From the office of Bek Wa Goro.
Two American sprinters stood on the Olympic medal podium with their heads bowed and fists held high. Tommie Smith and John Carlos powerfully expressed their humanity during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. They were fighting for freedom from oppression in the United States. Despite performing at the highest level they did not belong. I had witnessed this moment in a Civil Rights film shown at a nearby church one afternoon which caused me to reflect on my past.
Stateless for the first eleven years of my life as a result of their quest for freedom, my sense of cultural identity became blurred and I felt that I did not belong. What was it, I thought, that made me who I was after being born ‘displaced’ and growing up in a society that was foreign to my heritage?
I became unsure of how I would respond to being asked which country I came from or whether I would support Great Britain, Kenya or South Africa in the Olympic Games. It was however my experience in acting that lead to a desire to pursue a career in writing and filmmaking where I felt I had freedom to explore these themes.
As the years progressed other concerns came to the fore. The many questions the Civil Rights film had left looming in my mind became a distant memory. Then this issue of identity resurfaced and the question of truth or opposing truths emerged.
My portrayal of the ‘mad’ Henry in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Pirandello’s Henry IV resonated with me. I remember asking myself, is it possible for one person to be right about what is real for them and for so many others to be wrong? I had felt that for so long I had been able to discern some sense of truth. Black was black, white was white. But, in retrospect, I think truth is not binary. It operates on a continuum.
My interest in notions of truth led to a deep intererst in naturalism. As as an actor, I drew on on what Stanislavski termed ‘emotional memory’ in my performance of Alan M. Kent’s play, The Tin Violin, which was based on the life of celebrated Guinea-born musician Joseph Emidy. Directed by the former Co-Artistic director of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, the production toured Cornwall and was recorded as a five-part series for BBC Radio Cornwall. The onus of having to faithfully portray the depth of his painful transition from free man to slave and his displacement from his home had echoes for me as a stateless person.
I drew on my insecurity of not belonging. I thought back to the ‘human rights salute’ I had witnessed all those years ago in the Civil Rights film and the emotions it triggered in me. Having acted in theatre for many years the skills required not only to understand and interpret the nuances within text and subtext but understanding how to achieve balance through pacing has been directly applicable to the work I have pursued.
I specialised in screenwriting and directing where I constantly thought about the realities of the characters that I was creating and was interested in blurring the line of truth in my screenplays. In All Things to All Men, for instance, a short piece that I wrote, Wichita Bloom, a man who has been blind since birth finds himself imprisoned in a cell at the sheriff’s station in the Old American West. He believes he has died and been sent to purgatory and thinks that by ‘doing good’ he will get himself sent to heaven.
In Viola Davis’ words, “You can't be hesitant about who you are” (Playbill, 14th Mach 2004). When I think about Viola Davis’ comment, I think about overcoming adversity. I think that one can become better for it and that irrespective of one’s background, each individual’s life experience is valid. What makes a person interesting, however, and what makes a character or film interesting is that that life experience is somehow unique.
Although I am still not certain about who to support in Olympic Games, my personal experiences, practical work and thinking have given me greater insight and clarity into my desire to develop a career in filmmaking. This is enhanced by the cultures to which I belong which have, by way of osmosis, enriched my genuine passion and enthusiasm for film.