to be invisible. In a society like this, we’re afraid to be invisible because it’s all very much about posting and how many people follow you and your social media etc., that’s what we’re told validates us and makes us important human beings. But as human beings it’s the content of your heart and mind that’s important. As writers, it’s the magic that goes on in our heads that makes us important, and the expression of that on our Final Draft software. Therefore, the other stuff is much less relevant once you know the value of who you are and trust that sincerely.
How much of your character comes through in the films that you make?
Lots! *laughs* I don’t think you can ever really separate the character of the filmmaker from their film.
You have created some fantastic content independently. What opportunities does Independent film making afford you over mainstream and vice versa?
I think the freedom of indie-filmmaking is invaluable. It’s the opportunity to express ideas and challenge ideologies and create art and tell stories. Mainstream films obviously tend to have the budgets to create stunning visuals and SFX (special effects) and make huge blockbusters with great distribution deals. However, with indie filmmaking you’re forced to be creative and quite pure with regards to production and can create equally stunning visuals using different means and in different styles.
How has the film making industry received you and your work thus far?
Amazingly. Filmmaking is home to me. After my three-year sabbatical, I’ve been welcomed back by my loved ones in the industry with such warmth and open arms that it touched me. Being on set again for the first time in three years, it just felt like home. Already the short film I shot last year has been selected for Cannes Pan-African Film Festival in April and Charlotte Black Film Festival, and nominated for some awards. So I feel positive moving forward, but I also feel very free. I don’t feel bound by anyone or anything or any ‘industry’. Despite all the chaos and anarchy we’re living, it’s a beautiful world full of big hearts and kind people. Even in the unkind, the lost and the bitter people there are stories of often equally big hearts just yearning to be filled love, validation and beauty. So I try to see beauty in everything and therefore, going back to the industry, the warmth and love and good vibes me and my work have received it’s very encouraging and motivating.
Has this shaped how you approach film making?
My approach to filmmaking should never be shaped by anything other than imagination and truth and direction. Anytime I’ve deviated from this I’ve been left with something mediocre. So I can’t allow it to be shaped by anything else. I don’t look at other people’s work and try to copy it or jump on someone else’s wave, this lacks authenticity and I respect my audience, I know they can see through fast-food films. That’s what it’s like! You can have, like, McDonalds filmmaking where you can churn out rubbish very quickly, just because it’s easy for you or you have the resources. There’s no real nutrition there. Your audience won’t feel satisfied, really. They won’t feel full up. They won’t feel energised or inspired.
Your latest offering, The Strangers is set in a post-war era and follows the journey of a young man whose dreams lead him to national secret. What was the inspiration for the concept?
Reality. What I see on the news. What I see happening in my community. Life. Love. We’re living in some very unusual times and the sociopolitical climate is interesting because we seem to be having both a revival of religion and spirituality and a very clear and apparent suppression of religious and spiritual expression. I felt obliged to bring this discourse into my narrative. These interesting concepts developed and compelling characters formed in my mind and I sculpted them into people and knitted their stories together into this movie; this screenplay, over six years. I don’t know what to say sometimes, how to comment, what status to post when I see certain atrocities that affect my community; the black community, the diaspora, the Muslim community, the human community. So, I write, I write what’s in my heart, I use metaphors to represent the weight of it, and characters to argue out the contradictions in my own opinions. That’s what I did with The Strangers.
This will be the third time you’re working with Ashley Walters, the first was on the 2012 Zion film where you were behind the camera, again in 2013 when he directed your TV pilot, The Charlatans and now again in The Strangers. What is that relationship like and how have you continued to cultivate it?
I feel bad sometimes when I get asked about Ashley. I think it’s because I would never want to reduce a person as kind and genuine as him to just a ‘name’ that I’ve been associated with. I’ve met and worked with such beautiful people, who I never get asked about, so sometimes I feel bad when I’m asked about him. But to answer the question, my relationship with him is that I’d consider him a friend and a very good person and I’m so glad our paths crossed. There are so many people who get a bit of fame and it goes to their head and meanwhile I’ll have Ashley WhatsApping me with the most love and respect for me and my work. It’s funny. I value him and his Mrs, Danielle, very much. We don’t speak everyday but I know they are always just a WhatsApp or call away, and they know likewise.
Besides yourself who else is making strides in the industry? Who should we keep our eyes on?
I think Michaela Coel goes without saying. She’s fantastic. Arinze Kene is also an incredible talent doing amazing things who I’d suggest we never take our eyes off. Of course, Ashley and Danielle Walters. Femi Oyeniran and his team. Ashley Chin. Sebastian Thiel. Kyla Frye. Shola Amoo. Andy Mundy-Castle. The Tri-Force Collective. Samuell Benta. debbie tucker green. Sandra Quartey is opening doors in the world of theatre and has some exciting news this year. We have British actors like David Ajala, Aml Ameen, Letitia Wright and John Boyega leading the way for young Brits in Hollywood and following the footsteps of Idris Elba and Thandie Newton. Everyone is obviously at different stages in their careers and in their lives, and I’m not trying to compare them all, but talent is just talent. There’s so much talent here in London, I can’t even name everyone who I think it doing incredibly. There are also British pioneers like Femi Oguns, Emmanuel Anyiam-Osigwe, Charles Thompson, Akua Gyamfi and Nadia Denton, who shy away from the limelight but are building the foundations and network of industry over here and working tirelessly and achieving incredible things. I could go on and on.
You’re British Ghanaian, would you ever consider going into the African movie industry i.e. Ghallywood, Kumawood or Nollywood production?
I’d definitely consider it. It will always be about the film, the content, the message. People can then decide which box, if any, it fits in or which industry it belongs to.