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Filmmaker Focus I Abdou and Akwasi Flying The Flag for Black Culture & British Film

Our inaugural edition of Filmmaker Focus will explore not one but two filmmakers -- Abdou Cissé and Akwasi Poku. An emerging powerhouse partnership in the short film world, Abdou and Akwasi have crafted rather spectacular short-form narratives that explore the Black British experience in unique and humorous ways. One of their most recent films, which was written and directed by Abdou Cissé, received critical acclaim and was nominated for Best Short Film at this year’s BAFTAs, but we’ll come to this a bit later. First, let’s go back in time…


Forming A Filmmaking Partnership



As Sarah MacLean once said, “the best partnerships aren’t dependant on a mere common goal but a shared path of equality, desire and no small amount of passion”. Abdou and Akwasi are the perfect example of this. They found their way to filmmaking after finding a shared passion, but prior to this Akwasi started out in PR and Advertising while Abdou studied Architecture. It wasn’t until Abdou graduated and reached out to Akwasi, who was working in advertising at the time. The pair quickly started up their own agency and later down the line, realised their love for filmmaking and storytelling. While working on campaigns for Google and Nike, they had to adapt their communication styles and personalities to fit in and be what their clients wanted them to be. But after a couple of years on the job, Abdou and Akwasi realised that they should only ever be themselves and this is what steered them towards narrative filmmaking as they decided to “stop being a spectator and start participating”.

 

In a podcast episode with Acast, Abdou and Akwasi talk about the stories they like to tell and their influences. When asked about the black community’s resilience and the ability to overcome, Akwasi goes on to say that he and Abdou want their films to “take back the narrative” and “put us back in the conversation”. This means not limiting black stories to the well-worn narratives of overcoming racism. Instead, Abdou and Akwasi tell real, everyday stories that have been handed down from parents and grandparents. This has allowed them to learn about how their families lived and also allows them to connect to and share their heritage through art, using storylines that relate to the current generation and modern audiences.

 

This leads us on to our deep dive into their…


Short Films



Written and directed by Abdou Cissé, Festival of Slaps is a BAFTA nominated short film that explores intergenerational communication and subverts cultural stereotypes in a comical and insanely creative way.


The film opens in a lavish restaurant, where a Nigerian mother (Kemi Lofinmakin) is slapping her son, Ade (Tom Moutchi). Through Ade’s point of view, we are then slapped into flashbacks, which show Ade acting as a typical rebellious teenager. In a series of reconstructed memories, he comes in late, smokes cigarettes, and talks back to his mother. At each point of Ade disrespecting his mother, we jump back to the present where he is being slapped. The image of the archetypal African mother slapping a disobedient child despite being in public and despite that child now being a grown man is presented as culturally familiar but is cleverly subverted, revealing the subtleties and complexities of African parenting and the deep well of love at its core.

 

It is also worth noting the filmmaking genius used to drive home the almost supernatural power of each and every slap. The visuals are stunning, employing POV shots, extreme slow motion, even droplets of post-impact spit in the air. There are mind-bending levels of filmmaking prowess on display here, adding to the drama, tension and the comedy.


Watch it below




Another of their short films, Lock Off, which was released in 2021 and written & directed by Akwasi Poku follows a misinformed police unit led by a trigger-happy Sargent to bring down a suspected criminal organisation. The conflict between the protagonist, Leroy (Corey Bovell), a black police officer, working alongside colleagues with no respect for him and thinly veiled disdain for his background, not to mention the neighbourhood that they are about to invade.


As with Festival of Slaps, Lock Off provides a solid set up and expertly executes an hilarious twist. Once again, the set up and payoff is delivered with the kind of cinematic excellence that begs to be seen on the big screen. A slow motion tracking shot of a bullet in the climactic sequence is as masterful as it is gut churning.


Watch it here




The Therapist, which is their most recent short film, is perhaps their best example yet of taking culturally specific scenarios (in this case, the black barbershop) and using it as a conduit for universal themes and issues (balancing traditional masculinity and vulnerability and highlighting the mental health issues that can come with it). The film’s premise is rooted in the concept, familiar to the black barbershop of the bond between barber and customer and the unique role it plays in creating a place for men to open up without judgement. Once again, subverting traditional narratives, Akwasi Poku’s storytelling uses the black-dominated inner city as an environment not as a source of crime, but as a place where young men are required to wear an impenetrable veneer of masculinity almost all the time. Cleverly focusing on vulnerable protagonist Jaydon (Brett Curtis), surrounded by other young men wearing this veneer, we realise that he is seeing people as dominant or as masculine as they appear to be. This becomes a source of internal conflict for Jaydon while communicating to the audience that all of these young men are doing the same thing he is. The perceptive powers of the barber (or The Therapist – Ash Barba) guide the story and unpick the central conflict on a journey to the realisation that vulnerability and masculinity are not mutually exclusive, and that the belief that they are often leads to most damaging acts of self-destruction.


Watch the film here

 

Abdou and Akwasi, highly influenced by the impact of Black Panther’s release in 2018, seem to employ a philosophy that if they are going to show the audience something culturally fresh and impactful, then they will receive it in a way that is cinematically fresh and impactful. Visually striking and astoundingly creative flourishes abound every one of their films no matter how outlandish or grounded the premise.

 

Drawing inspiration from sources as varied as family histories, ancient Egypt, the great tribes of Africa, life in modern London and more, Abdou and Akwasi have created a style and standard that elevates British film with black-led stories. Not only that, but they have managed to do it with energy, verve and more than a generous helping of style. While Festival of Slaps did not walk away with the BAFTA for best short film, its nomination represents a graduation for short films coming out of communities of African descent. It also raises the bar for the cinematic potential of short film as a whole. Abdou Cissé and Akwasi Poku have shown that films born from cultural backgrounds outside of the UK, can become the vessels by which uniquely British stories can be told, writ large across cinema screens, guided by a level of craft that, more than once, can cause jaws to drop. And something tells us that they are just getting started.

 

So, what do you think of Abdou and Akwasi’s filmmaking style? Leave a comment to share your thoughts.


Find out more about Abdou & Akwasi and stay up to date with their projects using the links below.


Akwasi


Abdou



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