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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Nnegest Likké: Hollywood Filmmaker Bridges the Cultural Gap

The African Tribune -- If the late, Ethiopian freedom fighter Dr. Senay Likké could see his daughter now, he would be so proud.

Following in her father’s revolutionary footsteps, Nnegest Likké is fighting a revolution of her own. But there are no guns. This revolution is being fought on the big screen, right in Hollywood's front yard.

For those not in the political know, Dr. Senay Likké was an African martyr who gave his life fighting for peace and social/economic equality in Ethiopia in the late 1970’s. To many Africans, he was a hero. And like father like daughter, Nnegest is well on her way to becoming the same. So, be on the lookout for Nnegest to bust the doors of Hollywood wide open.

Nnegest's first film, Phat Girlz, a movie which she wrote and directed, is due in theaters nationwide on April 7th. Starring the well-known, plus size (and proud of it) comedienne Mo’Nique (The Parkers, Queens of Comedy), Phat Girlz is the comedic love story between a plus size African American woman struggling with self esteem issues, and a handsome Nigerian doctor who comes from a culture where bigger is so much better and weight is equated with wealth.

“It is rare to see a film that so cleverly bridges the gap between traditional African culture and African American culture,” says Fisiha Likké, Nnegest’s first cousin, a mural artist who immigrated to the U.S. from Addis Ababa in 1994.

Born and raised in Oakland, California but having spent a significant amount of time as a child with her father’s family in Ethiopia, Nnegest is intimately familiar with both sides of the cultural coin.

“On one side I am wholly African American. But flip me over and I am wholly African,” Nnegest says.

This young filmmaker's unique, twofold bird's-eye is what lends her work its cultural authenticity.

“Many times Africans are depicted on the big screen in unauthentic ways. We are portrayed as savages and uncivilized, and as a filmmaker who knows the truth about us, I feel I have a responsibility to set the record straight.”

Typically in American films, it is the Africans who have something to learn, but in this laugh out loud, romantic adventure, it is refreshingly the African who is the hero.

Nestling somewhere between Hollywood and Nollywood, this movie is a MUST SEE for all people of the African Disapora believes the film’s Haitian born co-star Jimmy Jean-Louis. “Though the main character’s love interest is from Nigeria, West Africa, the story will make all Africans feel proud to be from Africa.”

With her first feature film now securely under her belt, Nnegest can finally breathe a sigh of relief and begin to talk about what she’s experienced in the past 3 years.

Convincing a major movie studio to say "yes" to distributing her film was no easy feat. Luckily, unlike most young filmmakers who give up on their dreams when no financial support is forthcoming, Nnegest endured.

“It seemed like the journey was never ending,” Nnegest says. “But you can’t think about how hard it is while you’re in it or you’ll get overwhelmed. You just gotta keep pushing forward till one day you wake up and your movie’s in the can.”

The film's associate producer Timothy Mapfumo agrees: “There was a new fire to put out everyday. Then when we would finally get one under control, two more would pop up some place else. It was a constant raging wildfire.”

A lack of money, says Nnegest was a constant source of frustration. “By Hollywood standards, I had no budget. So in order to get this movie finished, I had to shoot it Gorilla style. That means stealing shots, working illegally without permits, and begging, borrowing and bartering to get equipment.”

Nnegest likens gorilla filmmaking to being in a war. “It’s a daily battle and you are only as good as your army.”

Shooting Phat Girlz independently with very little cash flow, a skeleton crew and extremely limited resources, Nnegest faced incredible odds and many thought she wouldn’t succeed.

She attributes her tenacity to the blood running through her veins. “I had to adapt my father’s fighting spirit,” Nnegest says. “There were many, many roadblocks along the way and none of them voluntarily got up and moved for me. If I was going to make it to the finish line, I had to pick them up and throw them out of the way.”

Nnegest made it to the finish line last September when Fox Searchlight, an arm of Fox Studios screened Phat Girlz before a test audience and the scores were through the roof.

“The audience loved it!” beamed Mapfumo. “Because it was something they had never seen before.”

Some even deemed the film Oscar worthy. Seizing the opportunity, Searchlight immediately scooped up the distribution rights and put it on their wide release schedule.

To say it was a challenge getting to this point -- where Nnegest Likké could finally kick back and wait for her film to hit theaters--is an understatement. Some days she thought she could not go on. Like the day she got the dreaded call that her close friend and mentor, the film’s sole investor, Bobby Newmyer had dropped dead of a heart attack. "I almost quit that day...But then I knew I had to go on for him" Nnegest remembers.

Bobby Newmyer, the well-known Hollywood producer of popular films such as Training Day, starring Denzel Washington and The Santa Clause I, II & III, believed so much in the story and Nnegest’s talent as a writer that he gave her the opportunity to direct it. Then when no studio or outside investor would step in to fund the film, Newmyer decided to take the financial risk upon himself and mortgaged his house.

“He was my hero and real life angel,” Nnegest says of Newmyer. “His spirit will live within me and my work forever.”

When faced with tragedy and trials, Nnegest knows all too well where to turn. “I turn to God, my one true power source who always pulls me through.” She also turns to good friends like Ethiopian publisher and journalist Elias Wondimu who Nnegest says has been supportive of her every step of the way offering advice and encouragement from the start of the project.

The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree believes Wondimu who recognizes many similarities between Nnegest and her father, Dr. Likké. “They have a lot in common because they are cut from the same cloth.”

When asked where she gets her inspiration from, Nnegest says it's from her humble upbringing. “I never had anything growing up. I saw both sides of my people struggling to make ends meet. In America, where I grew up in a single parent household I lived in the ghetto, and in Africa I saw severe poverty everywhere and I knew I had to do something to make a difference.”

Nnegest admires several people: her mother because of , “her humanitarian spirit”, Bobby Newmyer because “he took a chance on the little man,” and many of her good friends like Elias Wondimu because of his “devotion to the cause of educating and enlightening African people around the world.”

Professionally speaking, Nnegest aspires to be in the company of Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, and Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima.

When Nnegest is not cooking up a new story idea, she finds time to be active in the community.

As an advisory board member of The Nollywood Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes contemporary African films, she plans to share her arduous journey and useful lessons from Hollywood. Dr. Sylvester Ogbechie, co-founder and Director of The Foundation, sees Nnegest’s film--Phat Girlz--as a major achievement whose effort to promote dialogue between Hollywood and African Cinema is timely.

Next on her plate is time-out to spend quality time with both sides of her family. That includes traveling to Ethiopia to see her grandmother.

But not until after the fanfare.

“I hope all Africans and African Americans will mark April 7th on their calendars and get out to the box office to support Phat Girlz."

While audiences are having a ball, (and hopefully casting ballots that will win her a measure of notoriety), Nnegest wants viewers to remember the spirit behind the film, her father, and the determination it took to get this project to the big screen.

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