Q&A Interview Emma Taonga Sayers First Acts filmmaker

Emma Taonga Sayers is the creator of 'Njafweniko'. Commissioned as a result of a partnership between the Arts Council England and Channel 4, which works with and develops 16-24 year old filmmakers through a national initiative known as First Acts, 'Njafweniko' explores the way that race interacts with perceptions of mental health, through the medium of dance.

As well as creating films, Emma is a graduate from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which is pretty damn cool if you ask us. Am I Normal spoke to Emma about her First Acts Film, her degree, and her plans for the future...

Follow Emma on Instagram here: @em_taonga

Your short dance film ‘Njafweniko’ is a depiction of caring for a loved one with mental health issues, and it specifically calls attention to the way race interacts with perceptions of mental health. What was your reason for creating a film around this subject?

I wanted to create a film that was personal to me and reflected my own experiences growing up. Being of mixed heritage, I grew up in a rich blend of both British and African traditions and cultures, with very different ideas of mental health. Whilst my British family leaned towards medical advice, my African family was heavily influenced by cultural and religious perceptions of mental health. Regardless of these differences, I had to learn how to care for my mum who suffered from severe mental health issues for a long time. It's only recently, through talking to other people with similar experiences, that I’ve realised how complex race and mental health can be. Often, loved ones suffering from mental health issues can feel isolated and resist help, which can be difficult to accept when trying to support them. I think my film only skims the surface of these complex issues and only tries to articulate my own experiences with mental health and family relationships. However, I do hope the film will resonate with individuals and hopefully encourge more exposure of films around mental health and race.

What are your views regarding the way that mental health issues are perceived in society?

I think the stigma around mental health is shifting and more people are recognising mental health as an illness that can be both treated and managed. However, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done to tackle how racial discrimination interacts with mental health. When you look at the facts, the black population is over-represented in suffering from mental health, and there's the stereotype of 'mad, bad, dangerous and black'. I think mental health services still struggle to deliver culturally-appropriate care and there’s a high prevalence of race thinking – the concept that racial stereotypes persist in the healthcare system, which affects how people are looked after. I’m hopeful these issues will be addressed, as there are so many amazing charities and organisations that are campaigning, advocating and giving a voice to those suffering from mental health conditions in the black community.

You’re also a spoken word artist. How did you get into that?

My dad bought these two children’s poetry books when I was about 7 and I was obsessed with them. There was something fun and exciting about reading, and the thought of making, these short little stories. As I got older, I stumbled on American slam poetry on YouTube and I saw how my love of poetry could be linked to my passion for social justice. I started writing and even posted a video on YouTube (that’s somewhere in the internet abyss!) Since then, I used spoken word as a type of therapy. It’s nice looking back at the work I’ve written as it's a diary of my emotions throughout my life.

What subjects do you discuss in your performances?

I’m a massive people watcher and observer, so even an everyday mundane activity can be enough to inspire me - it can start off as quite a small idea and grow into a vast concept! For example, I was in the supermarket the other day and there was a foreign guy trying to pay, but he didn’t know what money to give and you could see panic in his eyes - he was very aware that he wasn't from here. I started writing and before I knew it, it was a poem about migration, belonging, and the concept of home. I like the idea that a small seed can turn into these abstract pieces of work.

Apart from being a filmmaker and performer, you’re also a graduate in Tropical Medicine! What were your reasons for choosing this degree, and what’s the most fascinating thing you’ve learnt?

I’m a huge science nerd deep down! I got really into microbes, parasites and disease in my undergraduate degree, and thought "why not carry on learning about infectious diseases", so I did a masters in global health. I absolutely loved my masters and there were so many interesting topics, as the subject combines science, sociology, anthropology and politics. I think my favourite part of the degree was my dissertation where I talked to asylum seeking; I interviewed a range of women about their lives and experiences in the UK and how it had impacted their mental health. It was an incredibly humbling experience and made me more passionate about global health. I think in the future I would love to combine my passion for public health with filmmaking, to make documentaries about all the issues I've learnt.

What advice would you give to other people who want to follow their passion?

Don’t be scared to jump into the unknown and don’t think you’re too inexperienced to try new things! I had never made a film before Random Acts and there were times when I felt out of my depth, but jumping into the unfamiliar was so exhilarating and most of all - fun! I think following your passion means having a ‘just say yes’ attitude and seeing where opportunities take you!

Do you have any other projects lined up?

Unfortunately not at the moment as I’m working full time, but I am drawing digital illustrations and writing poetry to keep my creativity alive! However, I’m hoping to have a go at making a short documentary film this summer to put into practice all the amazing lessons I learnt from Random Acts.

Find out more about Random Acts here.

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