Amelia Umuhire called one of 15 African Creatives to watch out for in 2016, is the artistic visionary, director, and filmmaker behind Polyglot, the internationally-acclaimed web series. The series follows the lives of young, multicultural polyglots in Europe. In the first episode, viewers begin in Berlin where they meet rapper and poet Babiche Papaya, played by Amelia Umuhire’s sister Amanda Mukasonga.
For her work, the series won the Reflet D’Or for Best International Web Series at the Geneva International Film Festival, Best German Web Series at the Webfest Berlin, and the Best Short Film at the NumbiFest Atlanta for “Le Mal du Pays.”
Ayiba’s Akua Agyen spoke with the award-winning director Amelia Umuhire to learn more about her personal life, her work, and her phenomenal webseries Polyglot.
Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
I was born in Rwanda and lived there with some interruptions until 1999, when my family moved to a small miner’s town in West Germany. This is where I went to high school. My sisters and I were the only black kids at school and although we got used to it, in retrospect it did fuck me up a bit in terms of W.E.B. DuBois’ double-consciousness.
After life in West Germany, I moved to Vienna, where I studied and then to Berlin, where I’m living until now.
Where is home for you?
Home for me is anywhere my family is. Berlin, Kigali, Brussels, Liege, Neukirchen. As I got to know more people with similar backgrounds, [I] realized that home is not territorial, it’s a feeling you can recreate with those you love. Home is Love I guess. Maaan, that’s deep.
Who is your family?
My family consists of a lot of strong women. Because of the Genocide in Rwanda in 1994, we lost a big part of our family. Especially the male part of our family. I grew up surrounded by a lot of independent, strong women. My mother Esther Mujawayo is an activist and speaks out against Genocide and works as a trauma therapist in West Germany. My sisters are incredible. Anna Dushime, the oldest, is a journalist at Buzzfeed and my younger sister Amanda Mukasonga is an actress, poet, and playwright and the lead in Polyglot.
What led you to direct? What keeps you coming back?
I knew I wanted to do something in film for a long time but I never knew what and how to get started. I started with little projects where I was interested in writing, but also in editing. Every year I wanted to apply to film school and never had the balls. Then in the summer of 2014 I wrote a script, went to Kigali and shot my first short film and although the film was never completed, I learned a lot. Especially that I wanted to direct. I come back because I love it and I learn so much with every episode that I want to be better the next time.
What inspired you to create this series?
It started out as a contribution for a YouTube competition, then became the webseries it is today. First we started out with our roommates and friends, meeting up on a weekend and filming a fictionalized version of something we all experienced at some point moving to Berlin. Then I continued writing and it became what it is now.
Why did you take it to YouTube?
Because YouTube is used by everyone. Although I prefer Vimeo’s terms, YouTube is just the most popular video platform.
How did you come up with the name Polyglot?
The name Polyglot came when I was pitching Amanda the idea for the first episode and I like the word. Its meaning, but also the way the letters in the word are arranged. It’s a cool word.
From your work, a polyglot is more than having a few languages under your belt. So, do you identify as a polyglot? If so, what makes you one?
I do identify as a polyglot, because of the languages I speak, but to me it is more than just speaking several languages. It is also understanding different cultural codes. Immigrant kids know how to adapt to different cultural settings. People who are capable of that are polyglots as well.
I would love to hear more about your second episode, “Le Mal du Pays.” The final scene when the woman braiding Amanda’s hair is asking her about her family and her parents is so intimate. What was the writing and directing process like for that episode?
The writing was very intuitive. I had just watched a speech by Ava DuVernay at SXSW, where she talked about how she realized she had to tell stories that were bigger than her personal dreams but for a people.
I was thinking about it and thought about my people and the Rwandan post-genocide generation, but also the bigger African Diaspora and what we have in common. When people ask you about your family—a very common thing especially between Africans—as a Rwandan you can not talk about your family without having to talk about the Genocide. And sometimes you’re just not in the mood to explain to a stranger why you do not have both parents or in a lot of cases any parents at all.
It’s a very personal question that people tend to ask without thinking of the effect it may have. But Mama Omar (braiding the hair) gets it and knows that they share a similar pain.
Directing it was very intimate. We did a test shoot and my sister Anna Dushime who plays Mama Omar really got into the character and had us all crying at the end. She just got her pain and her maternal sixth sense and embodied it.
To watch Amelia Umuhire’s Polyglot, Ayiba readers can access the videos on YouTube.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in creating Polyglot or in being a filmmaker and director?
There were some material challenges like a stolen laptop and the lack of a budget, but the biggest challenge was wearing so many hats. It’s a no-budget production and this means that we all have to do more than our job descriptions. So the whole organization, the festivals, the emails, the PR, all of that is challenging, especially when you have other jobs. But I think a big part of being a filmmaker is facing challenges on a daily level and overcoming them through the power of teamwork and the love for film. There is seriously no better feeling than falling asleep looking back at the day and realizing that all of it is only possible because everyone believed in it.
Do you have any other projects lined up?
I am working on music video projects and writing a lot.
Can you name a few of your favorite web series, right now?
I love Strolling by Ceceile Emeke, and High Maintenance.
A good film you watched recently? All time favorite film?
I recently watched Chris Marker “La Jetée” and was blown away. It’s this science fiction film from 1962 and is made of still photos. It’s a really compelling thriller and extremely ahead of its time.
I’m very much into 90s feel good movies. I used to watch on Saturday mornings with my sisters, while binge-eating cornflakes. My all-time favorite—right now—might be Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
It’s a funny, cool film about outsiders and how the bullies in school grow to become losers in adult life. I haven’t watched it in a while, though. But I remember it actually having a great message regarding female friendships and staying true to yourself. And it’s also responsible for the great line, “Christy Masters stuck magnets on your back.”
What’s your favorite Babiche Papaya song?
I love all her songs, but my favorite would be “Pfannkuchen, Durchmesser.”
You’ve done a few interviews before, what is one question you wish people would ask you, but don’t?
I wish people would ask more about the style and about artistic decisions.
Any advice for any burgeoning filmmakers who will read this interview?
I just recently started, so my advice will be, that there is no better way than just doing it and learning from your mistakes.