Young creatives in Berlin. Shoestring budget self-shot web series. How 21st century cool! How those labels are tiring. But somewhere amidst the flocks of expats and their YouTube channels glimmers a groundbreaking new talent. Amelia Umuhire is a truly exciting young storyteller of Rwandan-German heritage making waves with her web series Polyglot, which follows the experiences of multi-hyphenate identities living and working in contemporary Berlin.
So far, we’ve been introduced to the character of Babiche Papaya, a spellbinding rapper and poet played by Umuhire’s sister, Amanda Mukasonga. As Papaya tries to find a home among other international Berliners, the city is explored culturally, socially and architecturally. Here, Umuhire talks about bucking trends and tapping into your identity for stories that are universal, that matter, and are aching to be voiced.
ADDRESS YOUR OWN REALITY AND STORYLINES ARE BORN
“I grew up watching a lot of TV and the only shows in which black people were more than just side characters were The Fresh Prince, Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris. As a TV addict I watched all the other shows and got used to not being included in the stuff I liked; stuff in which I now realise black people only appear as waiters, receptionists and the occasional hot black guy who is accompanied by the inescapable chocolate reference. The majority of black people we see are not included in the main storyline. That depiction is not only ignorant, but also dangerous. It creates the myth of us not being relevant and narrows the variety of black stories that could be told. And although shows with a black cast existed, they were from the US and had nothing to do with my own African-European reality.”
SEIZE THE ACCESSIBILITY OF WEB SERIES
“Since it’s such a young format there are no strict guidelines. It has to be on the web and have several episodes, but that’s about it. This leaves a lot of space for the most diverse stories to be told. If you don’t like how the mainstream media is covering topics (e.g. the police brutality in the US or the western media’s coverage of African topics), you can just go on Twitter, find like-minded people and create your own adequate coverage. If you don’t like what you are being served, do it yourself. The first time I saw Cecile Emeke’s Strolling series, I was so happy that a series like that existed – a series where young black people talk about their experiences in Western society in the most differentiated way. That series really inspired me.”
“It is quite fascinating how on one hand you have this emancipation from mainstream media and culture and on the other hand you have an increasingly hateful rhetoric towards migrants in mainstream media” – Amelia Umuhire
FIND YOUR VOICE AND IT WILL TRANSLATE INTERNATIONALLY
“My biggest fear, besides not being pleased with my own work, is that of creating something that does not have a bigger meaning, that is not relevant. The response we received helped a lot in overcoming that fear. The second episode got invited to festivals in Atlanta (Numbifest, Atlanta), Berlin (Webfest, Berlin) and two festivals in London (Welcome to Busseywood, Portobello Film Festival). I work for an African Film Festival (Afrikamera), so the fact that this very young series is going to festivals is still incredible to me.
Through the organic distribution process, this magical thing happened. The series somehow found its audience. The great thing is that you get so much support from people you don’t know, but share a lot of similar experiences with. People from Honduras, Rwanda, Canada, England etc. writing to us, saying how the episodes reminded them of a time in their lives.”
“I think that making production tools available for minorities and not limiting that access through the classic institutional way of film school and theatre school might be a way of breaking down those walls. It’s a bit of cultural Marxism I guess. But as with everything else, it’s about creating alternatives to the mainstream that clearly has no interest in including all of us. It is quite fascinating how on one hand you have this emancipation from mainstream media and culture and on the other hand you have an increasingly hateful rhetoric towards migrants in mainstream media. All these the characters in Polyglot are the epitome of polyglots, and represent a lot of Berlin life.”
FIND STORIES WAITING TO BE TOLD
“In future episodes, we will get to know other polyglots through our central character’s journey. Last Tuesday I was walking into Kreuzberg coming from the Warschauer Brücke and was listening to the voices of the people around me; so many different languages were being spoken and so many stories were happening at the same time. The police were arresting one of the weed dealers while a band was playing some funk music at the subway station as a highly-intoxicated guy in a full soldier uniform talked to himself and the masses of drunk 20-somethings were running around looking for casual intimacy and the kind of unforgettable experiences they will have forgotten the next day. All these stories, just lying around just waiting to be told.”
NO MONEY, NO PROBLEMS
“The series is a perfect example for a no-budget Berlin project. We have no budget at all, just stories and talented people who can play and capture them. Berlin is full of part-time artists and full-time hustlers, so a lot of people you meet work several jobs in different fields. The comparably low living costs make it possible to have the time for passion projects, since a few good jobs help you cover the majority of permanent costs. And also the presence of a lot of artists is very empowering and creates an atmosphere of solidarity. Obviously this is changing with the seemingly inevitable gentrification and I wonder how long Berlin can be this way.”
Follow Alexandra Hayward on Twitter here @alxhywrd