Hello Adetokumboh, thank you for agreeing to this interview – firstly, I’d like to ask what first inspired you to bring Rudolf’s story to the big screen?
As an African actor, I just feel like a lot of the roles written for us are really stereotypical. Every time I turned on the tv, there was an African playing a terrorist or a child soldier. The characters came from poverty. But then I would watch films like Braveheart and Amadeus and think, why don’t we have films that celebrate the lives of our own African heroes? I decided to make movies that would do just that. And show us in a different light – powerful, dignified, smart. I wanted to show that we are interesting and multifaceted. Rudolf’s story just really spoke to me.
How important is it that more films are made about European colonialism in Africa and the injustices done to the inhabitants?
Well, it honors the memory of the millions of Africans who died under oppressive colonial rule. Many people today don’t know about the ten million Africans killed in Congo when Leopold was king. Or the genocide of the Nama and Herero people under Kaiser Wilhelm II’s rule. Movies like this allow us to recognize the many Africans who stood up against colonialism and who fought on the front lines in World War 1. These people have been omitted from the history books and films like The German King give them the recognition they deserve.
There is obviously a great deal more that could be done with the concept of The German King, particularly in the relationship between Rudolf and Wilhelm, would this be something you’d be interested in exploring in a longer film?
Absolutely. There is so much more of the story that we couldn’t put in a 20-minute movie. In the feature-length version, we dive deeper into the complexities of Rudolph and Wilhelm’s friendship. We show some of the other people who were instrumental in bringing about the end of German colonial rule in Africa.
Why do you think there hasn’t been more films like The German King produced that explore the relationship between European colonisers and the inhabitants of African nations?
I think the reason why is best summed up by the quote “Until the lion tells his story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Whenever we see movies about colonialism it’s always told from the perspective of the West. And we see the “great” things they did for Africa. They will talk about bringing religion and railroads and education. But omit the genocides, slavery, the rapes, the concentration camps. Bleeding Africa of its resources. It’s a sensitive issue and it’s uncomfortable for them to portray themselves in that light. Nobody wants to see themselves as anything less than a hero. And I think for both sides, it’s just really difficult to revisit such a dark time in our history.
What was the casting process for the film like?
I had worked with Scottie Thompson, Raphael Corkhill and Lenny Juma before and they are all excellent actors. I watched Constance Ejuma in a film a few years ago and was blown away by her performance. She’s from Cameroon and I knew she would be perfect as Emily.
We had a really hard time casting Prince Alexandre. I tried casting the role out in Los Angeles and had no luck. We shot the film in Ohio and my producers were literally knocking on random people’s doors the day we were supposed to shoot, trying to find the right actor. (laughs). In the end one of the crew members knew someone, who knew someone and literally a couple of hours before we were scheduled to shoot, we found Josiah Strayhorn. He was just perfect. He only had an hour or so to learn all his lines both in English and German and even learn some fencing! We threw a lot at him and he was a total pro. He did a phenomenal job. That was a stressful day for sure (laughs). Thankfully it all worked out.
What do you think the film has to say about the creative process?
I had a very specific vision for how I wanted the film to look and feel. And because it is such an epic production, I knew it would take assembling a dream team of super talented individuals to make it happen. It was very much a collaborative process. I made a look-book months before filming and had lengthy discussions about the production with my cinematographer Justin Janowitz, production designer Stephonika Kaye, and my editor & co-producer Hanna Sturwold. I worked closely with my sound designer Christopher Marino and composer Theodore Ramirez so that the sound in each scene would work perfectly with the visuals. I would meet up with my costume designer and decide what each character would wear and what each article of clothing would represent. I would talk to my actors before each scene and make all these amazing discoveries during the rehearsal process. I wanted an original song in the film, so I called my friend Anthony Fedorov who is an American Idol alum and one of the best singer-songwriters in the biz. He and Jeeve Ducornet wrote this beautiful, inspirational song called Tet’ekombo (King of Kings) which I sing in Douala at the end of the film. It has these powerful lyrics that go: “One voice can lift a nation, define a generation, bring fire to the darkness and light the sky with hope”. It’s this wonderful reminder that anyone, no matter who you are or where you’re from, can be an agent of change.
I really wanted to bring the audience into this world I was creating – Germany and Cameroon at the start of the First World War. I wanted everything to feel authentic. And it took this incredibly talented group of people to make it happen.
What has the reception to the film been like?
We have screened at about fifteen film festivals so far and there’s always this really loud cheer from the audience at the end of the movie (Laughs). We won Best Short Film at Ecrans Noirs Film Festival and at The Cindependent Film Festival. We also won an award at Rhode Island International Film Festival. And we officially qualified for Oscar consideration so that’s been pretty cool. People all over the world just seem to really love the film. After a screening the other day someone came up to me and said: “It felt like I was watching Black Panther meets Game of Thrones!” (Laughs). I think it’s probably because it feels very epic. And King Rudolf Manga Bell is very heroic. We have these incredible sets. We show German and African Kingdoms. We have stellar actors. People aren’t used to seeing Africans portrayed in this type of light. And because it’s based on a true story, people come away feeling like they have learned something new about what was going on in Africa and Europe at the start of The Great War. They are seeing something that was never taught to them in history class. They are learning about this African man – King Rudolf Douala Manga Bell who stood up against one of the most powerful empires in the world at the time. It’s this powerful story of heroism that people seem to love and feel inspired by.
And I think Africans are happy to see themselves, and their culture represented in such a positive way.
How does this film compare to other films you’ve worked on?
Irish Goodbye – the first short film I directed, had a much smaller budget. So we were all doing like ten different jobs. I was directing, producing, doing production design, costume design, production managing, costumes, set dressing, doing grip – you name it (Laughs).
With The German King, thankfully I had the budget to assemble a fantastic crew so that I could focus on directing, producing and acting. Which is still a lot (Laughs). And although I still had a hand in pretty much every aspect of production, I could delegate responsibilities when I needed to. I could rely on my 1st Assistant Director, Jeff Seeman to do all the scheduling. And when I would act in a scene, I would tell my cinematographer Justin Janowitz what I wanted out of my performance. I would trust him to give me honest feedback, so I wasn’t running to watch playback after each scene. And when I needed to focus on directing a scene I would have my other producers take over the producing responsibilities to make sure production continued to run smoothly.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Someone once referenced W.H Auden’s poem September 1, 1939, when discussing The German King. I went back and re-read the poem and understood why. It’s this beautiful poem about the outbreak of World War II. The final stanza begins with: “All I have is a voice” and then goes on to say “To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.”
Those words could not be more relevant today. When we start loving each other and start respecting one another regardless of race, creed, gender, sexuality, and start seeing each other as people, and seeing that more unites us than separates us – then things like police brutality, war, killing each other because someone is ‘different”, will end. And like the quote says, we have “a voice”. We can and must use our voice to speak up and speak out against injustice.
What future projects have you got planned?
I am currently in pre production on a TV project I am directing and producing that I can’t talk too much about just yet. And we are planning on shooting the feature-length version of The German King next year.
With thanks to Adetokumboh. You can read my review of The German King here.