An interview with filmmaker Ebeneza Blanche

It’s a warm, sunny morning in Paris when Ebeneza Blanche calls me. He has a slow Friday and watches the bustle of the local population from his window without being busy himself. The urban bustle of France’s capital is a far cry from the dry, hot, menacing sprawl of a Ghanaian boarding school, which forms the backdrop for Blanche’s debut short film Math.

The multidisciplinary talent has made a name for itself in the world of fashion, advertising and film. JULIET DUFFY

The star of the film is Blanche’s cousin, Emmanuel, who plays a character of the same name. Sadistic teachers’ reckless violence against young students is a challenge for most viewers, but Blanche says he toned down the violence for the film in regards to the fashion brand – Amsterdam-based The New Originals – working with him on Math.

Born in Amsterdam, White grew up between the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Ghana, and the many movements of his youth benefited him as a filmmaker and creative adult: seeing a diversity of cultures and landscapes fueled his curiosity and enhanced his ability to observe with an outsider’s point of view.

“I was telling stories, I was always filming things while I was studying business,” he recalls. It was a university assignment that required students to create an animated film that instilled in Blanche a deep passion for storytelling through movement. “It was the joy of making things, you know? In the end, I found my voice by experimenting with what works and what doesn’t and how it is received.”

Math is Blanche’s first feature film, made after he honed his photography and film muscles through commercial work for Gucci and Nike, and emotive, unashamedly political music videos for Little Simz and Obongjayar (Aim and kill), Skepta (Dimension), and Joy Crook (featuring images of Grenfell Tower). Dancing flawlessly between fashion, advertising, film and music, he has proven that he can be both versatile and determined in his aesthetics and approach. That signature perspective led to 2021s Aim and killset in Nigeria, it is chosen to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2022 – the first time a music video has been scheduled.

“Elizabeth from Smuggler, the production company, contacted me,” Blanche says. “She had been eyeing my work for a while and we were talking about a possible collaboration. The first project that came out of that was Dimension with Skepta, JAE5 and Rema. I’m quite extensive in development and I’m intense in what I’m trying to achieve with visuals.

Working with Skepta was a dream, albeit tough, he says, but the challenges he had to overcome have paid off. Dimension was impactful in Ghana and contained all the elements Blanche found powerful and needed to be emphasized. “Little Simz saw that and she wanted me to Pointment and killwhich also went very well.”

Elizabeth at Smuggler was also instrumental in securing fashion film projects, and Blanche credits her for understanding his message, his end goal, and the desire to present black stories and black voices in an authentic, positive light.

“Especially with Gucci, they wanted to show a black athlete, so how could I do something unexpected that hadn’t been done before?” he says. “I am very happy with how these films have come about. They show an unexpected image of black people, a positive image that defies stereotypes. I want to show people in a different light.”

That central message, and the light that is both metaphorically and literally sun-drenched from its signature aesthetic, ripples through 20Ghana.

When Blanche returned to Ghana at the end of 2018, it had been ten years since he had last been there. The changes that had taken place in his absence inspired him to create 20Ghanaportraying love, wealth and an exploration of culture collide with equal doses of nostalgia and empathy for a country and people that existed in his imagination as long as they existed in his real life.

This is the inevitability of being a member of the diaspora: he loves and romanticizes his country, which is so much easier from a distance, while also clearly seeing its flaws. The Ghana of Blanche’s films shines through the sepia-toned screen with heart, energy and the youthful naiveté of young Ghanaian men trying to understand adult obligations and societal expectations.

Math was a continuation of these themes, but came out on a small budget.

Ebeneza Blanche
The filmmaker’s next project is already in the works. JULIET DUFFY

“The budget was very tight, even smaller than a music video, but it was something I really wanted to do,” he tells me. “I used this project as an experiment to tell a longer form story, but it drew on my skills forged in music videos to know what works and what doesn’t. Continuity and order are so much more important in film.”

The star of Math is Blanche’s first cousin, and when he talks about him, it is with genuine joy. In fact, Blanche is currently working on a script that Emmanuel is almost a decade too old for, but the director jokingly admits that won’t stop him from recasting his cousin.

“I adore him so much, and his energy is so great on and off camera, he’s a fun person to be around,” Blanche added. He’s definitely going to be a star. He gets what I try to do and he always delivers. I try to keep it in the family, to elevate my family.”

The violence portrayed in it Math wasn’t nearly as intense as reality, says Blanche. In boarding schools in Ghana, he explains, violence is allowed, and he wanted to show the world what it’s like because it’s never been depicted before. Still, he didn’t want to make it too bloody and violent, because surprisingly it was also a fashion film. Blanche was approached by the Amsterdam clothing brand The New Originals to participate in a film, because of the launch of a pop-up store in Ghana.

“They said ‘Let’s make something’, and Math came out of it,” says Blanche. “So far we have screened four times in Amsterdam, twice in London, and also in Berlin, Paris and Ghana. The turnout in Ghana was great. A lot of people came and they were really involved. The reception was so different from Europe because they had gone through the boarding school experience, so there was a nostalgic appeal, a strong relationship to the film.

I can hear Blanche pottering around his Paris home, enjoying the respite from the frenetic Fashion Week buzz and his own back-to-back schedule of commercial projects, due to debut later this year (that’s all he can say). As is the custom of a creative workaholic, he is not just basking in the sun and living la vie de rêve.

Ebeneza Blanche
Blanche is not just living, living la vie de rêve. JULIET DUFFY

“I’m actually in the writing process for another movie,” he admits. “As a filmmaker, I prefer to write my own stories and scripts and develop them into films. I’ve written it and I’m working on the third draft – I’m still finishing it.

This next movie is about “boarding school, again!” he reveals, but it’s “more detailed and the character has more depth. It’s a longer movie, this time.”

But the world will have to wait for another episode in the intense life of a boarding school in Ghana. Blanche is currently dealing with less bloody matters.

“At the moment I lead a soft life. I take a break and recharge. I have some film work coming out later this year, commercial work, fashion work combined with storytelling…”

He fades away, facing the sunny Parisian day – or so I imagine – and I leave him his well-earned rest.

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