Stella Tchuisse is a filmmaker, singer and actress. In 2015 she graduated from the Advanced School of Mass Communication with a degree in Corporate Communications. After working with a local television station as Communication Officer and TV host in 2016, she decided to start a career in acting. Since then, she has been discovering and growing her passion for cinema through screenwriting, directing and acting. In 2018, she directed her first short film Neighbour and two others, I’m Okay and L’hôpital, in 2019 and 2020 respectively. She is currently pursuing a graduate program in Media Studies.
BY ELELWANI NETSHIFHIRE
This conversation takes place between Cameroon and unbelievably cold Venda, Limpopo, South Africa.
Elelwani: You come across as someone who has a specific focus in terms of the body of work you put out. Take me through your journey as a filmmaker; where does it begin?
Stella: I started off as an actress, and since July 2018, I have been focusing on writing and directing too. As an actor I had read various scripts, so I decided to start writing my own. I then entered the Goethe-Institut Cameroon Script-writing Competition. Prior to that, I had written a short web series for a friend, who gave me positive comments. That is why I gave the script contest a go, which saw me coming up to the top three and receiving the grant prize. That is how the story of my first short film goes.
Elelwani: Congratulations on the grant, I see that as a huge affirmation. How was the experience of being on the set of your brainchild?
Stella: Making my first short film was very challenging. By the time I was awarded the grant and had to shoot, I was already engaged in a Pan African series. So I was dabbling between projects. And since I was new to directing, my team didn’t seem to have confidence in me. The experience was so off that I did not want to direct anymore. I then told myself that I would just concentrate on acting and writing!
Elelwani: What then got you back to pushing against all odds and being where you are today, with a series of work under the belt?
Stella: Well, I shared a script I had written with a filmmaker I worked with in one of the TV shows and he said “that would be great if you directed it.” I insisted that I do not want to continue directing and he said something very funny:
“I have seen some of your WhatsApp statuses and I believe you can be a great director, don’t give up.”
And here I am today.
Elelwani: You need people like that, you know. Being an artist comes with having so many doubts about whether you can really make something you have envisioned. Meeting people who push you in the right direction when they see potential is a big deal.
Your films are very powerful and relevant for the times we live in, for example Neighbour, which you wrote, was captivating for me from the word go through your use of metaphor and repetition. It is such a universal story yet local for Cameroon. Can you expand on the stories you tell? I’m Okay and Depression; these have very similar themes. Is it a mere observation or personal experiences?
“Studying something other than filmmaking became a plus for me. It continues to help me come up with different visions by enhancing me to pull audiences from different disciplines.”
Stella: You know what, I have had people ask me why my stories are so sad. My films have very similar themes indeed, all tackling stories of women and their day-to-day experiences, which highlights their pain too. It is not always something I have experienced personally but it is what is going on around me with a dash of creativity. I remember after screening I’m Okay, I had someone tell me that they went through the exact same experience. My own personal feelings translate to what I write too, inevitably.
Elelwani: I believe that in the end it is all about what you want to focus on as an artist, stories that you find most appealing to you.
Stella: Yes, and for me I am very emotion-driven and I think that is why my stories are what you see, portraying a sadness of sorts.
Elelwani: That is what I liked about your three short films, I was in the world of your characters, and enjoyed their journey thoroughly.
Although it is something you touched on, I am interested in what drives you in the filmmaking arena in Cameroon?
Stella: Making movies is very challenging in Cameroon; I guess it is like that in every other African country. Here we do not have support from the government. Also, when you are starting out, you do not have networks. For the short films I made, I had strong support as the first one was financed and luckily, for the second one, I was helped by a cinematographer and director who believed in my vision. He saw my passion and said he would support me in any manner. I have since had people who reached out to me because they want to help me make my films. Technology is making things easier, but to do films that will abide by certain techniques or standards is still a challenge and will need financial support. Especially when you have not gone to a film school, like myself.
Elelwani: Interesting, so you are self-taught. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy sitting down for these conversations, you get to learn so much. Passion goes a long.
And now that you mentioned it, what exactly did you study?
Stella: I studied Corporate Communications, and I am currently enrolled for a Research Masters.
Elelwani: What are the chances, I completed my honors in Media and Communications where I focused on Film Research. We are really in a field that demands a wider horizon from us. Although studying film can harness your skills, doing something else can further add more value and you get to see everything coming together in the end, you know.
Stella: I do feel that I understand things better, although I never wanted to be in communications. I actually was never sure of what I want to focus on but being an artist came more naturally to me. I started off with singing. Studying something other than filmmaking became a plus for me. It continues to help me come up with different visions by enhancing me to pull audiences from different disciplines. So for me, being a qualified communicator, a singer, and a performer has made me come up with stronger stories.
Elelwani: Anything that helps you have a unique, authentic voice in the industry is very important. It makes you stand out, setting your work apart.
Now take me through the Cameroonian film sector in terms of gender and representation.
Stella: I don’t know all the filmmakers, it is a big place and many people are creating various works so this is just my personal take. With the information I have, I would say we have more male filmmakers and since we are bilingual, you have a division where there’s an English and French region of filmmakers. At this moment the female filmmakers I can think of in our landscape is Françoise Ellong and Christa Eka.
Elelwani: So, going forward, do you see yourself continuing to write, perform and direct your works? How do you see your relationship with all these specializations?
Stella: I want to direct movies because I believe there are many stories I can tell, starting from stories that are close to me. Stories of women that I find inspiring, like my mother, who has now retired. She was in the army, and there is a film I want to make that is based in such a space. There are so many beautiful Cameroonian stories I aim to tell. So in that sense, yes, I will continue writing and directing my own work.
As for acting, I acted in one of the film I made, I’m Okay, and I feel that in terms of directing I did not do my best, so if I am to act and direct I will have to do more preparation. It is something I am open to.
Elelwani: That is the way to go, it works, it is possible to make it a success. One mainstream person who successfully did this recently is Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.
I want to go back to what you just mentioned. I feel that it is so inspiring to have such a role model of a mother, if she has already retired from the army, it means she was there at very unique, tough times. So go ahead and tell her story.
Stella: I am going to make it; it will be a good story. For the longest time I felt like I was not seasoned for a feature yet, and I just concentrated in making shorts.
Elelwani: You will never be ready, I say dive in.
Stella: Well, another thing is that I need to know the beginning, middle and end of my story, then I can begin writing. I find it very difficult to start writing if I do not know all this. So, I have to decide to just start anyway, and I will do it now after Talents Durban.
Elelwani: You mentioned Talents Durban, I was going to touch on that too. Congratulations, it is a big deal. It is part of a big market and such an amazing opportunity; when you come back next, we will be talking about your feature.
Stella: That is the plan, I have a feeling I am going to make great films because the mentorship I have received has changed my perspective completely. It has really helped me visualized my next film, The Last Scar, which is about reincarnation and sexual violence. I am really satisfied with what my mentor and I have come up with in order for the film to say what I want to communicate visually.
Elelwani: That is great; it is unfortunate that the workshops had to be online because of Covid-19, yet also amazing because it happened nonetheless.
Stella: Speaking of Covid-19, as devastating as it has been, something good has come out of it as it has allowed me to focus; I ended up creating a web series where it was just us five girls calling each other and communicating what we know about it. Think of broken telephone. The information relayed as the pandemic news spread in Cameroon was altered so much that when it gets to the last person it is a complete different message. It has helped me become a better filmmaker.
Elelwani: Things are opening up in South Africa today, and hopefully productions will resume. And we can keep creating with the support system we have.
Stella: The support system is really significant, and loving what you do is a bonus, as you will come across many hurdles. I remember the hunger to create being what really pushed me to do I’m Okay, because not doing anything affects my well-being. Yet you also need to do other works as you cannot live off these creations in your debuting years.
Elelwani Netshifhire is a filmmaker, writer & director armed with technical skill sets. She is the founder of Thase Media and believes in utilizing any medium possible. Her latest available short film, Story Of A Baked Brownie, won various awards and was later featured on CNN Inside Africa.