At a glance, there’s not much that I have in common with Ade – the lead character in Festival of Slaps. I immigrated to the UK with my Bulgarian family when I was 15, whereas he grew up in South London with his Nigerian parents. Yet, as I watched the film for the first time, the staggering similarities between our adolescent lives kept on coming – from the experience of navigating through traditional Eastern European and Pan-African (respectively) styles of upbringing, to desperately trying to immerse ourselves into a different culture without losing our identity in the process and, God forbid, disappointing our mothers. And, if you need proof that I am not the only one who found this boldly and hilariously conceived 12 minute gem to be a hugely relatable and disarming watch, check out the film’s festival track record. Directed and written by Abdou Cissé, Festival of Slaps examines the inter-generational dynamics of one family through a series of slap-induced flashbacks, taking the audience on a riveting ride with a few surprises along the way. We are delighted to share with you the BFI award-winning and BIFA nominated short, alongside our chat with Cissé where we delve into his thought-process, and dissect the technicalities of his unique style of storytelling.
How did the idea for the film come about?
In all seriousness, I could give you a philosophical answer, but in all honesty, I just wanted to create a superhero film with my mum as the hero. After Serious Tingz, I wanted to really expand the universe of stories I can tell. I wanted to challenge the lack of representation of our biggest unsung heroes, creating an authentic space for my mum to be seen on the big screen. Like to truly see her, in all her glory and stripping away the misunderstood to make way for the truth. Where she, like many black women, don’t fit this Western archetype of a hero, but the truth is they are superheroes in the purest sense.
With this idea set, I took my own character defining moment (nearly choking to death and my Mum saving me) and used it to play into the audience’s prejudices and misconceptions of black Mums and upbringings.
I just wanted to create a superhero film with my mum as the hero.
The slapping/choking scene is a real work of art – from the slow motion shots and shaky camera, the music and sound effects, to the close-ups of the droplets. Talk me through the thinking behind the look and how you achieved it.
It’s great you really picked up on all the tools we used to bring the scene to life. The team from sound, camera and grade blew it out the park. I think the goal behind the look was for it to feel like a mini-feature rather than a short. Black lives are cinematic, so let’s transform the smallest most mundane of moments into one you’ll never forget. You’re prob thinking, “Eerrrrr a mini-feature is a short no?”, but the ambition going into creating a mini-feature just felt bigger and more expansive. It birthed a more creative air around the film in all areas, allowing us to import thinking usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters and bring it to a more down to earth space.
Effectively it started with the script. I tend to write in a very visceral/emotive way, where I focus on how something feels, rather than just the simple stage direction – i.e. “Mum Slaps Son” vs “Mum slaps the soul out of her son”. From there, it took me a while to really find the style of achieving it. There wasn’t really anything in the film world (apart from The Matrix) that felt right to me, so I tapped into my anime/manga bag such as Hajime no Ippo, Naruto, Haikyuu!! etc. What drew me in was just the clarity of tension. I love how these directors are able to create these set pieces with such grand displays of action, with such emotive clarity. From this process of finding references and mapping out the world visually, I ended up making my own comic strip by storyboarding the whole film. This became the creative foundation for the whole production.
My extensive prep aside, I was lucky to have an amazing team of people who are just as crazy as I am. I think everyone was able to really fulfil their cinema-blockbuster-childlike dreams in the project. My producers Cheri Darbon and George Telfer really embraced the ambition of the project, striving to find the right talent and ways of bringing it to life. My DOP; Anna Macdonald being one of them, who achieved some technically unthinkable shots. It was really fun working with her to find different rigs and to just indulge in the world I storyboarded. I’m happy you mentioned the post, because a lot of magic came through discussions and experimenting. My editor André Rodrigues really helped me re-build the story with a stronger balance of pace and drama. George managed to link me up with VFX wizard Ruslan Borysov who saw the vision and helped give us that sprinkle of Hollywood.
I tend to write in a very visceral/emotive way, where I focus on how something feels, rather than just the simple stage direction.
What were the biggest challenges you and the team faced during the shoot and in post? Were there any surprises/accidents?
Like most challenges it came down to: Vision vs Time vs Budget. The shoot was fairly straightforward, as I like to extensively prep/map out/previz everything. The ambition was high and there’s only so much you can do in shoots of this scale, so we had to get real creative especially in post to make the story work.
The struggle was getting the edit to feel the same way as the script. Our drama scenes were too long and suddenly felt like it was trying to be something it wasn’t. We then returned to the script and just tried to focus on what the overall story was trying to do. We had to remember the film itself is making a point and once we stuck to that everything became clear and easy to manage. Overall, pace was really our biggest mountain to climb. I think one of the biggest blessings to come out of the process was that I forgot to actually shoot in slow-mo for the slaps shots. Honest mistake, but it made the film extremely hard to edit. To help land this, I realised that we could use parallax stills of the action to create this ultra slow-mo effect, allowing an audience to follow the beats of the story. This then became the style of the film, making every scene feel like a rollercoaster ride. Unpredictable, exciting and enjoyable.
The last happy accident was in the final scene. Something felt off. I didn’t really feel emotionally connected to the absence of Mrs Adeyemi. Luckily in the rushes I noticed that there were some real gems in the moments before we called action. These were moments when our actors were getting in the zone of the characters and there was just a heaviness to them. A transformation. In particular, the close ups of Tom Moutchi (Ade) just staring into space. It’s brief and super small, but the camera crew were just getting the focus right before we called “action”. It’s in this dip in focus, for me, that I found to be the emotional glue I was missing. This small moment really helped me justify that everything was in Ade’s head as he was reminiscing about his Mum. For me, that one mistake or happy accident ironically refocused the film on the emotional story I wanted to tell vs the spectacle of the set ups. It meant that the focus had to be on his POV/experience with his mother. This influenced everything from the score, shot choices and transitions to bring us closer to Ade’s experience of those events.
For me, that one mistake or happy accident ironically refocused the film on the emotional story I wanted to tell vs the spectacle of the set ups.
Festival of Slaps challenges stereotypes using humour which I find both refreshing and deeply effective. Why did you land on comedy and how are you so good at it?
Thanks, I wouldn’t say I’m good at it yet, as I’m still learning a lot about my POV and voice. I think I learnt a lot from both skit and stand up comedy. Dave Chappelle, in particular, has the beautiful ability of weaving in sobering subject matters with humour. He masterfully tells a funny story, leading you down the garden path, but leaves you learning something new about the world. I wish I could be the Dave Chappelle of filmmaking i.e. I would love to give people that feeling he leaves us with, but in film format.
In terms of technical comedy, I look up to Edgar Wright and Guy Ritchie, especially how they make the whole medium work for the comedy. Nothing is wasted. Most importantly you see that they’re really having fun; from the writing to the shoot and all the way to the edit. So I just tried to keep that energy throughout the process to keep things fresh. Some ideas like the whisper of “Jollof Rice” was just me being dumb and having fun. It has no business being there nor is it plot driven, but it just felt right to do at the time.
Your previous short Serious Tingz was hugely successful. How did this affect you personally? Did it pave the way for the success of your next short, or did it add more pressure on top of what any up-and-coming director already has to deal with?
This is a really good question. I would say, for a time, people’s response to wanting to work together created a pressure. For instance, as soon as you make something deemed as ‘successful’, everyone wants to work with you on the ‘feature’, and for a moment I nearly got swept up in it. Luckily I was always mindful of where I was on my journey. I wanted to enjoy being new to something. To enjoy it, before it becomes all consuming. To be private and hidden from view to work on myself and know myself a bit more. Serious Tingz has done things I could never have imagined, which taught me that when you make something from a pure place its potential is limitless, it has no set destination. Sure the recognition is great, but a lot of us made our best work being overlooked, underestimated or unknown. So why should other people’s expectations change that? I toil a lot with purpose vs strategy. It’s very easy to start being strategic with your work, but a map with no destination doesn’t mean you can’t get lost. This project was always supposed to be the follow up to ST, but I wanted to explore a bit more so I was ready for it. Similarly to when I want to do a feature.
Are there certain themes or stories that you are particularly drawn to or interested in telling as a filmmaker?
That’s too vast for me to answer in a good way. So bear with me. I’m interested or drawn to habits and contradictions. Be that in characters, society, ethics and philosophies. I love a good habit and its contradictions. That being said, I love stories that give a voice to the unsaid things about us as a people and as a society. The reason I did projects like Serious Tingz and Grime Kids was because I wanted to champion under-served stories and shine a light on their importance.
When you make something from a pure place its potential is limitless, it has no set destination.
Who are the filmmakers that inspire you?
It changes often. I’m in a really big phase with Terrence Malick, Thomas Vinterberg and Ruben Östlund. Dem guys don’t miss. They are annoyingly good with subtlety and character. But their bravery and boldness in the decision is to be admired. The Wachowski sisters…like… film/life hasn’t been the same since they arrived. Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay I see as my distant tribe members. Their work and journey continues to push me.
But to be really real, what continues to really inspire me is the filmmakers really doing their thing in London right now from Adjani Salmon, Sebastian Theil, Thea Gajic, Koby Adom, John Ogun, Samona Olanipekun, Calib Femi, Theresa Ikoko, Akwasi Poku, Edem Wornoo, Aneil Karia, Runyararo Mapfumo, Wiliam Stephan Smith, Charlotte Regan and Raine Allen-Miller.
What a time to be alive, when so many voices are so distinct and are just killing it.
Got Grime Kids coming out in November [Today!!!], so excited for the world to see that. For me, personally the next goal is really expanding my artistry as a storyteller. To see how films can go beyond the screen. I’m also looking to make Serious Tingz into an anthology series spanning across different eras. Like a Love, Death & Robots but with a commentary on masculinity.
Lastly, some exciting features…more to come soon.