Third Language

With her debut film Farewell Amor out now, Tanzanian-American writer and director Ekwa Msangi tells Selome Hailu about the third language of music, growing up on Rambo knockoffs, and her favorite African filmmakers.

I grew up surrounded by such colorful and delightful and interesting and funny people, and none of that was reflected anywhere in the media.” —⁠Ekwa Msangi

There’s a subtle musicality central to the way Ekwa Msangi carries herself. She finds melodies in her words: “You hum the ‘m’,” she says when asked how to pronounce her last name. “Mmm-sangi.” And perhaps to a more subconscious degree, she speaks with rhythm, too: “I do think, and I know, and I can see…” she trails off, ruminating on how much hope she feels for the future of Black filmmaking. Naturally, this musical quality meanders into her work.

Farewell Amor is a quiet film, except for when it isn’t. Three Angolan immigrants revolve around each other in an awkward orbit, each trying to make sense of their dynamic now that they’ve left their home behind. Kept apart for seventeen years by the bureaucratic intricacies of war and paperwork, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is finally joined by his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson—soon to be seen as Bella Reál in The Batman) in New York City. But they don’t know each other anymore and spend much of their time in silence, until music and dance burst forward as a chance at common ground.

Msangi’s screenplay never dwells on the technicalities of the family’s struggle against the American immigration system. Instead, it plunges into softer, more personal after-effects of dreams deferred. Walter’s walls bear a faded calendar with Barack Obama’s face on it, even though his empty apartment complicates the “hope” the president promised people like him. When his family arrives at long last, Esther wears a silver cross pendant, having made sense of these years as a married-yet-single mother by drawing closer—almost too close—to religion. Sylvia barely speaks at all, caught between a faith that isn’t hers and a home that isn’t either.

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine and Nana Mensah in Farewell Amor. — Credit… IFC Films
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine and Nana Mensah in Farewell Amor. Credit… IFC Films

The film’s triptych structure emerged after Msangi spent months grappling with how to create a feature-length screenplay out of her original short film. “Having just come off of the short, I was focusing on Walter’s story. But [I] didn’t think that was the most original story I could tell,” she says. “And then, out of indecision between whether I should make it Walter’s or Sylvia’s story, I decided to just do both. Initially it was two perspectives that I was looking at. But I realized that Esther’s story was really the linchpin for both of their stories, and it wouldn’t make sense not to have hers.”

Giving Walter, Esther and Sylvia their own chapters makes Farewell Amor a stronger film than if it had followed a singular, traditional protagonist. Extreme conservatism in one chapter is revealed as a desire to avoid pain in another; one character’s cramped living room is another’s space to dance freely. Writing on Letterboxd, Tabby points out how the three-part narrative structure grants meaningful subjectivity to characters who deserve it: “It’s so easy for Westernized perspectives to steamroll over films that deal in cultural disparities and thematics, but Farewell Amor takes important steps in showing all sides of the story,” she writes. “It was refreshing to see [the characters] each given the space to exist.”

This layering of voices happens in the camerawork, too. Each section of the narrative is marked with a visual language of its own, complete with specific color palettes and cinematographic techniques. Msangi thinks fondly about the work she put in with cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole to make the chapters distinct. “For Walter’s, it’s sort of a slow cinema, where there’s a lot of still framing. It’s almost like he’s stuck, you know? Stuck in the frame between two surfaces, two hard surfaces, a window frame, a door frame. And in Sylvia’s, we wanted to have it reflect her livelihood, her restlessness. All handheld cameras, all movement. And then for Esther, she’s very observant. She’s been taking everything in, almost in an investigative style, but also a little bit romantic. She’s romanticized this setup, so a lot of close shots, a lot of soft lighting.”

Jayme Lawson as Sylvia in Farewell Amor. — Credit… IFC Films
Jayme Lawson as Sylvia in Farewell Amor. Credit… IFC Films

Music gives Farewell Amor a cohesion across the different storylines. “Music is, for these characters in particular, and for me, kind of a third language,” Msangi says. “It gives you a glimpse under the covers, what’s under the sheets.” The soundtrack underscores strong performances from Mwine, Jah and Lawson, lending depth to their quietude and vibrance to their movement. Msangi also notes how sound became a cornerstone of her collaboration with the actors: “As I was writing from different perspectives, in order to help me get into each character’s skin, I would listen to the music that they would be interested in.” She later shared these playlists with the actors, using the songs to communicate what words couldn’t.

Msangi has a good laugh as she tries to think about the major films that inspired her to become a filmmaker. “You know, I don’t have that. Well, I do have that, but not for the reasons that most of my film peers have,” she says. Growing up in East Africa in the ’80s and ’90s, little to none of the programming on television was local. What did kids watch instead? “We watched Rambo for probably ten years straight, and then Rambo knockoffs for another ten years after that. I decided to become a filmmaker because of horrible Rambo knockoff films.”

“I grew up surrounded by such colorful and delightful and interesting and funny people,” Msangi says. “And none of that was reflected anywhere in the media.” As she grew older, she sought out African films she couldn’t access in her youth. Now, they’re some of her highest recommendations. Ousmane Sembène is the first African director whose filmography she ever got the chance to dive into. Sembène’s 50-year career has garnered him the affectionate title of ‘Father of African film’ among many critics and scholars, who laud him for his dramas, including Black Girl and Camp de Thiaroye. Msangi, however, finds herself taken with his unique sense of humor. She has also been inspired by Safi Faye, another Senegalese director, who became the first sub-Saharan African woman to attain commercial distribution in 1975—and whose film Mossane portrays sexual intimacy with an openness Msangi hadn’t seen elsewhere.

Writer-director Ekwa Msangi. — Credit… IFC Films
Writer-director Ekwa Msangi. Credit… IFC Films

In Farewell Amor, Sylvia’s chapter reads like a compacted coming-of-age film. Msangi points to South African director Darrell James Roodt’s Sarafina! as an influence in that regard. “It was showing for two weeks in Nairobi, and I lined up for four hours to watch,” she says about the film, a drama about youth involvement in the 1976 Soweto uprising. “Even though it’s from a different part of the continent, I’d never seen young African teenagers on a screen before.” More recently, she has loved 2011 TIFF breakout and Oscar contender Death for Sale by Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaïdi, and Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version is her favorite film of 2020. She’s hopeful about the future of Black American cinema: Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler are two of her favorite working directors.

Msangi’s selections are wide in range, but there’s still one thing holding them together: themes of vulnerability, community and celebration of identity, across different decades and genres. In fact, her approach to watching movies isn’t far off from the way she made her own—Farewell Amor maps concurrent experiences of disparate people, and Msangi’s tastes seem driven by the same balance of vastness and specificity.

“I’m a filmmaker who really abhors working on the same kind of story over and over again, the same genre, the same kinds of characters,” she says. “So I’m not going to make my career just telling stories about immigrants or about, you know, their wretched troubles,” she laughs. “I don’t want to do that.”

Msangi’s next project will be an African-American period piece; beyond that, she hopes to make films in several locations: the Caribbean, Europe and all over the African continent. “I really would like to just have a lot of fun with my career. You know? Because it’s a fun and magical industry that we work in! The work that we do in creating these stories and hopes and dreams—we create magic, so it should be fun.”


Farewell Amor’ is out now in select theaters and on demand through IFC.

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