Friday, March 13, 2015

Nigerian-American Filmmaker Iquo Essien Aims for the Oscars

“FESPACO is one of the most popular and important festivals I’ve ever attended,” says Iquo Essien, director of Aissa’s Story, which was screening in competition. “It was a whirlwind of screenings, Q&As, interviews, dinners and VIP events at the prime minister’s residence.”

The biennial 24th Pan-African Film & TV Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) from February 28 to March 7, 2015, attracted 134 films from more than 30 countries, including Nigerians Desmond Ovbiagele with his much talked about movie “Render to Caesar” and Iquo B. Essien with her short film, “Aissa's Story” in competition. The theme was “African Cinema: Production and Distribution in the Digital Era”. FESPACO insists on films in 35mm for the main competition with categories for video and television. Newton Aduaka is the first and still the only Nigerian filmmaker who has won the Golden Stallion of Yennenga for his war film "Ezra" in 2007. - See more at:

Iquo B. Essien is the first Nigerian filmmaker to make the regional semifinalists in the 2013 Student Academy Awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' annual competition for college and university filmmakers.

Her "Aissa's Story", was a regional semifinalist in the 2013 Student Academy Awards. She is currently adapting the short into a feature film while writing a memoir, "Elizabeth’s Daughter", about losing her mother to cancer and finding herself through writing.

Ms. Essien drafted a debut novel, Alligator Legs, for which she received a 2009 Hedgebrook Writers' Residency. Her publishing credits include the Dreams at Dawn anthology, as well as online and print magazines NigeriansTalk, The African Magazine, PopMatters, and the Stanford Black Arts Quarterly.

Ms. Essien attended Stanford University and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Film Program. Her production company, Editi Films, is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, a charitable organization that helps artists and art organizations create engaging, publicly beneficial work. Iquo divides her time between Brooklyn and Lagos, and writes a popular blog, Alligator Legs, about art and life.


In June 2011, I saw a news story about then-IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, jailed on charges of sexual assault against a housekeeper at a Manhattan hotel. He allegedly forced the woman, a political asylee, to perform oral sex on him before he checked out and boarded a plane on which he was later arrested. I was in Lagos at the time, working on a memoir about my late mother. In the wake of the Arab spring and Japanese tsunami, the DSK case confirmed what I strongly suspected: that the world had been turned on its head.

It seemed like poetic justice for an African immigrant to incriminate a man—a would-be President, at that—who held the purse strings on development in Africa. But when inconsistencies arose in her story, the District Attorney pushed to dismiss all charges. Initially portrayed as a hardworking single mother, her credibility issues gave rise to allegations of prostitution and even HIV/AIDS.

In spite of all this, Nafissatou Diallo emerged and stood tall before a battalion of news cameras, detailing the abuse she met at the hands of DSK. Her face graced the covers of international newspapers, reporters descended in droves on her village in Guinea, and her life would be changed forever.

AISSA’S STORY is a film about a fictional woman, Aissatou Bah, recovering from sexual trauma while simultaneously picking up the pieces of her life. It depicts the psychological impact of rape, her flashbacks to the assault and an injustice that seems as inevitable as it is intractable. Such acts of harassment and violence are common among housekeepers—mostly single, immigrant mothers. Hotel unions report that these assaults mostly go underreported because housekeepers are scared to lose their jobs--until Mrs. Diallo came forward publicly.

I found myself captivated by her life, her courage to come forward, the criminal case, and how her life imploded in its aftermath. I had several friends, working with African women immigrants in the city, who watched first hand as opinions on the case divided the Guinean and Muslim communities along ethnic lines. There were media reports that Ms. Diallo was humiliated and depressed, that the DA had refused to let her move even after death threats.

I did my research, read court transcripts, and interviewed representatives of Unite HERE, the hotel workers’ union to which she belongs. In the end, given the constraints of our short film project, I couldn’t cover nearly as much ground as I’d wanted to and found myself hungry to expand the short into a feature.

Through the film, I wish to explore how two people from such different walks of life can become inextricably bound in a moment, how the truth changes depending on how much money you have, and how this money, given in exchange for Aissa’s complicity, brings with it freedom and also a huge sacrifice—silence. The film gives voice to an aspect of a high profile story that isn’t being told—what happens to a woman’s life behind the scenes when the media has long forgotten about her.


When Aissatou accepts money from the wealthy hotel guest who assaulted her, the price of silence proves too high.


2015 Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO)

2015 16th CinéSud African Short Film Festival (France)

2015 Cascade Festival of African Films (Portland, Oregon)

2014 African-American Women in Cinema Festival (Third Place Winner)

2014 Africa International Film Festival (Winner, Best Student Short)

2014 Lights, Camera, Africa!!! Festival (Lagos, Nigeria)

2014 African Film Festival New York (New York)

2014 Spike Lee Film Production Fund Winner

2013 Student Academy Awards Regional Semifinals (Academy Theatre)

2013 First Run Film Festival (New York University)

Credits: Iquo B. Essien.

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