New York Film Academy (NYFA) alum Furaha Bayibsa has kept herself very busy since graduating the Fall 2015 1-year Filmmaking program—not just as a writer and director, but as a producer as well.
Bayibsa is very passionate about her craft after growing up with a love of film and television. She seeks out artists who share that passion, and strives to work with those who truly care about what they’re putting on the screen.
With that in mind, Bayibsa produced a feature film called Landfill, directed by MFA Filmmaking student Yesser Laham, as well as produced a few short films together with other NYFA alumni. In between producing projects, Bayibsa continues to write screenplays that she plans to either sell or direct herself.
New York Film Academy recently spoke with Furaha Bayibsa about some of her work, what drives her as a filmmaker, and her love for all things Shonda Rhimes:
New York Film Academy (NYFA): First, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what brought you to New York Film Academy?
Furaha Bayibsa (FB): I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, but originally from Congo. I’ve always been kind of obsessed with TV and movies. It’s kind of cliche because every filmmaker says that (haha) but really… It was cringe. Movies and TV was the only thing I was talking about. At work people told me to shut up. My friends got upset because every Friday night were occupied for “Shonda Rhimes TGIT.”
It wasn’t until my mom was like “Okay Furaha, it’s time to choose school because you can’t be home watching movies all the time,” and I was like “Okay, I’m going to film school in LA then.” It was an awkward silence at first, but then she said “okay” and four months later I got my acceptance letter.
NYFA: Can you tell us about your film 1989 and what inspired you to make it?
FB: My older sister is a politician in Sweden for the Social Democratic party, a party running Sweden as we speak. The party basically stands for equality and giving back to the less fortunate. She’s my biggest role model, and I’ve always wanted to be like her. Do something meaningful, so my entire life hasn’t just been movies. It’s been movies, demonstrations, manifestations, voting parties, lectures, and a lot of political engagement.
Discovering Shonda Rhimes, I realized I could use a film as a tool to speak about really intense stuff, and not make it too much of a lecture. So I decided to make a film about rape, and make it as a ten-minute real-time moment in a couple’s life where they are discussing the topic casually, like couples do all the time (or in Sweden at least).
I remembered a guy telling me this story of how he was sexually harassed by another man one night, and he never told anyone because he was embarrassed, but it really affected him. It pissed me off, because—hello—this happens all the time, so why should he feel embarrassed? So in the film I have the couple watching a news broadcast about a rape victim who killed their attacker, and then got convicted. After the broadcast we’ll find out that the man is enraged, and his fiancee doesn’t understand why. So they go back and forth until… you need to watch the movie, haha.
NYFA: Can you tell us about Caminante, Caminante: La Leyenda del Huay Chivo and what inspired you to make it?
FB: One of my closest friends, Luis Quijano—we met in film school. He pitched the idea to me 18 months ago. He’s obsessed with horror movies, and he’s from Mexico, so he wanted to make it in Spanish. When he was younger, he worked as a missionary in Mexico, and he grew up hearing a lot of folk tales about monsters in the woods.
The “Huay Chivo” is a Mayan beast—half-human and half beast with really creepy eyes. He can turn himself into a goat, a disguise he uses to eat livestock (at least that’s what I understood from it). Luis really wanted it to be as authentic as possible, so together with our friend and cinematographer Andrii Lantukh, we literally went in with our hearts and souls and we made the legend come to life.
I produced it together with Luis and it was the realest experience I’ve ever had as a filmmaker. I knew it would be. Luis is amazing at what he does, Andrii too. We’re turning it into a feature film as well. So much fun.
NYFA: How do you decide which films to produce? What draws you to them?
FB: In the beginning, I’d get a text saying “Hey Furaha, I have a friend who needs help… are you free?” And that’s literally how it’s been. Just me being nice, saying “yes” to almost everyone. Then I guess the word got out that “Hello everyone, Furaha produces movies and she can raise money too!” And I realized that okay maybe I should find a strategy because I’m only one woman.
I’ve tried to produce several short films at the same time, and line produce them too with directors I didn’t connect with. So I had to step back one day and think, “Okay Furaha, why are you here? Because you love storytelling right, not producing.” So now I ask for three things before even agreeing to a meeting. “Script, crew list so far, and budget.” Script to see if I need to help them develop it a little more, budget meaning what they want for the film, and how much money they have on their own so far.
Then I read the script, break it down in my head, check the budget, google search the crew. I take my notes, then I meet with them. Even if the material is flat I meet with them because sometimes they have no idea what they’re talking about but they’re just so adorable in person and I kinda love them instantly.
So I decide to work with them anyways and help them with literally everything – hold their hand through every step until they don’t need me anymore. Because what draws me in is the director’s passion. The story is more important to me than the script, so I always ask them “tell me about the story” and if I can sense that they love filmmaking as much as me in that meeting, and I can laugh with them (super important), then let’s go. The process sounds strict, but the ones I’ve worked with have appreciated my straightforwardness and work ethic, so there must be something I’m doing right (right?)
NYFA: You have produced, written, and directed—do you have a particular preference for one of these roles?
FB: Writing and directing goes hand-in-hand for me, and they are my favorites. But producing is so much fun when I work with directors who know the craft, as well as respect the craft. So I don’t know really.
NYFA: What other projects are you working on or do you plan to work on?
FB: Right now? Like, right this second? Right this second I’m only working on one project. I’ve written two feature films that I’ll direct, or sell, or do something with in the future. But now I’m writing a Swedish feature film called Silver Wedding; I want it to be the first feature I direct. The goal is to shoot it in Sweden together with my two favorite filmmaking friends from LA when the time has come.
Then there’s another feature film I’m line producing for a friend of mine. A romantic comedy, but it’s standing still right now because our investor is still waiting on the final draft. So that’s gonna be fun too. But it’s the filmmaking industry, so you never know, maybe Shonda Rhimes will call me tomorrow wanting to add me to HTGAWM writer’s room, who knows really?
NYFA: What did you learn at NYFA that you applied directly to your filmmaking?
FB: Nothing… Just kidding! Too much to tell you about right now. But there were some things that I remember from my education that I will always keep with me. The class Film Art and the class Critical Film mainly. We had to read all the history from the beginning of cinema until the present.
I was one of those students who actually read all the chapters, took notes, watched all films, prepared study questions, etc. No I’m not embarrassed, yes my classmates thought I was extra. But now I know so much of the little things people don’t talk about anymore. Those books tell us how past filmmakers thought and experimented with cinema, struggles they faced and how they overcame it. How much they hustled and thought outside the box to achieve their goals.
I was also one of the fortunate ones to have Gil McDonald as my screenwriting teacher, and he taught me everything I know about writing. The most important part was that we should show and not tell, and most importantly not to write what the character is thinking or feeling, but instead only write their actions. That’s been my life savior really.
My directing instructors (Joe Burke, Nick Sivakumaran, and David Armstrong) all taught me everything else I know about filmmaking. All of these classes have really taught me that we’re all artists painting on a blank canvas, so we should just let our imagination run free. They taught me that cinema is the place where the impossible is done, where there’s no limitations, we just have to put in the work. Maybe that’s why I am the way I am today, because I never let anything stop my creativity. My instructors taught me that. Now I’m teaching you that. You’re welcome!
NYFA: What advice would you give to students just starting out at NYFA?
FB: First things first, read the answer to my previous question and if you’re at the LA Campus, find these instructors and befriend them. They’ll change your life I promise. Secondly, and please take this to heart: we’re all different, so don’t compare yourself to another artist. It’s easier said than done I know, but I promise you everyone is going through their own struggles and just because someone might seem to be better than you or have it better than you, please don’t put yourself down because you really have no idea what they had to go through to get there.
So what if there’s someone in your class you think is a better writer than you? Go and read more scripts of films you like to learn more about the craft of screenwriting and become as good as them. So someone in class directed a great film and you’re jealous? Go and talk to that person. Ask them about the stuff you admired in the film, how they thought of it, the process. Go online and read trivia from directors from movies you like. Break down movies you like to understand them better.
Anyone can watch three movies a day, but you need to put in the behind-the-scenes work to actually grow. And don’t rush please, because we all grow at our own speed, okay? Also, be nice. Not just to your classmates, instructors too. They’re people just like you with feelings. Just trust me on this one—always be nice.
NYFA: Anything else you’d like to speak on?
FB: First day of class, ask for the club brochures and join a club! If there’s no club you like at NYFA, create one yourself. No, it’s not as time consuming as you think, or as lame. NYFA has the resources to make your stay at school more than amazing with their student led clubs, and as a founder and former president to one of NYFA’s coolest and I want to say all-time best (?) clubs, I know what I’m talking about. Join a club! I’d recommend the African Black American (ABA) Film Society at the LA Campus if you’re there. I’ve heard some great things about them.
The New York Film Academy thanks Filmmaking alum Furaha Bayibsa for taking the time to answer our questions and wishes her the best of luck as her career moves forward!