Adetokumboh M’Cormack directs the powerful true story of King Rudolph Manga Bell set in Cameroon in 1914. We catch up with him to ask him about both acting and directing in his new short, The German King, and what the film means to him.
The idea of standing up of your people and standing up for what is right seems to be the beautiful theme of this story. Tell me about a time you stood up for what is right.
I try to speak up and speak out against injustice every chance I get. I also do so through my work. My last film Irish Goodbye, shed a light on the victims of the Syrian crisis especially those persecuted because they are LGBTQI. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me that the lead character’s story was their story as well. And the other day in Uganda, human rights activist Brian Wasswa was killed for being gay. There was also talk of reinstating capital punishment for gay people in the country. When we see people oppressed or discriminated against because of their gender, belief, skin color, sexual orientation – we need to stand up and do something. I believe Desmond Tutu said it best – If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
Apart from being a natural-born leader, what else does Rudolf Douala Manga Bell represent?
I think he represents ethics. He is a perfect example of how all it takes is one voice, one person to make a difference. I sing the closing credits song in the movie, Tet’ekombo – King of Kings. It’s in Douala but there is a lyric that translates to “One voice can lift a nation, inspire a generation, bring fire to the darkness and light the sky with hope”. I love that line because it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from – anyone can stand up and be the voice of change.
When did you first encounter Bell’s story and how did it make you feel?
About three years ago I just felt whenever I turned on the tv, I wasn’t feeling represented in the shows and films I was watching. And I would watch films about the First World War and there would be no mention of the many Africans soldiers who fought and died in it. I started doing some research on that time period and came across King Rudolf Douala Manga Bell. I remember reading his biography and by the end of it I was literally in tears. He was this man who sacrificed everything so that his people could be free. I felt so inspired by his life. I just knew the world needed to see his story.
Tell me about the location of the film.
Realistically I knew I couldn’t shoot in the Berlin City Palace or Pagode de Douala palace in Cameroon (laughs). I looked everywhere for the perfect location and finally found Laurel Court in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was built in 1900 and is a replica of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon palace in Versailles, so it worked really well for the Kaiser’s palace. We used a different section to shoot the Cameroon scenes. My Production designer Stephonika Kaye came in and worked her magic and transformed it into this stunning African Palace.
The cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for one minute. With you being both the director and actor in this film, how did you make sure that the script and the visual intertwined with each other so perfectly?
Well when I was writing the script I knew exactly how I wanted everything to look. I had a very detailed look-book early on in the production process which I shared with my production designer Stephonika and Justin Janowitz, my cinematographer. So pretty much every detail from the costumes, to props, lenses, lighting, sound, even score, had all been discussed pretty early on. So by the time principal photography began, we were all on the same page. I also had a really good editor on the project – Hanna Sturwold. We had worked together before so we are very much in sync. And my colorist Mark Todd Osborne is super experienced and worked on shows like The Act on Hulu. He took the color to the next level in post. I had a really talented cast and crew and I couldn’t be happier with the end result.
Tell me about the powerful cast and how the casting process was.
Constance Ejuma was one of the first people I cast. I had seen her in a couple of projects and she’s a brilliant actress. She’s from Cameroon so I knew she would make a perfect Emily. I had worked with Lenny Juma, Scottie Thompson and Raphael Corkhill before and they are all super talented. I wrote their characters with them
In mind so was really happy when they said yes to being in the film. I saw Markus in a movie called Reich a couple of years back. He was superb in it. He spoke fluent German was a real jerk in the film. So I thought “He’s perfect!” (Laughs).
We actually cast Josiah Strayhorn literally a couple of hours before we shot his scene!He plays young Prince Alexandre. I had spent weeks trying to cast the character. We needed to find someone who was talented, speak several lines of dialogue in English and German and looked like a younger version of Kwabena Darkwah. And also ideally needed someone who knew how to fence. It was a really challenging role to cast. Thankfully at the very last minute one my crew members knew someone who knew someone and we were lucky to find Josiah. He was perfect.
Why did you take it upon yourself to take the role of Rudolf Douala Manga Bell?
Rudolf and I share so many similarities. We have similar backgrounds. I really felt I understood him so I was able to draw a lot from my personal life. We also kind of look like each other. It’s a very physically and emotionally demanding role and I was excited about getting to challenge myself as an actor. There’s like five languages spoken in the film so months prior to filming I was learning German, Douala and Bamum. Given the fact that we had a very tight shooting schedule, I didn’t really have the luxury of doing countless takes. I had to make sure I did my homework with this character. So much preparation goes into playing Rudolf.
If you had to cast another African actor for the role of Rudolf Douala Manga Bell, who would you have picked and why?
So there there is a scene towards the end of the film where my character is being interrogated by a German officer, and I say in German “Ich bin ein Souverän. Lasse mich los” – which means “I am a sovereign, let me go.” I remember the first time I said it I started laughing because it felt very “You call me Mister Tibbs” (Laughs).
It’s the line Sidney Poitier says in “In the heat of the night.” He is so regal and says the line with gravitas. It’s awesome. I realized why I thought of him in that moment. In both films, you have these two black men demanding to be respected in a racist society. There are a lot of parallels. So now every time I watch that scene in The German King, I think of Sidney Poitier.
How can we spread awareness about Rudolf Douala Manga Bell, especially during Black History Month?
I have been approached by various colleges and schools who want to screen the film, especially in Africa. They are usually followed by a Q&A where people get to know more about this great man and what he did for Cameroon. I think watching the film and having discussions about it, is a great way to raise awareness and a step toward getting his story taught in history classes around the globe.
How has the film festival experience been for you?
It’s been amazing. People all over the world seem to really love the movie! They are always surprised they’ve never heard about this story. We have screened at several Academy Award Qualifying film festivals, like Hollyshorts, LA Shorts, RSF Martha’s Vineyard and Bronzelens. I won a Best Actor award at Rhode Island International Film Festival. We won Best short film At Ecrans Noirs and Cindependent Film Festival. And we qualified for Oscar Award consideration in the Best Short film, Live Action category.
Where is the film headed next?
We continue our festival run at the Rwanda Film Festival on October 25th, then the Veterans Film Festival in Australia on November 8th. Then right after that we will screen Pembroke Taparelli film Festival in Los Angeles and Soul West Film Festival in Arizona.
What projects do you have coming up?
We finished the feature length script of The German King and plan on shooting it next year. I also star in a film called Los Angeles directed by Mitch Temple and a really cool horror flick directed by Chris Freeman. Both films will release in 2020.
Where can people go to find out more about you and your work?
You can follow me on twitter and Instagram @adetokumboh
Congratulations on you and the film’s success so far Adetokumboh.
Thanks so much!
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