BN Making It!: From Working in Insurance to Taking Her Place Behind the Camera! Meet Congolese Filmmaker, Waiki HarnaisPosted on Tuesday, July 9th, 2013 at 12:10 PM
BN Making It! is a BN feature focused on young entrepreneurs. BellaNaija.com launched BN Making It! in 2009 and we are hoping to spotlight more upcoming entrepreneurs in 2011 and beyond. We will feature young African entrepreneurs both at home and in diaspora who are making an impact in their chosen fields. Technology, Non-Profit, Fashion, Media, PR, Music and everything else. From those who are just starting their first company to young Africans who have their companies listed on the stock market.
The purpose of this feature is to promote and encourage entrepreneurship among young Africans. We aim to inspire the next generation to be enterprise builders. We were very excited when we found this young African woman was doing something unique and different in London. Today’s BN Making It! feature turns the spotlight on Waiki Harnais from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Waiki is a film maker and part of the amazing Cardy Films team. We were curious to find out more on the work life dynamics of a young, talented woman in an industry that required special creativity. Waiki speaks on life as a film maker and the ever so difficult challenge of being an African woman who is juggling her career with motherhood outside the shores of Africa. We found her story really inspiring and we hope you do too.
Who is Waiki?
First and foremost I am a wife and mother of two, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and living in London. I graduated in Media Studies and Mass Communication in 2007; initially worked in insurance and financial media, until I decided to take a career break to raise my children. Today I work freelance in digital media for a global Japanese brand but a lot of my time is actually spent doing film work as a screenwriter and film producer.
Tell us about your professional journey thus far?
I have quite an unusual professional journey as my career has been shaped around my situation as a mother of two and a busy housewife. I was born and raised in Belgium so I did part of my schooling there, until the age of 15 when I came to London with my family, went to college, then to London Metropolitan University to study Media and Mass communication. I did learn a lot about film while at university as I took up a couple of film making modules as part of course, and became familiar with things like editing, history of film, etc.
However, my degree didn’t lead me to working in the film straight away. Throughout my course and after I graduated in 2007, I first spent some time working in insurance, then I had my first child and went on maternity leave. While I was on leave I realised I was a lot more career-driven than I thought, so I decided to start working freelance and temping for different media organisations, mostly part-time. At first I freelanced for independent publications then settled part-time in a financial media firm, working as a financial media researcher until the contract eventually came to an end. All this time I was also working from home as a self-employed translator in French/English, building a clientele of businesses, media houses and legal firms but also translating and interpreting for TV production houses, mainly based abroad. I still do a bit of translation work on the side, but right now I am working freelance in digital media for a global Japanese firm, moderating and managing activities from their French client base. And of course I am pursuing my film career, writing and producing independent films and working alongside Cardy Films.
How did you get into film making
I was already familiar with TV and film thanks to my background in media and communications and had always been an avid writer of both fiction and non-fiction. One day I decided to combine my love of film with my passion for writing and ventured into screenwriting, which I thought would be a great way to bring my stories to life. I started writing scripts, attending screenwriting and film production seminars to learn about the craft. Then I was encouraged to start producing my own work; this is how the journey began.
What was your first foray into film making?
As film is a very competitive industry, a bit of a dog-eat-dog world and the kind of sector where it’s all about “Who you know” rather than “What you know”, I have had to create my own opportunities. It was up to me to get my screenplays seen and heard, and at first I had to take on all the main jobs myself – writer, producer, marketer… It was tough but it was the only way to get started, and to learn. Nobody will hand you what you need on a silver platter when you first start out; you have to go and get it yourself. Having said that, I was also fortunate enough to know a couple of film directors who helped me forge my way into film making and taught me a great deal along the way.
Tell us a bit about Cardy films and what you hoped to achieve when you started?
Cardy Films was actually founded by the filmmaker and cinematographer Olan Collardy around October of 2011 and it was a bit later that I was asked to come on board as a producer and assistant. That said, Olan and I had already worked together on a couple of other productions before I officially joined the team and I had been a silent helper and supporter of Cardy Films since its humble beginnings.
Tell us some of the challenges that come with being a film producer
Some of the challenges that film producers face (even at an indie level) include: raising the funds for your project – whether privately, using crowd funding or with an investor; getting your crew to commit to the project until the end; successfully marketing your work; quality control and maintaining a keen interest from your target market. Thankfully the journey so far has been pretty smooth and we usually manage to overcome these challenges. But some of those things are out of our control – I guess that’s part of the risk associated with film making.
How do you balance your family life with the work your film production work
The truth is for a long time, I didn’t balance it at all. My work schedule was all over the place, I had no idea how to manage it. Being a mother of two small children, that had to change. I had to make time for my kids (and my husband too!) I had to learn to say ‘no’ and prioritise. I get quite a few production job offers every month and Cardy Films constantly receives new treatments, new scripts, new offers for collaborations… We have always been selective with the projects we choose to take on. It’s important to know when to decline work. Besides, some deals just aren’t right for us at this stage. Not every collaboration is going to be beneficial to your brand.
What would you say keeps the team going?
For me, our main staff strength is the ongoing communication we have among ourselves. We share ideas with each other literally on a daily basis and to me, that’s the only way to make sure we’re completely in synch. Secondly, we all know our individual roles. And these roles are well defined. We are a small team but as soon as a new project begins to form, each of us knows exactly what they’re expected to do. As the cinematographer and director of photography, Olan’s attention will be on the visuals. Ola Masha is the resident writer and co-director, his job is to come up with a killer screenplay (which he always does!) and ensure a flawless performance from actors. As a producer, I know my focus needs to be on logistics and administration. We just get on with our individual duties and in the end everything just comes together beautifully.
How did you get funding to start the business?
Cardy Films was privately funded; Olan was able to raise his own capital to invest in equipment. The same goes for individual film projects – we usually fund our own film work, unless we are working on a bigger scale project where an executive producer would be brought in.
Where do you see the business in 5 years and 10 years
From a Cardy perspective the most important thing for us, and for Olan Collardy in particular, is to build a team of professionals who share the same dream and vision of incorporating quality and professionalism into bringing stories to life, through beautiful pictures. And from a producer’s point of view, I personally hope that in the next decade Cardy Films will become a household name in cutting edge independent film making, with films being screened around the world and winning awards! I believe we are well on our way to making this happen, but one step at the time.
What is the current scope of your business?
Our current audience consists of film enthusiasts and particularly people who appreciate art and style in motion picture. We recently launched a new YouTube channel that features some of the best Cardy films and will allow us to reach out to a wider audience. The focus of this channel will be cutting edge independent film making and we are currently developing new ideas for shows and segments that will allow us to engage with our audience even more.
Would you say that film making is a profitable venture?
When small film production companies first start out, investors are hard to find because of the risks attached. Even after acquiring the money, you constantly have to find new ways to stay afloat among fierce competition. Once you have built a brand, you can make money off screenings, box office and distribution deals… but unless you have invested a decent amount into the production itself and the marketing, chances of getting a decent return will be slim, although not impossible. Cardy Films actually has a client base and other divisions which Olan runs himself, making music videos, promotional work for UK artists as well as the occasional corporate video, but that only came after a solid reputation was built. Another way to make money as a filmmaker is to enter your films for festivals and competitions, as some of them may come with cash prizes and other non-financial rewards that can take your business to the next level.
What is a typical day in your life like?
My day typically starts at 7 am. I wake up, get ready, get my children ready for the day. If I’m not out on a film shoot that day, I work from home, check my emails first thing in the morning and deal with any outstanding work. Around that same time Olan and I would discuss any upcoming productions, ideas, castings etc. In the afternoon, I would stay glued to my computer either working on my day job in digital media, or sending out more emails, shooting schedules, casting details… I manage our film diary so if any meetings need to be set up, I would do that too. Some evenings around 7 pm we might have a Cardy team meeting at the Southbank Centre in central London to discuss upcoming film shoots. Other evenings we might attend a screening or networking event… On shoot days it’s very different.
We would be on set from about 9 am till 10 pm (or sometimes all night) and this could last for more than a day, depending on the scale of the project. When that’s not the case I make sure I spend time with my family at home. Every day in my life is very different but there is never a dull moment!
What’s the high point of the journey so far?
The high point of my personal film journey as a producer was to see the response that my latest film release “Unveiling Maeva” received when we premiered it. I didn’t expect such great feedback from people, and the film also received some festival attention so that was definitely a personal high for me. Cardy Films as a whole has experienced many highs; we have worked with some incredibly talented people and have met some amazing filmmakers along the way, especially through some of the events where our films were screened. But despite the fact that Cardy Films has created all this beautiful work, we still consider ourselves to be fairly new in the game; there is so much room for growth and team building.
How do you ensure the quality of the service you provide?
Whether it’s in the cinematography, the screenplay, the acting… Quality control is our responsibility. And it’s no easy task, but it’s the difference between a good movie and a great movie. Olan works extremely hard (and long hours!) to make sure the films are up to standard – both visually and narratively. In pre-production we would always ensure we cast the right actors and source the best possible locations and crew, as these decisions will have an impact on the final product. And just like with any other business, films are products – they have to sell. We also take on any criticism and act on it where possible; be it from a client or one of us within the team, if anyone feels that a particular piece is lacking something, Olan will be sure to go back to the edit and work on the changes suggested.
What is that unique feature which you think you bring to the industry
London is a very vibrant place to be for creatives. However film, entertainment and the media are also very saturated industries, where everyone is trying to do something different but ends up offering the same thing. Just like with any other business venture you really need a unique selling point. Cardy Films prides itself on providing a great combination of style, art, attention to detail and aesthetics, all this combined with clever storytelling and a signature style that is apparent in every piece. Nowadays anyone with a DSLR camera can make films (which is both a good and a bad thing) but the bottom line is… if you don’t stand out, you won’t stand a chance in this ruthless industry. We also have a strong work ethic and operate fast but efficiently – people are always surprised at how much work Olan churns out every month, without compromising on quality.
Would you say that being a female film maker is a unique thing? How would you say that being a woman has impacted your life as a film maker?
Film is definitely a male dominated industry but I’ve been quite lucky I have never really experienced any major obstacles linked to the fact that I am a woman trying to make it in a man’s world. Yes I’ve heard the odd ignorant comment about women in film but I choose not to pay attention otherwise it would become a barrier. I believe that if you have the skills, the drive and the resources to create something great, your work will speak for itself and neither your gender, your race nor your age will be an issue. And the fact that I work with two male directors who choose to focus on what I can bring to Cardy Films makes things very comfortable for me.
What’s the most challenging part of being a career focused African woman in the UK
As an African writer and producer in London I sometimes feel like I have a duty to represent my people a lot, and represent them in a certain way. And that can be quite challenging, because you are somewhat expected to create work for your demographic, and to do it in a way that would please everyone. For example when I make films with an all-white cast I definitely see a difference in the way people receive that work, compared to when I make films with an all-black cast and a narrative that my people might relate to more. As a team, we have learned the importance of creating work people can relate to, and understanding our demographic. But we’ve also learned that if we try to please everyone we’ll end up pleasing no one at all! So sometimes you just have to create work you love rather than what the masses want to see, but be prepared for a different reception.
What’s the most interesting feature you’ve ever worked on?
Our first feature is still in the early stages of development and we are hoping to be able to shoot it next year, so work hasn’t properly started on this one. However, the most interesting project I have ever worked on was the second and third episodes of “Skinny Chef” (coming soon), a series of short films that offer a cinematic and stylish take on Nigerian cuisine (The first episode can be watched here
Cardy Films was commissioned by the Nigerian filmmaker Chioma Onyenwe (of Raconteur Productions) to produce and film the series and I loved the concept from day one. I thought it was very innovative. Not to mention the fact that we had such great fun on the set.
What would you say about the average African Film maker?
I will base my opinion on what I am witnessing in the diaspora – A new wave of young, ambitious African content creators who are working hard to get more and more black/African narratives on screen. The general consensus in the UK is that there is a significant lack of black people on TV (especially Africans), both on screen and off screen. So I suppose more and more African filmmakers are looking to bridge that gap in the arts and create more opportunities for African actors and film professionals alike. Being a film producer as well as a writer means I can actually make these creative decisions myself; so I definitely plan to be a part of this change.
Are there any stereotypes which need to broken or promoted in the world of film maker?
There are quite a few but I will name one in particular – the idea that you need state of the art technology and millions to make a great movie – that is not entirely true. Nowadays it is possible to make great films with minimum resources and a small crew. But what you do need is a vision, great attention to detail, a unique story and if you are using actors, make sure they give a convincing performance.
Which film makers do you look up to? Or would you say inspired you?
The great storyteller Guillermo Arriaga is my all-time inspiration, a writer and director I look up to. His film “The burning plain” inspired my writing style – this ability to tell a story with no real regard for time and linearity but simply with gripping dialogue and subtle hints in the visuals that will get you hooked from beginning to end.
What would you say about the current film making industry out of Africa?
I have always kept my eyes peeled when it comes to African cinema and followed the journeys of pioneers like the Congolese filmmaker Mweze Ngagura (“La vie est belle – 1997), the great Nollywood director Charles Novia and many more, who have paved a way for younger and equally ambitious filmmakers in our generation. It’s also great to see more and more African films (or films based on an African narrative, filmed on the continent) getting recognition at major festivals such as “Rebelle”, starring the young Congolese actress Rachel Mwanza who won quite a few awards for her performance. Today I’m interested to see how the new wave of Neo-Nollywood films and new African cinema will develop in the next decade. Being so far away from home, I feel an urge to stay connected to African art and culture through film. So I’m currently writing a new film for the Cameroon-based filmmaker and director Mbeng Ngassa, who I’ve worked with before on my film “Nyachan” (http://whfilms.co.uk/post/44498402315). I’m hoping this new film will receive festival attention just like Nyachan did.
What advice would you give a young entrepreneur who wants to launch out on his own?
The first thing I would say is to not be afraid to start the journey, even if you are on your own. Most production companies start with a single filmmaker, someone with a vision and a real passion for moving image. Never underestimate the importance of having a solid portfolio. To achieve this, you will need to invest time and money into your work and most importantly educate yourself – film school, tutorials, self-learning, getting work experience on set with other filmmakers… anything to help you gain that knowledge and perfect your craft. The last advice is to network and never be afraid to knock on doors. Meet other filmmakers or producers, team up with like-minded people and see what can come out of these partnerships.
How did you overcome some of the difficulties you faced … please share specific instances with us?
The main difficulties I have faced so far have been related to logistics. When you are producing a film, no matter what the budget is, so many things can go wrong… from actors not turning up to shoots, to difficulty securing locations… The key is to always have a backup. I am a very long-sighted and cautious person by nature so I would always make sure I have something to fall back on.
Just For Fun
How do you relax?
I lie down on the couch, watch a great movie and indulge in a huge bowl of ice cream.
Who’s your favourite African designer
Who’s your favorite person in the whole wide world?
My husband (and my kids!)
If you had a super power what would it be
The ability to read minds
5 Pet Peeves
- Text speak when it’s not necessary
- Continuity issues in film
- Loud chewing
- Websites with loud music
- Bad driving
Waiki in 5 Words
Workaholic, shy, caring, passionate and impatient
What would you not leave home without
What’s currently playing on your music player
- Repete by BlackMagic
- Mirrors by Jhene Aiko
- A lot of Afrobeats, neosoul and French music
Who’s the most famous person on your phone
I wish I could disclose the name but I’d get into trouble!
What’s your favorite meal
“Poulet a la mwambe” (Traditional Congolese dish of peanut butter chicken) with a side of plantain and pondu (cassava leaves)
What’s your favourite holiday spot
San Diego, California