The Nigerian-American filmmaker discusses her new feature, which explores the relationship between an estranged Black father and daughter and the difficulties of intergenerational communication
“We must admit to the truth that we sometimes wish our fathers, sons, brothers, and lovers were not there. But, this truth exists along with another: that this wish causes us anguish.” American feminist Barbara Deming said this before her death in 1984, and her words still ring true for many people who have complex relationships with the men in their lives today.
Nigerian-American photographer and director Ella Ezeike wants you to tackle those feelings head-on. Words We Don’t Say is her second short film, and explores the relationship between an estranged Black father and daughter, and the difficulties of intergenerational communication.
Told through a series of fragmented memories, Words We Don’t Say asks its viewers if it is possible to find empathy and understanding for our fathers while we simultaneously resent them for the pain they have caused us. Starring Kibrea Carmichael, cktrl, Sean Earl Mcpherson and Sayuri-Awomosu, with an original composition written by singer-songwriter Matt Maltese and cktrl, Words We Don’t Say wants to leave you reflecting on not only your own experiences, but your beliefs around forgiveness, masculinity and alienation.
We spoke to Ezeike about how her second film came to life, her cinematic inspirations and why she continues to tackle themes around family trauma, love and personal growth in her work.
Words We Don’t Say is a short film about the complexities of the father and daughter relationship – specifically in the Black family. I can’t think of a lot of media focusing on this dynamic. So why have you decided to tackle it?
Ella Ezeike: One of the main reasons I created this story was because this dynamic isn’t a dynamic I see often explored. I think the father and daughter dynamic, specifically from the Black identity, is a very important world to explore. Black fathers are often faced with a lot of criticism, sometimes rightfully so. Still, I wanted to approach this story as a way to humanise them and give the audience an opportunity to see a different relationship dynamic.
‘I imagined your life as a chance to rewrite mine.’ This pressure-filled sentence is the first line uttered in the film. It’s the unspoken truth we know all our parents believe; we will grow up to be their better, purer reflection. Why did you decide to start the film with this confession?
Ella Ezeike: This line serves as a way to get inside the father’s mind, to dive into his inner world that is often difficult to bring into physical reality because of societal and cultural pressures. Our parents want what is best for us, and can be hard on us in light of that. Especially when you’re dealing with immigrant parents, it can be difficult for them to communicate loving desires for our well-being in a manner that is conducive to the relationship.
In our anti-Black society, Black fatherhood is not seen as soft or sweet. But that is precisely what fatherhood looks like in your film, even when the relationship between the father and daughter becomes more strained. Why do you think it’s important to show the multifacetedness of Black fatherhood and Black masculinity?
Ella Ezeike: I think society often portrays Black men as devoid of emotion and feeling. bell hooks wrote a novel on Black masculinity, which was a thought-provoking insight into the Black male identity. She said Black men are often indoctrinated into patriarchy to ignore their feelings and aren’t given cultural support. However, things are changing, and the younger generation is developing tools to share their emotions comfortably. I wanted to show the importance of vulnerability and love within Black fatherhood despite these constructs.
The inclusion of ballet in this film was particularly moving to me. As talking between the father and daughter gets more challenging, the daughter uses ballet to express her rage and hurt. Why did you use such a delicate dance form to represent her painful feelings?
Ella Ezeike: Even though the film offers a perspective into the father’s mind, it was vital to me to honour the daughter’s experience. I didn’t want to ignore that because her experience is also her truth. I used ballet to paint that image of pain and frustration because our feelings towards our fathers can often be nuanced. She’s angry, and there is a rigidity in wanting to reach out to her father, but there’s also a deep sadness and desire to reconnect.
What were your cinematic inspirations for this film?
Ella Ezeike: In terms of cinematic inspiration, I didn’t have a film in mind that directly inspired it. I love how Christopher Nolan uses sound and imagery to relate to each other and Terrence Malick. There is a lot of surrealism at work, and sound feeds into the imagery. Music is a massive love of mine, and it’s important for me to include a score that drives a feeling. I try to implement that in my work. All my favourite films have really moving and memorable sound designs and compositions.
You wrote that you wanted to approach the story as a sort of therapy. How has making this film allowed you to heal, and what do you want others to take from it?
Ella Ezeike: I think relationships are never black and white. I feel things very deeply, but I also can be quite objective and understanding of individual perspectives. This was what this film was about: honouring both perspectives and exploring how one’s feelings can drive one’s truth. I hope those who watch it can feel seen in their own dynamic and perspectives with their fathers, and hopefully, that can allow for conversation.
Words We Don’t Say is coming soon