New York Film Academy (NYFA) MFA Screenwriting Alum Angela Ruhinda is a writer and producer from Tanzania. In 2018, Ruhinda started a production company, Black Unicorn Studios, with her sister Alinda. After holding a screenwriting competition for writers in Tanzania, they found the story that would be the studio’s first feature film, Binti.
Binti, which centers on the lives of four women as they navigate entrepreneurship, motherhood, infertility and love in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, will premiere on Netflix on January 7th. It is the first Tanzanian film to be acquired by Netflix for global distribution!
Angela spoke with NYFA about Binti, the start of Black Unicorn Studios and the challenges of doing post-production during a global pandemic.
How did you come across the project or idea for Binti?
In 2018, I started a production company with my sister, Alinda. We named it Black Unicorn Studios. Our first project was a stage play that I wrote. After we wrapped our theatre run, we decided we wanted to venture into film. We had a screenwriting competition only open to Tanzanian writers. We asked for original stories that spoke to the theme of female empowerment. In early 2019, we picked our winning story – Her Life by Maria Shoo. We acquired the script and re-wrote it. We loved that it told the story of four contemporary Tanzanian women and thought it would be the perfect first project for our company. The name ‘Binti’ didn’t occur to us until we finished post production. ‘Binti’ is Swahili for ‘young woman’ and no other name is more fitting for this story.
What was your process for writing and producing the film?
After acquiring the original screenplay, we approached a dear friend of mine named Seko Shamte to join our team as a director and producer. She ended up co-writing the shooting draft of Binti with me. We spent many Saturday afternoons writing powerful scenes together and the whole process took us about a month or so. And then the pre-production process began. The three of us assembled a dream team for the crew. Everyone in the crew was Tanzanian with only three exceptions. Our talented cinematographer, Justin Aguirre, flew in from L.A. I worked with him previously on a pilot called Occupied and really enjoyed working with him. Our sound guy was from Kenya and our assistant director flew in from Zimbabwe. Our director had a lot of experience with these two men and insisted they were the best of the best. We had open casting calls for the actors and saw a lot of great raw talent. There were chemistry tests to make sure we got the right leads in our four women. While we prepped the crew for the three-week shoot in July, we held rehearsals for our actors so that no steps were missed. The shoot was exactly 21 days in July 2019.
What was your biggest challenge while producing Binti?
The greatest challenge I had while producing Binti happened during post-production. The pandemic completely disrespected our deadline. The film was initially edited in Tanzania but it also travelled to LA for more editing, Egypt for sound and to India for VFX effects. As you can imagine, each location had its own lockdowns and restrictions so we were constantly on standby and it delayed our deadlines. We ended up completing everything in early 2021 after we secured a distributor.
Do you have a filmmaker statement you’d like to share about Binti?
Binti is a love letter to African women. I also want everyone who watches Binti to see our strength, our beauty, our resilience and our ability to choose our own destiny.
Has Binti been picked up for any festivals or competitions?
Binti has already screened at several international festivals. It premiered at the Pan African Film Festival earlier this year. Binti has
also screened at Nollywood Film Week (Paris), Durban International Film Festival (SA), Jozi Film Festival (SA), Zanzibar International Film Festival and AFRIFF (Nigeria). In Zanzibar, Binti was awarded Best Feature Film which is something that we are really proud of. It’s a very prestigious film festival. Now we’re really looking forward to sharing it with the world via Netflix! January 7, 2022. Save the date!
What did you learn at NYFA that you applied directly to this project and others?
During my time at NYFA, I studied screenwriting. Thus, NYFA taught me a lot about the art of storytelling. I learned how to carefully weave a story, how to create compelling characters and how to move an audience. I always thought my first feature would be a comedy because it is a genre I’ve always been more comfortable writing. However, when I was given the opportunity to show contemporary Tanzanian women enduring specific hardships, I tapped in to all that I learned in school. Drama and comedy are often seen as polar opposites but I’ve found that sometimes one genre can inform the other. In terms of producing a feature film, I literally learned everything on the job. And boy did I learn a lot!
Are there any other upcoming projects we should know about?
I’m currently developing a TV series that I’m super excited about but can’t give any details on just yet. I would also like to write and produce one or two romantic comedies for 2022 and 2023. There are a lot of opportunities for African creators on the continent right now and it’s all very exciting!
Do you have any advice for incoming NYFA students?
Soak in every single thing you learn at NYFA. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Start watching at least one film a day (something I was told during my first week). And if you can, start building your tribe by meeting creatives from other departments. If you’re a writer, collaborate with some of the producers, editors and actors. Make a few short films. Those relationships might become very valuable after you graduate and the practice will prepare you for the future.
Be sure to catch Binti, today, on Netflix!