by Kenneth Gyang

AFS Class of 2018 at University of Southern California

The Embassy of the United States of America to Nigeria recommended me to be a 2018 American Film Showcase (AFS) fellow at the University of Southern California. Nerds and those in film circles know how much of a big deal USC is. The school famously turned down Steven Spielberg on one hand and produced George Lucas on the other hand- two filmmakers whose films have grossed billions of dollars and set up movements in the film industry. For Nigerians, the director behind the beloved Black Panther graduated from there. Everything looks exciting and straight forward, yes? Wrong! There’s always competition and work to do. I wrote about the latest project I am working on which I intend to develop some more at the AFS. There was also the small matter of a Skype interview. I was competing with other people around the world and I had to put in a performance if I was to end up at as an AFS fellow at USC. I was selected! I left Abuja and got to Paris without any drama, but I knew I was going to a city of showmanship when I started seeing quotes like #HellYeah on T-shirts. That’s the spirit of the city of angels — Los Angeles!

Landing in America and coming out of customs, two shuttle drivers sent by American Film Showcase were outside waiting to collect me. I also met Ioana Grigore from Romania and Yasser Naeim from Egypt. We were arriving LA some days to the world cup so football was a natural conversation starter. Yassim was happy to have a filmmaker who would also shop around for a pub and watch the game with him, Ioana wants to make a film about the Ultras (football hooligans in Eastern Europe). Great way to start the program and it was obvious we were connecting. Los Angeles is sunny! The drive from the airport exposed to this vast city, which I was in for my first time. I have previously been to New York, Indianapolis, Michigan, Oklahoma, Athens and Portland, but Los Angeles holds a certain sensation. Hollywood!

Sitting on the desk of the POTUS at the Oval Office (of Warner Bros) the President’s pals. L-R- Ioana Grigore, Kenneth Gyang, Nataliia Pogudina

We met the warm AFS staff who helped us to settle in. We met several powerful personalities in the film industry who would be discussing with us over the course of the program and one of them is a three-time Oscar winner! We were there when he sold his latest film Foster to HBO. It was interesting to see how calm he was in the middle of a deal like that. It set the excitement for the program. We pitched our projects and took notes about potential holes in our stories. It was awesome re-editing the clips we came with and trying to give our films a direction. It was work — fun — and more work! On one of the early days we had a free evening we walked from the student village at the campus of USC to downtown LA to check the city. We are a little United Nations. I was walking a little behind my colleagues when I saw them all taking pictures. Intrigued by something really profound, I immediately zapped out my phone to take pictures as well. I went close to them and I saw what they are snapping: a tree! I burst out laughing and they wondered why. Coming from Africa and its stunning natural landscape I was wondering what my friends back home will think if I send them a picture of a tree of all the beautiful things in LA. Indeed our origins give us different fascinations. We went to a place called Public School… An Education in the Art of Food… We had solid food and had fun. When it was time to leave some of them left in an uber and a taxi. The Nigerian, Algerian, Kazak, Cambodian and Venezuelan decided to walk back. It was going to be thankless to eat heavy some of the finest food in downtown LA and walk home in a one-hour marathon. I also have a problem with my knee because in trying to keep fit and make great films, I had hurt myself in a soccer practice back home in Nigeria. I said I wouldn’t make it back. So we decided to look for the metro close to our dorm at the university. We had so much fun experimenting with the metro cards. “It wouldn’t take your Egyptian money” blurted Amine Hattou (the Algerian) as Yasser tried buying two cards for himself and the Amine. That was funny. The Venezuelan crossed into the station without hindrance and we flirted with the idea of going without swiping our cards. It was funny but we thought about getting tickets by security at the end of the line so we swiped our cards to pay. We got to the USC station and wondered why we swiped our cards. There was no security to check us, oh well… God bless America! Back to work.

And certificate of completion!
L-R Kenneth Gyang, Rachel Gandin Mark

We did a lot of character building, story-lining and worked on funding opportunities for our projects. Towards the end of the fellowship we pitched to folks from Sundance Institute, International Documentary Association, Breakwater Studios, Film Independent and Concordia Studios. Pitching is trying to convince people to come aboard your project with financing and any other value that could add to the realization of your film. We pitched at the Dean’s boardroom. The place is gloriously fixed with funding from George Lucas. He has even donated some impressive classic film paintings from his personal collection. It was like holy ground. The fellowship gave me a fantastic insight into character and story development in documentary film and we all had clear ideas of the kinds of direction we want our films to go. We also had fun experiencing the sea food at Santa Monica, the Griffith Observatory, Hollywood and Warner Bros. studios. It was a cinematic pilgrimage. After bonding with fellows from other countries, it was emotional goodbyes as we headed back to our home countries to continue working on our projects with a fresh perspective, proud to be alumni of a U.S. State Department program.

Editor Notes: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not those of the U.S. government or Embassy to Abuja, Nigeria.

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