Sahndra Fon Dufe is not your average African girl. She now mixes with the high and mighty in Hollywood, the film capital of the world. She has written two plays, is trying to raise $500.000 to shoot her first screen play in Cameroon and is presently on set as one of the characters in a new movie “Last Night in Vegas”.
All this is a far cry of her small Cameroonian village Banso where she was born just 23 years ago. How has she manged to walk on the Hollywood hall of fame less than three years after she moved to the USA to study Filming?
You need to hear her speak herself. Francis Ngwa put the questions.
Q You are just 23 but have been in the movie industry for sometime now even going as far as owning a film company in America, how did all this begin?
I have not exactly been in the movie industry for quite sometime. I live in LA (Los Angeles) where most people have been in the industry for more than twenty years so I can’t really compare. I started acting when I was a very little girl, I have always been creative and positive trying to do many things at once .. I feel in love with acting when I was a little girl of six or seven when I saw a movie Sarafina and for the first time I saw a black woman from Africa on film and I said, I will like to do that. So I had the idea, it was there but I didn’t really act on it but I continued to be creative. I was writing a lot, always acting for my family, for my friends, I was always singing and I was the sort of kid that talked to everybody, was not afraid and was bold. That was me but I didn’t really know where it was all going to end. Then I guess when I got older, something told me I wanted to express myself for the whole world to see, that is when i had the idea that I could achieve that by acting. So I said I should do something that I love and that is how it happened.
Q You were born in Cameroon which is miles away from Los Angeles where you are now based. How did you move over there and how did you succeed in getting involved in a very competitive sector like the movie industry in America?
I came to America to pursue my education. I had just finished my law degree in Cameroon and applied to do a Masters in Fine arts in a school here known as the New York film academy. I studied acting there and can say that is how my career in the industry started. I arrived America in December 2010 and the school started in January 2011.
Q That must be very quick then. You mean in less than three years after you arrived in America, you have finished schooling, created a movie company and somehow started mixing with the high and mighty in Hollywood?
Yes if you put it that way. It does seem like a lot of things to do in a very short time but when you are doing it, it is not a matter of time or space, it is all about what has to be done and how you go around doing it. What type of content do I want to seem in films, well, I will do anything to make sure I see the type of content I think is relevant. A good friend of mine always says you can help make the kind of things you want to see so I can’t just sit and say why can’t we get this kinds of books or films and instead say, why don’t I write or produce them. Why don’t I give a chance for others to produce them? That is what really drives me and I am aware we all have very limited time so I do the things I need to do quickly.
Q You are therefore packing a lot in a short space of time and have even written a film?
I have written one film and just finished another one.
Q Ok, lets talk a little bit about your creative process. You just finished writing your second screen play, how does your creative process develop from conception to writing?
Ever since I was a little girl, I was very creative. My ideas come to me in my sleep. When I go to sleep, I will dream up a story, it usually involves dreaming the whole story up and when I get up in the morning, I write it. Sometimes, I get an idea that is not fully developed, I will write it down and then keep developing it along. I have a lot of stories on my computer, most as I said come from my sleep and I then later, I develop them. I will soon start shooting my first film YEFON. It took me more than a year to fully develop the story line. I wrote it, did some re-writes, submitted it to script writers and they sent back some notes and comments so I still did more re-writes. As a writer, you need to be open to accept comments and feedback from others. You cannot ignore ideas from others because it helps in developing your story. Writing is a very long process. One thing I like doing is putting quality in whatever I do. I think that my audience and viewers deserve only the best. If someone has to pay money to come and see a movie you produce, you need to give them your very best. YEFON the film I mentioned has still not finished . i am still working on the script. The second screenplay which I just finished is a complete different story from YEFON. We will be shooting that here in the US and not in Cameroon like YEFON. For now, I am keeping the plot line secret. I still have to do some elementary work on it.
Q Ok, Lets talk about YEFON then
YEFON is my baby. It’s a story that is very close to my heart. It tells the story of a young village girl who wants to get an education but she lives in a community that necessarily does not support women getting an education. She has to undergo a number of obstacles and even her life is on the line at one point. However because of her troubles, the first school is built in the village. It is basically an inspiring story. I want people to understand that a woman has the right to go to school just like a man. In rural areas, some men still think women should not be educated. Let me add here that I don’t necessarily think that everything about our culture is bad. I think there are a lot of good things about our culture which needs to be projected but we must admit there are some aspects of our culture that are bad too. I also think we need more role models. I know it is a difficult task to accomplish but I want to use myself as a role model to other girls. I want them to look back at the things that I have done when I am no longer here and to use that as inspiration. I always say life is what we make it. We strive to be somebody and can work to achieve that. The film is set in my village, Banso in Cameroon. For the filming, we have been lucky to attach some celebrity names to the project. We have Hakim Kae Kazim, Leleti Khumalo, and Adriana Barrazza. I am so thankful that this big names will be involved in the project.
Q That is a huge and ambitious project considering the names of celebrities that will appear in the film. You are also hoping to raise half a million dollars to shoot the film which is not exactly chicken change. How far have you gone with raising the necessary funding and how did you manage to attach these big names to the project?
Let me talk first about funding. It’s been challenging to say the least. I have spoken to various film companies here in the US . I can’t mention them now because discussions are ongoing. We are talking to distribution companies while I am also applying for some grants. We have also spoken to government officials in Cameroon but we will see how things go eventually. I have also had some money from family, friends and well wishers.
On how I managed to get some of these big names, I don’t have any particular formula. I guess it is talking about the project with a lot of passion that they decided to join me in realizing the dream. I guess they also wanted to take part because of it’s African theme and we will be doing the shooting in Cameroon. I am therefore grateful that they decided to attach their names to the project. The cast for the film has not exactly closed so we will be adding more names to the project as the days go by. Some of the actors will come from Cameroon and we have already done some auditions there. About one thousand actors turned up for the auditions in Cameroon and I must admit here we did see some great talents there. I was amazed.
Q You can’t talk about films in Africa without mentioning the blossoming Nigeria film industry. You just mentioned that two Nollywood actors will take part in the filming of YEFON with possibilities of adding more actors from Nigeria. Now, how has the Nigerian film industry influenced you?
You cannot talk African films without talking Nollywood, that is a fact. I think it will be disrespectful to do so because I am 23 years old and while growing up, most of the African films I watched were Nollywood films. I grew up watching Genevieve Nnanje, Liz Benson and all those beautiful women who have been acting in Nollywood films. These women represent our continent and I think I have to pay them homage. They influenced me as an actress very much. I can do a perfect Nigerian accent, I know a lot more about Nigeria because of their films. I have a lot of Nigerian friends now and back in Cameroon, I use to watch African Magic all the time. Nollywood has therefore influenced me a lot. When I first thought of becoming an actress, I thought of moving to Nollywood first but decided to get trained first which is why I moved to America. I still watch Nollywood movies all the time.
Q You are 23, you are creative but you are operating in a man’s man’s world. How do you still manage to excel? What are the problems you face because you are young and a woman at that?
Most of the problems I faced were at the beginning and not now. In the beginning, I was not sure and a little bit confused, afraid and wondering if what I was doing made any sense. People were looking at me and probably saying look at this little girl, what does she want to prove? I can say now that I have somehow matured in the business even though I am young. I am somehow developing into a woman in the industry. I don’t get that problem anymore. This whole man, woman thing has not really affected me because people will work with you when you have something to offer whether you are a man, woman or dog, that is what I have learnt in life. I try my best not to focus too much on the fact that I am a woman, or I am African or any other category. I just have a message to pass along and so just go ahead and do it. I have something to offer to the creative it, you take it or leave it; you want to work with me, you work with me, you don’t, good. The world moves on. If something dosen’t work out, I try to look at what the problem really was and not at that it was because I was a woman or an African. Sometimes things just don’t work. The film industry is a business of rejections. It gets so frustrating sometimes that you ask why am I even doping this? You have to belief in the fact that you were meant to be here.
Q You have just mentioned the rejection culture that is very common in the film industry possibly because it is a capital intensive business. By writing and producing your own film like YEFON, is it trying to get ahead in the game instead of sitting and waiting for a director or someone to probably see how brilliant you are and cast you in one of his films?
Yes and no. Yes because I have to create my own content. I think I can write so think it will be a waste not to use it. Yes also in that I want to create content that I can take part in and so show what I am made of. No because there is really no shortcut to success. That is a fundamental rule. Whether you write your own films or you don’t, you take part in the films written by others or you don’t, the process is the same. You have to put in a lot of time and effort to succeed at whatever you are doing. You need to be dedicated to what you are doing. You must go through the hard way to succeed. There are no shortcuts. If you manage to do a shortcut, you will fail at the first opportunity you have to prove yourself. Writing my own content is not trying to avoid the hard road to success. I can write so I do so. I also need to show the world what I can do.
Q There is very little to write home about the Cameroon film industry which is where you come from because it produces so little content.You have taken upon yourself the challenging role or reviving the Cameroon film industry and being a model for aspiring actors in Cameroon. How do you intend to do that?
I will answer this with some care because I don’t want o offend anybody. First of all, when I went back to Cameroon, I was impressed with the growth of the film industry there compared to when I was there. They now have award ceremonies, they have film shooting on a regular basis, they fly in African stars to shoot and do co-productions and there are a lot of actors in the country now. I was impressed because it means the Cameroon film industry is getting out of slumber. It’s difficult for me to claim I want to help in my own small way to revive the film industry in Cameroon, it’s hard but not impossible. I know I can do it. It’s not going to be easy, I know a lot of people are going to be upset or try to bring me down but that is OK as far as I am concerned. It is part of a journey, there are no shortcuts. I just want to contribute to what I believe in. I am just a small part of what has to be done to revive the film industry in Cameroon but I am ready for it. It is going to take a lot of people who collaborate and are will to make a difference. Here, wherever I go and say I am from Cameroon, everyone says oh God, the country of Roger Milla, where is he, what is he doing now? Everybody knows him because he was able to do something for Cameroon, a country that was not known for anything else. When you look at a guy like that who did something so big for a country without any resources, who am I to complain? Eto’o Fils is still doing some great things for Cameroon while Richard Bona is projecting the image of the country in the musical scene. I want to add my name to that list in the film industry.
Q What does it take to be a good actor, actress from Africa
Let me answer that question with an example. The other day, my friends and I were watching a movie called Ije, I was watching that film with friends from different countries, Nigeria, Mexico, United States, etc. After we finished watching the film, the first thing my friends said was who is this girl (Nnanje Genevieve) I told them her name and they were really surprised. They all said she is good. That is my answer as to who a good actress is. The guy from Mexico could watch her and relate to the role she played. A Cameroonian can watch her and relate to her. A good actress is someone that anybody anywhere can relate to. If some class of people cannot relate to you, you are in the wrong profession. A good actor/actress must be able to interpret a role to the whole world.
Q That is a generalized answer. What are the attributes that any great actor/actress must have.
To be a good actor, you have to bring something new to the table. Anybody can act, just by virtue of being yourself. To be exceptional, you have to be able to accept criticism, without being angry. When a director says I don’t like the way you move your head, you can’t be angry about that, you say thank you. How do you thing I can move in a way that looks better? You learn. You have to be very open minded. You also need to be able to put in the necessary work. Acting is not easy. I will soon be acting in a film next month so I am learning to be in character. I need to learn the lines, you have to first learn the lines without any emotion. Then you need to know the lines so well you can say it like your own name. Then you get under the skin of the character. You need to know the character inside out. You learn the psychology of the character, why does the character look and behave this way? You need to take time to learn and master all that to play the role effectively. You keep rehearsing until you get to perfection. A good actor therefore needs to put in the time, has to be patient, understanding and really willing to accept correction. A good actor has to be patient towards the director . You cannot come in and try to fight with the director. You stay quiet, work with him as opposed to fighting him. A good actor must have a good attitude because you cannot come on stage and fight with anybody. Don’t be the problem, stay quiet, ask questions when you need to, watch people, learn, pay respect to other actors, little things that add up. Do your home work.
Q Some well known Hollywood actors like Marlon Brandon have been known to do very bizarre things to get into the role of a character . What do you personally do to get under the skin of a character?
I do most of the things I just outlined but I must add here all characters are not the same. If you are playing a character that you already know how they behave in real life, that’s easy but if you are playing an obscure character you know little about, that is more difficult. Lets say you have to act the role of a homeless person and you have no idea how they behave in real life, you will have problems playing that role. Some actors to act that role will dress like a homeless person and spend some nights out on the street with homeless people to experience that kind of life. Every actor has his/her own way of playing a role but the end result is that you play the role effectively.
Q What advice do you have for aspiring African actors and actresses?
Apart from the usual stuff like dedication to your craft, I think to be a good actor/actress, you need to love yourself first. The film industry is very broad meaning there is a role for everybody. In a movie, there is an old and young person, a fat and skinny person, a tall and short person, there is a role for everybody. The more you accept yourself, and be willing to bring that character on stage, the easier you can play any given role. Secondly, we turn to be lazy in Africa but the film industry does not condone that. You need to work extremely hard. Some actors eventually get very famous and stop working hard. They start being sloppy. You don’t want to be that way because you will not stand the test of time. Learning never stops. The fact that you can played twenty, thirty different roles does not mean that you can no longer learn anything new. You have to continue training, have a coach. Finally and very important, you must learn to be respectful. You cannot have an attitude. Don’t be a diva. It is unattractive, nobody wants to work with you and the next ten years will be way different from the last ten years. Bad behaviour does not pay.
Q Who are your role models and what have you learnt from them?
I have so many role models. I just cant name all of them. Let me name a few though. My mother is one of my best role model. She is a very beautiful woman inside and out, very strong woman. She took care of all of us, made sure we all had an education, had a masters and now a PhD and now she is doing her own political thing. When I look at that I say I have a lot to learn from her. She set the bar high for me and I don’t even know how to catch up with her. Despite all that, she still manages to be a nice person. She still manages to have her own money, have a husband and children. She is a super woman. That is something I want to be. There are others like Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, Leleti Khumalo, whoopi Goldberg, Nnaji Gevevieve, there are just so many, I cant even name them all but all those women have one thing in common, they identified something they wanted to do, they went out and did it. They didn’t take no for an answer and that is what I am all about. I thank them for being there before me and for showing me the way. I don’t know what I will have been without those influences. I also have another support system. Friends, my significant other and my family. All of them are my role models. I learnt a lot from them, they made me grow and they really pushed me in the right direction. I must also give credit to those who have coached me.
Q Where will Sahndra Fon Dufe be in ten years time?
I will leave that to the Gods because they know best. I once read a book that says you plan and scheme but faith has the upper hand. Anyway, in ten years time, I will have children, I will be a great mother, I will be very present in the life of the community, I will try to be present for people, for country and for humanity. I will also like to be a great actor and producer then. I know I can be that and God will let that happen because he knows why.
Q What is it about you that makes you different, what is your driving force?
I think I told you that one of the most important thing is that I think I am here for a reason and I have to make a positive change and if I don’t do it, who will? That is what drives me.
Q Are you religious
Yes and no. I really believe in God and I am thankful he put us here. But when you mean religious in terms of denominations I say no. I don’t want to go into that
Q I asked that because a new pope will soon be elected and I wanted to find out what part religion plays in your life
Let me re-phrase that and instead talk about spirituality. Spirituality plays a big part in my life. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe everybody has a part to contribute in this world. I believe in a lot of things. Most important, I believe we are here because God put us here. The pope resigning, I think he has done his job, if he thinks he is not well to do his job, that is a very normal thing to do. If you think you cannot perform your role anymore, why don’t you leave it to somebody who can?
Q What are some of your future projects?
A Very soon I will be heading off to the east coast where we will be shooting a new movie. The title of the film is One Night in Vegas. I also intend to shoot my second move, The Choice sometime here pretty soon.
Q Very last question..how do you introduce yourself to somebody who has never heard about Sahndra Fon Dufe?
Hi, My name is Sahndra, how do you do? What’s up?