Exclusive: Young filmmaker Emmanuel Afolabi debuts his new short film BIO with Nataal

Emmanuel Afolabi is an emerging filmmaker and photographer exploring collective blackness through visual storytelling. His early inspiration came from his wonderings through his home city of Lagos and later through the streets of New York, wanting to communicate the intimacy of individual experiences that often get overlooked in the bustle of the mega city. Going on to study filmmaking at university, he’s since shot a music video for Diggy Simmons, worked with the Brooklyn Nets and undertaken an artist’s residency in Iceland.

His latest project is BIO. This short film – debuted digitally on Nataal - captures an inspiring cast of young people of colour making their way in NYC. They talk to camera about their personal life journeys, their aspirations and challenges, and their unique reflections on what blackness means in the US today. Hailing from both far (Jamaica, Rwanda, Burkino Faso) and near (New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston), Afolabi found his subjects through friends and social media and brought them together to create this poetic work that gives them space to just be.

Watch the film below, and then read our Q&A with its maker:

What was your road into photography and filmmaking?
I come from a very creative background. My family has always embraced the arts, I have a sibling who is a writer and another who is musician. I moved to the US from Nigeria at the age of 13 and started photography right before graduating high school. At the time, I loved to explore and document New York and its vastness. It is similar to Lagos in that it attracts and welcomes diverse people from all walks of life. I used my mobile phone to capture different scenes in the city and share them on social media. After a few months I got a digital camera and by the time I got to college, I was already getting photography commissions and wanted to explore further how I could tell more stories using both still pictures and motion pictures.

What initially inspired you to create BIO?
It started with a conversation with a friend about colourism. I have always been interested in hearing the perspective of other people of African descent or ancestry on what blackness means to them, especially in today’s political and cultural climate. I think it is important and empowering to self-define.

Being that I am from Nigeria, I struggled at first with being identified as black because I didn’t really know what it meant. I had to familiarise myself with its meanings and also embrace as kindreds those who identify as black. So BIO is a phase in my journey of exploring these definitions of blackness. The message I hope to deliver is one of diversity in the black community and that there’s no one answer because being black is not limited to a skin colour.

This film is based on collective blackness however the characters speak of individual experience being pivotal. What do you hope the audience takes from these perspectives?
I want people to understand that the individual story is what makes up the collective blackness. I did not want the story to be biased and one sided, so the cast walked in without knowing the types of questions they would be asked. They therefore delivered what I believe is their unscripted truth on the subject.

What are your plans for the film?
I have debuting the film in New York, sponsored by Oscar Health. My goal now is to continue to produce more bios and to create a space where we can actually hear voices of diverse people from different backgrounds in the world.