This month we had the priviledge of chatting to 2020 Screen International Star of Tomorrow Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor. Joy produced BLUE STORY by Rapman, as well as the critically acclaimed short films HAIRCUT by Koby Adom and THE ARRIVAL by Annetta Laufer. She runs Joi Productions and her work focuses on Black, Queer and Female-led content for Film and TV. The company received a BFI Vision Award in 2020.
ATL: The first question is quite easy because I'd be interested to know why you decided to become a film producer or go into filmmaking?
JGA: Because we're all crazy! I just wanted to tell stories that reflected my experience or at least stories in which I could see myself, hear myself, all that stuff. When I first got into film I was around 16 or 17. I used to watch a lot. Then when I finished uni, I had this short script that I wanted to make with two lesbians in the story. I did it myself, but I thought there must be other people like me around. I couldn't find any of them. And then so I just ended up doing this instead, because I couldn't find other stories like this. That's how I ended up here, I was just trying to create more gay stories, and more black stories, either one.
ATL: We talk about like building a crowd. Have you found that you've been able to find like-minded people? To come with you on the journey?.
JGA: I think now I'm beginning to see people. I wouldn't say I know a lot of other black, queer, female producers. They're all very in different spaces. I think trying to find somebody who is exactly like me, I would say, I think with the younger generation, I'm seeing more people kind of come up who are openly queer, which is very nice to see. It's very heartwarming.
JGA: I don't think there is anyone exactly like me, but I was one of those things where I just wanted to see content that reflected me. Not just black and queer, because being an immigrant as well. Humanizing the immigrant experience and trying to find stories that also allow you to go "immigrants are people too". It's not just people coming from Callais the way the Sun or the Daily Mail tells you. I wanted to find those kinds of stories. I think now I've found similar minds in different spaces, which is great. We have to bring them all together into one space.
ATL: I suppose that was your motivation for starting your company?
JGA: Yeah. I just wanted to create a space where I did a particular kind of work, which I guess is one of the things, because people always kind of say to me, "how are you going to make money just doing that?" Because I think the mindset is that if you're just doing queer work or black work, there isn't a lot of commerciality in it, so to speak, because it's got to be a particular kind of blackness representative for it to be "mainstream". But I'm a firm believer that there are so many stories that you can make mainstream because ultimately mainstream is just how many people are watching it. That's really what it is. I feel like you have me, a black, queer, female, It's just things that we don't get enough of in general. When we do get female-led work, it's never really female-led if that makes sense. The character is never really juicy and there's always something two-dimensional somewhere. But we are more complex than this, like who's writing this? But once in a while, we get heartfelt work, that becomes successful, because people can see themselves in the characters.
ATL: Can we go back a few years to your short films? Because I remember when I saw The Arrival and I found it such an amazing film, not just its production value, but the story it was telling. It was something that I really felt was missing from cinema. I'm half-British, I grew up in a different country and people are very confused by my Britishness. They're always trying to figure out my identity. And I'm like, I'm just me. I have a completely different story to other people that you meet. I'm interested in these stories of immigration and the experience of coming to a new country. So, The Arrival was such a powerful film. I was wondering what was the experience of making that short film and did you feel like it people's attention in terms of your identity as a producer?
JGA: That was a crazy experience just because of how many days we shot that in. I think the beautiful thing about shooting that was being on set and creating that world. I think we all felt like we were doing something that wasn't done in terms of black representation. Even the party scene was so much fun to do because those extras were all like the director's family. Her family just turned up and they were like, "yeah, we're gonna party. Yeah!" It was great. It was amazing to watch. But, you know, I enjoyed just creating that piece of history, I guess, to an extent. Now a lot more people are doing things around Windrush and immigration, I think at the time when we did that, the director wanted to tell the story of her history and her family. She has a fascinating family history. Those are the things that make me say "these are amazing, interesting stories to tell" because that film was loosely based on her grandmother and her mother. For some, it was like "this is like a fascinating time that we don't talk about or know about or we don't celebrate". For others, it just went over their heads.
It happens, which is fine. But it is interesting because I would say now after the whole Windrush thing has happened, more people are interested in the film, as opposed to when we originally made it. Now, people are like, "oh, there's a history we should talk about." I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I see it as just the way human minds work. Something has to be brought to your attention for you to pay attention. I think what it did for us was, her feature film that we were making, we're aware we can create this world. We knew what it would look like. We knew what it would feel like. And also we knew that there was a space for it in terms of greater cinema. The irony was that The Arrival did better in the states because Jamaica is close to The States. So a lot of people that watched it there, they felt they had more of a connection to it as opposed to here in the UK. I just find it weird and ironic. What it did show us was that there was a need for these stories to be told, especially out of the UK. For the guys in the States, it made them realize that kind of history exists here because they're not showing it a lot. There's a huge gap and a space for that, especially in The Small Acts coming out now with Steve McQueen. Some people want to know about that era, but also there are so many different stories around that period that you can tell, and it isn't just about racism. Yes, there was racism and there still is racism now, but there are other things that are happening around. For us, it was about how do we incorporate everything into a story about a woman who just wants to find herself.
ATL: Just out of curiosity, how many days did it take to film that? Because it seemed like it was a huge production.
JGA: We shot it in two days.
ATL: (Audibly shocked) What?
JGA: It was crazy. It was crazy, but we did it, which is amazing. I mean, it was crazy.
ATL: Did you not sleep for seven days?
JGA: It was a lot for that period of time. And then the following day we all came back and to strike the set, which was equally mental. Yeah. Two intense shoot days.
ATL: Wow. Incredible. That's changed my whole impression now of that film. Could you talk to us a bit about how you work with talent? I think that's something that a lot of people, especially starting out, it's a bit of a daunting prospect of how do I talk to a writer? How do I find a director? So give us a few tips on how to work and develop talents.
JGA: I think it is people management and managing egos to an extent. I find, giving them space to be as creative as they want to be. And then also, trying to find out what it is they're trying to say, because I think sometimes, especially when you're getting all these notes in different places, when they're writing and they're like, "oh, I'll just write whatever they want me to write." As a producer, it is your job to reassure them. I'll say "You have to make them understand the story". Always come back to what the story is about. Don't be afraid to shift your scenes, because if you know what your story is about, it doesn't matter what's happening around the story. If the story is about a woman who's trying to find the child, it doesn't matter how she finds the child - as long as your story is still about a woman who is trying to find a child. Sometimes people get hung up on "oh, but I can't change the scene," but what is the scene doing? Has your story changed if you take out the scene, for instance? With Blue Story, the original edit was a two and a half hours long. And then we have to bring it down to an hour and a half. We cut out all that stuff, and the story hasn't changed. Because you are just honing in on what the story is about, which is the most important thing. That is what I always try to work on with my writers and directors - what is what are you trying to say? What is the point of the film? Why are we watching the film and what do you want to take away from the film? It doesn't have to be a big massive 'I want to change the world', but it needs to be something that makes us go "Oh, Okay", even if it's about love conquers all. We have to walk away, going "Love does conquer all, you know," like we have to have that the thing at the end. That is my thing, always to understand what they are trying to achieve. Also, I think I'm kind of like an enabler, in a good way, creating a space for them to do their best work.
ATL: That's amazing advice. Thank you. You touched on Blue's story there, and I wondered if we could talk a bit about how you came to work on that film, but also how did you deal with the initial reaction to it?
JGA: Just before we went out to financiers, that's when I kind of came on. It was a bit of a crazy whirlwind story. And then obviously, we shot the film, made it, and then we got banned from the Vue Cinemas. All press is good press. I think what I have to say is that it was twofold. I think the fact that there was such an uproar about it was also a reminder that there was no black content out there.
JGA: So when it happened, people kind of felt a bit like "the one black film I've come across in how long and it is doing well over a weekend, you just suddenly ban." It felt like there were questions around censorship. There were questions about how you treat young audiences. It was heart-warming to see black Twitter kind of came up to support us, which is great. The conversations went beyond the film. They went beyond how you treat young audiences in cinemas. Because the reality was that when people haven't seen themselves on the screen in such a long time, they are hungry for it. I think when it came to our film because there was such a large appetite for it, I just think that the cinema just didn't know how to cope with a lot of the people coming through. But I guess my ultimate thing was that people wanted to watch the film and it was a huge appetite for it. It didn't make sense to pull it because I think young audiences were just very much hungry to watch something that showcased them and something that had a positive message of anti-violence. And I think nobody was expecting it to make as much noise as it did.
ATL: Yeah, I thought it was a great shame because, as you say, it was a positive film. And at the time I was working with quite a young film crew who are already excited to see it. And the reaction was seeming, as you say, like, I think misunderstanding audiences. But I'm glad it came out and I managed to watch it online as well, so I'm glad I got to see it.
ATL: What are you working on now? Because you've got a BFI Vision Award, which is amazing. And I think we're all excited about the work that you're creating as a producer and the talent that you're championing. What can we expect to see? What should we mark on our calendars?
JGA: I'm doing Koby Adom debut feature, which I'm excited about. We took Hair Cut and we're going to make it into a feature film. Made For Me - It is like a UK Boyz in The Hood, what he's creating in terms of how he's representing what it means to live in like south-east London, and come from a particular community and looking at the choices people think they have to make just based on where they brought up and how people try to get out.
JGA: So I'm very excited about that. Hopefully, we get to make the next year. I'm also working on The Colony Rooms, which is a feature as well, which I'm excited about, which is based in the 1960s, about a black Jamaican woman who wants to be a dancer. But, you know, you can't be a dancer in 1960s England. So it's her battle, not just racism, but also within our community and herself as she struggles to become who she wants to be. And making my own debut feature because I also write and I'm directing it.
ATL: What's it like working on the other side of things?
JGA: You know, part of me is like, "oh, directors have it easy" because as a producer you're always just stressed. I'm stressed about the writing, but apart from that like it's not as crazy. It's a different kind of stress, I guess. I'm not running around thinking, "OK, but we can't afford anything." But I've got like a few good projects. We've got a quirky comedy. We've got a rom-com, we've got queer comedy. I'm trying to do queer Shakespeare. I'm trying to do period pieces with black people. So I'm just trying to expand everything and create space for different kinds of conversations to happen.
ATL: Final question. Could you give us just some words of wisdom for people who want to break into the film industry, who want to be producers and maybe feel like that isn't a club for them? I think it'd be really interesting to hear from someone who is breaking down walls and barriers and as you say, making space for conversation.
JGA: Ultimately, I'm always like, know who you are. Know who you want to become. I think that's the most important thing in terms of what kind of producer you are. I've suffered from that sometimes when you're talking to people and they're like "I'm doing this thing with Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO and everyone else", you're like, "oh, what am I doing?" But, I know I'm also the kind of producer who has always kind of said to myself that I know that I would probably be more in art indie space most of the time because that's the more fulfilling work. Every once in awhile there is something more mainstream to do but I've never really chased that. So I always kind of chased more of how can we create work that challenges people, which isn't always the most sustainable form of business, but it's kind of what I've into. Just knowing about myself allows it to be a bit more grounded and a bit more steadfast, and the people that want to talk to speak to all that kind of stuff. So I think I would say to the people, just know who you're trying to be and who you are. My mother always says, it's a Nigerian proverb or saying, but we say, 'face your front' which just means, you know, just look at where you're going and don't look left or look right. Because you will just get distracted. 'Mind your business and face your front' is what she says to me, but it has taken me through life in a very unique way.
ATL: That's incredible advice. That's a good thing to keep in mind. Thank you so much for your time. It was an absolute privilege to chat with you.
Many thanks to Joy for taking the time to talk to us. If you want to follow her work you can find Joi Productions on twitter here: @ProductionsJoi