NYFA: Could you tell us about your background and what drew you to documentary filmmaking?
Franck Onouviet: First I would like to thank you for the opportunity to be part of this Q&A. My background is in graphic design & fine arts. After completing a master degree in Paris and working in advertising I had to go back home (Gabon) due to visa issues. There I was working as a freelance graphic designer. Meanwhile web design was growing and I was getting a lot of specific demand to do some web design I wasn’t really interested in and therefore I was declining all of them. Then came a point where I felt like I had to trade this non skill for another one.
It was quite interesting because our thesis project was done with a photographer from Louis Vuitton (Jean Lariviere). He came to the school to do an animated project as part of a future exhibit about traveling into space at the LV showroom in Paris. Since we were part of the visual communication curriculum, our tasks ranged from designing a DVD box set and visuals such as a poster to doing a behind-the-scenes of the entire project.
Since I was the movie freak of the class, they designated me to do the making-of video. I had no idea of what I was supposed to do. The entire weekend was spent watching something like 10 making-of movies I liked and trying to mimic them. So it went from shooting the people doing the whole animation character design to the meetings about art direction and challenges.
Now thinking about it I probably would do it differently. But hey, we all start somewhere. Long story short, it was my first experience and while I was in Gabon since I wasn’t about to get into the next big thing which was web design, I had to choose something, so I gave a shot to filmmaking. My cousin just completed the screenwriting program at NYFA and as I was too scared of writing I traded screenwriting for documentary filmmaking, which was the first year of the program. And it all started that summer.
NYFA: You define yourself as Afropean. Could you explain what this means and how has this self-identification has shaped your work? How do you see French and African culture influencing your work?
FO: I run my mouth too much sometimes (fake smile ahahah). Well, I was born, raised and lived in Libreville (Gabon). Then I headed to Paris to do a masters in Visual Communication and Fine Arts. Then it was New York. Meanwhile I was fortunate enough to go to many countries in Europe for work. I had the opportunity to really understand cultures and build a keen sense to adapt to a wide array of cultures. It started with France; as a necessity I had no choice, I was there to study and not for the fun part. So since you are put in a box most of the times regardless of how you think of yourself, let’s just say I wasn’t feeling like any boxes were fitting the description. And as I saw it as a strength I made it clear for people to understand in one word that there was more to me than the place we would meet. Hope it makes sense. It influenced my work a great deal, probably not on a conscious level all the time, but it allowed me to never accept one way of doing things but mainly searching for the right way for the project. I hope it doesn’t sound cliché, but for instance depending if I was working in Europe, Africa, or the US I would tap in, I guess without really thinking about it, to a different culture than where I was, just to allow the project to be treated with a different flavor, when needed of course.
I wouldn’t say French but European culture and it gave me the will to find an African voice that is up to the level of established European filmmakers I guess. I’m not there and it’s a constant work in progress. As for the African culture, well it is just who i am and at the same time I’m fighting to make sure people see and feel Africa as a continent and not a country.
NYFA: Your short film The Rhythm of My Life looks at the hip-hop industry in your home country of Gabon. For me, as a rabid music fan, I had no idea Gabon had such a vibrant hip-hop scene. Where did the idea for the film come from and what was your objective in putting the film together?
FO: Hope you will still enjoy the short after the truth behind it… Well, my cousin and fellow director Marco A. Tchicot, called me one day telling me about a recording artist being in town and meeting with local beatmakers. The idea was to make some kind of 5 minute promo to help them raise awareness about their music project. So since I was the one who did documentary at NYFA he felt I could help on the project. Well when I arrived we talked about the promo video to shoot, then we listened to the work they have been doing all along. And from that moment I looked at Marco and told him: “Forget about it man, we doing a documentary.” Since we were not here when they actually met, we agreed based on how they met and other events to use some fictional parts in the doc to open it and close it. It was kind of a metaphor about how they could have met in Gabon.
As for the objective let’s just say we were focusing on the music and how people from different backgrounds can relate and connect through music.
NYFA: How did your time in the documentary program at NYFA shape your approach to filmmaking and what lessons from the program do you find yourself still applying to your current work?
FO: Well this one will be shorter yet relevant; it just made me and shaped my approach by allowing us to be us. With my background in graphic design I always wanted my work to have a certain visual esthetic, and it was clear from the get go I would do anything to make it that way. And Andrea [Swift] supported me in this direction and help me build on that. So up to today I’m trying to apply a strong work ethic on story I go after and give them the visual they need. My approach is organic in a way and I need to trust my guts to craft. It’s not yet ideal but it’s a lifetime commitment.
NYFA: Your creative output also includes rather striking portrait photographs. What is your philosophical and technical approaches to photography and how does it differ from your documentary film work?
FO: Is it the part where the myth goes away…? Okay so I’m not sure which [aspect of my] photography we are talking about. So depending on it I would say this, some of it is solely me, and others are a collaboration with a friend and photographer Cheick Touré.
Photography is like a blink, I don’t really like a long set up, unless I have a very strong concept and usually I share it with my friend (Cheick T) but it’s like taking as little as much time to snap it, searching for the right amount of time needed to capture what my eyes caught in a glimpse, and sometimes I can’t even snap anything, here comes the weird part. It’s like out of the whole eye line and vision I see or envision something interesting, but I have to move around the light to catch something I think my eyes saw. The only difference I see is that it takes less time so I take advantage of it. I don’t really like to spend hours behind a computer…it takes me away from the outside. And shooting a doc keeps me out there for longer but out there…ahaha.
NYFA: You go by the pseudonym of “ofa” as well? What meaning does this word have for you and your work?
FO: I guess at that time it was like I needed an alias as I was in graphic design and it was a cool thing. While I was mimicking, it had to be me. So ofa is just me (my initials, I’ll let you guess what the ‘a’ stands for ahahaha). Overall it keeps me grounded and reminds me where I started my creative journey.
NYFA: Music seems to play a central part in your documentary work. What is it about music that draws you to incorporate it—either as the soundtrack or as your subject matter—in your films?
FO: It’s very simple, our parents made sure we all learned music in the family and at that time my brother and sisters were all playing piano, it was kind of mandatory. I have to admit I couldn’t care less about music. I wanted to do sports and martial arts…period. Since there was no way to escape it I made my case about having at least the opportunity to choose the instrument i will learn…it was also a getaway as I was sure there was no saxophone teacher at the conservatory.WROOONG there was one guy. And this is how I ended up doing 6 years of saxophone and 2 [years] of piano. And I guess it never left me, I can’t edit until I find the right track or it will be a lot harder for me to come up with something I’m sure works, and also I always find my start and end point, I struggle a lot with the middle part of my edit. But everything is driven by music, sounds, even images are flowing like music to me. I actually regret I stopped practicing and learning music.
NYFA: Do you have any advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers and artists looking to make a living off their art? Do you think this is even a possibility for the vast majority of visual artists?
FO: I couldn’t speak for the vast majority, depending on where you live and what it is that you do as a filmmaker, but yes it is possible. It requires 2 things among a lot others. You have to do something you love and be focused on it. As there is no one certain way to make it in this industry you have to be open and get out your comfort zone. Know the rules then practice your own voice…your way is the best way to make it.
NYFA: What current projects are you working on and are there any particular themes you find yourself particularly drawn to at the moment?
FO: I’m working with other filmmakers from Gabon to organize independent filmmakers, so we can start building strong and valid relationships with filmmakers from around the globe. The goal is to build up workshops and masterclasses to train people in all of the filmmaking departments.
Developing different projects both documentary and fiction. It takes a long time as writing isn’t my medium of expression by heart. And choosing to become better at something I pick cinematography over writing anytime…ahahah.
Themes wise I don’t know: human, consciousness, relationships, taboo, forgiveness….
NYFA: Any parting words of advice you have for NYFA students and aspiring documentary filmmakers?
FO: It might not happen when you decide it but it will eventually, be patient, be you, be bold. And by all means feed the kid you were he is the only reason we are creative folks. And no need to run after industry top dogs, they already coming doing masterclasses at NYFA, so focus on your craft to be up to their level when they show up.